DeM Banter: ….profound….as Sgt Raab says…”This is uncomfortable, isn’t it? Then I guess we’d better start talking…..”
At War (NYTimes.com)
September 27, 2012
But when we don’t talk about our problems, they get worse. And we get worse, too – by pushing the worries to the side and to the back, next to those boxes of painful memories and dusty, misremembered oaths. You know, those promises to remember? To support? To care?
Well, look at the calendar. I guess now’s as good a time as any to talk about some of the problems we’re ignoring.
On this, my second deployment with the Army, my responsibilities as a squad leader include supervising and guiding nine other soldiers, all of whom are on their first overseas mission.
Here in Kuwait, life is simple. We’re infantry, so being safe, bored and forced to wear silly yellow reflective belts rankles us. But our unit has done well, considering multiple mission and leadership changes (Afghanistan … canceled! Kuwait … canceled! Afghanistan again … canceled again! Kuwait … yup, Kuwait!) over the past year. But now, with less time ahead of us than behind, we’re facing a new set of challenges.
Specialist “Ponch” is one of my soldiers. He’s approaching 30 and is popular with the platoon, and has a great sense of humor. Our duties here include spending long hours checking IDs or searching vehicles; this gives us plenty of time to joke around and talk about going home. Home is always on our minds. Home is something that seems less distant and more real every day.
We were sitting in a guard shack, waiting for vehicles to search and IDs to check.
“I have this recurring nightmare where I go home and can’t find a job,” Ponch said, shaking his head and staring wide-eyed at the simmering Kuwaiti desert. “I go back to my job and it’s not there for me. Nobody can help me. I need to take care of my dad, of my girlfriend. And I can’t. It’s scary, man.”
I started laughing immediately. Understandably, this may seem like the wrong response to such a serious proclamation.
“What, is that crazy?” Ponch asked. “It’s crazy, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said, catching my breath. “No, you’re not crazy. I’m laughing because it’s true. We’re all dealing with that. I have the same worries, man.”
“Oh good,” he said. “It’s just good to know that someone else is thinking about this stuff, too.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Maybe we should be worried about this.”
Deployed troops often experience extreme hardship, but we are also often afforded a reprieve from the hidden demands of the seductively “soft” civilian life. That is one reason why so many troops choose to re-enlist or extend deployments. Even in Afghanistan, I could forget about the troubles of home: the bills, the struggle to get ahead or just to stay afloat, the social pressures, the drumbeat of a million tiny anxieties.
Like so many of our problems, sometimes it’s better just not to talk about it.
That’s especially true when the reality of home is that you have become invisible, and your work, your profession and your entire way of life are suddenly of little consequence to the average American. Not talking or thinking about that leads to your staying away longer, because being gone (and you are gone, aren’t you?) is suddenly a more attractive option.
It’s better not to talk about it when home is where your friends and family who didn’t bother to write, e-mail or call for months at a time suddenly want to ask you deeply personal questions about traumatic experiences. Home is where you find your job is gone. Home is where you find your apartment or house empty, save for a few boxes and the dusty footprints of the one who left you. Home is where you interact with your spouse and children with desperate periods of horrible silence.
Home is where the two men running for president, and most of the media around them, share that same horrible silence when it comes to the war, or to the missions that support that war, or to your role and place as a soldier and a citizen within the machine, within but on your way back out, returning to a place and a people you remember vividly but would now hardly recognize.
This is uncomfortable, isn’t it? Then I guess we’d better start talking.
Being in the military is often an exercise in the surreal. The process of unreality begins in basic training, continues through your training and deployment, and peaks when you emerge on the other side with a DD-214 in your hand and years’ worth of (good, bad, painful, confusing, conflicted, devastating, frustrating, bitter, proud) memories in your head. The surreal is no longer the drill sergeant smoking you for eating a cookie, the officer ordering you to build a doggie door for his unauthorized pet or picking up the last unit’s garbage in the Mojave Desert for four days straight.
The true surreal is watching the political process play out on brightly lighted screens showing dull-eyed commentators and analysts. The surreal is trying to connect with people back home – people who love you, people who like you, people who have put you out of their minds.
The surreal is hearing those dusty words and phrases like “9/11” and “Never Forget” and trying to rationalize how, a decade on, what you are doing and what the competing candidates are not saying about what you are doing can possibly relate to that day not so very long ago.
The surreal is finding that when you do go home again, you see, hear and feel nothing that pertains to you, your service or your worries (nightmares). Everyone has tuned you out. Society sees you on the screen, but in the corner there’s a bright green word that reads “mute,” even though inside your own head the volume is cranked to the max. Then there’s a flip of the channel, a press of a button, and we’re back to talking about whatever it is that is not what we are not talking about.
This is uncomfortable, isn’t it? Then I guess we’d better start talking.
Like the returning veteran, the average citizen sees a world that quickly changes and is often frightening. Our future, both as individuals and as a nation, is uncertain because we often refuse to critically evaluate the motivations and decisions that brought us to these points.
What are the merits of staying in the military? What are the merits of transitioning out? What are the merits of staying in Afghanistan? What are the merits of leaving? What are the consequences of our decisions, of our inaction, of our over-reactions? Why have our military and social strategies brought us to these points? Why have we tolerated this state of affairs?
What do we owe our veterans, those at risk for suicide, our troops overseas, or the people who died because of the actions of terrorists so many sad Septembers ago?
Is it better not to talk about it? Because that’s the message we’re sending ourselves. That’s the message we’re sending Specialist Ponch. That’s the message that we’re sending the retiring sergeant major driving out of Fort Bragg for the last time, the terminal lance corporal shaking the sand from his M.C.U.’s as he packs for home, the transport pilot setting a course for the States, the junior petty officer putting his back to the sea and his eyes on the road ahead.
These questions deserve answers. They deserve thoughtful responses. They – we – deserve a conversation, a debate, a consideration. Ignoring the war – ignoring us, or ignoring our fears about veterans’ returning home to unemployment or isolation or alcoholism or substance abuse or a million other demons – does our nation no good.
So let’s talk about these things, O.K.? But don’t be freaked out if we laugh.
That just means we’re relieved to know that we’re not the only ones worried.
Sgt. Jonathan Raab is a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom and a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He is currently serving in Kuwait with the New York National Guard. He lives and writes in Rochester, N.Y.