Those that have never been in war tend to think the moment that really changes you is the moment when you take another person's life. That the fights in war are clear cut and organized. The Good vs the Bad. Civilians waiting for their families to return home victorious. They see war as it happened hundreds of years ago: soldiers lining up in straight rows, charging forward with battle cries to meet the advancing enemy. And to the victor goes the spoils. And the war ends when the soldiers come home. And those who do come home are proud of what they have done.
I never fired my weapon upon another person. That, I am proud of.
War is unpredictable to the extent that it is chaotic, which is one of the things many people do not understand. The fact is there are no lines in war, not even blurry ones at times. It is just a pit of people with weapons who are told the last man standing is allowed to get out. So you fight when you have to, and at first you don’t question it. You’re just following orders after all. But after a few weeks, you begin to question everything.
I used to think the danger came from trespassing into enemy territory. I thought at least at base I would be relatively safe. I didn’t realize that every square foot was basically a combat zone. Every once in awhile, a mortar would land on our base, destroying anything and anyone in its radius. I changed from fearing heading into a fight, to fearing for my life almost every single day. I didn’t know where the next hit was coming from. No one did. I once watched a mortar landed right on a man. And all I could think was that that could have been me. If I was standing there, right then, I’d have suffered the same fate.
Some guys still tried to act tough, like nothing fazed them. But I knew it did. You had to have thick skin in order to deal with it all, but that doesn't mean it still didn’t affect you.
One of the worst things I witnessed when I was at war was the damage it had done to others. I was in the air force and I helped move a lot of the wounded back to the U.S. It’s one thing to be engaged in combat, but looking at the aftermath of a fight and actually seeing what it had wrought on all of those people is another matter.
There were varying degrees of injuries on a flight back. Some had broken bones or lacerations, others were missing body parts; some were dreadfully burned across their body. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from at times like that. People had been so badly damaged by the fighting that their identities were all but lost. Features had been carved away until you couldn’t distinguish who was who.
I remember one man that had lost his ear and left leg. Part of his face was terribly torn up due to shrapnel. I remember him reaching out and tugging on my sleeve.
“Hey, how bad does it look?” He gestured to the side of his face. “Think I’ll still be handsome?” I think he tried to grin, but only half of his mouth moved and it turned into a grimace.
“Don’t worry,” I lied, “You’re a real looker.”
The guy nodded. I couldn't tell if he believed me or not. “I got a girl waiting for me back home, you know.”
“Yeah.” He closed his eyes, and I thought he had fallen asleep. But very quietly, he added, “She told me to take care of myself.”
I had someone waiting for me at home as well. She told me to take care of myself too.
I looked at the soldiers lying around me. Some in one piece, some missing several pieces. I couldn’t help but cry. I am not ashamed to admit it. I don’t know how many trips I took back to America, dropping of what was left of the soldiers. I just knew it was too much. But there always was one more. Every time, there was always just one more.
Finally, I got to come back home.
There’s usually a period of time where a veteran has to adjust to having their life back. To be honest, it’s never the same as before you left. It sometimes can take a hell of a lot of time before everything settles down. Most people make it through with little issues, but others just can't.
This is the part of coming home most people don't talk about.
Difficult doesn't cover the transition I undertook when I came back. Everything seemed too normal to the extent that it was abnormal. For a while, I couldn’t seem to get a grip on reality. I was surrounded by normality and relative safety, and yet I could not find peace.
My wife had had our child while I was away. She was 21 months old by the time I saw her. I had an instant family, and though they offered me all of the support and comfort one might expect, nothing was working for me.
Thankfully, I got lucky. I was able to pick up the pieces I thought I left back at my base and was able to move on.
The first night that I came home, I picked up my 21-month old baby and held her close. She knew nothing of the world before her time, and everything she will come to know will be fed to her by magazine articles and stories. Because after the dust settles, that's the only thing that will survive the onslaught of time: stories and scars. And she will shake her head in wonder when she hears them, because how could they possibly be true?
She’s 13 now, and I still pick her up like I did the first day I got back to her. Because I knew the answer to that question, but I hope she never will.