The Crisis of Re-Entry into the Civilian World

This entry is more than my typical blog entry responding and aggregating stories appearing in the press on moral injury. Each week I want to do a longer, more article type of entry that presents some of my own thoughts around moral injury, combat service, and my own experiences as a combat veteran of both the Iraq war and Desert Storm. My hope is that bringing the personal to the forefront of the discussion opens up people’s minds to begin questioning the basic tenants of what it means to go to war. For when we go or send others to war we are forever changing the psyche of that individual in profound ways that have implications for future generations. In the Ender Quintet series of books, Ender’s father says:

I’m saying that when your child goes off to war, you will never get him back.  Not as he was, not the same boy.  Changed, if he comes back at all (Card, 2008, p. 3).

Card, O. S. (2008). Ender in exile. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Associates.

In war there is Eros, a chance at transcendent glory and eroticism all mixed with the brutal reality of the violence and horror on the field of battle.  Psychologically, in the aftermath of combat, the warrior often needs to come to terms with this paradox of eroticism and brutality, of Ares and Aphrodite.  This duality of violence and eroticism is also captured in sculpture.  For instance, these juxtaposed gods are seen in Antonio Canova’s Mars et Venus, Mathieu Kessels’ Mars and Cupid, and John Gibson’s Mars Restrained by Cupid. For the active duty soldier, sailor, or Marine, the focus is almost entirely on the erotic or glory of fighting for Country and God. As the drill instructors at Parris Island drilled into you “God, Country, and Corps” in that order. The individual is not present.

Both times I went to war, it was as a reservist. The unspoken contract for reservists used to be that as a part-timer, you were the last line of defense in the event of war and if activated, there would be several months of training before being shipped out. This is no longer the case. Explicitly, the military now says that you can be expected to be activated for a year, every three years: one year on, two years as a civilian, then back on active duty. This is a very different view of what the reservist has historically been. Though this change saves the military billions of dollars in payroll costs over the career of the reservist, it actually adds deferred liabilities in the long run: higher retirement payments to reservists (which is calculated on points rather than just time served) and the concomitant medical costs (both physical and mental) associated with the potentially higher casualty rates of reservists due to less training. It also stunts the supposed civilian soldier’s civilian career if they work in the private sector. If they work for a government, their career typically won’t suffer, but the military has effectively shifted the cost onto another taxpayer funded organization. Finally, we come to the unique dilemma rarely discussed about this use (and I don’t use that term lightly) of reservists to feed the war machine. At the time that I was in Iraq in the fall/winter of 2005-2006, there were more reservists in country than active duty troops. When I was in Desert Storm with the Marines in 1990-1991, the reservists were used as the tip of the spear and breached the minefields first: the war planners assumed that the reservists would take the casualties and that the active duty troops with their superior training and equipment would mount the counter-attack. All of the “glory” ended up going to the Marine reserve battalions as we crushed the Iraqis, who never effectively defended their lines.

Nevertheless, I want to turn to a unique problem with using reservists to effectively fight wars: the problem of deploying and then returning them to civilian society. These are not trivial transitions and are psychically jarring. From my own experience, you first have to deal with the stress of trying to figure out what your budget is going to be, who is going to pay your bills (if you’re single, like I was in Desert Storm), how to deal with the inevitable drop in pay, contacting creditors to get interest rate reductions in place, finding out what address people can use to send you mail (again, before internet access came to the war zone), dealing with your employer, effectively saying an unsaid permanent good-bye to family and friends, figure out what to do with pets, and (if you have them) who is going to take care of the children. In the meantime, while attending to all of the foregoing, you are trying to psyche yourself up: you are an invincible warrior where none of this matters and you’ll be home lickity split, joking with your buddies and having a beer at the local watering hole. All of the foregoing happens very quickly, usually in less than one month. In Desert Storm, I had one week, for Iraq, it was about three weeks. Then, abruptly, you are plopped into the middle of a war zone.

Near the start of the stand-off in Desert Shield, my reserve tank battalion was activated and within two weeks we found ourselves in the desolate sands of the Middle East.  The swift and early activation of our unit belies the political classes’ chattering that war could still be averted.  You do not commit reservists to the front line in anticipation of peace. As reservists, we were placed on the tip of the spear, leading the charge into Kuwait City for the 6th Marine Regiment.  After three months of posturing and three days of ground combat, we found ourselves camped out on the edge of Kuwait City awaiting our rotation home.  After almost two months, we headed back into Saudi Arabia to await transport.  A few weeks and one suicide later, we were met on the tarmac by then Brigadier Boomer (later to become the Commandant of the Marine Corps) who personally shook each of our hands as we got on the plane home.

We changed planes in Bangor, Maine to an emotional welcome home by the locals, then airlifted to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina to spend the night.  Two days later our plane dropped us off on the tarmac at Miami International Airport.  All of us left directly from the airport into civilian life.  It was psychologically jarring:  less than 96 hours earlier we had been in hostile territory.

My second experience coming home was not markedly different.  There were some minor changes designed to screen us physically and psychologically: a short checklist administered by our unit medic 24 hours before leaving Iraq.  After that, we were on a plane to Qatar where we had a three day, decompression stop.  After boarding a commercial flight to Baltimore, then on to San Diego. My unit arrived ‘home’ 20 hours after leaving Qatar.  Once again, we were cut loose at the airport to go on leave.  Within two months, most of us were deactivated and back in our civilian lives with no counseling and no real ritual to help us reintegrate. Thus, the returning warrior is often left to:

resume his or her pre-war life as quickly as possible, devoid of the ravages of combat, loss, and brutality he or she remembers all too well (Sgarzi, 2009, p. 244).).

Sgarzi, J. A. (2009). Healing a warrior world. Spring, 81, 243–263.

I think it is this expectation that the ‘citizen soldier’ can neatly slot back into their civilian life that is so jarring to so many veterans who have seen combat zones as activated reservists. If they comment at all, co-workers ‘thank-you for your service’ or just assume all is good. Friends, family, spouses, girlfriends also assume now that you are back, all is well. From my personal experience, not to be generalized, my (now ex) wife kept pestering me to tell her what “I did over there.” When I asked her if she wanted to hear about reviewing hours of FLIR (forward looking infrared radar) footage and still photos to try and identify corpses that would confirm I had sent Navy SEALS (and other special operations types) to kill the right person, I received the requisite recoil in horror. Of course, no matter what the exhortation, no civilian really wants to hear about these things much less try to understand that a combat veteran will never be wholly civilian again.

I’ll finish this post by reiterating that the military reservist faces even more problems ‘reintegrating’ than active duty personnel. There is an assumption that returning reservists slot neatly back into their pre-activation lives and that the VA or the military takes care of any ‘hiccups.’ The reality is far different. Studies solely studying reservists’ readjustment are scarce to non-existent. I suspect that moral injury in reservists is much higher than active duty personnel, though this is merely my own gut instinct. I would be interested in hearing what other reservists who have seen combat duty have to say.