Tuesday, June 05, 2007

HOME FIRES: five Iraq War veterans on their return to American life

It’s quickly approaching a full year since I returned from Iraq, but it really doesn’t seem that long ago. However, the calendar doesn’t lie, and the end of August will mark the day in 2006 when I reunited with my wife, Christina, on the steps in front of my unit’s barracks in Camp Pendleton, Calif. Of course, we managed to miss each other as I got off the bus, and then we both proceeded to circle the crowd in a clockwise direction, maintaining equal distance and obliviousness of each other until we finally gravitated towards the center and met. After exchanging the required hugs and kisses I thought, “What do I do now?” I thought for a moment and offered the suggestion, “Let’s go home.” And that’s what we did. At T plus four minutes from setting foot in the continental United States it was already as if I was just coming home from another day of work.

The feeling actually started on the bus on our way from March Air Reserve Base to Camp Pendleton. I looked out at the Southern California countryside and thought, “It’s so familiar. It’s like I never left.” Then a cell-phone laden motorist in an S.U.V. swung around our bus at a high speed and I thought, “Whoa! I see those didn’t die out while I was gone.”

Everything felt the same as it always had. As a matter of fact, I struggled for several days in various capacities trying to figure out why I wasn’t radically changed or why normal things felt just that normal. I thought routine activities like watching TV on my couch would somehow be extraordinary after I returned. Nope, just normal.

After a few half-days of completing some administrative tasks and required post-deployment training I took about 10 days of leave. I really didn’t know what to do with all of the free time. I went from working 12 hours a day with no weekends to having no time commitments whatsoever. Then I understood the ridiculous stories from my friends who would return from deployment and stay up all night reorganizing their closets and sorting laundry. Six months of constantly dedicating every moment of the day to some type of task ­ be it working, eating, sleeping, or exercising can wreak havoc on your psyche when it’s finally time to relax.

Speaking of psychosis, it also crossed my mind several times, “Why don’t I feel crazy?” Then I remembered that truly insane people aren’t aware of it, so that was really a moot issue. As I told one gentleman — who was so suave as to inquire, upon our first meeting, mind you, if I have any “flashbacks” or other ill-effects — “I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being normal, before or after Iraq.” Nevertheless, it was like society had given me a set of expectations for my return, and reality was turning out a little differently. Wasn’t I supposed to sit shirtless at the dinner table wearing dogtags and sip black coffee with a thousand-yard stare?

Frankly, I do have some memories from my time in Iraq that I think about often — sometimes daily. Some are good. Some are bad. I don’t tend to discuss the bad ones with anyone except my wife. I suppose I don’t think someone that has less than a 100 percent understanding of me could offer much insight.

Reintegration has been a really interesting (and really welcome) endeavor. My friends and fellow officers in my neighborhood on base were an easy bunch to settle back in with. They welcomed me back as we crossed paths, asked me if I enjoyed my time in Iraq, and that was it. After that it was life as usual. We’re all accustomed to people dropping off the social radar and then picking them back up when they return.

While I absolutely don’t mind sharing my general experiences from Iraq, there is something to be said for not being pressed like a clove of garlic for the same trite bits of information over and over. Fellow Marines were understandably the best about that. Not only do they have a similar knowledge base about Iraq, but they have a general understanding of what you are interested in discussing, what bores you, and what you’d rather leave alone.

Conversely, sometimes people do ask thoughtful and intriguing questions that are a joy to answer. It is never a burden to tell someone my opinion of my own experiences. I’m not interested in discussing the strategic level of war and national policy with every stranger I meet, and I’m definitely not interested in listening to everyone’s personal soliloquy on the war, but my thoughts on what I experienced are always fair game.

I don’t want to give the impression that reintegrating with others outside the military was difficult. That’s not the case. But if I have to tell one more person “whether we’re doing good things over there” I’m going to click off-safe. What do they expect me to say? “No. We’re doing horrible, horrible things. That’s why I signed up to go. We’re stealing money from Iraqi schools and using it to buy backhoes to tear up the roads while we play gangster rap from the top of every mosque.”

I understand people are genuinely curious about the truth of what’s happening, and I always deliver a few honest sound bites to appease them. But realistically, if “good things” is as deeply as you’ve thought about the situation in Iraq, do you really want a detailed answer, or do you just want the sound bite?

More of Jeffrey D. Barnett’s writing for TimesSelect can be read in the 2006 column, Frontlines.