PTSD and my Iraq Homecoming


Nightmare #1

I am in command of a four-vehicle convoy in Iraq.  We are skirting the edge of a town on our way back to our camp after having performed a mission elsewhere.  My vehicles are unarmored HMMWV’s mounted with a variety of machineguns.  Although we are not expecting contact, we are loaded for bear.

There is a scattering of buildings around, but none of them appear to be residential.  I look down to check my map when there is a large explosion to my front.  I look up and my lead vehicle has been blow off the road and spun at a 90-degree angle.  Smoke is pouring from it, but it is not completely destroyed.

Nightmare Continued:

I have just enough time to mutter, “Fuck…” when bullets start pinging of the hood of my vehicle.  “RPG LEFT!” my gunner shouts and I see the rocket streaking towards us from a building about 100 meters away.  The RPG explodes in just in front of my vehicle and shreds the engine block.  We stall.  I’m hit by shrapnel, and so is my gunner.  My driver looses control, and we crash into a low brick wall.  My head slams into the windshield cracking it.

Bullets are bouncing around in the vehicle, and smoke is pouring out of the engine.  My driver is trying to frantically start the engine.  I yell at him to get out of the truck, take cover behind the wall, and return fire.  It probably sounds something like this:

“Where the fuck are they?” I shout to my gunner.  

“Fucking building on the left,” he shouts back.  He is heroically staying up on our .50 cal machinegun.  “Can’t ID a fucking target.”

“Fuck it,” I shout.  “Light it up.  Hit all the windows and doors.”

He begins systematically tearing the building to shreds, and I work the radios trying to take control of the situation.  I get out of the vehicle too and crouch next to it so I can use my M-4 if necessary.  We are still taking heavy fire from the building.

I think I see a muzzle flash from a doorway, and more bullets buzz around me.  I duck walk to the back of the vehicle and pull an out an AT-4 rocket launcher.  I start getting the rocket ready for launch, but my hands stop working.  I can’t arm the rocket no matter how hard I try to get my hands to move.
I try to yell something to my gunner, but I can’t get any words to come out.  I try to force myself to speak, but nothing comes out.  I’m making a low gurgling sound.  I try harder to say something, and I finally get something to come out…

…I wake up shouting in a cold sweat.

Nightmare #2:

We have broken the ambush, and I have assaulted one of the buildings that we have taken fire from.  We find civilian casualties behind the building.  Two women.  A man.  And a little girl.  The little girl’s body is shattered.  We will evacuate her, but she dies in the helicopter.  The medics apparently spend almost an hour trying to revive her.

The girl looks up at me with piercing eyes like she has something to tell me.  She opens her mouth…

I wake up in a cold sweat.

Nightmare #3:

The phone rings.  It’s my reserve unit.  We’re getting sent back to Iraq…

My Homecoming

I’ve been a Kossack for only a short time, but I think I have a unique perspective.  I’ve seen a lot of talk about Iraq on this site.  I keep seeing the phrase “war criminal” over and over, and it hurts me deeply.  So, I wrote this diary to give you all some perspective.  I am hoping that you understand who you are pointing a finger at, and the emotional impact.

I got back from Iraq last fall.  I had been called back to active duty from the reserves right after Sept 11th, and I had been gone more or less ever since.  I spent the first year supporting other operations, but I was sent to Kuwait in early 2003 as part of the buildup for Iraq.  We crossed the “berm” into Iraq three days behind the main invasion force, and my team moved around throughout the country for the next several months.  The ambush that I described above happened towards the end of my deployment.   My wounds were superficial, and I now only bear faint scars.

It took us a few days to get home from Iraq.  I was only coming back with a few people that I knew.  People in my original unit had more or less been farmed out all over to different units and operations.  But, our mobilization time had run out.  So they sent us back, but I was coming home with only a few guys/gals from my actual unit.  We left behind most of the people who we had been in Iraq with.  Two days after we left, one of them lost an arm and the use of his leg in another ambush.

We flew back in a big Air Force transport plane filled with soldiers to an Army post in Texas.  When we landed, we went into one of the hangars.  It was filled with friends and families, and there was even a band.  I cannot describe to you how I felt when I got out of that plane.  When I saw my wife rushing towards me, I was in the deepest state of bliss that I have ever felt.  
I imagine that hangar must be what heaven is like.  You are safe and surrounded by people you love and care deeply about.  And everyone around you is surrounded by love and joy.  And for a brief, fleeting moment there is no pain or fear or doubt.  You are home and all is right.

They gave us a couple days off, and my wife and I spent them mostly in bed.  She made a lot viagra jokes.  After my time off was up she went home, and I stayed at the Army post.

The reservist in my group began out-processing.  We filled out a bunch of forms, got the briefings that tell us not the beat our wives when we get back, had a little cheesy ceremony where they played a tape of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American”, and then they let us go home.

I got in my truck, popped in Robert Earl Keen’s “The Road Goes on Forever”, and drove home across the Texas hill country.  All was right with the world.  Everything was going to be fine.

I got to the outskirts of the “blue” city where I live, and as I left the suburbs, I started noticing changes.  The “we support our troops” signs and American flags gave way to peace symbols and “American For Peace” yard signs.  I was dressed in my desert uniform, and I started getting funny looks at stop signs.

When I was in Iraq, I was the token liberal officer.  At the time, I believed in what we were doing even though I didn’t like President Bush.  I thought we were right as a nation despite who our leadership was, and I was angry with the war protesters.  But, I would still argue other liberal points of view.  One night, a senior officer who was very conservative, but whom I deeply respect told me this: “You know they hate you, don’t you?  You are a smart talented warrior.  You are among the finest of your generation, but they cannot accept that the world needs men like you.  They hate you and everything you stand for.”

I disagreed with him, but as I drove deeper into “blue” territory; I was beginning to think he was right.

My wife had warned me that I might not be happy with the neighborhood when I got back, and I could see why when I pulled on to my street.  There were only two yellow ribbons on display in our neighborhood.  One was in front of my house, and the other in front of the Vietnam vet at the end of the block.  The rest were a mixed bag of “peace” signs, and each and every one of them felt like a kick in the gut.  I had a deep and viscerally angry reaction when I saw them.  I believed in what I had done in Iraq, and I was insulted.  

The Vietnam vet, who has since moved, was the only one of my neighbors who made an effort to check up on my wife.  Everybody else more or less ignored her.  

I pulled up to my house, and started unloading my stuff.  My wife wasn’t home from work yet so I was alone.  One of my neighbors, who is a true-believer Nader-type, came up to me in the yard looking like he had something to say.

“Welcome back,” he said.  “I just want you to know that I don’t agree with what you were doing over there.”  Another kick in the gut.

“Been waiting to say that long?” I asked in a tone that tells him he just fucked up.  “The truth is I don’t give a shit what you think and why don’t you get out of my sight.”

I finished unloading my truck and went in the house and fumed.  By the time my wife got home, I was on my fourth or fifth beer.  

We went out with some friends later that night to celebrate.  I was jumpy and felt out of place.  It felt like people didn’t know how to treat me.  I ended up getting very drunk.

My wife had told my neighbors that I was coming home and not to worry if they started seeing a strange man around.  The only one of them that came over “welcome” me back was the Vietnam vet.  He asked me if I was okay.   “I’m fine.  Everything is fine.”  He didn’t look like he was buying it.  He was right.

Things began to get worse.  I had almost sixty days of leave built up, and I didn’t want to go back to work.  I was tired, and I wanted a break.  But, I wasn’t getting much sleep because I was used to only getting a few hours a night so I stayed up too late watching too much news and drinking to much beer.  I started getting up in the morning and making a pot of coffee.  I would guzzle the coffee, get wired, and begin obsessively catching up on the news.  

I also began obsessively writing angry emails and letters.  The whole time I was in Iraq, I kept a “heap of shit” list of people who had pissed me off.  The Dixie Chicks.  Susan Serandon.  Janine Garafalo.  A bunch of reporters.  Magazines.  Blogs.  Everybody got a letter.

I found myself getting angry and impatient all the time, especially to my wife.  Nothing moved at the pace I was used to.  Everyday life seemed trivial, and I had a tough time connecting with people in my life.  I was so angry all the time.  I was on edge, and my jaw started hurting because I kept it clenched so much.

I was filled with an impending sense of dread, and the bad dreams began.  I started drinking more, but I didn’t notice it.  I was on vacation damn it.  I could have a beer for breakfast if I wanted.  I glared at my neighbor every time I saw him.

My wife and I took a trip, and things got better for while.  I could finally relax, but things came to a head at Christmas.  I grew up in a bitterly divorced household so I more or less hate the holidays anyway.   My family was fawning over me giving me more attention than I wanted or deserved.  And they were loud.  I can’t take loud anymore.  Loud means bad things are happening.

One of my stupid but well-meaning Jesus-freak relatives gave me a copy of  “Chicken soup for the Veteran’s Soul”.  I went ape shit.

“What the fuck did you get this for?” I shouted.  “You think I’m weak?  You think I need this shit?  I’m fine.  Everything is fine.”

I stormed out.  We were out of beer, and I went to look for somewhere that’s open so I can pick some up.  It was Christmas morning.

After Christmas, I got home from my family’s house.  My wife found the Chicken soup book in the trashcan, and she scolded me for it.

“You’re taking their side?” I shouted.  “Fuck this.  You’re taking their side over me?”

She told me that I’m being an ass.  She’s not one of my soldiers, and I can’t boss her around.  She says that I’m treating everyone around me like shit.

“Great,” I shouted.  “How’s this for shit.  I hate this house.  I hate this neighborhood.  I hate this marriage.  And I’m beginning to hate you.”

I stormed out, and got in my truck.  I revved the engine and screeched down the street.  I stopped about two blocks away, and sat for a few minutes.  I know what I should have done.  I should have turned around, and gone back to the house.  I should have gone in, embraced her, and apologized.  This was the beautiful woman I promised to love and cherish, and I was shitting all over that.

“Fuck it,” I decided. “I’m right.  She’s wrong.”

I got out my cell phone and called my buddy.  He met me at bar not far from a college campus.  I began ranting about how unhappy I was and how I’m going to divorce her.  He was shocked because he believed that we have a good marriage.  Everyone believed we have a good marriage.  In fact, we did, but I was slowly destroying it.

The bar got crowded.  My buddy and I are sitting a big table and some college kids asked us if they could join us.  Somehow it came up in conversation that I just go back from Iraq.  One of the kids, a frat boy, says cool.

“It’s about time we started kicking some ass,” Frat boy said.

“We?” I asked.  My mood darkened, but he didn’t notice.

“Yeah, we should kick all their asses.”

“You mean me, right?  You joining up?”

He was drunk enough to think I was joking.

“You ever shoot anyone over there?” he asked.

“You should never ask anyone that question,” I said and thought of the little girl.  “You might not like the answer you get.”

“Hah! That means you didn’t.”

I stood up.  “Listen here you little motherfucker.  I’ve killed plenty of people, and I’m fixin’ to get me one more.  I’m going to knock your fucking teeth down the back of your throat, and then I’m going to go to work on you.  You’re gonna have a couple months in the hospital to think about where you fucked up.”

He stood.  “Let’s go.”

My buddy grabs me.  “It’s not worth it,” he pled.

“The hell it isn’t,” I answered, and I stepped forward.  I was going to fuck this kid up.  Some evil piece of my mind told me that the cops would side with me.  I would get away with it.  I looked over to the kid.  He was backing away, fear in his eyes.

“Its not worth it,” my buddy pled again.  I was suddenly aware that everyone was looking at me like I’m a monster.  I was one.

I went home, and begged my wife to forgive me.  She said that she didn’t know if she could.  I promised to get help.

The next morning I called the VA.  The waiting list for counseling was months long.  I have kept civilian insurance from my wife’s company so I called them.  I wasn’t covered.  I was still eligible for TRICARE (military HMO) benefits so I called them.  They told me to call the VA.  I felt like Yosarian in “Catch 22”.

So I did what I’ve done my whole life.  I called my grandparents (who I’m diaried about) and asked for help.  My grandfather told me to come visit, and I complied.  I went to their town alone.  I was scared that I had totally fucked up my life.

When I got there we ended up talking for hours.  My grandmother had done her homework.  She boned up on everything from the bible to Dave Grossman’s “On Killing”.  ) She had battle-tracked the entire war, and saved all my letters and emails.  She prayed.  I suspect that she has also had a long talk with my wife.

We talked long on into the night, and my granddad and me have a few beers.  We both needed them to loosen up.  He told me some things about WWII that he’s never talked about.  I grew up listening to his stories, and he told me that he blames himself for glorifying the military to me.  He talks to me about a close friend who survived many, many missions in WWII who got home and hung himself.  He told me about some of the bad shit that he had seen and done.  

My grandmother was firm with me about how I was treating my wife.  I was wrong, and she made me see my behavior for what it was.  She died this year.  Her life had been filled with many generous and kind acts, and I think her final act of kindness to me was saving my marriage.

I went back home, and my wife and I started going to counseling.  It turns out that we were both suffering from post-traumatic stress.  Her company had been having lay-offs, she had been running the household completely on her own, and she had been gripped by fear the entire time I was in Iraq.  She had even gotten into a confrontation with a clerk in a “hip” store here in town that was displaying some particularly offensive anti-war rhetoric.  Our community and the Army reserves did not provide her any support, and she suffered for it.

I went back to work, and tried to immerse myself in staying busy.  I went on anti-depressants for a while, and we worked through it. Before I left, I had been working part time on a master’s degree.  I finished it.  I cut down the beer to three a week.  I still glared at my neighbor, but fuck him.  I’m only willing to mend so many fences.  And besides we ended up moving across town into a bigger house so we could start a family.  We thought about going back into the active-duty army where we had been part of one big extended family.  But, we decided to stay out.

Time passes on.  Most of the “we support our troops” signs have been taken down or are faded.  Yellow ribbons have become faddish accessories to stick next to your George Bush sticker on your SUV.

I’d like to say that I’m not angry anymore, but it would be a lie.  I am deeply pissed off at over 50 million of my fellow countrymen, and despite what John Kerry says, I can’t forgive and forget.  I don’t care about healing.  I want a reckoning, and I want my party to deliver.

Time has given me some distance from the war, but Iraq won’t go away.  I feel like I’m living with a knife at my throat.   More and more of my friends and my soldiers get sent over there.  A close friend got killed, and the funeral was tough.  I began obsessing over Iraq and counter-insurgencies.  I got involved in the election.  I found DailyKOS, and I started posting.  I jump all over anything that has to do with Iraq, and I worry about making an ass out of myself.  But, I can’t help it.  I want my story told.

For me there is no closure.  I will probably get called back up.  It’s only a matter of time.  So I can’t forget about Iraq or Afghanistan.  I have to keep learning.  I have to keep my mind in the game, and sometimes my civilian job suffers for it.

As I write this, my wife is in the kitchen making dinner.  I am safe and sound at home.  I can say I’m “fine” and it’s the truth.  I’m okay and getting better everyday.  But, I will never be the same.  I saw something in myself that I am still scared of.  

I don’t want to go to war again, but I will if I get called back.  It’s my duty and maybe I’ll handle my homecoming better this time.  I’m also going to stay in the Army Reserves because those soldiers deserve good leadership that I think I can provide.

I am pessimistic about Iraq, and I think the anti-war movement in this country is going to gain momentum and grow in scale.  I’m pessimistic about that too.  I’ve seen some heated rhetoric on this site, and out there in the liberal bloodstream.  Hatred for Bush has pushed some of our ideology into the extreme, and I think it’s going to get worse.  The reaction to the Vietnam anti-war movement and the 60’s pushed this country far to the right, and we all suffer for it.  I think we should be extremely cautious in how we approach this problem.  If there is to be an anti-war movement, it should be Middle Americans doing it and not the anti-everything protest crowd.  They will only push more people away from us.

I know many soldiers who have gone through more or less the same thing that I did, and our government and society don’t do enough to understand or help.

Here are some of my suggestions as to what you can do:

  • Avoid Chicken soup books.
  • If you know of meet someone who has been in the war, please don’t confront them with your politics unless they open the discussion.  You will only piss them off and you could be in danger.  The nicest thing to do is welcome them home and leave it at that.
  • If you are close to someone who has just returned, do not be surprised if things are not perfect.  Do your best to understand what they went through.  Shelter your loved one from reality for a while.  If you have been paying the bills, mowing the yard, and generally doing all the work, do it for a little while longer.  They need time to decompress.
  • Be a good listener if you are close to someone who has been in the war.  Do research into the signs of deteriorating mental health.
  • If you are a benefits manager or in human resources at a corporation, insure that veterans are covered for counseling.
  • If you are a mental health professional, look for a way to volunteer time to veterans.
  • Write your congressman and demand more mental health benefits for veterans.
  • If you care about the war, I think you should care about the warriors.  You don’t have to support the war to be decent to those who fought it.  Some of them have done some really bad stuff, most of us haven’t.  We didn’t create this mess.  So I would encourage you to be careful with the “war criminal” label.  Think of it as the ultimate “super troll” rating and save it for special occasions.

If anyone else has ideas or suggestions of would like to share, please post below.


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