Here is a feature story I wrote for newspaper publication. It focuses on the new battles many veterans face as they return home from war.
“Going to war is the easy part. Coming home is where the difficulty really is.”, Todd Vance explained, as he strained to put all that he had been through into words. Todd, an army veteran who fought in Iraq from October 2003 until November 2004, may have returned home years ago, but still considers himself on active duty. The only thing that has changed—the battlefield. The battlefield, once in the Middle East, has relocated to the deepest creases of his brain. His assignment: dealing with the daily struggle against the effects of war. Effects that have affected him in every imaginable way. Although this war will never completely cease, Todd feels that the fighting has substantially subsided from what it once was.
From a very early age, Todd was not like the rest of the the kids his age. Your typical misunderstood youth. His interests were not the norm, and he just didn’t seem to click with his peers as easily. “I had mostly older friends who were into the same scene as me.” he recalls. This scene was one of punk rock, skateboarding, surfing, lacrosse, and pretty much anything active and extreme. However, this scene eventually led to some problems in school, and so, Todd began to learn Muay Thai as an outlet for his frustrations. He trained and fought in amateur arenas for a year and then made the jump to pro at the age of seventeen. Little did he know, at this point, that it would become his central stress reliever for many years to come.
“After high school graduation, I went to London and Ireland, with some friends, just to party for a straight month. But, when I returned home, the party was over. I shipped off for basic a week later.” he said as he began to explain his transition into the military. Todd always knew that he would end up in the military. It was inevitable. His dad served in Vietnam and his grandpa in WWII. It was expected that he do the same. “I also felt that it was part of being and becoming a man. To live in this country, be free, and be safe isn't how it is everywhere in the world. Its not ‘owed’ to anyone and I understood that at a young age. It was my job to do my part to keep things the way they were for us here.” He saw it as an obligation, both personal and public. So, he joined. He joined the 1st infantry division and was determined to have a combat role. Determined to be on the front lines, not just support.
As Todd went off to basic, he was apprehensive yet appreciative of the opportunity to serve his country. He was assigned to the first infantry division, which was what he had requested. He was determined to be a part of the front line action; part of the direct shaping of history. Todd would not settle for support. He was sent to Germany for a time, but then, September 11th happened. He was almost immediately deployed for a second time. This time, to center of the conflict.
“Combat was a lot like I thought it would be...yet at the same time, nothing what I envisioned it to be. Hours, days; weeks of being hot, tired, hungry, bored; homesick. Then, in an instant, your life and how u see the world is changed forever.” During his tour in Iraq, Todd was a Quick Reaction Force Squad Leader. His duty, along with the rest of his team, was to act as swift and strategic backup to units that were “pinned down and taking heavy casualties”. Day after day, they would wait for intelligence, prepare to go in, and eventually make a move. Making a move was where reality really set in. “You know you’re a veteran when one of your most vivid memories is of a little kid’s shoe, with Spiderman on the side, laying in the middle of the road with the leg still in it.” Todd said, shuddering inside, replaying the various visuals he had collected in his head. After a moment of relapse, he continued, saying, “A veteran’s war is never over. We still live it every minute of the day with our friends who are still on their fourth, fifth, or sixth tour.” Todd’s war did not end in February 2004 when he returned home to San Diego. His entrance into the US, although exciting and somewhat relieving, also forced him into a state of reverse culture shock. Shock even more intense than his transition into the Middle East.
Cold sweats and a hot temper. Constant drinking and seldom sleeping. Sudden resentment and lasting commitment. All products of Todd’s experience overseas. All products of the irreversible and intermittent experience of watching those you consider friends being killed before your eyes. “I went out a lot and partied too much but I thought everything was fine, because that’s the way all my army friends were. We were on a different level of intensity.” Todd began to explain, reflecting on his return. His first years home were wrought with going out, fighting anyone who seemed disrespectful, driving fast; living fast. He was in a constant state of trying to escape. Trying to escape all of the memories that he had collected overseas. “When I got back I started having bad nightmares. Waking up in the closet, on the floor, down stairs. One time I woke up choking my girlfriend. I drank till I blacked out pretty much every night trying to calm down, trying to pass out instead of having nightmares.”
Even the people closest to Todd had no idea how to handle him. His family was happy to have him home, yet they struggled with the “new Todd”. He was different. Different from what they were used to and different from everyone around him. His family and friends tried their best to relate, yet Todd knew they would never really understand. “People close to me didn't know how to handle me. I was dangerous to myself and others. I was explosive, sad, excited, happy, and very depressed. Culture shock.” Todd replied, starting to get down to the central issue that caused all of his turmoil. The reverse culture shock he experienced being back home, along with the flashes of war plaguing his mind, created a seemingly inexorable lifestyle of fear, sadness, and irritation. He felt alone in his new battle and started to resent those who even suggested their sympathy. When it came down to it, his supporters only knew the war as a 30-second news spot or a 1,500 newspaper article. Not reality.
With all of this continual resentment, loneliness, depression, and anxiety, it became clear to Todd that his life would truly never be as it was before. But through the support, encouragement, and counsel of his loved ones, he was able to not only face but also embrace this reality. “Day to day I have habits that won’t go away, and I'm ok with that. When I have my difficult nights or moments, they are hard, but the after effects aren’t as long as when I first got back. Through educating myself and therapy, I now have the tools I need to survive. I have a lot of friends who didn’t go to therapy and they are stuck in the past. They will never officially leave until they did what I did, or something that works for them.” Fortunately, what works best for Todd happens to work well for many other veterans. He currently runs a professional MMA training and yoga gym, providing services just for military veterans like himself. In retrospect, Todd confidently states that he wouldn’t trade anything that he experienced while serving our country. “You know that with every disadvantage in life comes a hundred life lessons that save you. I don’t have the victim mentality or ask for anything extra...except perhaps a genuine nod of respect.”