I spent all of 2008 and most of 2009 preparing for and then deploying overseas to Iraq with the Washington National Guard's 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team. I've been back for just over a year now, and I wanted to post a perspective on my re-integration.
The concept of service member's reintegration into normal society has been a hot topic lately. There are some very real and legitimate concerns about psychological and physical injuries and the ability of our servicemen and women to cope with multiple prolonged deployments. There has been massive media attention (some reasonable and educated, others not so much) on these issues. And of course the issue of veteran medical care has become politicized and is often mentioned by politicians and pundits alike. I suspect that some of this is catharsis on the national level. We as a society have a latent sense of guilt about how poorly we treated returning Vietnam veterans and in many ways have seized upon this chapter in our national history to do it again but 'get it right' this time. One of the side effects of all this attention, though, is that it feels to the returning vet that there is an expectation of abnormalcy. When people hear things like "1 in 8 returning soldiers suffers from PTSD" or "Military Still Failing To Diagnose, Treat Brain Injuries" they seem to expect that you have some trauma you are dealing with. This of course, can lead to fears of being stigmatized by your service which of course increases the likelihood of non-integration. If it seems like a Catch-22, that's because it is one.
Of course - in the face of all this, the Army tries its best to stay ahead of the game. Part of the redeployment process (that's army-speak for 'coming back home') involves a Post Deployment Health Assessment (PDHA) which screens for possible triggering events for these afflictions (questions like 'did you see any dead bodies', or 'did you participate in any combat'). Additionally there are screening sessions 30, 60, and 90 days out that seek to determine if you are experiencing detrimental effects. They ask questions like 'how are you getting along with your family' and 'how much are you drinking' and 'do you ever think about harming yourself and others'.
The main impediment which keeps these programs from being really effective is the soldiers themselves. Part of the warrior ethos and culture of the Army is self-sufficient toughness. It's a vital and important characteristic of a good soldier. Unfortunately it also means that people who are experiencing difficulties rarely come straight out and tell someone; especially some unknown officer from Army Medical.
The platoon I commanded had two teams who each conducted over 100 'red-zone' missions without ever being involved in a direct fire engagement. The vast majority of these missions involved moving in a 4-truck convoy to an unsecured Iraqi facility (Jails, Police Stations, Courts, Construction Projects, Fire Stations, etc.); securing the facility while our passenger from the State Department or Provincial Reconstruction Team conducted a meeting; and then returning back to the Green Zone when complete. Even though we didn't see any combat, I still consider each of these missions to be a combat mission. I personally led about half of the missions (my Platoon Sergeant led the other half). We did come under occasional mortar and rocket attack - but it was sporadic and rarely threatening. While we could often hear the explosions, only once could I feel the blast wave (I was about 500m away - well outside the danger area). So - given the above - what was it like for me to come home? What did I face as part of my reintegration process?
Short Term Effects - Initial Integration (2-4 weeks home)
I ran my last combat mission at the end of July, I was on a plane out of Baghdad on the 2nd of August, and I was sitting in my living room by the 11th. After having spent a year in a combat zone, it was a sudden shock to my system. My first few days back were marked by extreme discomfort. While overseas, you have to develop and foster the ability to constantly scan for threats. As it turns out, you can't simply turn off this hypervigilance just because you're safe now. I found that I couldn't walk into a room without immediately finding all the entrances and exits, identifying blind spots in the room, and choosing a defensive position in case I needed to hole up somewhere. I couldn't walk down a street without looking for the high-speed avenues of approach and analyzing the area for obstructions to fields of fire and hiding places. I got really uncomfortable when I saw people near me on rooftops.
I also did very poorly in crowded areas. For instance, one night my wife and I were at a club listening to music and watching people dance... but the part of my brain that kept track of the running threat assessment just couldn't turn off. I spent a couple of hours sitting with my back to a wall with a good line of sight of the doorway feeling overwhelmed by all the noise and all the people. I couldn't shake the feeling that the only way I'd feel comfortable and safe in this crowd was to be holding a rifle. Eventually, I told my wife that I needed to leave and so we cut short our evening and went home. I felt bad, but she was very understanding.
I also badly missed my platoon. Not in the sense of missing the camaraderie and friendship, but more in the sense of a missing limb. As the Platoon Leader, I'd come to feel like the platoon was an extension of me and I was an extension of it. Of course we all maintained our individual identities, but we also forged a shared identity that left me feeling somewhat bereft when it was suddenly sheared away.
At first, everyone I meet seemed to be fascinated by my story. I got lots and lots of questions - lots of "gee, I couldn't imagine doing something like that," and lots of praise. It was awkward for me because I'm a relatively modest person and I don't really like to be the center of attention anyway. I also felt like I just went over and did my job - hardly anything fascinating or heroic to deserve that sort of praise
Mid-Term Effects - Transition (4-16 weeks home)
The acute effects listed above began to soften almost immediately. Within a couple of weeks I'd passed into the Transition phase as I began to readjust to my new (old) life. My hypervigilance began to relax as my subconscious adapted to being in a safe environment. I started to be able to enter buildings without analyzing the defensive capabilities, I was able to move through crowds without feeling like I needed a rifle in my hands and soldiers at my back. Oddly enough, men on roofs made me uncomfortable for quite a bit longer than most of the other indicators.
I found that getting back into the routine of work was probably the biggest single event that helped me get used to being a civilian again. So much of my life was new and different than the life I'd left behind 18 months prior. I was newly married - we'd bought a house while I was in Baghdad, so the home I came back to was not the same home I'd left. I'd sold my car and most of my belongings were packed either in our spare bedroom or still in storage. (But they didn't feel like they were mine anyway - it'd been so long.) Through all these changes, coming back to work and sitting down at my old familiar desk seemed to trigger a switch that allowed me to finally start to combine the 'old' me and the 'new' me into one whole person again.
Through this phase, people began to lose interest in my story. My time in Iraq still felt immediate and recent to me, but for my friends and acquaintances it had already turned into history. I found that I would bring it up a fair amount. I was always correlating things back to my overseas experience, or mentioning some anecdote. Others, though, seemed to get less and less interested.
During this period, the units all began to start drilling again. The recovery period was over and we had to put the brigade back together and begin working on our training plans. I was transferred to another unit, which turned out to be extraordinarily emotional for me. I got the word right at the end of the December drill that I'd be leaving my platoon and moving to A Troop as of January. At our final formation, I was able to call together my soldiers for one last time and give them the news. It's hard to be responsible for a group of people for so long and then one day it just... ends. I said my goodbyes - gave the final salutes and hugs and got in to my car to drive off. I held it together just long enough to get onto the road and be alone... then I started bawling like a baby. To give over my beloved platoon to some complete stranger... I felt guilty, like I was abandoning them.
Staying in my platoon was the final thread of continuity with my deployed life, and once that was broken I quickly shifted into the final phase of my reintegration:
Long Term - Stabilization (16+ weeks)
Well before the end of winter I'd settled into my new life. It finally began to feel like my real life, not some part that I was playing. All the changes had begun to seem familiar and comfortable. I no longer worried about threat assessments, even men on rooftops didn't bother me anymore. While the deployment still stands as a major and transformative event in my life - it has now joined the ranks of my long term memories (like college, basic training, and OCS). It no longer feels recent and raw.
Almost nobody asks me about it anymore, and I try not to bring it up too much. I feel slightly embarrassed when I realize that I've done so - I don't want to be the guy who is always reliving his glory days of some past event. On the rare occasions where someone does want to know about it, the conversations are interesting, but usually short-lived. There are still occasional jarring events that seem to turn back the clock. For instance - war movies that take place in Iraq sometimes get me a little off-center for a couple of days.
I'll occasionally have dreams that where I'm back in Baghdad and people are shooting and things are exploding; although I've only had a couple of dreams that I found disturbing or disruptive. Once I dreamed that I was part of some sort of well equipped armed mercenary force that was invading a city and being rather horrible to the local inhabitants. I think it has do to with latent ethical questions about having invaded Iraq to begin with. Another time I dreamed that I was riding along in a HMMWV when I looked out the armored window to see a man throwing an RKG-3 (a type of armor piercing grenade commonly used in lethal attacks on US vehicles) at me. I could see through the window heading directly toward my head. I woke up with my heart pounding as I jerked my hands up to shield my face (a futile gesture against a real RKG-3).
Sometimes, I find that random things are more emotionally weighted than I'd expect. Most recently was the NPR news series on the humanitarian rescue efforts of the USS Kirk at the end of the Vietnam War (part 1, part 2, part 3). But for the most part, I feel like I've adapted well - integrated the 'army' version of me with the 'civilian' version of me into one healthy whole person.
It helps that I have a highly supportive wife, a supportive family, and a military-friendly and supportive workplace. Everybody has been understanding and helpful and I really couldn't be more thankful that I have those support structures in place. Which is, I think, the important point to take away from all this. For returning veterans there is only so much that the Army can do. It's up to the family, friends, employers, churches, and communities to help returning soldiers. the government and the military can't create a placebo policy that replaces the value that these social institutions provide.
So if you know someone having trouble, or are concerned about how to help people having trouble - don't wait for the government to fix it. You go fix it. Go be someone's friend, go help by showing the vets that they aren't alone, that they have understanding and supportive people in their community,