The Transition Home

Freedom

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.

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11 responses

  1. diane peske

    Raj…you are a most eloquent writer. Your story wil speak to many fellow warriors, I’m sure. I do not mean to sound trite, but we do thank you for your service to our country. Thank God for people like you. If you ever get yo San Diego…a large cool beer (or whatever) will be waiting. We know this July 4th will be especially meaningful for you&your loved ones.

    4 July 10 at 01:03

  2. ektor3

    Lt, you will have people asking how you feel??/answer them/don’t dismissed them as not been important or too busy or anything/when they ask you answer/

    just do it/

    4 July 10 at 01:13

  3. Hey Rajiv, Just sent you an email.
    War affects everyone –from the person in theater, to the people at home. Everyone has changed, hopefully gotten a little wiser, my patient, and understanding. As for the stress, the lack of sleep –not atypical.

    Freedom isn’t free, and I think the true meaning of that phrase has much deeper ramifications than most people want to admit. As someone once said, ‘War involves the loss of innocence,’ is spot on. We’re all less innocent than we were going in, and hopefully, we get through this only one way –together.

    4 July 10 at 01:34

  4. Cam Srpan

    We understand, so do not worry. Thank you for keeping us free. Happy 4th and as I watch the fireworks,I will think of you and your men.
    God bless you,my dear Jives…
    Cam

    4 July 10 at 01:37

  5. Bill Kinzie

    Dear Rajiv,

    My wife and i just returned from watching 4th of July fireworks. Our Nation loves celebrations and yet the fireworks are symbolic of the cannon, gunfire, bombs, and flares that are part of war. We’re thankful that you will soon be on the safe side of the conflict in which we are engaged.

    As part of my patriotic participation I;m re reading Alexander Hamilton’s “The Federalist Papers ” …the series of essays that speak eloquently as to why we should be one country rather than several groups of confederated States, a doctrine that had surprising vigor among many just before we became a free country.

    It will take time to heal. Use that time to reflect on where you’ve been spiritually and then move on into a well deserved future. For some the war experience is where they
    felt most alive. Civilian life afterwards was just one long descent into oblivion. It takes courage of a different sort when you’re responsible for planning and creating your own future outside the rules and parameters of the military life.
    Blessings for that future!

    4 July 10 at 02:13

  6. Irene Clark

    We can only imagine a soldiers reflex when he comes home and something reminds him of the war zone…..know that your struggle is not yours alone. The trauma of war can’t be washed away and regardless of your fears of blending back into society…we know that you will naturally
    be on guard and rightfully so. PTS….it’s a real thing, not to be taken lightly and nothing to be ashamed of. Mentally and emotionally a soldier gets worn down. It is ok, we love you and will see you through it all the best we know how. Don’t be afraid that we won’t understand….we care; we will do our best. Your stories are yours and you have a talent for telling it with a flare. Hugs, and prayers to each soldier. You are not alone. For as God watches over the birds of the field…..He too watches over you. Let Him bring healing to your soul. Let Him be your guiding Light. Seek Him and you shall find Him. God bless you….keep on keeping on!

    4 July 10 at 02:44

  7. I’m here at my desk in Cambridge Massachusetts reading your words and I am very grateful. One way or another we are all in this together and I do believe because of folks like you giving civilians like myself some insight we here at home can do a better job of welcoming you and your brothers and sisters back. Be well – to you and your platoon.

    4 July 10 at 19:35

  8. Meredith

    Thinking of you this Independence Day! Just to echo the comments above, we are so thrilled to have you return to us. I cannot imagine the psychic toll of combat or the highs and lows of transitioning after deployment. We’re here for you and we will be by your side. We’re thankful that you are back, but we need to remember that Tennyson quote “I am a part of all that I have met” and appreciate the ways that you have changed. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and reactions to seeing what’s old is new &c. We love you!

    5 July 10 at 01:08

  9. Pingback: Podcast: 05/26/2010 Freedom Watch 115 w/ Dale Peterson, Daniel Hannan, Bruce Bartlett | MorallyRight.org

  10. Alfred Breed

    Welcome home Rajiv! And Thank You!

    7 July 10 at 00:49

  11. Kevin Kniery

    Rajiv,
    You sound good, we just wanted to say Hi, and let you know that we are keeping you and your troops in our prayers. When are you coming home? Kevin and Leisa Kniery

    17 July 10 at 14:30

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