21 August, 2006

Coming Home

[update below]

Dadmanley has an wonderfully wise and insightful post about how he had the men he leads as a First Sergeant in the National Guard have been affected by their deployment to Iraq.

His unit didn't see a whole lot of violence or combat in the year they spent in Iraq. But as Dadmanley points out, they still deal with the after-effects of their service in a warzone:

It really had nothing to do with whether you got shot at, or rode through an IED, or witnessed first hand a mortar or rocket strike. It had most to do with what was inside of you, what made you tick, how you coped, how you pushed both the crazy mundane, and the hopped up combat rush out of your mind, just to do the next necessary thing.

Because war really does bring a man or woman to a point of clarity, and maybe refinement, as in the way precious metals are refined by fire. Not everyone makes it through the “refiners fire,” as scripture reminds us, to be tempered like steel, or purified like gold and silver. Some end up as a lot more dross than treasure.
BillT of Argghhh! once said something similar: "War takes a rasp to the veneer of civilization which covers a man and scrapes until the solid metal which forms his soul is exposed. Most soldiers are iron or steel, a few--very few--are base metal. And some are solid gold." Dadmanley and his leadership discovered that some of their soldiers were perhaps of base metal or metal that hadn't been forged quite right. But he and the unit's leadership are not leaving these guys behind. The genuine concern and affection for those struggling with the aftermath is clear in Dadmanley's writing.

And one more thing jumps out at me... the guilt:
Today’s veterans face very different circumstances [than Vietnam veterans], but can still end up in the same place, mentally and emotionally. We are often overwhelmed by the support and encouragement of our fellow citizens, family, neighbors, friends and co-workers. The American people seem bound and determined to never again make the mistake of blaming the soldier. The military stresses that we not keep anything to ourselves, and the entire deployment and redeployment processes reinforce constantly that we need to look out for each other, and refer ourselves and others for services if necessary...

But in our heads, we’re thinking, “suck it up. Quit yer whinin’.”

Guilt again, but this time for a different reason. “I’m no hero,” most of us say. “I didn’t have a hard time at all,” or “I never saw any action,” or even, “I never really thought I was in any danger.” Boredom, tedium, routine, and more American style services and amenities than any prior generation of soldiers could dare to imagine. Like R&R all the time. For most, but obviously not all. Like a lottery in reverse, where only the very unlucky lost. The rest of us won.
Dadmanley, you and all those who were lucky enough to deal with the war largely from the safety of a major base with all the amenities or were lucky in your outside-the-wire activities are just as valued for your service as those who came back with wounds to prove the danger of the work they'd done. Soldiering is sacrifice, whether facing down a hail of bullets or not. So much of it is about pushing yourself to physical and mental limits in training, leaving half of your heart on the other side of the world while you step into the unknown, knowing that being ready to do what must be done (even if it is never actually required of you) is a gift to the rest of us.

The common saying is that combat comes down to fighting for the guys next to you. True, but was it for the guys next to you that you didn't know until you joined that you signed up? And so you are loved, appreciated, and taken care of by public and private agencies because you stepped up and filled the slot: you coped with the separation, the times of fear (no matter how short or long), the life-altering experience of being deployed... you did what we asked of you, in all its mundane and terrifying moments. Thank you.

For those who may want to understand bit more about what goes on inside many soldiers' heads in this war, don't hesitate to read the rest of Dadmanley's excellent essay.

Update: Papa Ray left this poignant comment about "coming home" over at Dadmanley's:

Thanks for a great post, one that I wish I could have read years ago.

You are what the Army needed, but never trained their leaders to be, back then.

"Home can’t ever feel like Iraq, thank God, but home doesn’t feel like home anymore, either."

I can identify with that statement. I had the guilt of being a survivor and the feelings that I had left before the mission was finished and to top it off with the ant-war crowd was just too much for me.

I bummed the country on the back of a Harley, drinking too much, job to job until I grew tired of it. Trying to find "home", I wound back where I started. Tried to build a life, screwed up too many times, but managed most of it. Got help late (my fault) finally from the VA and got to where I made friends with all my ghosts and got rid of my guilt (mostly).

Now I'm blessed, in more ways than one. It's a good thing, and I hope all of our new Warriors, never have to go to hell to get back HOME.

Papa Ray
West Texas