In a letter to my wife, I once wrote that “when this war was over for us, I want to move far away, buy a small piece of land and live the rest of our days in peace.”
I quickly found that returning from combat was a much longer trip than riding on a plane. The impacts of exposure to war, especially prolonged combat living under a constant threat of attack, deeply engrained in me experiences that are complex and tough to understand at many levels. In most respects, the war is not over for those of us that have returned. The laws and morality of war differ enough from life at home that adjustment is problematic at best, impossible at worst. Talking with Veterans of other generations, I am not sure if the wars in our hears and minds ever end.
I can describe my combat self as a troll who thrives on stress, fear, grief and uncertainty. He is the ugly and mean part of my soul. Like the trolls from myth, he feeds on flesh and tears. He is kept at by by sunlight and comes out at night when all is still to stalk and prey on the weak issues that linger in my mind. He takes refuge in my inability, despite my work, to understand fully or process my experiences. He digs up issues that I have tried to bury and lines the path to peace with bodies on pikes. He slips in and out, leaving horrific reminders that any effort to forget him will be punished. To him, trying to live in peace as a Veteran is dissent.
Reminders Close to Home
December always brings the nightmares of dead children to haunt me. I keep my house cold to help me sleep, but my son is a restless sleeper–the blankets don’t hold him. He somersaults in his sleep, thrashing covers as he rolls. When I go up to check on him, his foot is dangling out from the covers. His tiny digits mirror the dusty foot of an Iraqi boy blown from his shoes by a mortar. It is after midnight and I selfishly climb into my son’s bed to hold him and cry. I clutch him tight as I try to reconcile the images of grief-stricken fathers holding the blankets that wrap their precious dolls robbed of life. Avoidance is nearly impossible. The tiny foot of my own son is all it takes. I cannot hold him tight enough.
I believe the troll I mentioned lives in many people, and especially in combat Veterans. The geek in me likes to label him a troll because then I can hope to outsmart and conquer him someday. If I can ever claim victory, I think it will be in my ability to keep him from appearing often and when he does, in a smaller diffused role. Until then, I have further to travel. My destination is finding peace and hopefully I will help others along the way as they have helped me.
Further Along the Road
All these years and I still struggle to live in peace. I have given up the pastimes of fighting and martial arts in favor of yoga and CrossFit. I want to be non-violent, but I still cling to violence as an option. I aim to be calm but my boys will tell you there are times in frustration and weakness when I am anything but. I try to live in the moment, but my wife will tell you I am easily distant and distracted. If you compare my demeanor to other Veterans with PTSD, I believe this is typical. Discovering and learning more about these contradictions make the journey so important to me and my family. We need time, and space to explore, to find peace.
3 Down. 1 Behind. More Tomorrow. Thanks for reading.