Friday, October 26, 2007

The Realities of Deployment and Readjustment

I am an American Soldier and I was in a combat zone; and while I have no visible injuries, I am nonetheless forever changed. This is my reality.

Serving my country has always given me an incredible sense of pride. It still does. But this most recent deployment experience also opened my eyes to the effects that deployments, particularly those to hostile, unsympathetic environments, really have on service members and their families.

I worked in a very "no nonsense" environment overseas... and with slightly dysfunctional people, made this way from too many deployments. Deploying and returning home, time and time again, over the course of many years. The effect of which left some more than just a little unpredictable in their behavior and considerably idiosyncratic. They earned their mental scars, their divorces, their quirks, doing what they love the most. Serving their country.

We wrote the orders, policies and procedures for those Soldiers who performed the dangerous work of delivering goods and supplies along the roads of Kuwait and Iraq. The orders we gave and the plans we made sent them into harm's way on a daily basis. Most of what we asked the Soldiers to do, and what we oversaw, was "routine" to us and to the Soldiers. We were all desensitized to the realty of how unsafe our work really was.

After reading about 50 or so "Serious Incident Reports" every day for weeks at a time -- reports of shootings, injuries, IEDS -- you become immune to your own emotions. It's a job requirement. You cannot become histrionic every time something bad happens, or else we would be ineffective leaders and consequently those under us would be in greater danger than they already were if our emotions took over every time something distasteful happened, or the stress level rose a notch or two. While these are effective survival tactics in a combat zone, they are qualities that are not necessary at home in the United States. What is considered calm and rational in a hazardous duty area, often comes off as cold, callous and uncaring to family and friends.

The majority of Kuwait and Iraq that I visited was a horribly austere, dirty and noisy environment. There were smells and tastes lingering in the air that were quite nauseous and sickening. Upon first arriving in Kuwait, most people experience some type of upper respiratory distress from unavoidably breathing in all the filth and dust that is a constant in that operating environment. What will the long term effects of this exposure be? I don't know.

I made it home, safe and sound. But it didn't take long for me to realize that my mind was still overseas conducting business as usual. It became apparent to me that I was wound a little too tight -- as taut as a piano string, to be exact. Unwinding, or turning it off, however, proved to take more effort than I assumed it would. "They" say this is normal.

I now find that I am more sensitive to noise, have demands for more personal space, and obsess a little more about cleanliness. I'm astute enough to realize that my new idiosyncratic behavior is directly related to my experiences while overseas. Now I am more like those who I served with, those who have endured more than one deployment.

And so I have changed. It is difficult for others to understand why I have changed. After all, I wasn't wounded. Or was I?

There is a child in my life who thinks I am a hero – a point which is certainly debatable. He was simply happy that I returned home in one piece -- at least he thought I was in one piece -- and ready to start our lives over from the point at which we left off. However, it fast became apparent to him that I am not the same person he knew before I left and he is confused by that. He wants the "old me" back and so do I. It is painful and disappointing for both of us.

It is also disheartening to me that there are so many who served in Desert Storm who became ill as a result of their exposure to dirt, dust, burning oil, chemicals, drugs the military gave them to protect them, and God knows what else. Some are still waiting on a diagnosis and treatment after all these years. And the reality of the Vietnam Veterans, scorned for their participation in a war that had little public support, scarred by their experiences and denied treatment, is painfully sad. Will the Veterans of this war suffer the same mistreatments? Will we be diagnosed later in life with some unnameable disease, the source of which cannot be identified? Again, I don't know.

I see homeless people on the street, some of them obviously Veterans, and now I understand why they are in the situation they are. They were wounded, physically and mentally, and society has cast them aside. Has the War on Terrorism created another generation of people who will suffer the same plight? We are already seeing the answer to this question being unveiled in the press. Think of Walter Reed when you read this.

Still, I am lucky. Health care for Vets has vastly improved over the course of the United States' involvement in world conflicts. PTSD wasn't even recognized as a valid medical condition until well after the Vietnam War had concluded and thousands of Vets were wandering the streets with undiagnosed medical and psychological conditions. Thankfully Vets now have access to free medical screenings and counseling following deployments. I just hope that those who need it take advantage of it.

While visiting a local Vet Center, a counselor told me that he had just recently spoken with a WWII Vet who confided in him, after 60 years of holding it in, all the horrible things he witnessed during the war. 60 years. That's a long time to repress something like that, but thank God that man finally had the opportunity to unload it on someone. Some never have that opportunity. Some never readjust.

It has taken longer to "demobilize" myself and readjust than I originally thought it would. I have lots of memories from my deployments, both good and bad. They will always be with me and they have shaped me into the person I am today. And from that I gain my new reality.

My new reality is that this is what happens to service members who are willing to pack up their bags and deploy to some far away, unfriendly region of the world, enduring the hardships of life away from family and friends, and the uncertainty of what the next day will bring. Some do it over and over. My deployment was easier than most and yet it effected me in a lasting way. I can only imagine what issues other service members and their families are facing.

All who have served, including their families, have sacrificed a portion of themselves for what they believe in the most... service... freedom... religious tolerance... and many other things that our society cherishes. Please don't forget what they have sacrificed for you. Please don't forget them.