Coming home, this anticipation of a return to normalcy was replaced with a new, nagging awareness that 7,000 miles away, life is completely different, and the tragedies and absurdities of war continue without me.
One year ago, almost to the day, I was breathing in the crisp, thin Afghan night air, straining my eyes and ears to make out the thrum of a C-130’s engine and its shadowy movement as it landed on the runway strip at our small camp in blackout conditions.
I was at the end of a nine month deployment serving as an operating room nurse for a 25-person forward surgical team. This was my first, and only, combat experience. At the time, I could think only of the relief and joy that returning home would bring, and felt that I would be strong enough to take the things I had lived through and witnessed in stride, easily molding myself back into my regular life with hardly a glance in the rearview mirror.
What I discovered is that all veterans must pay a price for living through and leaving behind a war.
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Reflecting now, I think of my experiences in Afghanistan as at once challenging, boring, bizarre, heartbreaking and fulfilling. I know I am a changed person for it, although I think most of the change is subtle.
I have a more realistic understanding of our nation’s very complicated history in the affairs of other countries. I came to grips with the fact that, no matter how much I may have wanted it to be, my medical contributions were not part of a heroic humanitarian mission. They served the interests and purposes of the United States government. I am comforted by the hope that I was still able to do some good, and stand by the decision to serve the ideals of the country, even if the execution of these ideals is often fraught with negative consequences.
I have also been surprised to discover that the American flag has taken on an unexpectedly poignant meaning in my life. I cannot look at it today without remembering standing on the flight strip waiting to receive a wounded Special Forces medic who had been operating alongside Afghan military members, only to watch as he was unloaded in a body bag with a flag hastily draped across him.
Perhaps the biggest change is simply accepting that I am not unaffected by my time in Afghanistan. While deployed, my thoughts were constantly focused on all that I was missing back at home: births, deaths, important events in loved ones’ lives, nightly dinners at the kitchen table. Much of my daydreaming involved getting to leave that place, and continuing on with regular life as if I had never been to war.
Coming home, this anticipation of a return to normalcy was replaced with a new, nagging awareness that 7,000 miles away, life is completely different, and the tragedies and absurdities of war continue without me. I think all combat veterans get lost in the gap between these worlds, at least on some occasions. Others seem to get stuck in the void permanently. The price of leaving a war that continues in your absence is learning to balance this new firsthand awareness of the chaotic, raw reality playing out in a faraway land with the relative safety and order of home. For so many, it is a quiet, hidden battle.
This Veterans Day, it is my hope that we as neighbors and friends will seek to better understand the fundamental change that returning from combat forges in those lucky enough to come back, and offer a listening ear as these veterans work to achieve harmony between their wartime experiences and life back home.