Thursday, August 15, 2013

It Took A War

Many young people struggle with issues of self-identity, ideology, personal philosophy, love, maturity, and overall finding their place in the world. This is a life-long process that really should never end. However, it requires a firm foundation. Sometimes that foundation sets itself. For me, it took a war to cement it together and the love of some special (and strong) people.

As relationships go, I had the cavalier "I'll be your knight in shining armor" syndrome to overcome. I had many of the great traits that make up a good "warrior of virtue". I believed in "right" and "wrong" and "good" and "evil". I was loyal. I was willing to sacrifice myself, though not without a fight, for a greater purpose.

Politically, I held firm to the US Constitution because I had made a pledge to support and defend it. But I questioned everything, constantly. I still do question many things. Others, I have enough data and facts to be firm about, now. Then, a lot of it was, admittedly, blind faith.

As "good and evil" are concerned, I had seen some evil. I had done things I thought to be good. I had been in armed conflict. I had deployed on several humanitarian and "peacekeeping" missions. I had seen evil and I had seen good. None of it compared to the stark contrasts I would see later.

War is ugly. It is noisy. It is painful. It stinks. It's messy. It is tragic. In short, it is hell. That isn't just some colloquial commentary. It is the best description available. But out of the worst of conditions and circumstances can come of the the best consequences.

I have spoken with (and read mounds of research from) several so-called experts in the field of Post-Combat Stress, sometimes referred to as "PTSD". The conditions experienced in war change people. They physically and chemically change the human brain, which is far more adaptable than many people realize. Growth is change in a positive or productive direction. In my case, the war was a catalyst for some growth.

To some, I have described, in rather dark terms, myself as I was upon my return from my first deployment to Iraq. I was numb. I was disconnected. Many I considered friends I felt as though I could hug or strangle and it didn't make a difference. Then there were others I would defend to the death. Strangers meant little to me. The sensation wore off within a week or two. At the time, I feared I had become a sociopath and a monster. The reality is that I was in a transitional stage. I was preparing to change and grow.

As stated, throughout my various tours, I saw some of the deepest evils that humans can do to each other. I saw dismembered bodies. I saw men beheaded  and women stoned. I saw children throw grenades. On the other hand, I saw people put their lives on the line to protect others. I saw men and women risk their lives to inform those who could act to save others would know to do so. I saw soldiers shield others with their bodies, literally laying down their lives so others could live. I assisted a medic as he held a man's brain in his hands and struggled to save the life that was slipping away before him.

I heard the explosion and gunshots when one US Soldier joined the "jihad" and murdered a long-time friend of mine, in Kuwait, shortly before the war actually kicked off.

I held fellow soldiers as we grieved and cried over the fallen. In fact, during my third tour, the memorials became so painful I begged to not be forced to attend. That was just days before a coworker and I trashed our office upon hearing the news about several friends being killed when a helicopter crashed under "mysterious circumstances". 

During this time, I questioned my faith. It took the fire to renew it. It changed. I questioned. I then rediscovered faith. I cannot say it was "renewed" because it was changed, different, but stronger. It is far from blind. My religious views are far different now from what they were before that first deployment. The moral basis remains. It is now cemented into a nice foundation and serves as mortar to hold together the other building blocks and bricks my life is being built of.

I saw evil. I saw good. I saw true compassion. I saw lies and deceit. I saw right. I saw wrong. I saw the gray areas between that were determined only through their affiliation with outcome.

I made life and death decisions. Some of them still haunt me, wondering if there had been a better way. Others leave me wishing there had been a better way, but there simply was not. I do not regret. I just question. I know, with what I know now, that I would have still made those same decisions faced with the exact same circumstances.

I changed from seeking to be that "knight in shining armor" to a significant other. I stopped seeking to be somebody's hero. I stopped wanting to be a hero. I just wanted to be the best man I could be. About the time I figured that out, I met somebody who believed in me. I am married to her, now. We are raising a child together. I love them both, deeply. That is something I don't think my pre-war self would have been capable of doing.

In short, I finally grew up. I left the fantasy-land of what I hoped to be and became who I am. I am living a great life. It took a war to put me on the path to do so.