The Transition Home

Homecoming

The terminal at Bangor, Maine airport changed little in the 360 days between my deployment and homecoming transit stops. We stepped off our charter jet after 16 hours of overseas travel from Kyrgyzstan via Bucharest, finally setting foot on U.S. soil. A line of Vietnam and Cold War era veterans stood waiting for us as we walked through the gate. They greeted us with a warm applause and extended their hands. “Welcome home, Lieutenant,” each said to me with bright, shining, grandfatherly smiles. My eyes were still half asleep from my failed attempt at a transatlantic slumber. I have yet to feel a deep sleep since I deployed, but my nervous system remained heightened, overloaded with the stimuli of a long awaited reunion with America.

My forearms tensed at the caress of the frigid and moist air conditioning. The calming hum of a distant vacuum cleaner and the terminal’s background jazz instrumental confused my aggressive sense of hearing. The bright mid-day light overwhelmed my eyes as it pounded from the building’s glass exterior. I’ve grown so used to my body reacting impulsively to stresses for an entire year that I found the absence thereof to provoke almost a greater feeling of insecurity.

I took a seat on a rigid leather bench facing the terminal glass, watching small Sesna aircraft and Air Force refueling jets take off one at a time. The majesty of Maine’s lush green forest under a clear blue sky seemed foreign to me. The runway was painted in bright white and yellow and paved smooth as silk, unlike the pot-holed Soviet runways of Kandahar. And perhaps most soothing of all…not a grain of sand to be seen, only fertile red soil and beautiful pine and oak as far as the eye can see. Wow, I thought to myself, This is actually happening…I’m home.

I looked at my watch to check how much day-dream time I could budget before my next boarding call, but took greater note of the date: it was July 15, 2010. My tour had lasted exactly 360 days. I considered how appropriate it was to reach 360; the tour no doubt challenged the full circumference of my personal and professional identity. I have changed so much in the past year, but my home did not change with me. How do I explain the dynamics of a full year of life spent at war? After the happy hour embraces of old friends, how do we pick up where we left off?  As I sat in the terminal, I found myself struggling to relate to my old home, my old people. Though the greetings and affections would be warm, grandiose lengths of distance and time make common ground a limiting factor.

I didn’t allow myself to feel lonely, or feel sorry for myself. Being in America felt infinitely better than my scalding Stryker hatch under the Zhari sun. I didn’t need external sympathy; I needed internal closure. If I was to overcome the challenge of reconnecting with America, I needed to articulate the bedrock principles I fortified in my heart over the past year. I needed absolute statements; what were my lessons learned? What substance did I bring back from a year at war?

Well, for starters, I left for Afghanistan an ambitious workaholic. I thought nothing of working 17-hour days for the rest of my career in the interests of achieving professional success. I longed for golden handcuffs of the lucrative pay day and the power of social status. But now, I return home realizing the value of work-life balance. Whereas the question of happiness once seemed only a goal for the weak at heart, finding happiness has now become the most important guiding principle in my logic. Life is a beautiful and fragile blessing. Quantifiable superficialities like money, rank, or reputation pale in comparison to the qualitative majesty of love and fulfillment. I never want to spend a day serving a bottom line. My entire life’s efforts are guided with the sole purpose to love and to be loved.

Secondly, I left for Afghanistan with a vague conscience regarding the age old military conundrum: mission or men? Our military’s warrior ethos asserts “I will always place the mission first” but also “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” From the security of a West Point classroom, I could rationalize the loss of a soldier at the expense of strategic gain. Moreover, I naively assumed I’d never have to make the call between men and mission. But now, I know first-hand there are many occasions in combat when one’s mission and men are in conflict with each other. My previously vague conscience has now morphed to a solid conclusion: without a doubt in my mind, men always take priority over mission. No matter what strategic gains are on the line, there is nothing that can replace a human life. But more importantly, there is nothing that can replace a soldier’s trust in his leaders to do everything they can to protect him. That trust is what allows soldiers to perform brilliantly in the face of danger; they know they’re in good hands. The moment that trust is compromised in the interests of a military gain, the soldier will protect himself where he feels his leaders will not, and will not perform the mission to the best of his ability. A military ideologue may call him a poor excuse for an American soldier, but he’s not…he’s just human. The enemy may escape, he may hold his ground, he may even advance on key terrain. But the soldier who lives to fight another day fights stronger than the day before.

And at last…over the course of our tour, my platoon accumulated a few catchphrase responses to the typical drudgery of conventional military life. First, there was “It Is What It Is”, sighed in reluctant acceptance of an unrelenting workload. Then, there was “Sounds About Right,” uttered by soldiers in contempt of the military bureaucracy’s disconnect from the tactical execution of its policies. But towards the end of the deployment, we adopted a phrase that was far less cynical, and more reflective of a wisdom gained from an intense fight: “It could always be worse.” And it’s true. It could always be worse. I can’t count on one hand how many times I’ve sat in the desert feeling sorry for myself, right before things took a turn for the worse; as if my indulgence in self-pity provoked the enemy’s aggression, or even rain. Being thankful in moments of distress is much the acquired taste and something I still have yet to master. But next time I miss a flight, lose my cell phone, or get a thousand dollar fender bender…I’m going to remember just how bad it could be, and hopefully find some sensation of peace in being safe, sound, and having plenty of things to be thankful for.

“All 5th Brigade Personnel bound for Joint-Base Lewis-McChord, we’ll be boarding you at Gate 4 in five minutes,” announced an airline representative over the intercom. A smile broke across my face. I was heading home. I was almost done. This war was over for me, and I could wash my hands of it for at least a year or two. I jumped up from my seat, gave one last grin at the run way, knowing I’d be on it in just a few moments.

“Hey Raj,” called out my friend James, a West Point classmate in the brigade.

“What’s going on brother?! Ready to kick this pig?!” I slapped him enthusiastically on the back.

“Rajiv…something’s happened.” James voice became quiet, as did I. “It’s Chris…”

James informed me that my dear friend, Air Assault School battle-buddy, and West Point classmate Christopher Geoke was killed in Zabol province that morning. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Chris was the third member of USMA ’08 to die in combat in under a year. And just like that, the closure I had worked so hard to find dissipated into the coastal air. The truth is, this war is not over for me. I am coming home, but hundreds of my friends and brothers are still in harm’s way on the same battlefields I left behind. As much as I want to relax, and enjoy the conclusion of a hard year’s work, I’m embarrassed to feel happiness and relief at the expense of others; knowing I’ve only passed on the burden of warfare to other soldiers, even if only temporarily. This war is not over, not for me. I cannot wash my hands of it, not now…not ever. As long as there’s a breath in my body, my heart will always be with those who fight in my stead.

I want to thank my readers for all the love and support you’ve given over the past twelve months. I could not have done it without you…and I mean that. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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35 responses

  1. Jaki

    Wow. Thank you so much! I’m not a war supporter by any means..but I definitely am a supporter of our troops. Your journal blog here is a great reminder to all of us taking the peace we are enabled for granted…when really it’s all we can ask for. It’s a great reminder to us sitting safely on our couches in front of the TV that OUR soldiers are real people making massive sacrifices not for themselves, but for every single person in this country and even when you get to come home a part of you is still over there with your team, our warriors.

    I wish you the most peace and love anyone could ever be blessed with and will keep every single soldier in my prayers..thank you again so much, for your bravery and insight.

    17 July 10 at 18:08

  2. Welcome back, Rajiv.

    God Bless.

    17 July 10 at 19:06

  3. Tony Nadal

    Welcome home.
    Tony Nadal

    17 July 10 at 19:10

  4. Caryn Sobel

    Welcome home, Lieutenant. Don’t feel embarrassed; you need the reprieve, and wouldn’t begrudge it of your comrades when they are taking the rest. It’s part of the balance.
    Enjoy your family, your friends, this country, and the good wishes of all of us out here. I send special thanks to your parents for sharing you with us. They have been in my prayers.

    17 July 10 at 19:48

  5. Donna Dilley

    Dear Rajiv,

    My prayers are answered that you are safely home. I am so sorry for the loss of your classmate & will remember his family.

    I hope that you will catch up on some well deserved sleep and that the rest of our men serving in Afghanistan will be home safely, too.

    Donna Dilley

    17 July 10 at 21:16

  6. Irene Clark

    WELCOME HOME RAJIV! My sympathy for the loss of your friend. War lives on and though I don’t understand it…..I know that some things are worth fighting for and dying for.
    Forgive us here at home if we don’t understand your struggle. Thank you for sharing the last leg of your journey home to friends and family. I hope you will continue to post your thoughts and your struggle to re-connect. Share what you really feel and know that you are not alone. Are you out of the service; or do they just move you some where else?
    Relax…..come to terms with your new reality. Some times life sucks, but thank God for giving you more time on this here earth….. To love and be loved. Don’t rush into anything. Think things through. Let your friends and family
    in…..let them understand your experience. Let your mom count all of your fingers and all of your toes and thank God that she can’t see all of the brain cells that have taken a beating! Let them fuss over you, cook your favorite foods
    and wait on you hand and foot. Let them rejoice that their son is home safely once again. He did what he had to do
    ….over and beyond. May the soldier in you be blessed with Peace that comes from God and may you always keep
    Him close to your heart. May inner healing find you quickly
    and may the battle of sleepless nights cease to be.
    Again….WELCOME HOME SOLDIER…..YOU’VE EARNED A REST!

    17 July 10 at 21:22

  7. You and Chris and all of the others are our best and brightest.

    There are no adequate words to addres your friend’s sacrifice… or yours… or any of the others who refused to turn their back on this country in our time of need.

    You make us proud. You are…. America.

    17 July 10 at 23:06

  8. Janie Werner

    …very bittersweet. For many of us, this war is far from over. There is always one more Soldier, one more Marine, one more heart we pray for to come home.

    I am glad you are home.

    Welcome back to Washington State.

    17 July 10 at 23:51

  9. Nina

    Welcome home and have an enjoyable rest with your family. You have earned it!

    18 July 10 at 01:57

  10. CC

    I’m sorry for the loss of your friend. I know it’s not the welcome home you would have wanted. I suppose it’s ironic that homecoming rarely brings the sense of peace one might expect- at least not right away. I hope you find the balance you are seeking, when you are ready.

    Thank you for your service.

    Cat C.

    (Or in case we ever cross paths in real life- Catherine Caruso, JBLM PAO).

    18 July 10 at 03:11

  11. Last Roman

    Great write up. I’ve enjoyed your candor over the oats twelve months. As you get settled back into the states, please keep writing!

    18 July 10 at 13:20

  12. Pingback: Sunday Reading July 18th « BLITZKRIEG BOPP

  13. Meredith

    Rajiv, I am so grateful that you gave this past year of your life in service to us all and that finally you have been returned home safely to us. I can only begin to imagine how you feel this weekend. I liked reading about some of your reflections, including the centrality of love, the importance of work-life balance, and your devotion to your fellow soldiers.

    Even if time had stood still over in Kandahar from the moment you made your way home, I can imagine that you’d have experienced a dizzying range of emotions. But to hear the devastating news that your friend Chris had been killed…I am so, so very sorry! What you wrote about your heart being with those who fight in your stead is poignant. I am going to keep the Geoke family and all of our troops in my prayers. I am so happy that you are home safely and I look forward to hearing more about what it’s like to be back.

    19 July 10 at 00:36

  14. I have enjoyed reading your writings so much…my 21-year-old son has been a Marine and has some of these same feelings you are having now. His story is very different but the regrets, “guilt”, glad yet sad is the same. So glad you are safely back. I pray for all you military men virtually every day. When I think the summer is too hot, I try to remind myself and others that y’all are having 120-130 degrees plus all your gear to deal with PLUS the mental issues…God bless you and those you care about.

    19 July 10 at 18:45

  15. Welcome home, Lt. I hope you’ll keep writing. You have a gift.

    My prayers are with Chris’s loved ones, and with his soldiers and their loved ones. …And with you also. I am so grateful for you and all of our military and their families.

    20 July 10 at 09:28

  16. Azygos

    First time to your site, I wish I had found it sooner, God Bless you Sir and I will pray for you and your friends family.

    24 July 10 at 04:01

  17. caveman82952

    I’m saddened by the loss of your friend. I know it hurts, I remember well. Also a humble thank you for your service to all of us. Stay safe and welcome home….

    24 July 10 at 04:22

  18. TerribleTroy

    Welcome home Sir. It is the same but different. You may have changed in ways that are less subtle but things here have changed also. Thats is the nature of things. It is OK for you to be HERE, you have done what has been asked of you for now. Allow that to be enough. You have done more than most….keep that in mind. We each have our part, and you certainly cant do it all. I am saddened to hear of your friends death and I don’t have words to lessen your sorrow. Honor your friends sacrifice by living well and by remembering. Please never forget that there are real people out here that are very thankful that you went & returned. You are US and WE are YOU. In that respect, nothing has changed…

    Welcome Home

    24 July 10 at 07:15

  19. Welcome home!

    24 July 10 at 15:19

  20. Blue Harrell

    Welcome home

    Thank you for your service and your dedication to the men placed in your trust.

    24 July 10 at 16:42

  21. Bring one right up the gig line, sir. Snappy as this old arm snaps.

    24 July 10 at 16:43

  22. orwn

    Welcome home and know that there is many of us out here that pray for you and your brothers, and we will always keep you guys in our prayers, If I ever get the chance to meet truly great Americans like yourself….the first 12 rounds are on me.

    24 July 10 at 17:53

  23. AFSister

    Your description of the view at the airport, when it hit you that it was real, made me cry happy tears.

    But combining your homecoming with the death of a friend has got to weigh heavily on your heart. I’m so glad you are home, and so sorry to hear about Chris.

    25 July 10 at 03:02

  24. J

    A very touching account, man I mourn with you and wish you and all of our brothers in arms the comfort and peace only God can bestow. It isn’t your burden to carry, not for this long, give it to Him.

    Semper Fidelis.

    25 July 10 at 09:01

  25. defendUSA

    Rajiv,

    This again, is great perspective. I am sure your warriors left behind can carry the burden as you have surely taught them well. May Chris RIP and all who held him dear find comfort in the days ahead.

    Back in the day for me, there were two sayings that stuck out: If everything was all screwed up and frustration abounded, someone would inevitably yell, “Get the sledge!” as in hammer. We used it for setting up the DEPMEDS. And, the favorite, with a bit of southern slang…”It’s gonna be awl-right…(insert soldier name)!!’
    It *is* going to be all right!
    Welcome home!

    25 July 10 at 19:41

  26. Don McArthur

    Rajiv, Welcome HOME son Welcome HOME.
    my son is comming home in just over a week . he is a good friend of Chris and classmate (wp 08) thank you for your service ! God bless you and your time with family and friends.

    25 July 10 at 23:52

  27. Meaghan Kellogg

    Raj,
    Welcome home. I am so glad you made it back safe and I truly hope this finds you well. I know its been two years since graduation but its funny how being classmates and sharing all our class shared at the Academy can bridge things like distance and time. Its always nice to read something one of us wrote, in a way it brings us all back together even if just for the duration of that narrative.
    I just got to Afghanistan a few weeks ago and am about to start my journey. I am humbled and proud by your recollection and I, as I am sure many of our classmates are, am happy to take your proverbial place here and continue the fight. It is a shared burden that we are all ready to help each other bear. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

    Meg

    26 July 10 at 06:16

  28. Jacen Todd

    Welcome home Lt.
    Do your best to live in the now.
    We all have the crosses to bear.
    Don’t let yours crush you.
    God Bless you man.

    26 July 10 at 11:26

  29. Stephanie Hampton

    Keep writing…Thank you for expressing your feelings..Enjoy being home..Praise God!

    26 July 10 at 22:18

  30. Steve in Michigan

    Thank you for your service. We appreciate all you’ve done. Hope you have a smooth adjustment to being back home and are able to enjoy life and your family for many years to come. May God Bless.

    27 July 10 at 23:16

  31. El-Tee,

    War changes you. Military service changes you. It’s more than just the fact that you now belong to an exclusive club. You will never be able to look at the world through the eyes of the before time.

    I’ve been off active duty for awhile now, but there is still an empty place in me, one that I wish I could fill with the brotherhood, friendship, and absolute trust that I once enjoyed. The most fulfilling years of my life were those I spent on active duty, because I had a true sense of purpose. Those who haven’t served won’t quite understand the real love and trust that soldiers and sailors have for each other.

    If you ever get back to Maine, you’ve got my address. I’d be honored to be your host.

    May the Gods bless you and yours, and all our veterans and their families.

    29 July 10 at 18:12

  32. Isaiah Boothby

    Sir:
    Welcome home. I’m so glad you’re well and have returned.

    I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your friend, classmate, comrade.

    I followed your blog while several of my National Guard fellows were in Iraq. They’re home too, but I haven’t seen them yet.

    Your work has been strong and focused, both the writing and the soldiering. Please continue both. You’re not the stereotypical soldier, and that’s what the Army needs now: your wisdom, your experience, and your care for fellow humans on both sides of the wire.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences. I’ve read many of your posts to my wife, who always wonders when I’ll get the call, and what she’ll do.

    Your strength gives us courage.

    God Bless.

    1 August 10 at 06:35

  33. M.G.

    You are a true man with a great heart. Thank you for sharing your story.

    5 August 10 at 21:37

  34. M.D.

    Know that you’re in our prayers and we appreciate what you do every day of our lives. God bless you and the other troops. I am so proud to have an Indian-American Lieutenant serving the United States showing what great courage you have. I’m sorry about Chris, may he rest in peace, as well as all of the other brothers and sisters you have lost in war. Glad that you are home safe, and hope to hear more from you soon. Thanks so much for sharing.

    22 August 10 at 03:09

  35. Vanessa Roesler

    Rajiv:
    So many comments and emotions from reading your messages from your first day back in the US until October. Thank you for allowing me some insight into your experiences. I’m not sure what to say….certainly thank you for fighting this war for me and for everyone who may not know to thank you.

    Would like to ask your permission to use some of these articles in paper I’m writing for counseling class. Will write you email with more specific info.

    I have just written and re-written comments on faith to you. I have no right to tell you what God is doing or why war and why death of good people like your classmate. I just pray God and you find a way.

    love your friend and member of the long grey line.
    Vanessa

    17 October 10 at 03:26

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