Transitioning back from combat is different for everybody. Stories about veterans having trouble adjusting abound. My transition was pretty easy, I think. This is due in part because I never experienced much first-hand trauma while I was over there.
Sure, I got some almost hair-raising stories from Afghanistan. Here’s an example. I was soundly asleep one night at one of my Combat Outposts. I was awakened by an explosion – a loud bang, ground shaking etc… I knew immediately that it was enemy indirect fire. It wasn’t right on top of me, but it was close enough. My first reaction was annoyance. I hate being startled awake. This peevishness lasted about half a second until it occurred to me that we could be under attack and that some of my guys might have just been hurt. I slipped my boots on, grabbed my tactical vest, helmet and rifle and moved out to the Command Post (CP).
On the way, I wondered if more rockets, or mortars, or whatever they were, were still incoming. I made it to the CP without anything else blowing up. The guys on duty were their normal, unflappable, flatulent selves. One – 122mm rocket landed near the Landing Zone. Nobody was hurt and no real damage was done. I hung around for an hour or so after that to monitor developments – or lack thereof. That was it. I went back to bed.
When I got home, I was happy to wear shorts again and not have to shave every day. I wasn’t plagued with many nightmares. I didn’t feel the need to check the perimeter around my home. I did have a persistent feeling of being naked without a weapon though. Other than that, I was pretty much unaffected by my months living with the threat of hostile fire & IEDs.
One lovely September day shortly after getting home, I went for a walk around the neighborhood with my wife. It was nice to just have green things around me. We came to a street that had a sharp turn. You couldn’t see around the corner because a house and some bushes were in the way. A moment later a small white car came speeding around the corner only 30 meters in front of us.
Oh shit! VBID (car bomb). I stepped in front of my wife as I reached for my rifle. My mind was racing: Place the shots right in the driver’s face and keep pulling the trigger until something happens. Move right towards the houses to try and get us into cover…
An instant later, it dawned on me what was really happening. The white car wasn’t one of those white Toyotas that always seemed to be on the “Be On the Lookout (BOLO)” lists. It was just a kid taking the corner too fast. I also didn’t have a rifle to shoot him with.
My heart was pounding. It wasn’t real, but it still felt like I just escaped certain death. My wife held my arm and looked at me with concern. I was breathing really hard. I weakly downplayed it. “Thought that was a car bomb in our neighborhood, Ha Ha.” The truth is, if I had had a weapon at that moment, I might have shot that kid a dozen times. That realization scared me too.
Time has dulled these reactions now, but I still have the urge to duck when I hear an unexpected bang. I have some of this embedded “Battlemind” baggage with me even though my combat experience was pretty tame. Unlike me, many soldiers had truly intense combat experiences. I can understand how they might have some real baggage. I’m not jumpy, but I understand why some of my comrades are.
Dan Fuhr is a retired Colonel who served as the battalion commander of the 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry with the founders of Line of Advance in Afghanistan. He is a 32 year Army veteran of both active duty and the Illinois National Guard. In his free time, Dan enjoys his family, classic movies, reading books of all sorts, and learning about military history. He lives in the Chicago area where he has been a marketing professional with Motorola Solutions for over 15 years. He has an MBA from the University of Chicago and a Master of Strategic Studies degree from the U.S. Army War College.