We’ve pulled out of Iraq and the politicians are figuring out how to do the same in Afghanistan.
Combat deployments for US troops will decrease over the next year and eventually drop to zero. This might sound like great news for the millions of families with loved ones in the military–and on one level it is–but it will bring new challenges that must be addressed.
Military personnel and their families have spent the last decade living with repeated combat deployments. After each deployment there should be a re-adjustment period, a time when the recently-returned veteran comes out of the combat mentality, processes his or her experiences, and reverts to the reality of living in a civil society. This is a difficult transition that can take years to fully accomplish.
But what if the veteran doesn’t have years? What if the next deployment is only eight-months or a year away? Few veterans facing another combat tour would consider it a good idea to try and process their past combat experiences. No, those events and the emotions and reactions they created are best left untouched and unexamined in the dark corners of a veteran’s mind. To muck around in those dangerous mental places is to invite disaster on the next combat deployment. Instead of trying to regain “normal” between deployments, most veterans just stay where it’s safest–ready for war. Maintaining the combat mindset is of utmost importance for success and survival in battle–but it makes for a pretty crappy home life. And some of them have been doing it for over ten years.
These repeated deployments have kept American service-members mentally focused on war–at the expense of almost everything else in their lives. Compartmentalization, the ability to shove distractions aside and accomplish a task, is a skill veterans learn out of necessity. It is the skill that allows them to ignore death, pain, and fear on the battlefield and, at home, the reality that their marriage is falling apart, their kids don’t know them, and they barely know themselves. On the battlefield, the driving motivation to compartmentalize is survival. At home, the driving motivation is preparing for the next deployment. If you don’t do everything possible to survive that next combat tour, then it doesn’t matter if your marriage is in great shape or your kids understand why you’re never home–you’re just dead. That’s a fact that’s pretty difficult to get around.
But what happens when there is no “next deployment”? What happens when that need to subjugate personal relationships beneath preparing for war evaporates overnight? When that 900-pound gorilla finally gets off the family couch and walks out the door without a word? Families may feel intense relief and happiness that their loved ones are not going back into harm’s way, but they shouldn’t expect domestic bliss to blossom overnight.
Until now, the next deployment has been a dependable “boogy-man” that provided motivation and justification for service-members to ignore changes in themselves and their relationships with friends and family. Ignored or not, these changes have happened and must be rectified before life can return to “normal”. When that boogy-man disappears, veterans will have to face these changes or risk becoming the person people say was “never the same after the war.” That guy’s only cool in Hollywood. In real life, he or she is a mess.
Nobody comes home from war the same as they left. Understanding how they’ve changed, and why, is a difficult and confusing process for anyone. I underwent that process when writing After Action and, for as much good as it has done me, I admit it wasn’t easy. In fact, until the cost of my continued refusal to address what was bothering me got too high, there was no way in hell I was going to admit I wasn’t “100% okay.”
Unfortunately, I think most veterans will have to endure some sort of negative life experience before they admit to feeling anything approaching emotional, spiritual or mental pain. This may take the form of a failed relationship, loss of personal identity or some other personal crisis. Upcoming deployments may have hidden the fractures and fissures in the foundation of a veteran’s life before, but soon those cracks are going to become visible. Some of those cracks are big enough to swallow whole families.
This is the coming storm that families of veterans need to prepare for. It is possible to weather it, but only with effective communication, realistic goals, and, most importantly, a veteran willing to honestly examine his or her own mental state. Help is available, but it must be sought out and asked for. Without the veteran taking the first step, there can be no meaningful outside assistance rendered.
Don’t expect decisions made at the White House to fix the issues in your house– the President can only bring veterans home physically. Veterans, and their families, need to prepare for the challenges of peace with no less rigor than they prepared for war.
And that “peace” is coming soon.