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.


October 29, 2008

Name: Alex Horton
Posting date: 10/29/08
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Frisco, Texas
Milblog: Army of Dude

I received a bit of feedback from my post about the feelings of coming home from a deployment, and a couple of emails from women who have a romantic link to a deployed soldier asked for advice on the flip side of that coin -- how to deal with a returning soldier. I've never set foot in an FRG* meeting, so I'm not familiar with the concerns and worries of wives and girlfriends of a deployed soldier, but I hope my comments below benefit the kind women who inquired, and those out there that have unanswered questions gnawing away at them. 

How often do soldiers want to receive letters (especially if you have rare access to internet/phone)?

The answer is simple: all the time, especially if contact by phone and internet is limited. Forget mp3 players, DVDs and X Box 360s -- letters from home, and especially from a woman, provide the ultimate comfort and peace of mind to a soldier in a war zone. No matter how long a deployment feels, they're ultimately finite. The link back home must remain strong to keep a soldier's head level, and writing letters to them is instrumental. When a young lady named Lauren was writing to me, I treasured every letter sent, reading them over and over. They came with me everywhere. As long as there has been war, there have been letters sent from home to the men fighting, as a delicate reminder of what was left behind.

Ideally, what do you want to hear from your friends?

This is a tough one. All my loser friends from home couldn't be relied upon to send an occasional e-mail while I was deployed. My only friends were to the left and right of me in Iraq. But if you're a better friend than what I had, let them know what you have planned for their return. If it's a party, a get-together with other friends, a getaway to a favorite spot, whatever. It provides something to look forward to, a familiar setting for a place that will seem a world of difference when the soldier returns. A year, fifteen months, however long the deployment is -- a lot has changed in society. Familiarity is key to reintegration. When I left, the coolest thing cell phones did was flip open. When I came back, phones had keyboards. It was incredible, strange and confusing all at the same time.

Be sure to keep them up to date with news.Toward the end of my deployment, we spent anywhere from 3-10 days in the urban wilderness of Baqubah.When we came back to the base, sweaty, filthy and exhausted, the only news we caught was at the dining facility, which was permanently set on Fox News. I could only rely on Bill O'Reilly and Fox & Friends for news, which is like relying on a prostitute to give you safe-sex tips. Let them know what's going on in the world using whatever means you like -- phone, emails or letters.

What do you NOT want to hear from your friends?

Don't ask obtuse questions like "How hot is it?" and "Did you kill anybody?" It's offensive and flippant. Let them know how things are going in your life, but don't approach it as something they're "missing." They know. Don't press the issue.

What can a friend do to bring her soldier out of his darkness, besides consistent messages of support and willingness to listen or just sit with him?

Let him decide when to open up. It's not something to coerce out of him. He knows you'll listen intently with empathy and support. That's not the issue. The issue is him being comfortable enough with what he has seen and done to talk about it openly. It takes time, and unfortunately everyone is different regarding this issue. War does not leave anyone untouched, physically or mentally. Something about him will change. Your best bet is to recognize that and do your best to understand why the change happened. It could take six months or six years for him to come out of his shell. Be patient.

Is him wanting to be alone to decompress and adjust normal for someone coming home from war, even when you have loved ones who want to be with you?

This is a position of extremes. A soldier will either want to be surrounded by loved ones immediately, or he'll want to be alone to sort out his feelings. Everyone is different, so there's no real solution to this if he wants to do something contrary to your wishes. He knows what's best for him to do, so go along with it. Just be sure he doesn't get on that slippery slope of alcohol abuse. It happens like clockwork to returning units, and the first line of defense is other soldiers and loved ones. Keep an eye on him but don't be intrusive.

Hopefully this provides at least a shred of insight for those looking for answers during trying times. If you want answers to your own questions, either leave a comment or email me at hortonhearsit at hotmail dot com.

* FRG: Family Readiness Group


This is great advice, everybody with deployed loved ones should commit this to memory. Well done Alex.

well said,mr.horton.being a grunt with a nam tour behind me and being a father with an engineer and doctor,who've done 2 oif,oef deployments each,it's a fine line to walk at times.besides the booze, one must watch medication use [ prescribed and not] and anger levels and thresholds.welcome home and i'll follow comments cause there's more to say.

"Just be sure he doesn't get on that slippery slope of alcohol abuse."

Interesting that you should mention that...

Just staying informed about the deployed troops and the situations they deal with everyday has given me a mild form of PTSD as I tend to feel things *very* deeply. I must say that I drink much much more than I used to and I think it is safe to assume I am self medicating.
How would a friend 'make sure' that there is no decent down the slope? I would be the worst as I have no room to talk.

Thank you for your post Alex. Your honesty and eloquence are appreciated.


We all feel it somewhat. The slope has a ratio to 2/1. That is two drinks in one hour. At least that's how I define it. If I have more than two drinks, if I'm reaching for a third, I have to answer a question; The question? "What's bothering you buddy?" If you really, really want that next drink, it means you really, really don't want to anwer that question. Which really, really, ought to set off alarm bells in your head. Louder than the buzz. Louder than the shame. Louder than the fear you might be wrong, or in error, or just plain stupid.

OTOH: if it's just something from work that pissed you off, and you can deal with it on monday, fine, have that third drink. The body can consume and metabolize a lot of alcohol. The brain just can't take the stress of indicision and shame. Self medication and over-medication sort of run together when anyoine tries to make the brain comfortable with alcohol.

Oh, yeah, a lot of vets feel this military action very deeply. We don't want the unnecessary hardships, abuses and dangers we endured, heaped on our children.

Right on man, thanks. I would add, send pictures too, just snapshots of loved ones.

"If you really, really want that next drink, it means you really, really don't want to anwer that question."

I am not sure that is true for me. I think the answer to the question is this:
No one in this country is making sacrifices for this 'war' (I prefer to refer to it as an 'occupation') except those serving and their families and loved ones and that so is wrong on so many levels that I cannot begin to make any sort of peace with it. I feel like if I do not accept the overflow of pain, despair and loss that I am just another self absorbed drone only concerned with events and situations that affect me directly.
As I said, I tend to feel things rather deeply.
The fact that all of the protests to the start and continuation of this occupation have done nothing to deter the politicians determination to make it happen doesn't help.
It also doesn't help that in the last few years I have learned a lot about the history of the US that I was not aware of previously. If you do the math, it's a lot to deal with.
But no matter what, I refuse to become a sheeple that is more interested in who is winning American Idol than who lost their life in what I feel is a pointless and unwinnable conflict conduted in the name of the power of the government of the country in which I happen to live. It is essential to me to remain morally and socially conscious about the situations of our corageous troops. I admire them all more than I could ever say.
Sorry for the ramble.

My soldier just came home for leave and is so distant. He has spent several days in the woods hunting with his dad and I feel like I just dont know what to say to him. I love him with all my heart and just dont know what to do to be supportive. Any ideas would be apreciated...

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