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.

TWO YEARS HOME |

October 12, 2009

TWO YEARS HOME
Name: Ian Wolfe   
Posting date: 10/12/09
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Minneapolis, MN

Two years home and Iraq still haunts me. It’s like a stigma that I can’t shake and don’t ever want to forget. I did an interview for my college alumni magazine and the writer titled it “Near Normal.” At first I was a bit offended, but after thinking about it a while I realized it was pretty accurate.

Friends of mine have talked about situations where they just didn’t feel like they fit, or where people find out they are veterans and act kind of odd. I've had similar situations. My school only has about twelve vets and no clue, but the campus most of my friends I served with go to has a large veteran’s service center. They are very organized. They show up when anyone is assembling for something to do with the war. It’s nice because some days it seems the only people you can relate to are other veterans. .

This is odd to me because I don’t think what I or some of us went through was really all that bad.  Sure we saw some things that you don’t see everyday, but there are definitely people who had a worse time then I did. I think part of this perspective comes from watching a lot of movies. It is hard to see stories about service in Vietnam and World War II and compare it to ours. They had it significantly worse. Even though I think this, and I try to shake off these feelings that seem irrational, it still is there. Something is different about us. 

When people find out I am a vet and say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were in Iraq,” I have this overpowering urge to sarcastically say, "Yeah, I forgot I wasn’t wearing my gold star today.” Clearly this is extreme, and in no way do I think we compare to anything that happened to people who had to wear gold stars; it’s just odd, as if they think they should be able to tell. As if we should stand out somehow by ducking behind corners or acting “all crazy.” I often think to myself, “Am I being over-dramatic?”  Well, yes, sometimes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. 

The world of veterans is swarming with PTSD and antidepressants. Should we really get labeled with a disorder for going through something completely alien to our world? Maybe we should all have some counseling. But do we really need the identifier? I guess for some it serves a beneficial purpose, but I think it hurts some.

I know some vets who will never shake the label of PTSD. And some who don’t want to. Yet they don’t want the help and because of that they won’t recover. Some were already gone before the service, but now they have a reason that hides the real problems. Thanks to Hollywood we get to be portrayed in all sorts of ways. What about the veterans who come home and their service only adds to their determination and success?

We all had emotional homecomings. One night I got hammered on Guinness and Jameson and this guy came over who was telling everyone he was in the navy and got shot in Iraq. I knew he was full of shit, but politely told him to stop talking and put his dog tags away. Of course by the time I was getting driven home all I could think about was soldiers and marines I had taken care of: calling home to tell their wives and mothers they were okay, but they had lost their feet; the ones who couldn’t talk because of the massive trauma that racked their bodies; the ones who needed towels under their stretchers because of the massive blood loss and whose cots got hosed down when they went back into the Operating Room. 

I thought about all this as it flashed in front of me and I broke down. What didn’t affect me when I was there was pouring out with the drunken state and the anger about the asshole that could selfishly and easily compare himself to people who went through things unimaginable. I still rarely talk about it because of the emotions it stirs up. That was the only time I ever related in detail what I had seen to my wife. Often I think I don’t deserve to have these emotions. A few other friends I have talked to have had similar breakdowns. We come home and think that since it didn’t bother us over there, it won’t bother us here. Then we get really drunk and let our guard down. 

There are lots of questions, and fortunately there is nowhere to hide in today’s world, overburdened with media. I think this is beneficial in the long run but it does have some disadvantages. It has been said many times that the military is at war, but America isn’t. While people at home were learning about Paris Hilton and others we were walking in a nonstop westward wind that was hotter than an oven on broil. We were missing birthdays and graduations, deaths and births. My unit was gone for two years, most of it in Iraq. Some days I think it wasn’t that long, others it seems like an eternity.

During your college years, two years is forever. I started in the army having just turned twenty.  Now after all my service I find myself with a family, still in college, and much older than other students.  I don’t regret anything, and thanks to the new GI bill most of us can now attend college, but often I wonder what it would have been like to have a normal college experience.

Most of the time I don’t mind any of this, but every once in a while my mind slips and I see flashes of images or hear sounds that take me back. Someone next to me complains because the handout the teacher gave us doesn’t follow her power point very well, and I want to hit him. And the thing about it is that I don’t want to change that feeling. I don’t have any desire to. Why should I fall back into the rest of society? Why should I want to forget the horrifying images that I think about everyday? Why shouldn’t I feel different? I am different.

That little bit of service, those two years, plus the year I was gone before those, changed me. Maybe I see the wastes of life and the complainers in society and since I am constantly trying to make up time it just irritates me that much more. Who knew that a label like being a veteran could become your defining status? There is nothing like being introduced as an Iraq vet, as if I have done nothing else in life. Of course when asked what I did I usually tell people I was part of a secret unit that drilled and shipped oil. Funny, no one seems to buy it, even the people who think the war was about oil.

We were apart of something huge, yet a lot of people don’t want to listen to us for fear of changing their opinions, or fear that they may be proven wrong. Or they are simply scared of what we might say. I have often, after some coaxing, told a few funny stories to people about the deployment. Mostly I get blank expressions or looks of horror. This always reminds me that I am in a different world, not with my fellow veterans. But that’s the moral of this essay. I am different, I am better and I am worse. We veterans shouldn’t be the same as anyone else; we are not. We are still in our own world trying to define what that is. 

Comments

Thank you for stating my feelings. I am a Vietnam vet--and have the same reaction to be identified as such. It has been 40 years. I still feel I am different.

Ian, Yes, you are different. You are a man who has served his country. As a counselor who works with vets, let me tell you that almost every veteran who has seen combat experiences what you are experiencing. PTSD is real,constellation of symptoms reactive to a life threatening event, but not necessarily a permanent condition. About 1/3 of the vets who have it get better to the point that the symptoms disappear. 1/3 struggle and overcome most of the symptoms, but may find them reoccuring when in a situation that reminds them of the event(s) or they are unable to divert their attention (that is why a lot of Vietnam Vets who are now retiring are for the first time getting treatment for the condition). The other 1/3 are devastated, may have had pre-existing trauma-based events that make the treatment a very difficult course. The anti-depressants are only supposed to be used to let the talk therapy work better. They aren't meant to be permanent. My vets know the isolation you feel, especially lost after the close bonding that occurs in a unit during combat situations. I highly encourage you to contact your local vet center: www2.va.gov/directory/guide/vetcenter.asp. They have trained counselors to help. Also, educate yourself by going to the following website: www.ptsd.va.gov/

Welcome Home, Ian. Thank you for your service to the country!
Merri

I'm going to disagree a little with with Ian Wolfe and "Merri".

I also returned home about two years ago, from my second deployment in Iraq. But I'm still in the Army - and I suppose that makes some difference, when you are surrounded by soldiers, about half of whom have also deployed. So I don't feel like such an oddball. But when I go home I also encounter people who think it was something so horrible, like Iwo Jima in WWII, with people dying left and right everywhere. I'm afraid the media tends to hype up everything a bit too much. Frankly, I simply get too much sympathy. It was bad sometimes, yes, but it was my job. What else should I do? Moreover, I was paid very well for the time there, and my salary was tax-free. I went out on daily patrols, but nearly half the military members there never even went outside a base camp.

But the PTSD issue - I can't comment about anyone's particular situation except my own. But consider this: most soldiers are there for a year or two (as was I). But imagine the Iraqi soldiers and the Iraqi people who have been living this for more 6 years now. Particularly the children. And unlike us, they didn't have electricity 24/7, top-notch medical care, healthy food, decent body armor, a generous salary and a reliable postal system. Yet the vast majority of them aren't a bunch of raving lunatics running through the streets. But with soldiers, certain people expect us to have PTSD, and are even sometimes disappointed when we don't. I'm not trying to be judgemental, but "Merri" sounds like one of these.
The military is similar. I think we may have gone overboard on this a little. Like anyone else, I had to have a mental health screening before leaving theater, another one upon arrival, and a follow-up 90 days later. And all during that time, we are encouraged to get counseling. As a result, I'm afraid we have thrown around the PTSD label a bit too generously.

I knew what I was signing up for, and I knew I would see death, and maybe even friends of mine would be killed. I was under no illusions about anything when I deployed (BTW - I'm not trying to imply that you were).

But I disagree that you were in an "alien" world. Certainly it was alien to most Americans, but war and conflict are normal to soldiers and unfortunately to most nations and most people throughout history. Humans are amazingly resilient.

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/14/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

http://www.thunderrun.us/2009/10/from-front-10142009.html

Ian-

You said:

"It has been said many times that the military is at war, but America isn’t. While people at home were learning about Paris Hilton and others..."

I agree completely with this, and it saddens my heart. Politics and religion aside, the war(s) have fallen more off the media radar with the current administation.

I am not a military man, but do have a vested interest in what the US military does, as I value my freedoms and have a concern for those who willingly put themselves in harms way for their country.

One place where the soldier is never forgotten in in thousands of churches across this land, where millions of anonymous people constantly lift up our men and women, in the field or returned home, in daily prayer.

This support is certainly never covered by the media, LOL, but it is there and real, and largely guided by the needs and concerns of vocal people like yourself who give us the ability to pray with knowledge. You guys are not alone...

Ian, thank you for thrashing this out in words and sharing. I used to work at a university and sometimes with veterans using their education benefits. One thing they shared that I noted in your post, the idea that they are behind and making up for lost time. You are not behind. You used that time as it was allotted and you have all the time you need for this next endeavor. My campus had a small number of veterans using benefits and a significant number of students over 25. That pressure is felt by all of them, as if they had done something wrong. They didn't. You didn't.

One of the faculty members once told me that she thought it took about five adult students in an introductory class to help it gel and get going. The focus is different for an 18 year old. There is growing up to do and newfound freedom.

Welcome home, thank you for your time in service and now. Keep writing. We'll keep reading.

I want you to know that reading what you have written and expressed has helped me. I lost my son to an alleged suicide 90 days after he came home. I never knew why. None of his battle buddies talk to me, so hearing from you boys and girls about what your experiences are, and were, are a comfort for me.

Thank you for your service, Son.

Pamela

Ian, thanks for telling your story. I just wanted to add my two cents about PTSD and treatment options. I have never served in the military, but know personally that PTSD is real and treatable. Every person is different; some feel things more deeply, or deal with life's issues in different ways; we all learn to do what we can to cope. I had personal experience overcoming PTSD using a therapy called EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), a non-drug, non-traditional therapy based on accupressure. It has proved particularly effective in removing emotional charges left with memories of stressful or traumatic experiences, and has been used with Vets and war trauma.
www.emofree.com

Thanks God for you and your comrades who serve our country--and thank you for doing so.

Ian, you describe my coming home and college experience to a T. I was 22 and had spent 2 years in the war zone as a helicopter door gunner. Sometimes I felt like I was stumbling around in someone else's world and anger management was a definite issue. While I have succeeded in having a career and a wonderful family, it took a number of years before I finally went to a Vet Center and talked through some things that were bothering me a lot more than I realized. Having trouble adjusting when you return from combat is not an abnormal reaction. It is a normal reaction to having been through an abnormal situation. I would strongly urge you to go to a Vet Center. It is confidential, staffed by professionals who understand why you are coming to them, and will give you a chance to put your experiences into perspective. You will not "forget" your time in combat but you can learn to not let the emotions related to it control your life and to realize that it's okay to feel good about serving your country, standing up for/with your buddies, and trying to help out the country you served in. Those who haven't been there will never understand. Don't let that bother you. Take advantage of the GI Bill and go out there and kick butt.
Interesting though that you paint such an exact picture of how I felt 39 years ago when I came home and went back to college.
Take care of yourself my brother in arms and welcome home.
Terry

Ian,

I am one of those who never supported our invasion of Iraq (I do support everything we have done and are doing in Afghanistan), but that does not mean I don't support the incredible sacrifices and hard work being done by you and other members of our armed forces. Now it is a job that needs to be done.

Your post helps me to 'get it' a bit more. Your experience in Iraq is definitely something the rest of us need to understand. Don't give up trying to educate us about something so important. We need to be challenged, and we need to realize that we, all of us, are at war, not just the armed services.

I don't know enough to advise whether or not you should seek help but I can certainly tell you that you shouldn't be alone. You and your colleagues have done too much for all the rest of us. Keep telling us like it is.

That's life. Hope someday you forget all that trauma. Keep writing and we'll keep reading too.

Deirdre G

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