“When I’m at war all I think about is home, When I am home all I think about is war,”- That is a quote I’ve heard several times since returning home from downrange and it is 100% accurate. Once your foot touches American soil, immediately you go down the checklist of all the things you dreamed of doing while you were in the shit. Women, beer, food, fishing, football, and family. The list can go on forever. And you enjoy every minute of it because for most of us we really didn’t believe we would ever make it home alive. You repeat your post-war bucket list over and over with each time being better than the last. Eventually, though you hear that bugle call once again and it’s time to snap back to reality and transform back into a motivated soldier and a decent civilian overnight. We have all been there, knowing the last day would come. The day you find yourself standing remotely thinking “okay, now what?”
Being home is great, but it gets old fast. You quickly realize how dull but stressful life is at the same time. After 2 weeks, I was ready to go right back to Afghanistan. People back home couldn’t imagine why in the hell anyone would be willing to go through all that anguish again. A lot of them think we’ve become bloodthirsty savages. "All you want to do is kill people." Others call it “PTSD” and believe we have been so tortured by our experiences we literally have gone insane, even suicidal and volunteer to go back with the intent of returning in a box. These are all reasonable ideas - I guess, especially for someone who has never served and believes they completely understand soldiers and their issues because they watch CNN every night. But we are not as complicated or insane as people make us out to be.
The thing always drawing most of us back, making it easy to join all over again, is simplicity.
The day to day life of an infantryman in Afghanistan was downright grueling. We were exposed to unimaginable dangers everywhere and were paired with a battle rhythm that kept us in a continual rotation of patrol, refit, patrol, QRF, patrol and on and on. We were constantly exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. We were dehydrated, sleep deprived, hungry, filthy and in desperate need of love and something mind numbing. While all around us are men who possess the latest automatic weapons and bomb-making skills, desperately wanting to kill us.
Sounds more like a nightmare than a simple life. But any grunt knows and appreciates its normalcy. And they would take that deal in place of a stress of life back home. There is a bubble that exists on deployment where nothing and no one else matters other than what is happening in this hallowed space. That bubble is our whole world and the vapid routines of life back home do not exist here.
In this world, a young 19 or 20-year-old kid will be trusted with an enormous amount of responsibilities that in turn make him the keeper of his brother’s life. For most this can be a heavy cross to bear but for some, it gives them a great sense of self-worth and fulfillment that motives him to succeed for the sake of protecting his comrades. This is something he would never have had the opportunity to be trusted with anywhere else. This was true for every soldier and along with this, it made us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. Everything we did on a daily basis meant something, it all correlated into a well-oiled machine that was our platoon and our family. It created an atmosphere and a kind of unspoken mutual feeling that everyone would self-sacrifice for the greater good of the group.
Nowhere else will you find this kind of camaraderie. In combat, the only thing you strive to gain is the lives and wellbeing of those next to you. Life, limb or eyesight, you are willing to sacrifice anything to make sure your brother goes home alive and in one piece because he is all you have. We all wear our nation's flag on our right shoulder but in your darkest hour your country, flag, freedom or even god won't be there to save you. To your left and right, it will only be your brother, it's as simple as that.
Upon returning home, we slowly realize we brought unwanted baggage, too. It is hard for most of us to admit or accept - some don’t even realize - there is something different. There is a missing link. Regardless, it is difficult to carry and to deal with. At home, there are far too many ways to suppress things you don't want to deal with, most of which are harmful and dangerous. The distractions of life blind you in a way and make it hard to pick up a phone and reach out when you feel vulnerable.
We are used to being able to look over our shoulder and having that person you trust most in the world right there next to you, no matter what the situation. Downrange it is easy to ask for any kind of support. The process was so simple. But back home your buddy has his own life. He has his own reasons he can’t be there all the time. So, we isolate and self-medicate ourselves. We let whatever is burning inside control our lives.
I wish it was still easy to look beyond the smoke and see your brothers right there. But as life goes on and the distance between everyone grows longer by the day, we start to believe there is no one who understands. But we should always know that they have never left. Your brothers are still there to our left and right. For as long as I live I will always be looking for the way life used to be. I will always chase the same simplicity.