Lauren told me recently, "you're the most sentimental person I know." If you're one of the faithful few that have read my blog in its entirety, you're most likely to agree with her. I'm a sucker for milestones. I wrote about how it felt to be exactly one year away from getting out of the Army, and a fictitious account about coming home the day we were scheduled to, before being extended three months. A week after we returned on September 12, I described what it was like to be back. You can find it three entries below this one, under the Rush Limbaugh hootenanny.
Now it has been a month since I've returned to the states, but this week I've come back to my actual home. At some point in Baqubah I developed a hernia and waited until I made it back to Ft. Lewis to have it properly diagnosed and treated. I went into surgery last week and am recovering just fine. It still hurts to laugh (which is bad news for someone who giggles at their own jokes.) They gave me two weeks for recovery and I decided to take that in my hometown. Far away from a military base, the question arises with ferocious intensity: what does it feel like to be back? My usual short answer is, "it's nice to have a warm bed again." But that's not quite how it is. It almost feels like it gets harder, not easier.
Last week I was invited to a dinner hosted by Lauren's mother. Joining us would be Lauren's sister, her cousin who I had already met, another cousin I hadn't, and her fiancé. I retained my 'quiet with a few clever puns' persona and as such, didn't contribute much to the conversation. It felt like I had nothing of relevance to say about the topics that came up. My grasp of news and politics was more than a year old; only the biggest stories made their way across the ocean. By taking part in the biggest thing happening in our culture, I sacrificed being in the culture itself. I refused to be that guy who starts off every sentence with "this one time in Iraq..." But my options are slim. I could recall stories of my trip to Europe in April, but then it would be, "Dude, this one time in Amsterdam." There's only so many times you can regale people with stories about aggressive transvestite prostitutes.
With my Texan accent sticking out like a Dutch hooker's crotch, it was only a matter of time before Lauren's cousin asked where I was from. I told her I had lived in north Texas most of my life and went back to poking around the sausage in my spaghetti. Lauren's mother then gave an updated biography, saying I had just gotten back from Iraq and that I chronicled my deployment in a blog (wink!). After she asked what I wrote about, I launched into a tirade about applying personal experiences of the war to the larger aspect that isn't in the mainstream media. I must've looked silly, talking with urgency and saying more words in one minute than the whole evening prior. I realized the conundrum I was in. The subject I didn't want to come up was the only one I can apply myself to. An elephant in the room that only I could see.
After a month I'm still not quite comfortable with being in small, crowded and loud places like bars. My senses are more refined now. I'm a more attentive driver and I can see and hear things a lot differently. A club with a thousand different conversations used to be collective noise. Now I hear an endless amount of distinct voices and every note coming from the DJ. I'm agitated by people coming too close or brushing up against me like never before. I don't jump, twitch or moan when I hear an expected loud noise. You know the feeling you get when you narrowly avoid a car crash? That's what I get. I'm perfectly fine at first glance, but the blood drains from my face and my scalp tingles. I may or may not break into a sweat at this point. I don't recall many dreams while I was in Iraq, but now they flood my subconscious. In one I'm riding in a bus and hanging out the window. Another bus in the opposite lane passes by, and Jesse Williams is waving to me from inside. I wave back. Another has me on a routine patrol when I find half a body on the side of the road. It's Chevy. His face is twisted but recognizable. His lower half is gone, despite his body being intact when he died.
Despite the hardships we face alone, I feel incredibly lucky to have my family and friends here for me, who understand the best they can. It was fitting I started this entry with Lauren, wise and empathetic beyond her years. A month with these challenges seems minuscule when compared to the month of joy I shared with her.
For everyone else, the nature of this war prevents the public from a full grasp of understanding. In the wars of past generations, soldiers volunteered or were drafted by the millions. In the case of World War II, families endured rations and donated to the war effort. Almost every single American contributed to victory. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, the war is squeezed into a half hour of prime time television. In WWII, in Korea, in Vietnam, we were a country at war. Now we're a military at war, with less than 1% of the population in uniform. Unless you have a friend or family member in the military, it's a separate reality. In airports and in living rooms, you can see for yourself the effect in the eyes of a soldier at war for fifteen months at a time, hidden behind a smile that conceals a secret: you'll never quite understand what we did there.
Like Atlas, we carry the immense burden of the country on our shoulders, waiting for the day seemingly long into the future when the American people say, that will do.