In the raucous of the FOB Ramrod Dining tent on a Wednesday afternoon, a vacuum of gauche silence overcame our plastic table. I sat with two of my West Point classmates from the incoming Stryker unit. The two Lieutenants stared blankly at their paper plates, trying to make sense of the oddly hostile display that had just occurred. Was he joking? Is he seriously mad?
An anger induced trance blinded the memory of what I had said; the social inhibitions I had let fall in an amicable discussion. My face winced, maliciously staring down my friend across the table. I came to, only to find myself in this stunningly awkward moment where I had clearly verbally aggressed my friend, my brother, a fellow officer…someone’s son, someone’s husband, and now someone’s father.
“Hey,” I broke the silence, “listen…sorry about that. I just lost it—“
“Don’t worry about it, Raj,” interrupted the peer who I assailed. “You guys have had a rough year. It’s just your nerves. Seriously, it’s alright.”
We continued eating, pretending that nothing had happened. We laughed and joked, sharing hysterical stories of our classmates’ inebriated urban adventures. It all went back to normal, like the good old days. But the irritated fire that had quickly consumed my heart before now withered to a smoky haze; very little seemed clear anymore. I had grown so livid so quickly. Thank god I have friends who are capable of such forgiveness. Thank god I was in good company.
But man…is such compassionate company so hard to find back home?
As I begin the long journey out of Kandahar, the intensity with which my platoon and I conducted our daily missions here still lingers in my thoughts. It’s an intensity far different than that of athletics or academics. It’s a realization of constant vulnerability; a perpetual mental dilemma of fight or flight. It’s the magnification and scrutiny given to every minute detail of one’s surroundings; a bag, a dark spot in the ground, a linear reflection of command wire off the highway. This intensity permeates through a soldier’s daily lifestyle, and when it’s time to return home…well, the transition back to normalcy is harder for some than for others.
I haven’t been sleeping well recently; three to four hours is all my body seems to want. My heart rate increases ten-fold with each camera flash in my peripheral vision, reminiscent of the blast from recoilless rifle rounds and IEDs at dusk. I speak to people like I speak on the radio: concise, fast, and hugely intolerant of those who aren’t. My temper is short. My patience low. And the pace of my thoughts doesn’t seem to reflect the pace of life around me.
As the cliché goes, freedom truly is not free. On July 4th, we celebrate the men and women who must give of their own freedoms to protect those of the nation. Soldiers cannot say, go, nor do what they want, whenever they want. We sacrifice our freedoms to serve a greater purpose, and I’m proud to do so. But now I realize there is one freedom I am missing that isn’t explicitly forgone in my Army contract, and I never thought I’d lose it. Right now, I’m yearning for an emotional freedom; a freedom to be my genuine self once again. I want to be free from the shackles of my combat mentality as I return to garrison life. I just wish I could free my mind of its stresses so I can focus on being the son, brother, friend, and mentor to those who have invested so much in me already.
But I don’t think this is uncommon. I think this is normal for most soldiers, at least for the first few weeks after the combat missions have ended. But I’m still worried. I fear that my reintegration pains will hurt the family and friends who have shown me so much love. How can I ask them to be so forgiving of my aggressive slips when they’ve already shown exhausting amounts of love? How do I explain that a random hostility is only a residual instinct, not a show of disrespect or ingratitude? These questions are yet to be answered. I’m sure I’ll figure out most of it as I go. After all, the boundless kindness and understanding of my closest friends and family never ceases to amaze me. I’m sure one day, I’ll be able to drive down my street without overreacting to the stimuli that would otherwise cause a panic on a Zhari road.
I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same person again; I imagine anyone who deploys to a war zone ever is. But I am confident I’ll find happiness and closure soon. I will find peace again. And when that day comes, I’ll pull out the grill and toast the flag. There will be no anthems and certainly no fireworks; only a serene smile on my face. This tour has brought to my soul new meaning to the word Freedom. And thus, when I do find that peace, enjoying the comforts of my home, I’ll celebrate my very own Independence Day.