Integrating Reintegration

Sky clears after a dust storm on Bagram Air Base, 2014 (Photo by author)

This was written as part of an ongoing discussion on war and the human reaction to war, begun by Phil Walter’s piece, War and the New Normal.

So in 2013, I went to Afghanistan. It was a pretty normal tour. Aside from occasional rockets and mortars, the pervasive smell of human waste, mind-numbing PowerPoint presentations, and separation from my family, I may have well been back in a garrison environment. I served as executive officer for a headquarters company and then as the assistant plans officer for a battalion operation S-3 section. Nothing dangerous about that at all. In 2014, I came home. Case closed.

We got a lot of briefings before leaving for deployment and then before coming home on the process of reintegration and being on the lookout for post traumatic stress indicators; but since we had really had a boring tour, I thought nothing of it. In fact, I ignored most of these briefings, wondering why my time was being wasted there when I could be home with my family. The only stress that was on my mind was the stress of spending a week at our demobilization station at Fort Dix, New Jersey. And when I arrived home, things were fine. Reintegration was a breeze, I thought.

It was a few months after coming home, and I was heading to the grocery store after work to pick up some stuff for dinner. Because it was not a pre-planned trip, I was still wearing my uniform, something I rarely do. Aside from getting the odd glance from other shoppers, everything was as normal. I turned my cart into the next aisle, and spotted a bearded man wearing an ACU field jacket and a shermagh-style scarf. As his eyes met mine, he did a double take, and, still staring intently at me, he reached his hand crosswise inside his open jacket.

Every single sensory function switched into overdrive. Alarm bells jangled, screaming, “HANDS!” Everything that had lain dormant for those few months leaped to the surface. Adrenaline shot sky-high, vision narrowed to a tunnel, and my brain immediately moved to defensive mode as I watched in slow motion as his hand slowly emerged from inside his jacket. Unarmed, my thought was to ram him into the aisle endcap with the cart and then attempt to disarm him before he could get a shot off. Muscles tensed, I watched his hands, now emerging with — a cell phone.

This entire incident had taken a mere five seconds to transpire, if that, and I quickly turned my cart down the aisle, then the next, then the next, zig-zagging, trying to be unpredictable, as my ears pounded and sweat emerged on my forehead. I quickly checked out at the register, head swiveling to try to catch sight of the man who had torn me out of my calm lifestyle and thrown me back into a world where every unknown was a possible threat. Returning to my car, I began driving. It takes barely five minutes to drive from the grocery store to my house. This time it took fifteen, as I took side street after side street, attempting to shake a pursuer that was only inside my mind.

I was shaken. I was not normal. This was not a thing normal people do. And why? I had been in no firefights, never been blown up, carried my rifle almost as a mere formality on a heavily protected FOB. Statistically, I was safer on Bagram Air Base than I would be in some neighborhoods of Chicago. It was month or so after this that the nightmares began. Nightmares that were incredibly violent, or where I was in a firefight but couldn’t find my rifle. In the daytime, I was short and unfeeling with my wife, finding myself saying, “I don’t care,” to a woman I cared more about than anything in the world. I was irritable and restless. I was not normal, and I disliked myself for it.

After a few months of this, I reached out to some of the people I deployed with and other veterans on Twitter, tentatively, asking casually, “Hey, anything like this ever happen to you guys?” The response was immediate: “Yup, all the time. And it’s normal.” I still couldn’t understand why I was having these reactions, and I was angry about it. This should NOT be happening to me. I was a POG (personnel other than grunt). A Fobbit. I barely left the wire. How dare I have mental struggles when I had seen no action compared to some of my friends who had been shot, blown up, and been in real combat?

This is not a story of a veteran overcoming their past and moving on with life. This is the story of a veteran admitting that things weren’t normal and then being told by other veterans that he was pretty damn normal and coming to terms with that. I was not special. My reactions were on par with having lived for a year in hyper vigilance, having trained my mind to think a certain way, and then being told that it doesn’t all vanish in an instant. That is still something I have a hard time coming to grips with, as I witness people with real struggles from their combat tours all around me. The best I can do is to use my limited experience to try to help those for whom getting out of bed in the morning is a big victory.

Time heals. Memories fade. Nightmares dissipate. Reactions slow. Friends help.

Angry Staff Officer is an officer in the Army National Guard and a member of the Military Writers Guild. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. He has done one tour in Afghanistan as part of U.S. and Coalition retrograde operations. With a BA and an MA in history, he currently serves as a full-time Army Historian. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

For more from Angry Staff Officer, visit his Wordpress blog site.

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