In the past couple of years, I've received anguished letters and email from families of struggling soldiers about what their loved ones are going through. To these families, I've offered my sympathy and prayers, and thanked them for their words, even when they are angry and accusatory. My military Mom tales come off as a little too rosy for some. To these families, I can only declare that others' pain, though I know it exists, and care so deeply that it hurts me also, isn't always mine to share.
Even if it is my son's.
Brian had little access to telephones or internet during his first tour, and his reports home were short and sweet: "Bombs, no one hurt, things are fine." He regaled us with "cat & mouse" stories when he came home on leave. One man, for example, set a bomb in the road in front of his own house every day. Every day, Brian & Co. de-bombed the bomb, or whatever they do to it, but again the next day it would be there. Finally fed up with the bomb du jour, they moved it into the man's yard, and detonated it, blowing out the windows in his car, and killing his chickens. The message: "Don't mess with us, or we'll kill your chickens."
Funny chicken stories. Those are the ones you tell your Mom.
When your soldier comes home from the a war zone, they prepare you with literature containing rules and information about what to expect from them. "Avoid alcohol" is number 1 on the list. Oh, hilarious; when we got those boys back to the barracks after landing, they were 2 steps out of the car before icy bottles of rum were passed around.
At the end of that day, I wrote,
I'll admit to telling Clint that I felt like I'd been tossed into a pool of Testosterone. 12 hours with of 3 soldiers fresh out of a war. 3 soldiers happy to see girls again (there are no women in their company), and making no bones about it! 12 hours of rum and beer, ribald language, hair-raising war stories, and one mere expression of a desire to hit a certain jackass on the sidelines.Written somewhat in jest, it was also the absolute truth. The barracks were a rowdy place to be, and not entirely what I'd expected. A parent's presence didn't bring about the manners that it did at bootcamp graduation. Beer bottles were tossed from building tops, parking lots covered in glass and garbage and war-whooping was prevalent.
It was a riotous good time to be home.
What I observed over the next 6 months, with my kid and his friends, was that the riots didn't stop. Transition back into a civilized society after being hopped up on adrenaline and fear and anger for 18 months takes more than a 3-week leave with the family. All of the training to react instantly or lose your life doesn't just disappear. Your choices are to check yourself and feel completely leashed up in such a slow environment, or release it and find that adrenaline high. I watched and listened and talked as mine (mine being all those that I knew coming home) wrecked their motorcycles, drank themselves into oblivion, beat the shit out of one another, got arrested, stripped of their ranks, cut their pay, or got kicked out of the Army entirely.
My son was no exception. He was extremely restless, upon returning to routine, seemingly meaningless chores on base. He was home barely 8 weeks before he informed me that he was requesting early redeployment. Good or bad, I advised him to ride out the instinct to get back to the adrenaline rush. Give it a few more months, see if you calm down.
There was more than one conversation in which he tried to convince me why fighting that guy across the bar was absolutely necessary: He needed to be taught a lesson. He'd think twice before heckling a soldier again, wouldn't he? I would exasperatedly try to convince my kid that he was letting worthless people control his emotions, and that you can't beat sense into a dumbass anyway. Knock it off, before someone gets seriously injured or ends up in jail, which is pretty highly likely. In the book Down Range, to Iraq and Back by Bridget Cantrell & Chuck Dean, Dean refers to this behavior as "Driving Fast in the Slow Lane" and being unable to control erratic behaviors.
"I have visited many of America's ex-servicemen who have been incarcerated in state and federal institutions over the years. Most are wonderful people, and it breaks my heart to see these men pay the price for poor judgment. They survived the grueling months of combat only to come home and go straight to jail for the rest of their lives."The idea of this happening to any of them made me sick. Still, it got to the point where I pictured the Fort Benning barracks more violent with gang warfare than any inner-city.
It's difficult to "advise" without blame. Tread lightly. It's easy to get fed up and pissed off with what seems like juvenile behavior. What we have to remember is that this is all par for the course.
More importantly, what we have to remember is that we have no idea what they've been through. The worst of the tales may take years to come out, if ever. My policy, when listening to my soldier babies, was usually to just give straightforward, common sense reminders. "Take a deep breath, think about yourself; don't jeopardize your future." Admittedly, I've probably, lovingly threatened to slap the shit of them if they keep up the deconstructive behavior. I might also have thrown in a "what in the hell were you thinking?"
More often than not, it's best just to keep your trap shut and your opinions to yourself, and to engage in "Listen. Hug." therapy.
With time, my kid settled down, as did the rest of them, back into people I could recognize. Instead of rising to the challenge, MPs were called at the onset of a probable ambush. Education and training for further endeavors began to take priority over road rage, and unfortunately, structured days turned back to training to redeploy. (boo)
So, that was the coming home, and the year or so after. I reflect now, and worry that in the midst of this, there were times I said the wrong thing. Or I didn't say the right thing. Or I didn't recognize something for what it was. Honestly, I'm not even clear on whether these issues are symptoms of PTSD, or if they fall more under the category of normal acclimating to a peaceful society.
Hey! There's a lot I don't know! And no matter how much I read, or how much I listen to friends, soldiers, their families and spouses, and how much I learn from them, I also know this:
I will never know.
We will never know, and that is the soldier's gift to us. It their service to this country that protects us from ever knowing, ever having to understand.
Don't forget to thank them for that; it never gets old.
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Volume II to come. Reference to my son and others in these posts has been posted with permission by those that shared with me. If you'd like to contribute, vent, or educate me further in understanding, you are hereby granted my attention and my discretion. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.