The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.

FOREVER CHANGED |

January 09, 2008

FOREVER CHANGED
Name: Citizen Soldier Sojack
Posting date: 1/9/08
Returned from: Kuwait and Iraq
Hometown: Benton, Arkansas
Milblog url: sojack.blogspot.com

I am an American Soldier and I was in a combat zone; and while I have no visible injuries, I am nonetheless forever changed. This is my reality.

Serving my country has always given me an incredible sense of pride. It still does. But this most recent deployment experience also opened my eyes to the effects that deployments, particularly those to hostile, unsympathetic environments, really have on service members and their families.

I worked in a very "no nonsense" environment overseas -- and with slightly dysfunctional people, made this way from too many deployments. Deploying and returning home time and time again over the course of many years left some more than just a little unpredictable in their behavior, and considerably idiosyncratic. They earned their mental scars, their divorces, their quirks, doing what they love the most. Serving their country.

We wrote the orders, policies and procedures for those Soldiers who performed the dangerous work of delivering goods and supplies along the roads of Kuwait and Iraq. The orders we gave and the plans we made sent them into harm's way on a daily basis. Most of what we asked the Soldiers to do, and what we oversaw, was "routine" to us and to the Soldiers. We were all desensitized to the reality of how unsafe our work really was.

After reading about 50 or so "Serious Incident Reports" every day for weeks at a time -- reports of shootings, injuries, IEDS -- you become immune to your own emotions. It's a job requirement. You cannot become histrionic every time something bad happens, or else we would be ineffective leaders. Those under us would be in greater danger than they already were if our emotions took over every time something distasteful happened, or the stress level rose a notch or two. While these are effective survival tactics in a combat zone, they are qualities that are not necessary at home in the United States. What is considered calm and rational in a hazardous duty area often comes off as cold, callous and uncaring to family and friends.

The majority of Kuwait and Iraq that I visited was a horribly austere, dirty and noisy environment. There were smells and tastes lingering in the air that were quite nauseous and sickening. Upon first arriving in Kuwait, most people experience some type of upper respiratory distress from unavoidably breathing in all the filth and dust that is a constant in that operating environment. What will the long term effects of this exposure be? I don't know.

I made it home, safe and sound. But it didn't take long for me to realize that my mind was still overseas conducting business as usual. It became apparent to me that I was wound a little too tight -- as taut as a piano string, to be exact. Unwinding, or turning it off, however, proved to take more effort than I assumed it would. "They" say this is normal.

I now find that I am more sensitive to noise, have demands for more personal space, and obsess a little more about cleanliness. I'm astute enough to realize that my new idiosyncratic behavior is directly related to my experiences while overseas. Now I am more like those who I served with, those who have endured more than one deployment.

And so I have changed. It is difficult for others to understand why I have changed. After all, I wasn't wounded. Or was I?

There is a child in my life who thinks I am a hero, a point which is certainly debatable. He was simply happy that I returned home in one piece -- at least he thought I was in one piece -- and ready to start our lives over from the point at which we left off. However, it fast became apparent to him that I am not the same person he knew before I left, and he is confused by that. He wants the "old me" back and so do I. It is painful and disappointing for both of us.

It is also disheartening to me that there are so many who served in Desert Storm who became ill as a result of their exposure to dirt, dust, burning oil, chemicals, drugs the military gave them to protect them, and God knows what else. Some are still waiting on a diagnosis and treatment after all these years. And the reality of the Vietnam Veterans, scorned for their participation in a war that had little public support, scarred by their experiences and denied treatment, is painfully sad. Will the Veterans of this war suffer the same mistreatments? Will we be diagnosed later in life with some unnameable disease, the source of which cannot be identified? Again, I don't know.

I see homeless people on the street, some of them obviously Veterans, and now I understand why they are in the situation they are in. They were wounded, physically and mentally, and society has cast them aside. Has the War on Terrorism created another generation of people who will suffer the same plight? We are already seeing the answer to this question being unveiled in the press. Think of Walter Reed when you read this.

Still, I am lucky. Health care for Vets has vastly improved over the course of the United States' involvement in world conflicts. PTSD wasn't even recognized as a valid medical condition until well after the Vietnam War had concluded and thousands of Vets were wandering the streets with undiagnosed medical and psychological conditions. Thankfully Vets now have access to free medical screenings and counseling following deployments. I just hope that those who need it take advantage of it.

While visiting a local Vet Center, a counselor told me that he had just recently spoken with a WWII Vet who confided in him, after 60 years of holding it in, all the horrible things he witnessed during the war. Sixty years. That's a long time to repress something like that, but thank God that man finally had the opportunity to unload it on someone. Some never have that opportunity. Some never readjust.

It has taken longer to "demobilize" myself and readjust than I originally thought it would. I have lots of memories from my deployments, both good and bad. They will always be with me and they have shaped me into the person I am today. And from that I gain my new reality.

My new reality is that this is what happens to service members who are willing to pack up their bags and deploy to some faraway, unfriendly region of the world, enduring the hardships of life away from family and friends and the uncertainty of what the next day will bring. Some do it over and over. My deployment was easier than most and yet it affected me in a lasting way. I can only imagine what issues other service members and their families are facing.

All who have served, including their families, have sacrificed a portion of themselves for what they believe in the most. Service. Freedom. Religious tolerance. And many other things that our society cherishes. Please don't forget what they have sacrificed for you. Please don't forget them.

Comments

Hello from Seattle and go Seahawks on Saturday!! I speak for everyone in Seattle in wishing you a safe return back home. Your courage and strength is amazing. And may time help to heal the invisible scars. God bless you.

I am glad that you are clear-headed enough to realize your situation and take steps to heal it. Your comment about the WW II vet parallels what a friend who works in a VA hospital told me: They are seeing untreated PTSD decades & decades later. Take hope, by next year you will be better AND there will be even better veterans' services.

Sojack
I served in viet-nam as a sniper I know what your are going thru even today with a lot of therpy I can still see the carnage. When your in a rifle squad you can say to your self my bullets diden't kill anyone but when you look thru the scope squeeze the trigger and see the blood you change. enough of me welcome home and it will get better over time it just takes awhile be patient.

Chuck

Your words:"I see homeless people on the street, some of them obviously Veterans, and now I understand why they are in the situation they are in. They were wounded, physically and mentally, and society has cast them aside. Has the War on Terrorism created another generation of people who will suffer the same plight?"

That was rhetorical, right? You bet it has, brother! We see head cases from every single war we ever had. I used to eat lunch with a dub2 vet who carried a loaded .45 in his lunch box. Just in case he needed it . . .

These throways are a part of the logistics nobody wants you to see. As are the bodies, the carnage, and the wounds. It is a shame to our nation and to our humanity.

Its been a part of the whole package since wayback. Don't be suprised if you never completely change back. The humanity is still there, I am sure, but the filters are different. There is a whole psychological trip for returning vets that has to be completed. You're not home untill it is completed. It pretty much goes like this

1. The army camps outside the gates. No one is allowed to enter the city until the proper formalities are observed.

2. The generals and leaders make speeches awarding valor and bravery. Medals and awards are given out.

3. The politicians give speeches, exhalting the noble and just cause for which the army has bled and endured.

4. The priests go among the men, giving absolution and assigning pennance for any war crimes or wrong doings. Ritual cleansings are performed.

5. A feast is held for the entire army. The men are encouraged to eat and drink their victories, the valor and their achievements. the wives, girlfriends and town professionals are allowed to sneak into the camp.

Then, and only then -- the next day -- are the well fed, well rested, well laid and hung over soldiers allowed to enter the town.

Can you tell me which parts are missing from the average homecoming?

All of it? Ding. Ding. Ding!

Of course I had to go and come back from Vietnam before my father told me about Leyte and Okinawa where he lost his nineteenth year of life, that is how he always saw it, he never had a chance to be nineteen - he came back older. But the Nation paid for his flying lessons and he could soar most of his life happily far from the earthbound mess.

Just for the record, check out Depleted Uranium for the "mystery cause" of so many Gulf Soldiers' maladies.
The gov't got the bright idea of using DU to make shell and missile tips. They say it's completely harmless, but the fact is, it's still radioactive... and when a DU-tipped shell hits something, it burns and creates microscopic particles that contaminate the air, water and soil.
There are a lot of sources and websites listing how DU affects the human body, but what's needed is for people in the Military to ask questions, and object to being recklessly exposed to it...
DU is worse than Agent Orange. You don't deserve to have our own government expose you to it.

I am sorry the things you have been through have changed you. I know that little boy still has his hero and as you work on getting back to being you he will understand that he still has his hero. By the way, you are my hero too. God bless and thank you for your service.

I experienced similar things when returning from the sandbox. The culture shock of coming home was a heck of a lot worse than heading over there. I wasn't in combat, I wasn't wounded. But I'm forever changed by my experiences. Sometimes I feel broken. It's been almost a year now and I'm just starting to unwind. Now people no longer look at me at work and ask why I'm angry all the time.

But I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. The chance to serve my country, not to mention the deep and abiding friendships I forged, they're worth the pain.

Thanks to everyone for all your thoughtful comments and kind words.

Semper Fidelis, it's been a long time since 68 and I'm just now reuniting with old friends. It is a big help to me so far. You will be fine, sooner than me I hope, thank YOU for your service.
SEMPER FI,
DAVE
Cheetah Rat

There seem to be a whole lot more opportunities to get your experiences out now than there was when I came back from Vietnam. Not that it's ever easy but the opportunities that exist now, like this blog, were simply unheard of. Isolating yourself was easy. People didn't want to hear about what you did. I didn't want to talk about it (even if they would have wanted to hear about it)and, for 38 years, I didn't. I was married for 34 of those years and it wasn't until a year and a half ago that I even told my wife. (According to her, it explains a lot.) Absent this war, I might never have said anything either but it has brought back a whole lot of stuff that I had pushed as deeply as possible into the depths of mind.

War is certainly, never easy to deal with. My dad was a rifle platoon leader in Europe during WWII. He was the only person I ever talked to about what I experienced in combat in Vietnam and I was the only person he ever talked about what he experienced in Europe. He is gone now, 3 years, and I have begun to relate some of what he told me to other family members. They are as surprised by that as they are to find out that I had been in Vietnam, twice. It's a relief to let it out and it was a long time coming but there are parts of it that I am not sure I can ever relate to anyone.

Glad you're back in one piece.

Thank you for blogging about PTSD, and being brave enough to share your experiences. Even though we know about it, it's still hard for many to admit to having it, and harder to get people to treatment. It is, in many ways, the biggest casualty of war, because it's impossible to see when it's healed, and when it needs more treatment.

Good luck. I'm sure eventually at least, your son will understand.

We, the U.S. citizens, should be fighting for YOU. After Vietnam I never expected ever again to hear descriptions like this from my friends or to witness how how war has changed them. When we decide to go to war, we should be darn sure that it's worth the forever changes to those willing to make the sacrifice. I'm thankful to you for writing and sharing your experience in a way that brings civilians like me closer to understanding -- even though we can never REALLY understand. I hope that more citizen soldiers will speak out, write, and get their stories out there, so that our government and the voters will make the right decisions about when to involve ourselves in war.

I am saddend by the fact that pepole take such advantage over those who ahve served our country and given themselves in every aspect. It seems to me that veterens are avoided, feared, and misunderstood. Too many people want those who have experience the horrors of war to "come back" and live "normally". in all aspect, that is not possible for some. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope many more peopel read this, and take to heart your message.

I have heard a lot about ptsd but, nobody ever explained it like you did, I like the examples you gave.

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