An ongoing story about war, coming home, and healing from combat trauma
October 2, 2019: Stateside
“Excuse me,” he says. I look up from my book to see a little boy patiently waiting to talk to me as he strongly holds his mother’s hand. I put my book down and ask, “what’s going on buddy?” To which he anxiously and gently asks, “are you a soldier that fought in the war?” He and his mother must have seen my shirt that reads, “Iraq Veterans Against the War.” I look back at him not sure how to go about it as my body floods with emotions. “Yes, buddy, I did fight in the war,” I manage to say. He looks up at his mother who nods her head and smiles at him before looking back at me. Gently removing his hand from his mother’s, he puts it over his heart before saying, “Welcome home. I am sorry you went through that, thank you for your sacrifice.” Holding back tears I say through the lump in my throat, “thank you so much, that is very kind of you, what is your name?” He smiles and says, “Eli.” While I am sure his mother helped him, it was one of the most authentic and beautiful ‘thank yous’ I had received in 14 years of being a combat Veteran. “Eli, I am ryan, and I am so very honored to meet you…”
Thanking a soldier for their ‘service’ can be a very uncomfortable and a psychologically activating event for everyone involved. Most civilians have a genuine desire to honor the ‘troops’ but simply do not know where or how to begin. Maybe they were raised by a family member that came home from a war and never talked about it. Maybe they have a family or community member that fought in the current wars and they have seen the price warriors pay physically and psychologically. Or maybe they just want to say something to show they care.
The problem is that so much of ‘patriotism’ and ‘supporting the troops’ is politically appropriated and connected to support for the wars. Supporting the ‘troops who fight for our freedoms.’ Consequently, supporting the troops has become synonymous with supporting the war. If you do not support the war, our culture takes that as an attack on the troops themselves.
But what about those of us who fight in the wars only to return home with the realization that we were not fighting for freedom, but, for occupation?
How do we reconcile the pain, guilt, and shame we feel for taking part in criminal wars for profit with a genuine desire of our communities to express their emotional support? How do we navigate the sudden flood of emotions, dissociation, flashbacks, when all of the instincts that kept us alive in the war will kill us back home?
It was exactly 14 years ago, to the day, that my boots first touched American soil when little Eli put his gentle hand over his heart and offered his compassion to me, and it was the first time I felt like I was seen outside of all of the baggage that comes with thanking a soldier.
‘Welcome home. I am sorry you went through that. Thank you for your sacrifice.’
0 Dark 30: Camp Ramadi, Iraq
“Wake up, rally outside, and load up, we’re headed home!” screamed into the hooch. Followed by a wave of animalistic “Ooorahhhs!” and screams of excitement. It was still dark out, I was exhausted, but, it was time to go home and I was up, geared up, loaded in the truck, and on the way to the airstrip within minutes.
Unloading, we formed up at the edge of the airstrip and dropped our gear. “Smoke em if you got em.” We sat leaned up against our gear looking out at the slowly illuminating city staring back at us from across the sand. Some of us smoked, some of us closed our eyes, and some of us prayed. But, no one spoke aloud beyond whispers, and the moment was piercing.
I can still see it when I close my eyes. I was looking out at one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen. As I sat there, staring into the pink and red streaks invading and backlighting the city, Ramadi was staring back at me. Lying in rubbles below the vast night sky above that was slowly changing.
There is a saying in the veteran community, “all gave some; some gave all,” and in that moment I finally understood a piece of what that meant. It was written deep in the silence. We all felt it. The pain, confusion, and fear when a piece of you is ripped out of your chest and left behind. Caged in your memories. The boy I used to be. The dreams I had. The love I felt. We lost 16 comrades in Ramadi. We destroyed the lives of countless Iraqis.
In the face of Ramadi staring back at me, I saw the face of that 21 year old boy, sacrificed in war.
The moment was shifted when the CH 46 helicopters (Helo(s)) came circling and landing behind us. “Gear the fuck up men, we’re headed home!” screamed our platoon sergeant.
I got up, geared up, and when I turned my back to her, Ramadi, I never looked back. I turned, I loaded up, and as the Helo lifted us off, I closed my eyes. I did not really understand why at the time. I guess it was all just too much and I was not ready to feel yet. Now I am beginning to realize it was the moment my mourning process started. The process of mourning my comrades. The process of mourning what I had lost. The process of mourning for the people whose lives I had destroyed.
American Soil: Baltimore USA
Our first stop in the United States was in Baltimore, MD. When we landed the pilot came on the loudspeaker and said,
“Semper Fi Marines. I flew missions in Nam, and it is with great pride and honor that I be the first to officially welcome you home today. I know there is 16 empty seats, and that is a hard thing to feel. My condolences and respects. Never forget, we are the few, the happy few, we band of brothers.”
One of the local radio shows had broadcasted that a Marine Unit was returning home from the war and would be stopped at the airport on a layover. A local VFW branch organized a welcome home group. When we came out of the airport to smoke, A Korea Vet in a wheel chair was there to welcome us home. There was a small crowd of 20 or so people there cheering and clapping for us.
One woman came up to me and handed me her cell phone and said, “please, call your family and tell them you are home and safe, thank you for your service.” But it was almost too much. As beautiful as the display of support was, it was so loud, and intense, and terrifying. It was more terrifying than anything I experienced in the war. She was the first to ‘thank’ me for my ‘service’ and it sent me spiraling into flashbacks. Instantly I was back in the war.
Evening dusk: Camp Pendleton CA
“Throw them in there men. Move! Move! Move!” Staff Sergeant screamed as we loaded our weapons into the armory window. Usually we would spend a couple hours cleaning our weapons, squad leaders would conduct inspections, and it could take hours to carefully load our weapons checking them into the armory. Today, we were home, and our families awaited us on the parade deck. So, we did it the infantry way: we threw them in the window as fast as possible and made our way out of the armory compound.
“3rd Platoon! Welcome home 3rd Platoon!” screamed from outside the gate. There he was, Cpl ‘Jangles’. Unshaved, dressed in civilian clothes, with a beer held high, the first to welcome us home. Jangles twin brother ‘Jingles’ was killed in Ramadi along with 4 other brothers on June 15, 2005. When his brother was killed, Jangles escorted his brothers remains home and finished his active service stateside. The platoon immediately formed up in front of Jangles.
“Platoon!” Staff Sergeant called, “Aten-tion!” sending 3rd platoon locked into the position of attention before Jangles. Staff Sergeant about-faced before calling, “Present-Arms!” In an act of honor, respect, and love only shared by a platoon of combat grunts, we rendered salute to Jangles. With tears in his eyes, Jangles snapped to attention, accepted, and returned salute to the men in 3rd platoon.
“Corporal” Staff Sergeant called, “take your post and march your marines home.” Jangles marched us towards the parade deck chanting ‘3rd platoon!’ in between calls of ‘left-right-left!’.
Looking back now, nearly 15 years later, I realize it was the last moment of my combat experience. It was the moment we marched away from the war, forever. Led by Jangles, a Bagdad, Fallujah, and Ramadi war hero, the greatest leader I have ever worked under, and Gold Star brother (awarded to the families who have lost a family member to war). We marched, our heads held high, together-home.
Our Platoon Commander took over marching the platoon as we neared the parade deck and Jangles broke off, beer still in hand, into the crowd of families and loved ones gathered to welcome us home. There was line of pick up trucks with their beds full of ice, beers, and kegs. Numerous news agencies were standing by watching as we marched, “left-right-left!” up to the deck. “Platon! Halt!…Left-Face!” As I turned with my comrades my father was standing about 20 feet in front of me.
I watched as the freight train he had carried on his back lifted. Weighed down for 7 months while his boy was at war. His eyes came to life swelling with tears. He nodded to me, came to attention, and saluted me. A former secret service agent, my father and I had a very tumultuous relationship as I grew up into a punk rocking rebel. The moment he saluted me was the first moment in my life my father looked at me as a man.
0400: San Clemente, CA
I awoke screaming, drenched in sweat, shaking uncontrollably. It was the first night terror I ever had. I do not remember the nightmare itself. Only waking up with absolutely no control over my body and the tornado of emotions flooding into me like water bursting through a dam destroying everything in its’ path. I ran to the hotel bathroom and turned on the shower as hot as I could physically stand. Choking on the lump in my throat I laid down, and I curled in the bathtub under the scalding water. Once secured, my body unleashed and I sobbed unlike I had ever cried before. Every pore of my body cried. Every goose bump raised-every hair pulling in every direction.
I understand now, it was not just my body releasing the trauma, it was not only that I had been numb to everything other than anger for 7 months, all of which is true. This was more than that.
A gentle, but stern, hand grabs my shoulder, and my father says, “it is time to get up, son.” My father, who always wakes up around 0330–0400 was awake through the entire process. He sat patiently sipping a coffee, staring out the window into the pacific ocean as I laid sobbing. He was the first person to see a small window into what would become 15 years of struggling to come home. When I looked up at him standing over me with his hand out to help me up, his sharp blue eyes looked back at me with a sense of confidence, support, and stern compassion. “It’s time to get up, son.” I knew this was not merely a logical comment. It was my father lifting me and empowering me to never give up.
I got up, wiped my tears off, geared up, and went back to base for my final check in.
Pick up your gun and go to work, Marine.
15 years later: Stateside
‘All gave some; some gave all’ is not a polemic on the war. It is a testament to the sacrifice that every soldier pays. We sacrifice our lives and our bodies coming home in wheelchairs, in pain for the rest of our lives, unable to hear anyone because we are all a little deaf. We give years of our lives to the war. I was one of the ‘lucky’ ones that only deployed to the war a single time. The most debilitating sacrifice each of us makes, however, is the psychological and spiritual injuries we sustain that stay with us for the rest of our lives.
“Moral injury” cuts through the muscle, the bone, all the way to the heart. While the mystery of ‘human nature’ remains illusive, one thing I know for certain is that killing other human beings has no place in the human nature index. Our bodies, our psyches, and our very souls are not meant to experience this. When you kill another human being, you kill your own humanity in the process. Which is not to say that there is never a time to defend ourselves and our communities by any means necessary.
It is merely to say that when you kill another human being, no matter what they have done, you kill a piece of yourself at the same time. A piece that can never be replaced. That was my sacrifice.
The second component to moral injury is waking up to the reality that I was not a liberator. I was an oppressor. I was not there to bring freedom. That my “service” was not about freedom. I was not “serving” my community. I was serving empire in a criminal war for profit. Oil tycoons, weapons contracts, and bankers sent me to fight, kill, and die destroying the lives of innocent people in a war that brought trillions of dollars of profit into their pockets. That was my service.
There was no service of justice in the war, only personal sacrifice.
Looking back now, 15 years after my boots first touched Iraqi soil, it has been the challenge of my life to build a sustainable relationship with the chaos of Post Traumatic Stress and Moral Injury. The nightmares, the panics, and the bridges I burned along the way seemed a terminal wound slowly bleeding out. The sickness took so many of my comrades in the veteran community through suicide I had to stop counting at 20. That was many years ago. In fact, more veterans have died in the past 10 years from suicide than died in the entire Vietnam war. Over 60,000 Veterans.
‘Welcome home. I am sorry you went through that. Thank you for your sacrifice.’ Little Eli said to me.
Something I am beginning to realize in the past few years since going to graduate school for counseling psychology, becoming a therapist, and dedicating myself to a life of advocacy in social justice is that the moment I stood up, geared up, and turned my back to that beautiful city I took part in destroying, was the moment I laid that 21 year old kid from jersey to rest, and decided to come home. The war will always be a part of who I am. There will always be a hole where the boy I was used to be.
But, when I turned toward home and loaded in that Helo, I accepted my new mission: to stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Iraq, and fight, the rest of my life to stop these atrocities from ever happening again. To end all wars. For now, I serve The People.