June 25, 2012

War Wounds

After slowing down the last couple of years, military suicides have again risen sharply. In the first 155 days of 2012, 154 U.S. military members took their own lives. Some 2.3 million men and women have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of those, 800,000 have been deployed multiple times. That's a lot of soldiers with potentially a lot of problems. Suicide is the extreme end of response to the pressures of war. Far more common are the reactions described by Anthony Swofford in a very well-written essay that originally appeared in Newsweek: "If a veteran is drinking excessively or using drugs, not sleeping, out of a job, and isolating himself, those are pretty good indicators that he’s in trouble."

At some point, I found my own way to think about the troubles faced by returning veterans, myself included. Put simply, the war never stops trying to kill you. Maybe that sounds crazy to you, but it makes perfect sense to me. Sometimes it represents a literal truth. The VA hospitals see patients every day who are slowly dying from a disease or injury they received in a war. Mostly, it reflects the war that continues inside your head long after the return home, the struggle to accept that coming home meant becoming a stranger in a strange land. All those habits that helped you survive in the war, they work against you in the world. All those memories that followed you home from the war, they never let you sleep. All those feelings you buried deep, they begin to work their way to the surface. The war never stops trying to kill you.

In his article, Swofford says of his own struggle to readjust, "It took nearly two decades to find my way free of the morass." In SitRep Negative, I described my own experience those first few months back: 
"Release from active duty began a decade or two or three of readjustment to life after the war. The first year or so after I got out, the war sizzled inside my head 24/7. There was not a waking moment when I wasn’t thinking about it in some way or another. You had this sense of apartness from regular people and regular life, like you were here but your thoughts and feelings were coming from somewhere else, somewhere normal people could never know or understand."
We all suffer some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Another bitter truth I have come to accept.  Few of us, though, go through the pressure-cooker of war, a hyper-intense experience that profoundly rewires the soul in ways we still don't fully understand. We all want our soldiers to be heroes. The idea that our decision to send them off to war made them something less and more than heroes is too unsettling to deal with for most people. We say, "Thank you for your service" and hope that somehow makes us even.

You want to do something really useful? The next time someone puts their finger on a spot on the map and says, "Here is where we must send our young men and women to fight and die," say "Hell no, they won't go."

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