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.


January 22, 2010

Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 1/22/10
Returned from: Iraq
Milblog: The Long Walk Home

"Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart."

I am a demonstrative person when it comes to my emotions. Certainly as I have gotten older and more experienced I have worked to reign that in in certain circumstances, so that I will actually accomplish my goal for that situation. But I would think it rare for someone to meet me and not know how I felt about a given issue. Imagine my surprise last night to find how I had compartmentalized the emotion of grief in my life.

Last night Mrs. Badger Six decided we needed to watch Marley and Me on HBO. Now I don't do dog movies. Movies that want to impart us with some sort of life lesson invariably require some form of loss. In dog movies that can only mean one thing -- the dog dies at the end. I love my dogs beyond all reason and I suppose I will have to accept that they will most likely not outlive me, but as they are only seven years old I should have a few years before I have to deal with that fact.

During the course of the short film I went through the Five Stages of Grief. At first I was in denial about how the movie would end. I had never seen it nor had I read the book. Soon though I was angry at having the movie on while we were cooking dinner. In the second half I was bargaining with myself about watching it; I wanted to enjoy the movie about the dog, but I did not want to deal with what I knew the end had to be. As Marley first got sick in the film I became depressed; depressed that I knew I would watch, and knew what the end would have to be. As the credits rolled after Marley was buried, I accepted that he was dead and buried my head in my hands and sobbed. As much as I knew what the end was going to be I was surprised at how much it impacted me.

After I returned from Iraq my mother told me I could not let the things that had happened there "dominate the rest of my life." I suppose on a certain level that advice is good and true. But the fact of the matter is Iraq and the experiences there changed my life and me forever.

We recently moved, and now live on post in the southwestern US. I like it. There are a lot of conveniences to living right here. It also reminds me of living on a FOB; all of the things I must have are here. I can easily go a week without leaving the post. At night I walk the dogs up the hill near our home and look out over the city and the highway heading north. I am reminded of the lights of Ramadi and how our FOB sat in total secure darkness on my first tour. I am reminded of the lights of the trucks on Tampa heading north for Baghdad or south for Kuwait on my second tour. And as I think of Iraq I think of Holtom, Clever, and Werner. I think of Shannon, Grothe and Schwab. I think of my Soldiers that still are dealing with the wounds of their service and whose lives will never be the same.

After I come back down the hill I walk around the old post; around the parade field and the old barracks that are now a combination of offices and housing. Soldiers stationed here once fought a counterinsurgency of their own in the Indian Wars; they supported the punitive expedition to Mexico, and two infantry divisions trained here before shipping off for World War II. A lot of guys went, and a lot of guys didn't come back. And those that came back weren't the same anymore. I'm not the same anymore.

So where do I find the balance for that grief and that pain. I long ago accepted that all the Badgers were not coming home alive; I could not change that. But what does that really mean? Acceptance and moving forward are not the same as forgetting; but remembering cannot be done without that touch of grief. I have no idea where the balance can be struck.

A life of grieving for my comrades does not seem healthy; neither though does compartmentalizing it to the point a movie sends me through the Five Stages of Grief in a two-hour period. I know not what the answer is; I guess it is just part of the Long Walk Home.


I'm a salesperson without overseas experience, I cried like a baby at Marley and Me. Just know that what you are going through or have gone through is appreciated here at home. I grieve for the lost and have since the beginning of these wars. I will thank them all in person when we meet at the end of the road. Keep it together we need your ilk at home too.

Although I cannot say that I have ever had any military experience, I would just like to say that I feel your pain. I know I don't know the extent of it nor will I ever being to understand the depths of your experiences, my heart yearns for you and your fellow soldiers. Never forget that you are greatly appreciated here at home, and we all wish you a safe time overseas and a safe return home.

A really lovely piece of writing. Evocative and beautiful. Universal, too. In my experience, you can't fight overwhelming grief, so don't try. It is part of you and makes you who you are. It's like any major experience. Take it on board and accept it as part of your character. Once it is less raw, after time has passed, it will give you strength. Those people who have gone will be with you, don't ever doubt it. There's a lot of resilience to be had from this - it just takes time...

Oh, your writing always hits home. Whether talking about the challenges of military life specifically, or of after images we will carry ever after, you get it right. Something I have found true in dealing with the cycle of grief is to think of it not as a linear, one time and done process, but instead as a spiral. We will find ourselves back on the spiral at varying times. The real goal as we process through is to shorten the cycle each time around. That may help us to also remember sooner that acceptance does come again.

Our call sign was Badger for my first tour, and I have names I remember every day too. Some came home, some didn't. I like to think that I honor their service by preserving those memories and sharing their stories whenever I can. Thanks for writing.

Hang in there, Badgersix;

I came home in April from a year in Afghanistan, and TV was a minefield for me. I told my wife I needed a disclaimer in advance to identify any program that included a death so I'd be prepared to cry like a baby. It will get better. Thanks for your leadership and sacrifice. But I won't watch marley and me.

What a wonderful blog you have! I think my dog is more like a community college dog but he can certainly aspire to be at Smart University. All the best to you for 2009!

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