This is the unedited work of a third party and may not reflect the views and opinions of the Kinetic Syndicate.
When I came home from my second deployment in 2014, one of my major goals was to assist veterans with transitioning back to a normal civilian life as best as I could because I wasn’t satisfied with the DoD’s mandatory transition briefings that felt superficial and more of a way to cover their own ass if one of us lost it and hurt ourselves or someone else. While I had the best intentions in my work, I had no idea what I was doing. I was still carrying so much pain from my time in service that I was in no position to help anyone else but myself.
Like many of those I served with, my first adult experience out of high school was getting sent to a far-flung country in the Middle East and though I didn’t realize it at the time I was hit with a multitude of existential situations right away. It would be an injustice to say I suffered PTSD because I lot of service members saw a lot worse than I did in my forays in Iraq and Afghanistan, but my psychological development absolutely changed and left me carrying around depression, anxiety, and enough adrenal fatigue to leave me worn out for years.
I came home from Iraq in 2011, ready to start a new life working and finish my service in the Maine Army Reserves with First Platoon, 94th Military Police Company. The DoD was sure to let us know that things would be different when we got back, to not piss away our savings, to not get drunk and beat our spouses, and to definitely not take our own lives or anyone else’s, but they never mentioned just how goddamn difficult it would be to come back to a world that had constantly been changing since we left and that the damage wrought by being lost in one’s own thoughts could be more devastating than any IED or EFP could ever hope to be.
I ended up letting the depression and anxiety I had accrued during my first tour ruin relationships, strain my personal and professional life, and pissed away all of my money to the point where the only option I saw was to run away to Afghanistan because being in a desert surrounded by people that want to hurt me seemed safer than than being alone with my thoughts any longer.
Spoiler Alert: Ignoring my problems and piling more existential stress didn’t only fail to help, it made things worse. I returned from Afghanistan more of a husk of a soul than I had been before and things had to get a lot worse before they got better. Fortunately, the military does a good job of making sure it’s easy to shut emotions down and get the job done on sheer will and I damn sure did that from 2011 to 2016 every day under the banner of the dysfunctional veteran who wore his multi-cam tactical cap like a safety blanket and talked about my deployments all the damn time. I identified myself with the military service because it was all I knew and because it felt safe.
It wasn’t until one day in 2016 that I realized that I couldn’t run from myself anymore. I was tired and worn down to the bone and knew that something had to give. It didn’t happen overnight, but after hours of talk therapy, anti-depressants, opening up about what had been bothering me from my deployments as much as I could, as well as some MDMA and psychedelic therapy, I broke free. I was able to pursue a career I love and help some veterans out along the way, but most importantly I saved myself. Since taking an active role to be a positive force in my life, I feel like I’m living for the first time in my adult life. I can now function independent of my time in service and have a handful of friends and an incredible partner that help keep me grounded on the bad days.
The point of all of this is simple and it’s not a sob story. I may be disenfranchised with the government, the wars that are still being fought apparently just because of reasons, and the dysfunctional veteran culture, but I am proud of my service. I am a glad for the path that it has taken me down and the lessons I have learned from the pain I experienced because I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am today.
I know a lot of veterans feel lost after service even if they don’t say it out loud- that’s okay. It’s okay to feel lost but we should not dwell in the shadow of our service so much that we forget that there is so much more to life. We don’t hold monopolies on valor and selflessness, but we know how to act with those intentions in mind and sometimes the people that need them the most are ourselves. Be brave and write the next chapter in your life. Help your brothers and sisters by breaking the cycle of dysfunction that is so popular amongst vets and showing them that it can be done.
We were successful in the suck because we could adapt and improvise in any situation to bring the unfair advantage. We were strong, courageous, and we looked after one another. We were great then but we could be better now. Carry those principles forwards, but don’t be afraid to detach from the military or veteran persona because only through being willing to let go of our former selves and carry forward only what will help ourselves and others can we truly move on and transition well. So stand up, dust off, regroup, and be willing to write that next chapter in your life. Help your brothers an sisters out where you can, be kind, don’t ever give up, and kick all the ass.