As a veteran returning home, I was struck by the alienation and isolation, and the anger I felt, not just toward myself, but toward the innocent questions of others.
I was going to write an article about politics. I sit down to write, I think about politics, and I become angry. Anger seems common for many people in these times, on all sides of a political discussion. There are many reasons for my anger. Some are simple, trivial reasons; for example, I don’t like the way this person talks about a certain thing. Some are a lot deeper; like I think a certain policy or way of thinking is going to cause a lot of unnecessary pain on people and it goes against my own moral code, such as it were. Some are selfish, born out of my own shit.
Nothing is simple. So instead of talking about politics, I want to talk about anger. I want to talk about the roots of some of my anger in an effort to understand where it comes from, how it informs thought, and how it’s useful and not useful. If anger informs a lot of political discussions these days (which it certainly seems to), both individual and as a society, it’s important to know where that anger comes from. Each individual is a unique case, a snowflake as it were, but there are probably similarities amongst all of us that drive discussion. To illustrate where I’m coming from on this, I’m going to tell two stories, in two parts, about “coming home.”
I’ve “come home” to America twice now. The first time was in 2004 when I left the US Army. This will be the first part of this story. The second was in late 2015 when I returned home after six years abroad as an aid worker. That will make up the second part of the story. Both times I got to experience things outside of the average American experience. Both times when I returned I experienced a lot of anger. The first time was a pretty raw form of anger. The second time has been…interesting. Let me start with the first.
I exited the US Army in 2004 after four years as an infantryman and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne who saw deployments to both Kosovo and Afghanistan. After I left the 82nd, when I was home in Wyoming, I was in a car wreck where I suffered a 70% compression fracture in my spine and almost lost my ability to walk. After some months of healing I moved to Portland, Oregon, to attend college and really began a process of reentering or “coming home” to American civilian life and, in a way, to my own body.
I felt that “they” did not understand the people in the US military. I felt that “they” did not know or care about the wars that this country was engaged in overseas, nor the lives lost on all sides of conflict, the people injured or the trauma that was everywhere.
I was 24 when I left the Army. Besides one crazy year and a half of my life, I had only known a few small towns in Wyoming where I grew up and the US Army as represented by Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Even when we went overseas, we saw and sometimes interacted with other cultures but we were still with our culture, the US Army. I came to Portland and, even to this day after having lived all over the world, it was one of the biggest culture shocks I ever had. Transitioning from Fort Bragg and rural Wyoming to the liberal bastion of Portland was, for me, weird.
One of my first memories of Portland, Oregon, was walking outside from my downtown studio apartment near the university I was going to attend, and seeing a gay pride parade marching by. It wasn’t the gay part that weirded me out, it was the men in pink shirts (as I remember) and the rainbow flag and what a marked contrast that was from dress right dress, Army uniforms marching down Ardennes street on the second biggest Army base in the United States, Fort Bragg. I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
I also remember feeling extreme guilt because I had left the Army and been in a car accident and during that time my old unit, my friends, had been deployed to Iraq. We had lost people there. I felt guilt, as did many who I know, whether we were or weren’t there. We felt guilt for not being there or not being one of the ones that died.
I was doped up on pain pills trying to deal with my back. Sometimes it felt like I was watching my body move around without me in it. The accident seemed to displace me from a part of my mind, my recent experience. I felt something was wrong, but I couldn’t express what that was.
I struggled to fit in during those early days. I was pissed off at the country for the wars. I was pissed at myself for not being over there with my friends at the same time. I self-medicated. I was what we might call “a hot mess.”
I remember some of my first interactions with people my age at school back in 2004. I would talk about the Army, things overseas, etc. I would talk about it in such a way like I was communicating to someone that had been there with me or at least someone who had context and understood what I was talking about. I would try to talk about veterans coming home from the wars. I would try to join groups so I would feel like I was a part of things, so I could connect to something. This was already a skill I lacked from earlier pre-Army life, so my experiences hadn’t improved it in many ways.
I wasn’t met with hate or anything like that. I hesitate to label the reactions. They were usually reactions of, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that,” which I interpreted (correctly or incorrectly) as, Oh, I had barely registered we were at war right now. Or they were, “Oh, I thought all military people were crazy, you seem nice.” There was the usual, “Have you ever killed anyone?” or “How many people have you killed?” It deeply troubled me at the time; now I figure it’s a product of a movie and TV culture that dehumanises and trivialises matters of life and death, pain and suffering.
I struggled to fit in during those early days. I could handle my classes no problem but I didn’t like people. I didn’t know how to connect with them, or them with me for that matter. I was pissed off at the country for the wars, particularly Iraq because I felt that was wrong. I was pissed at myself for not being over there with my friends at the same time. I self-medicated. I was what we might call “a hot mess.”
It was the anger, the rage that was worst. It was like a spinning ball of thoughts that just wouldn’t stop but kept building up steam until I was angrier and angrier and angrier. I focused my rage on the college kids. I never took it out on them physically or anything, but in my mind it existed. I would drink too much from time to time and start yelling at people or go on the Internet and express myself in an unconstructive manner. I might have gotten kicked out of one or two bars. Or three. I was relatively harmless though. A danger to myself if anything at all. Luckily I had a battle buddy who was prior 82nd, before my time, who didn’t drink and kept me out of trouble. A Hawaiian dude who wore nice suits and ate a lot of ramen. I need to thank him, wherever he is.
I also remember feeling extreme guilt because during that time my old unit, my friends, had been deployed to Iraq. We had lost people there. I felt guilt, as did many who I know, whether we were or weren’t there. We felt guilt for not being there or not being one of the ones that died.
In retrospect, I think I focused my rage on the “college kids” because I felt a couple of things. I felt that “they” did not understand the people in the US military. I felt that “they” did not know or care about the wars that this country was engaged in overseas, nor the lives lost on all sides of conflict, the people injured or the trauma that was everywhere. That seemed true at the time. Now I think it was not always an I don’t care but sometimes it was an I don’t know what I could possibly do about that so I’m going to pretend that doesn’t exist. Sometimes it was probably something else. It bothered me.
My anger existed in part because of apathy. It existed in its own small way because of the much larger pain of the wars. It existed because of the pain in my body. It existed because I didn’t have an understanding of it or the skills with which to deal with it. It existed because of ignorance both in myself and in others.
The anger drove me for years to basically two ways of thinking and being. One way was where I tried to deal with it in a healthy manner. I helped form a veterans group at my university. We tried to help ourselves and others. I attended school. I tried to do the right thing, tried to get my head screwed on straight and think more healthy thoughts. I even made some friends along the way. That was one way of dealing. The other way? Not so healthy. Not so healthy at all. Some days one way would win, some days the other.
Eventually, both those ways of living converged into a new life. Multiple lives really, as an aid worker all over the world. There are quite a few stories there, but I’ll pick this up towards the end of that next story. Next time. Thank you for reading.