The Transition Home

Eat, Pray, Love: A Soldier’s Reintegration

I reunite with loved ones at Ft. Lewis after twelve months in Kandahar

At 0450 on Monday morning, I stand motionlessly in the living room of my 7th floor apartment in downtown Tacoma, Washington. My eyes are barely open, but a few glimpses of the waterfront view of Commencement Bay slip through their crusty lashes. The lights are off, no sounds to be heard. On an ordinary day in garrison 13 months ago, I would still be fast asleep, waiting for my alarm to sound at 0500. But this is no ordinary garrison morning; this is my first full day back at work from my thirty day post-deployment leave.  Today, I woke up an extra ten minutes early to fulfill a promise I made to my mind and body to continue the fight for my physical and mental stability. I clasp my hands in prayer position, and begin an artform I had long abandoned until last week: morning yoga.

The 0450 wake-up fried my senses into a nervous sizzle. Thirty days of leave was not enough. But when I considered all of the harrowing situations I’ve found myself at 0450 in the morning at war in Kandahar, I am grateful for whatever time off I had. Thirty days was long enough for me to set up my new living space, enjoy a few meals and drinks with family and friends, and restore my sleep cycle, or at least what was left of it. But my path to normalcy—a sensation of belonging– is not yet complete. I had few expectations of what my mental and emotional health would be like thirty days after returning from Afghanistan, but I assumed I’d be further along. That’s not to say I haven’t come a long way in the past month. Indeed, I’m far from the same person I was when I first left combat. It’s difficult for me to articulate the precise ways I’ve changed duing my leave period, but I can best express the transition in a simple, accessible cliché: Eat, Pray, Love.

Eat. In Kandahar, I ate for sustenance. I ate quickly and furiously, stuffing my face with the prepackaged and processed goodness of the military cuisine. This came in the form of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). MREs do exactly what they’re designed to: keep our energy levels high on enduring missions. But the conditions in which we fight call for MREs to favor shelflife over nutrition. Thus, as we cycle through the menu of twenty or so MRE meals throughout the year, we inject disgusting masses of preservatives into our digestive tracts, stopping both our hunger and our bowels.  But more important than what we eat is why we eat. Sometimes I’d eat just to stay awake, sometimes because I was just bored. More often then not, I ate simply because I was lonely.

These days, I don’t eat to offset lonliness. On the contrary, I eat primarily to enjoy the company of the people I love so dearly. There are no MREs in my refrigerator, and few processed foods at all. I find romance in the sound of a knife slicing through fresh bread or chopping through ripe, crisp vegetables. I love the sound of oil cracking over minced garlic, and the smell of rosemary on my hands. I prepare food just as much with my heart  as I do with my hands; like my mother does for me. At the table, I eat slowly and non-chalantly. My girlfriend and I sip glasses of local wines and indulge in the luxury of taste. Like wincing eyes at the day’s first bright light, my taste buds are still terribly sensitive to spice and flavor. But the main event here is not the meal, rather the laughter and conversation interrupting our bites.  There is no mission to rush me, nor any looming attack to anticipate. There’s only the  nourishment of love and grain warming my soul.

Pray. I left for Afghansitan a strict vegetarian and observant Hindu. It was easy to reconcile the inherent conflict of a pious and peaceful life with the violence and aggression of righteous warfare. I could rationalize combat and its fatal consequences. But in retrospect, the most defining characteristic of my spritual identity was the ability to console myself and others with the altruistic claim that “everything happens for a reason”. I had relied on my faith like an airbag in a high speed crash; or in the case of Afghanistan, an IED explosion. But when my friends and brothers died or lost limbs in Kandahar, my airbag didn’t deploy. My spiritual identity crashed into the dash of my Stryker, and I still have yet to make sense of what I’ve seen. How on earth could a just God rationalize such evil? What tangible benefit does the investment in faith yeild? Why do millions of people spend countless hours making their case to God in search of salvation when He is the one who should be makng His case to us after allowing so much suffering? Why should I give a damn about the hyper-extended ghost story of religion?

My anxiety and distress did not subside upon coming back to the states. I stored the frustration in  dozens of knots in my lower back. The stress fueled my heart rate continuously, keeping me sleepless at nearly all hours of the night. It was the most fierce combination of anger, remorse, fear, and depression I had ever felt in my life, and I had no idea what triggered any of those feelings. I had never felt like such a stranger to my ownself. When I knew I needed a change in my life, I turned to the one source of strength that has never failed me: my parents. And they referred me to the once source of strength that had never failed them: their faith. But I wasn’t ready to jump back into spiritual dialogue. I suppose I still felt a sense of betrayal from the promise of religion. But my intrinsic loyalty to my parents and the desire to make a formative change in my mental health convinced me that my relationship with Hinduism should not be foregone. It was time to start at the beginning; the fundamentals this 5,000 year old religion. And thus I began a simple routine of basic meditation and yoga.

I begin each morning with a series of yoga poses known as the “surya namaskar” or salutation to the sun. The poses are rather simple, but perfroming the sequence with slow and controlled motions and a deliberate breathing pattern exercises my mind’s ability to control the body. The stretches losen my muscles and increase my flexibility and bloodflow; the stiffness in my back from carrying an 80lb load around the Kandahar desert has all but left my spine. Each evening, I go to sleep with a simple meditation cycle. I breath in for eight seconds, hold for three, exhale over eight seconds, hold for three, etc. With each exhalation, I picture my lungs purging the negative energy and stress from my body. I imagine the toxic air dissipating on the white ceiling above me. With each inhalation, I feel the cool moist air filling my lungs with positive energy, purity, and refreshment. I repeat the timed process fifteen times, and at the end, I am ready to fall into a deep slumber. My heartrate is low, there are no burdens on my heart. I simply fall asleep.

The benefits of yoga and meditation have made oustanding impacts on my lifestyle. These small exercises have taught me to still my mind and isolate my senses. I spent my year in Afghanistan monitoring multiple radioes, controlling four Strykers and 20 soldiers, coordinating aircraft and fires, navigating my unit, and reporting to my higher command. My functional capacity sacrificed focus in favor of multi-tasking. My sensory inputs have grown addicted to the over-stimulation of warfare, and turning those sensors off has been quite a struggle. Yoga and meditation are helping me regain my focus in the short term. But more significantly, it is impossible to separate yoga and meditation from one’s spiritual health; thus, I have retained some hope that these practices will serve as a conduit to regaining a sense of faith in my life…because, honestly, I do miss it.

Love. Warriors show love in the most peculiar of ways. We yell, we scream, we taunt, and whine. But in almost every interaction I witnessed between my soldiers, there was always a degree of devotion that  is hardly comparable to anything in mainstream society. I showed my love to my soldiers by being the disciplinarian. I showed love by staying up the extra hour at night to plan missions and getting up an hour earlier to make sure it happened. I showed love by knowing when to stand up to superiors, and knowing when to stand against my own men. Love in combat is not a simple phrase or emotion as it is for most people in their day to day lives. For us, it’s an attitude.

But coming back to the United States challenged my capacity to show love. In a year, I had been hugged only a handful of times. The common gestures of affection that Americans use to show love in a normal day are not appropriate in combat when a professional relationship must still exist. So when my loved ones showered me with warm embraces and kisses, a small part of me hesitated. Is someone watching us? Why is this hug taking so long!? With such inherent resistance to the human touch, I found myself struggling to give my undivided attention and failing to find intimacy with the people I love most.

Learning to love and be loved is a function of practice and environment. Cultivating love amongst a platoon at war is far different from finding love in peace. But I’m one of the lucky ones. I had a loving brother and girlfriend waiting for me when I stepped off the plane. I had parents who had offered every resource at their disposal to make my transition seamless. I had friends who could have patience with my temper and displacement from conversation. But most soldiers didn’t have the support system that I did. As hard as it is to understand and feel love again upon my return, I can only imagine the internal struggles buried deep in the psyches of many of my own men.

The only thing more difficult than describing the unique challenges of reintegration is describing the remarkable happiness that has overcome me since returning. It’s the breathtaking view of Mount Ranier from my apartment’s terrace, dangling my feet in the cool waters of the Puget Sound, or driving on I-5 with the sun setting over the Seattle skyline. The natural pleasures in life mean so much more to me after this past year in one of the most violent places on earth. Life is a beautiful and fragile gift, and there is nothing more fulfilling than spending it basking in the wonder of its simple brilliance. It slows the pace of time, the pace of my heart. And as the earth seems to slow down ever so slightly, I find more precious time to do the things that I know I love—and have re-learned to love—so dearly…Eating, Praying, Loving.

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19 responses

  1. John Ellingson

    Raj: It has been wonderful to keep up with your path. As the father of a career member of the military about to head back to the sandbox for the third time, I really appreciate your insight and wonderful expression.

    Keep up the effort and fair winds and following seas. (We are a Navy family)

    John

    8 September 10 at 13:15

    • Rajiv,
      Thank you for using your poetic voice and open heart to share your experience. I work with a national not for profit called Soldier’s Heart http://www.soldiersheart.net. We work to allieviate the spiritual, moral and emotional wounding of war in our veterans, their families and communities. The deep divide between civilians and service people concerns us greatly. Your piece helps to build a bridge by offering a deeper understanding of the long journey home that many veterans face. We’ll pass your writing on to others who we know are struggling with many of the issues you name so eloquently in the hopes that it might be helpful to them. Welcome Home! You are a true spiritual warrior. ~ Paula

      9 March 11 at 17:36

  2. Bill Kinzie

    Rajiv! A remarkably thoughtful and reflective analysis of your
    return to civilian life. I wondered if you would ever write again..because civilian life is so uneventful compared to combat.

    My youngest brother was is a Vietnam veteran. His experiences paralleled yours in many ways. He claims to be
    a confirmed atheist, not buying into my explanation that God
    must have a purpose for his life.

    I on the other and don’t believe all the rationales our government provide for going to war. Though believing in a strong defense to discourage encroachment by an enemy, how much of the world must we police and dominate to achieve this? Are our resources infinite? Must the world espouse American forms of government to be legitimate?
    Plenty of questions to require a lifetime of thought.

    Thanks for sharing so eloquently. You have wisdom that must be shared.

    8 September 10 at 13:22

  3. Jack Price

    Rajiv,

    The complexities of warriorhood! What a path you have walked, and it has been educational watching a Hindu West Pointer wind his way along it. Your ability to share your experience and your skill with the written word have enabled us to walk awhile with you. We thank you!

    Bhagavad gita 2.22 Just as a man discards worn out clothes and puts on new clothes, the soul discards worn out bodies and wears new ones..

    You have never written of your beliefs in reincarnation. Surely you must have wondered what other stands of your soul’s path must have crossed those trails along the Hindu Kush?

    Jack

    8 September 10 at 13:42

  4. defendUSA

    Rajiv,
    If only other warriors could read this and take something from it, I am sure they would all be on the healing path that will keep them in the light.

    “What tangible benefit does the investment in faith yeild?”

    The tangible benefit, my friend, is that you were able to come through this with perspective and insights that will continue to guide you as you move forward in life and living!

    All the best to you, and don’t stop giving the rest of us your perspective!

    8 September 10 at 16:43

  5. Ashok

    Awesome post, Rajiv!
    I appreciate this blog second for all the unique perspectives it gives me on the war in Afghanistan, but first for a soon-not-to-be-outsider’s view of civilian society. Maybe you feel a bit removed from conventional displays of affection, but the Blues posts demonstrate a level of camaraderie and caring that ‘civil’ society would be lucky to have.

    I’m not one to preach, but as a Hindu you’re in luck as far as religion speaking specifically to the sorrow a warrior feels – does ‘Arjuna’ ring a bell?

    8 September 10 at 17:15

  6. Shweta

    I’ve been following your posts. Your perspective on war, the challenges you face, the analysis and solutions you seek all are a life saver. They are helping me understand and analyze my own thoughts and emotions as I wade through this zoned out deployement period, where I’ve not heard from my boyfriend for 6 months now.

    Facing the dilema of integrating my hindu faith with the realities of combat; dealing with the morality and principles of non violence with justice, loving a man who has his own saga with that distinction, it’s been a tough journey.

    We who you leave behind, as you deploy, also learn patience, embrace uncertainity, grow up & use phrases such as ‘It is what it is’ or ‘Things could be worse’; as a result of your profession… And continue to love you, in spite of it all….. We do not give up on you guys…. We do have your back, here in the civilian world.

    I pray for your peace & smooth transition back to so called normal life :-).. Continue enjoying the tiny pleasures.. because ultimately ‘that is all there is’!

    8 September 10 at 17:29

  7. ektor3

    As always, a blessed gift with the pen/most be the preambles prior to the BOOK.

    LOLOLO/you are on the right path/I have prayed for you and will pray more/

    It’s a good thing; getting to know you.

    Hector

    8 September 10 at 23:38

  8. K.J. Hinton

    You are a Warrior Poet.

    Raj, you’re almost all the way back. Your hard-learned knowledge and experience has provided you with insights that you share with us all, insights that show your grasp is much firmer then most.

    You express the essence of the soldier. You have put your life on the line for us all, and you show an understanding of what that truly means which others can only dream of.

    It took time for you to assume the full “Warrior on” position; it will take time to re-assume the “Warrior off” position, the one where you realize down to the molecular level that the 87 Chev on the corner cannot ever be an IED.

    FWIW, we’re all out here to listen. You’ve built a loyal following that stands ready to help however we can.

    We are all proud of you; what you’ve done and who you are.

    And we always will be.

    9 September 10 at 00:56

  9. Irene Clark

    Rajiv……..Hugs to you and blessings! Thanks for posting once again. You remain in my thoughts and prayers. May your time back on the job prove to help you stabalize your emotions and help you to ease back into a new normal. Try to release the bad and enjoy all that is good. War tends to rob a man and his family and your mind and body may fight on in an inner battle that only you can master, but you will master it. The war will end and a new one will take its place. As 9-11 approaches we remember. We do not forget, but we must forgive and make life our best life ever. You left as one person and have come back a deeper one. You remained talented and you are loved. Thank you for your service. Enjoy your life and live the lessons learned. Pray for those who are now where you once were. Peace, it is worth the battle. Freedom is ours to embrace. Be still and know that God is God. He gives us free will and mankind tends to make a mess of His creation. Believe for without faith we are nothing. God bless you.

    9 September 10 at 03:38

  10. Mew

    Gosh, I love you! It is so great to get an update, and as always one filled with grace. Thank you so much.

    9 September 10 at 04:44

  11. Jr's Dad

    My son deploys in December, he is 11B. Your posts are both a warning and comfort to me. A style that is easy to read, and convey so much more then the written words. Thank you for your service.

    9 September 10 at 12:47

  12. Meredith

    Rajiv, thank you for a beautiful post. It is wonderful to read about what your first month back has been like. I think it is great how you are returning to the well, drawing upon yoga and meditation to tap back into the source of your faith.

    I really liked what you wrote about love and the way you showed love to your men during deployment, by doing all you could to keep them safe. Being hugged only a handful of times while you were gone resonates with me even though I’ve never experienced deployment. During the six weeks that I spent studying abroad, I realized that I missed the hugs from my family and boyfriend. I spent a lot of time to myself with my own thoughts. I can only imagine how soldiers acclimate to all the bear hugs and marathon conversations upon their return.

    I love what you wrote about how you’ve been savoring the natural beauty and the peace that surround you in Tacoma and getting pleasure from cooking delicious dinners with friends. Here is to a gorgeous autumn and some great hikes, relaxing drives, and tasty brunches!

    9 September 10 at 16:57

  13. MaggieG45

    Many of the others have expressed my thoughts while reading this. All that’s left for me is to say thank you again, and please continue writing.

    9 September 10 at 19:12

  14. Hagen

    Rajiv, I hope that the act of writing it down purges some of the confusion & pain that you feel.
    I want to let you know how much your posts have helped me. They’ve given me a window into what my son has experienced over the past years deployment.
    It’s helped me to understand and deal with the explosions of rage and his inability to adjust to Home. Not to say that this new person doesn’t confuse or frighten me; but just knowing that it’s a universal symptom somehow makes it easier for me to accept.
    A Mom finds it almost impossible to see her child in so much pain and turmoil and not be able to help. My job has always been to stand in front of him and deflect the worst. Now that I can’t even begin to do that, I feel lost and so helpless. My instincts tell me to go out to Colorado and fight the bureaucracy that’s jerking him around!! It’s almost harder for me to to bear than when he was fighting in Afghanistan. Having him safe on American soil, and yet so miserable and furious has had me stumped.
    So, thank you for putting the oddness of Homecoming into “soldier” prospective. Your words have helped this Mom…sleep well tonight knowing that you’ve done your good deed for today !!

    10 September 10 at 15:34

  15. Bill Kinzie

    Just finished reading these comments. You have been a great
    comfort to those with family members on the front and a
    confirmation for those on this side of the divide. The comments affirm the truth you speak.

    12 September 10 at 18:53

  16. Duffy

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful. Very well done.

    14 September 10 at 17:37

  17. Taha

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s definitely different hearing about the war experience from a friend compared to what we see in the media. Healing takes time and you’re going about it right. As always, let me know if there is anything I can help with!

    30 September 10 at 23:32

  18. Rajiv, hi.

    I’ve been telling friends of your FIERCE writing talents. My friend and columnist, Emily Carter has mentioned you here:

    http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/163114

    Best wishes,
    Donna

    5 October 10 at 02:40

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