What was it like coming home from war?
This last week, I had two different people ask me about what it was like coming home from war. One was email someone sent me for a college paper, no doubt due to my participation in the A to Z Challenge. She wanted to know what it was like with family members. The other was my podiatrist, who has done consulting work on soldiers. He was more curious about how it was different from being over there.
Being at war in Desert Shield/Desert Storm
First up, I was in Saudi Arabia from the end of October, 1990 to early March, 1991. I received a Red Cross message for my mother and went home on emergency leave within days of the war ending. So I was there only about five months and some change.
I did not see any combat. I did not see any dead bodies. I was close enough to hear the artillery when the ground war started. I also was, at one point, near a Patriot Missile Battery, and scuds were shot in our general direction.
But that’s hindsight, and almost 24 years of time to think about it. Being a soldier is very isolating because we only had this small world around us. We didn’t know what was happening, except right where we were.
That made things worse.
We didn’t know where the Enemy was, only that the Enemy was out there somewhere. We expected the Enemy to come over the horizon and attack us.
Small Things that Turned into Nightmares
1) Ominous click in the silence. While we were at the research center, which was 70 miles from where the ground war would start, we built a defensive position on a water tower. My squad leader was walking out to the tower, and he didn’t hear the guard say, “Halt.”
But he did hear an ominous click of a M16 charging handle being released. You pull back the charging handle to load a bullet into the chamber.
He stopped dead right where he was, just going to ice. You don’t know how a soldier will react under stress, and things can happen real fast. Nothing did, thankfully!
2) Gunfire in the camp. I was in the women’s tent when I heard three barks of sounds that sounded like backfires. Next thing I know there’s a flurry of activity, and the officers are in a panic. Someone is shooting at us.
No, they weren’t. It was a truck backfiring.
Big Things that became routine
The first time the scuds came in, we were into our gas masks and hid in fox holes until we got the “all clear” signal. After that, the scud attacks multipled, and we were getting them every few nights. It was quite shocking that we were sleeping through it!
Other things that we did:
- Burn our envelopes to keep terrorists from getting our family’s addresses (and if you want to understand how paranoid this made me, read my A to Z post The day I got a Red Cross message during Desert Storm
- Watch for terrorists trying to get into our convoys.
- Didn’t salute our company commander because he didn’t want to get shot. The battalion commander did require saluting for himself.
All these things gave us an overdose of paranoia that grew as we marched towards January 16, 1991, when Desert Shield became Desert Storm and the war started. We didn’t know where trouble would come from, but we expected it. Maybe that’s why so many of the little things became nightmares. Because we were trying to anticipate what the trouble would be.
Coming home from Desert Storm
I received a Red Cross message and came home from Saudi Arabia on ten days of emergency leave. New of my mother dying left me feeling like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this video:
I landed in one of the Carolinas and was kind of wandering around in a daze at the airport while I waited for a flight. I just didn’t know what to think, or really what to do with myself. The war had been a constant go of high energy, and suddenly I’d been switched to slow.
I actually don’t remember arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, or coming home. It was like everything was unreal because people aren’t suppose to die like this. I wanted to lie to myself like I lied to myself before I got deployed, and yet, I knew it wasn’t to be.
I remember being shocked to see my basic training photo on the wall opposite my mother’s spot in the bedroom, with a yellow ribbon on the corner. That was me, with a yellow ribbon.
My brother drove me around the Los Angeles area showing me the flags and the yellow ribbons everywhere. It was strange because I felt disconnected from everything. I wasn’t here, and I wasn’t there; I was in sort of a Twilight Zone of unreality. Any moment I expected Rod Serling to step out.
I wasn’t there when my mother died a few days later. We didn’t have a funeral. My father believes like the Klingons do: Once the person is gone, the body is only an empty shell. He had her cremated and scattered her ashes at sea. She’d died before her parents did.
After my leave was up, I was ready to go back. It seemed like the only sure thing that I knew at that moment. I also think that was part of the andrenlin rush that people sometimes talk about. But that faded when the army sent me back to Fort Lewis, Washington.
Returning to Fort Lewis
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I came home angry. It wasn’t the anger like you normally experience, and maybe that’s how it hid from me or got attributed to other things. I wasn’t even aware of it until I did a review of the book Redeployment, which was written by a veteran only recently out of the current war. His stories had an undercurrent of anger that I doubt the author Philip Clay is aware of.
Most anger has a specific focus. You’re mad at your parents, your spouse, you job. Something happens that sets it off, and it goes away in a certain amount of time, or sometimes it becomes more with time, like outstanding feuds. But you know you’re angry and you generally know why.
The first instance of this anger turned up maybe a month or two after I returned. My unit had not yet returned, so I was part of the rear detachment, which was run by a sergeant who was on the scatterbrained side. By now, there were new soldiers who’d transferred to the unit and soldiers who had returned from, so there was easily ten people.
I was the only one he tagged to go and do stuff. Run down to the gym and go find Private Smith. Do this, do that. Everyone is sitting around lounging, and I was the one chasing down everything. In a different time, I doubted it would bother me, or at least to the extent that it did. My anger was way out of proportion. It was over 20 years later that I took a SDI class at work that showed my patterns for getting angry. Where other people might blow up in a very visual way and have it burn out, mine will build for a very long time while I search for alternatives to resolve the situation.
That meant it had started in Desert Storm.
To the sergeant’s credit, he couldn’t tell I was angry. The soldier training kept me from voicing anything and just taking the work. But I also have a pokerface when it comes to anger. No one can tell. I didn’t understand this until I had that class years later. Maybe voicing my issues would have helped, but somehow I don’t think it would have satisfied the anger. I think some instinct understood that it was out of proportion for what was happening.
So one day, I went down to my office in the basement, which was really private, and got a pad of paperwork and wrote pages and pages of how I angry I was. It was just so I wasn’t going to do something stupid. But, for some reason, I shoved it in a drawer, where I thought it would be safe.
The sergeant found it. He was mortified. I was mortified. He did stop “Hey, You!” ing me.
I think this is one of the challenges for the soldiers coming back. War is powerful force of nature. It pulls out things from us that we don’t expect or even understand. No one tells to expect anger like this, or that you might be most vulnerable in the months following where it pops up in seemingly unrelated things.
The above wasn’t only time it surfaced, but, perhaps because it was so close following my return, it was the worst. Twenty-four years later — has it really been that long? — I still don’t understand why I was anger or where it came from.
Except that it was a part of war.