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.

GETTING IT OFF YOUR CHEST |

November 15, 2010

Name: Anthony McCloskey (Tadpole)
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog: ArmySailor.com

Sometimes coming home, and being home, is the hardest part of war. I am beginning to think that leaving the war may be more difficult than serving in it. While you are in theatre, things tend to be pretty cut-and-dried, pretty black and white. You know what your mission is, you know your orders and you execute. You don’t think about the “why” of it all, or whether or not what you are doing is right or wrong, because you don’t have the time, nor the luxury, to do so. You sure do think about it when you come home though.

When you come home, you will replay in your mind every significant event you experienced while you were in theatre, and a lot of insignificant ones as well. You’ll replay them over and over in your head and analyze them. You will think about your mistakes and lapses in judgement. You will think back and discover new mistakes, realizing that you could have, and should have, done something differently. You will wonder about the fate of the locals with whom you interacted.

Over and over again I find myself trapped in a battle zone version of “Groundhog Day." I frequently wish they would send me back, if only because I know it would silence this inner monologue that I dare not share with others, lest they not understand. How can you chat with a friend over coffee at Starbucks and expect them to fully comprehend the gut wrenching feeling you get every time you think about the time the .50 caliber machine gun you were manning jammed in the middle of a fire-fight and all you could think about was whether or not you’d maintenanced it correctly. Was it your fault that you and your buddies were about to die? Just because you had not used enough lubricant, or too much?

You’ll think back to other times, when you were under fire, and in the heat of returning fire, perhaps you fired on a civilian. Was that a gun they were holding or was it a broom? Did they point it at you? It all happened so quickly. You’ll be having these thoughts at the same time that those around you are thanking you for your service and commending you on your bravery. Would they think you so brave if they knew how scared you were? What if they knew that in the heat of battle, your only real concern and motivation in the moment was survival?

You will stand in ceremonies, and receive awards and accolades and you’ll salute bright flags as marching bands pass in a zzzz Fourth of July parade full of emotions and feelings you cannot put into words. Not pride -- but the feeling that you’re not where you belong. A tinge of guilt that while you stand here, back home in the states, one of your brothers-in-arms is getting his ass handed to him in the sand. You’ll hear your “superiors” drone on about how important such-and-such a report is, and how the command is switching to the new “e-leave” system, and you have to attend the training. By the way, did you go to that Equal Opportunity training? These are the things they think are important back home, working in garrison, in an office. These are the new priorities and it is maddening. You may begin to stop caring altogether. Things begin to feel pointless. Is this really it?  The nice part of battle, and war is that it eventually ends, and you know it will. The hard part of peace, and returning to the real world, is that it doesn’t. You have to adjust. You have to talk to someone, find an outlet and get it off your chest, or you will be consumed by the demons.

Not a day goes by that I don’t spend far too much time either over-analyzing my actions in theatre, or simply replaying them in my mind. Real life seems like a distraction. How am I supposed to get upset because some young sailor didn’t crease his uniform properly when I have “real issues” on my mind? I get sick and disgusted with those around me.  They describe mundane things as “important” or as an “emergency” and I want to spit at them. They don’t know the meaning of an emergency.

There are a lot of self-important people in uniform who have never spent a day on the ground in a war zone, who think they know what is important. It is my contention that they wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. Everyday I feel sick to my stomach knowing that the day will be filled with this mundane drudgery, which I must try to pretend concerns me at least a little.

A friend of mine with whom I served in Afghanistan e-mailed me the photo below. I don’t know who that soldier is, but when I saw the photo, I couldn’t help but think “right-on”. The image sums up many of my own feelings. How can one come to terms with unclear memories of such tumultuous, vague and uncertain situations?

All I know is that I did my best and I tried always to do the right thing. But I fear I will never escape the perpetual replaying of these situations in my head. I fear I’ll never come to peace with everything I’ve seen and done. And perhaps I shouldn’t -- but I do know, sometimes you’ve got to get it off your chest.

Comments

Vent. To a buddy, a professional, a clergy. But, above all, vent. Every warrior has felt that there could or should have been a better way of accomplishing the task assigned. Hindsight is always 20/20 (or so we believe). As you said, everyone in combat is looking for only one thing, survival.
Then to be returned to deal with those who would lose it at the suggestion they be sent into "Theatre" is extremely frustrating. That, unfortunately, is the life of a soldier. Those who do all they can to make themselves appear more important by emphasizing the smallest detail are deemed to irrelevance. Their rank entitles them to some degree of "respect" , but, they will never earn it.
Realize that you accomplished what you were assigned and that you served with honor. I know this because you care. Those you served with will verify this.
I thank you for your sacrifice and service. Please don't get lost in the void of the "Real World".

RE: Bravery and Fear.

Anyone who displays bravery must be scared, otherwise they're not brave. Bravery is standing in the face of fear and doing the best one can with what they've got.

I thank those who have served not because they are invincible or fearless, but because they are just as vulnerable and frightened as I would be in those situations.

I think that the majority of combat veterans I know worry about having done something wrong. They may have, but as long as they did their best to do what was right then they're ok in my book. To the best of my understanding perfection and combat don't go well together, whereas goatf**k and combat are best buddies. You do the best you can. No one can demand more, and anyone who thinks otherwise needs a kick in the pants.

Highest regards,

ACG

I sincerely appreciate the words of support... I use my blog as a means of releasing the pressure that seems to continually build up. It gets hard sometimes, but having my blog as an outlet helps. I am just never sure if anyone else will actually understand, I fear they'll just think me crazy, or worse... weak.

Thank you for all you have done. In my place and on behalf of my family, you went and were put into situations no one can imagine, at least by those of us on the outside. We have placed a heavy burden on you, and forever we are grateful. We've asked you to go and fight an enemy that attacked our homeland and killed over 3000 of our countrymen. An enemy that has no soul that is willing to do far worse things without a conscience. Their hearts are black with evil - yours with compassion. You were tasked with facing evil in its very core. You were asked to do a job that no one out here can comprehend and you did it to the best of your ability and you did it out of honor and commitment to your Country and for those of us that are unable or unwilling to do it. You are the sheepdogs. The burdens and scars you carry are not yours, but of a Nation, ours, my family's, mine. Put it in the hands of God for he knows the motives behind every action, every thought.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

Thank you for standing up to evil. My family will be forever grateful for your sacrifice.
Karl, Rachel, Kiersten, and Kameron...

Weak is not an option. You went, you saw, you served and you survived. Weak does not even enter the equation. Weak is for those who will not do what is necessary. There are far too many who have ignored the call to service. They will never fathom that "Freedom" is not free. It requires those driven by purpose to stand in the void and face the "wolf" that threatens to kill or worse.
Bravery is the aftermath of doing what is necessary to protect family and friends from harm. Those you serve with become closer than family. (That happens when you place your life in others hands. And, accept that theirs are in yours.)
No one can fault you unless it is one who was there with you. No one else can see what you saw, faced or did without having been there. No two situations are ever the same. No two wars, incidents or battles are ever alike. Just realize that hesitation kills. Physically or emotionally, it always remains the only two options. Learn from your past. Determine to never repeat that which was an obvious misjudgment. Pass on your knowledge. You are not alone, unless you determine to be.
Again, I thank you for your service and sacrifice.

Talk to other combat vets from any war- and talk some more and if these friends die or leave, find some other combat vets. You can tell who they are by now. It never gets better, but it gets tolerable. Thank you for your gut feelings - and I saved the picture of the soldier with the flag, just the picture I've been looking for since October 1968 when I flew my last combat flight in the Bell Cobra with a Cav unit in Vietnam. Thanks my friend for doing the right things at the right times.

The point of this seems to me that citizens should be ever vigilent to NOT elect civilian leaders that will not understand what is important - NEVER SEND OUR TROOPS TO A FIGHT WHERE INNOCENT PEOPLE WILL BE KILLED. This is what the rules of war were designed to prevent - demoralizing our troops. We are the product of 1000s of years of warmaking. Those who find it humorous that the British troops didn't fight like the Native Americans (who taught many of our rebels how to fight an "insurgent" war), might consider the effect on our troops moral which ignoring the rules of war diminishes. Insurgent wars (wars where a people are fighting to defend their homeland) will always involve the inadvertent deaths of civilians and innocents. This is why they should NEVER be fought, except in extreme circumstances. The current insurgent wars we are fighting are tailor-made to involve our troops killing, maiming and dislocating 100s of 1000s of innocent people.

Please think twice before voting for people who you think might, given even the flimist of reasons (or even use false information they gin up as happened in IRAQ with the Bush administration) get our nation involved in a war against a country that did not attack us or our NATO allies.

Thank you, Adam, for sharing with us, and letting us know what you, and many of your brothers in arms, deal with on your return.

Thank you.

Thank you, Adam, for so eloquently sharing what is so extremely hard to put into words.

Crazy? Nope! Weak? Never! Brave? Abso-f*cking-lutley!

You did what your country asked of you and now your country needs to help you adjust to your new "normal." As a trauma therapist and a military mother, I wholeheartedly agree with what the others have said...talk, vent, and talk some more. And if it gets rougher, please, please, PLEASE reach out for additional help.

Thanks for your service, thanks for your insight. Thanks for everything!

Writing is a sanctuary. Write every detail you can, and vent every emotion our language tries to define. I call myself a writer and I've discovered it is a wonderful solitary therapy- without the doctors asking questions- it's just you and you answering your own questions. Sometimes those questions can take time to answer. I've heard of soldiers returning home and having similar problems and strangely... getting a puppy helps them. I suppose it depends on the person, but a dog gives a daily routine and unconditional love. Most importantly the dog depends on you and you depend on him.

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