Wednesday, June 06, 2007

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

By Lee Kelley

I spent almost a year in the Sunni Triangle. I somehow avoided the hundreds of mortar attacks on my base, the I.E.D.s on some of the most dangerous roads in Iraq, the R.P.G. fired at my convoy. It’s the path of the ages I feel I’ve traveled, where able bodied Americans go to war for their country, either by choice or not, and the best way to illustrate my journey is with a simple then and now. It is a desert full of memories I can conjure up, and every grain of sand is in ultra-sharp focus like a 7-megapixel photo.

Then: I had been happily married for seven years. The most sacred things in my life were my family, my marriage, my children, and my dreams. This was the war of my generation and I wanted to do my part. I was in charge of tactical communications for a battalion of 600 soldiers, but sometimes I was called upon for other missions. One day I found myself conducting a search for an Al Qaeda weapons cache on a farm near Ramadi. The helicopters landed and we jumped out. I ran through a swirling dust cloud with my weapon pointed at the chest of the man who walked out of his doorway when he heard us land. I didn’t know if he was hostile yet. I couldn’t take the chance. I was yelling at the interpreter, and the interpreter was yelling at the man. Two hours later, the farm had been searched and we were kicking a soccer ball with the man’s son. There was no weapons cache. And no one was hurt. It was still a good mission because we narrowed our search.

That same night I boarded another helicopter to go on emergency leave. I was flying to New Orleans just weeks after Hurricane Katrina to visit my mother, who had been struggling with breast cancer. I had received a Red Cross message that same morning. My soldiers tried to talk me out of going on the mission, but I refused to back out. I compartmentalized those personal emotions until the mission was complete.

Once there I helped my dad get the house and property cleaned up. Water damage had left everything in a horrible mess. I’ll never forget the wisdom and wetness in my mom’s eyes the last time I saw her. I had been there for weeks and she was still holding on. My leave could not be extended anymore. I had to go back to Ramadi. We both knew it was the last time our eyes would meet. And it was. She passed five weeks later. My wife and kids were still back in Utah, where the marriage I left behind was struggling to survive as well. These are the pictures hardest to look at in my high-def recollections. And these are the pictures that need no well-intended caption scribbled on the back because they are burned into my memory.

I returned to Iraq, an anonymous face in the window of a plane, flying across the Atlantic in the middle of the night, and threw myself into the work. Things got worse back in Utah and at that point I gave up on trying to save my marriage. My own home was no longer a healthy environment. My only concern then was for the kids. I honestly thought I might lose my mind to frustration, helplessness, and anger. When my tour was over and I finally got back to Utah, I had been gone for 17 months. I had lived and worked in close proximity to violence and death for a year. Over 80 soldiers in my brigade were killed in combat. Hundreds more were injured. Two soldiers in my battalion were killed. I prayed for them. I thanked God that none of the 18 soldiers in my communications section were killed, and that I was unharmed. It felt positively blessed to be home in one piece. Now my kids needed their daddy. Overnight, I changed my focus completely and put every ounce of energy into facing new challenges. The transition was immediate. I had no choice.

Now. When I first returned to Utah I felt that my very soul had been scrubbed raw by sustained emotional overload. I was equidistant between two extremes and the balance could go either way. Darkness or Light. Depression or Joy. I could see no grey, only black and white. I was on the cusp of major life changes on many levels and they scared me. I was drinking too much and nothing felt the same. My marriage had failed and faded like a Polaroid left out in the sun. My mom was gone. And I hadn’t yet begun to understand how much the war had affected me.

The kids kept me busy, yes, but they kept me grounded too. I have to be strong and stable for them. I have gladly cared for the kids since the day I got off that plane. I was granted full custody in the divorce and have been a single dad for 10 months, working 40 hours a week while raising my two kids (7-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy) with very little help. I’m not complaining, but the adjustments have been intense. I am becoming an expert in the art of parenting and personal sacrifice, and my kids are worth it.

So far, I volunteered in my daughter’s classroom, taught both kids to swim, and threw them very cool birthday parties. We’ve spent holidays together. We’ve gone to movies, plays, amusement parks, Disney on Ice, and the circus. Also, after nine years with the same woman I’m “single” again, so I’ve started dating a little. It’s much more complicated now. I have been writing quite a lot, working on multiple projects, and I have a literary agent. I don’t remember the last time I had a bad day. I am settling into a renewed optimism, a fresh interest in all facets of life and ambition.

Before I went to Iraq I was not in the habit of sharing my personal life with complete strangers, and I’m still not. But through my blog, and forums such as this one, I’ve come to realize that it’s good to talk about these things to those who want to listen because I know I am not the only soldier facing adversity. In fact, I feel very lucky indeed.

For months I was bitter and confused, but after deep consideration, and with the unconditional support of a very small circle of family and friends, the image of a still pond behind the hurricane won over my intention, rather than the fury of the storm itself. Forgiveness seemed possible. Grief less painful. I sat alone the other night at a lookout point above the Salt Lake Valley. It is a spot I visit whenever I can. It was dusk and the mountains looked like the painted shadows of mountains, silhouetted by the light behind them. I thought about the last couple of years, as I do often. And I was once again amazed by the momentum of the sun when it struck the horizon, and the way time heals these invisible scars, slowly braiding solace back around a broken heart.

War and life have penned this harsh new narrative, but I am home now. And I am learning.