It’s hard to put into words what it’s like coming home. Each service member is different and each deployment is different. For me, coming home was always a disappointment. After a honeymoon period of one or two weeks, reality kicks in and you find yourself wishing you were back there. At home, I’m a nobody, either looking for work or hating the awful job I have at the time. Over there, I’m Sergeant or Sarge. I’m the guy my soldiers look up to and trust to get them home alive. My superiors know I’m the guy they won’t have to worry about, that I’ll get it done and make smart decisions when they need to get made.
When people come up to me and say, “Thank you for your service,” I never know how to react. If I think they are genuine, I will say something like, “It’s an honor” or “It’s a privilege to do so.” Sometimes though, I can tell that people are against what we’re doing over there and I really want to say, “Do you have any idea what service is?” Or “Do you know what I just gave up for you?” Just because I defend your right to free speech, doesn’t mean I’m interested in what you windbags have to say. Politics aside, no service member wants to hear “you shouldn’t have had to go” or “we shouldn’t even be there.” We, huh? What unit were you in? Were you that fellow in my truck blasting at bad guys from the gun ring? Or maybe it was you who gave me the briefing on the latest intelligence updates. We?
Forget the actual details of what a service member goes through, each story is as unique as a thumbprint. Just try to imagine falling asleep and waking up again a year later. That’s what coming home is like. You’re a year older. Things you left unfinished are still unfinished. Your car is a wreck because no one took care of it. Your clothes, music, and pop-culture references are all left over from last year. Everyone has adapted to life without you, and all that getting together and partying you and your buddies talked about never really takes place.
So now you’re home, looking for work, and a mechanic for your car. You’re trying to find a place of your own, but nothing is within your means. The job you had when you left disappeared because the company folded, so now you try to get a new job, but a resume of “I shoot people in the face, and break stuff” isn’t getting you any call backs. You hear that some of your comrades have landed on their feet, and you’re happy for them. But, at the same time, you’re also pretty upset because you did the same job as them, or maybe even more, but you just simply had bad luck.
The only people who can relate to what you’re going through are the guys you just spent a year with. You call and occasionally meet up, but for the most part everyone has scattered to the four winds. The only person in town who seems to be able to help is the local VA rep, but even he isn’t superman. He sends you to see the people that are supposed to get you started on a career path, but all of them are state-employed slackers that are simply there to punch in and punch out.
At least the VA rep was there before, so you believe him when he tells you that it takes time. Eventually, you won’t feel the need to carry your pistol everywhere you go. He lets you know that the guard rails won’t have an IED attached to the other side. And when you hear that jet throttle-down overhead, it’s not a mortar coming down to blow you up. That stranded motorist really is having a car problem…it’s not a car bomb rigged with a cell phone detonator.
So now it’s been a few months and things are getting a little better. You have a job now, not a career, but a job at least, which is good because you felt pathetic having to collect unemployment checks since your leave time ran out. You’re hopelessly addicted to smokeless tobacco because that’s about all you were allowed to do over there. You spent a year without booze or sex, so now you’re almost a full-fledged alcoholic and porn addict, because those two items were outlawed under General Order Number One. God forbid we offend the guys trying to kill us by having booze and naked pictures in our possession! The daily questions of “what was it like?” or “did you kill anyone?” have started to taper off, but you’re still angry because this is not the vision you had in mind when you went “wheels up” for the flight home. Plus, people are beginning to notice that you’re a little on edge and angrier than usual and they seem to have the need to let you know, just in case you missed it.
The best times for you are when you run into old friends, who were also over there and begin to swap war stories. Finally, someone who gets it, who has been there too. Now, you do your part for them. You let them know what it’s going to be like for the next few months. You do for them what that VA rep did for you. You tell them that eventually it gets better. The nightmares never go away, but you have less and less as time goes on. You tell them that there are actually people out there to help you and that you will be one of them. You run into them out and about and ask the important questions: “Has it gotten better or worse? What are your plans for now and down the road? Dude, you got the G.I. Bill, might as well use it. Yeah, let’s grab a beer and watch the game. Hey, did you hear that ‘boom’ down the road? Yeah, flashback for me too. You good? Okay, talk to you later, bro.”
Phone call: “Hello?” “Tim’s gone.” “No, I just talked to him less than a week ago.” “I know, he’s gone. I’m sorry.”
Photo credit: U.S. Army Archives