This Veterans Day weekend I flew back to the Midwest from California to spend some time with the Marines that I served with in Iraq in 2004. I stayed for three days with my squad leader from that deployment, and we had a chance to reconnect and celebrate the 243rd Marine Corps Birthday. The first night we went out to have a beer together downtown.
Connection after service among Marines can be tricky at times. Our relationships were fostered in an environment where feelings and emotions were mostly suppressed, or at least not acknowledged or talked about much. When we come together, it can feel like we are picking up right where we left off. And where did we leave off? We left off at the end of a combat deployment in an extremely dangerous place. Where sixteen out of a 1000 or so Marines in our battalion tragically lost their lives. And I do mean tragically. For instance, on the Marine Corps Birthday, 2004, as me and my squad leader feasted on steak and lobster, one of our mutual friends, Gino, shook both our hands, wished us a happy birthday, and was shot in the heart the following day. On Veterans Day. Upon hearing the news, the only thing any of us could do was hang a picture of him in our tent. We didn’t talk about it. It was the only way that we knew how to honor him. Truthfully, when I heard the words, “Gino died”, I felt nothing. Those words remained in my head and never made their way to my heart.
After the deployment, we held no meaningful debrief and reflection about what we just experienced. That’s not what Marines do. We do have debriefs of course after some missions to collect potentially valuable intelligence, make better sense of how our behavior either did or didn’t contribute to our effectiveness, and make our next patrol, raid, or action better than the last.
That beer together downtown grew to one, two, and three. On the third, with the night in full swing, the music in the bar blared: people were chatting, dancing, and laughing all around us. My squad leader, sitting 2 feet away, directly across the table from me, leaned in ever slightly to ask, “Do you ever feel like a part of you died in Iraq?” “Finally”, I thought to myself.
“This is it, this is where we’ll share a bit about what we both experienced, and maybe even share some of our feelings.” Think again, we were interrupted by loud music and the festivity more generally. This was no time to talk. But my friend was trying to send me a message. He was trying to say that he felt pain at times. We then both quickly receded from that space and finished our beers.
I knew this was an important moment. My friend asked me a question and I wanted to share my thoughts with him and hear his. Did a part of me die in Iraq? No, none of me died in Iraq is my honest answer, although I’m certain I probably used to think so. At times, I have consciously wished that I did die in Iraq. I’ve shared this with my mother on multiple occasions after coming home.
I do, however, wish I felt more alive at times in my life presently. Sometimes I wish that I was better at handling and feeling emotional pain. There is truly a well of sadness and grief inside of me, and it’s really hard not to run when it starts seeping in. I’m talking about, what I share with my psychotherapist as, “pharmaceutical grade” sadness. High intensity, possesses-the-whole-body type grief. “Why do I feel this way?”… I catch myself inquiring. Then try to remember that it’s much less important to know why than to just feel it. Perhaps wanting to know why is another distraction from feeling it anyway. As if knowing why would somehow make it go away… “If only I could figure it all out…then I would have more control and be less afraid of these feelings”.
The Marine Corps undeniably helped to make me physically and mentally strong, but we never worked on the emotional part – for good reason. There is simply no room for feelings or emotional expression in a combat unit. When bullets fly and mortars land, we fight, we very unfortunately have to kill other human beings. We typically don’t cry, “check-in” with one another about how the firefight is going, or express ourselves about what we witness. We are hardened.
When we come home, however, this hardening often does not serve us. It doesn’t serve us in marriage, in our relationships with our children, with co-workers, with friends, or anyone really – except a home intruder. And how often does that happen? We don’t know how to be vulnerable, nor do we understand the profound value of it. Be vulnerable? Vulnerability gets people killed. In fact, most often, we are constantly looking to seal off any hint of vulnerability. It’s part of our nature as Marines.
The key to feeling more alive lies in vulnerability. Coming home, we must brave another kind of fire. The fire of our own emotions. This is what everyone talks about when they say that coming home takes a different kind of courage. Honestly, though, when I hear a non-Veteran talk about courage, I typically shut down. My instincts tell me to be afraid. What is this person trying to get me to do? After combat, I need safety, don’t you understand? Vulnerability is the last thing that I think I need.
When we are able to change this habit of thought to: “Vulnerability is important and I need to find ways to be in that space”, we will begin to heal. We will feel more alive. We will rise out of the deadness we left Iraq feeling. We will improve our connection to life in ways that we have truly only dreamed of. Our goals will become clearer, more attainable, and we can feel true happiness.