Their Fight Was Over. Why Did I Make It Home and They Did Not?
The phrase “that day, over there” evokes memories of specific events in the lives of many veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Thoughts sweep in like a fog, clouding their view of the life they now live, pulling them back to that turning point. It could be the day they lost a brother-in-arms, the day they had to take a life, or the day they saw the lifeless body of a child and their heart hardened. That day, over there marks the distinct point in time that altered the trajectory and perspective of life.
For me, it was the day I was wounded.
I was an infantry platoon sergeant, a U.S. Marine holding the rank of staff sergeant. I was on the second of my three tours in Iraq. And I was one of the “old men,” not just because I was 27 years old, but because I was a husband and father. Most of the men I led weren’t old enough to drink—not that it stopped them.
We were a couple of months into our deployment, stationed in al-Qaim on the Syrian border in northwest Iraq. During the Battle of Husaybah in the spring of 2004, I took an AK-47 round through my right hamstring and caught a dime-sized piece of shrapnel from a hand grenade in my left arm. A few hours later, I would be medevaced with two of the Marines from my platoon. One was a private first class one day shy of his 19th birthday, and the other a lance corporal squad leader who would receive the Silver Star for his actions that day.
As we waited for the helicopter, five Marines had been laid out under ponchos: Their fight was over. In the following years, I often wondered why I made it home from the fight and they did not.
But that day, once in the air, I looked down to see my platoon reforming to head back into the city to continue the fight. I should have been down there with them, leading them. I should have been there several weeks later when we lost three of them in a horrific IED blast.
I am grateful I made it back to Iraq in time to address them at the memorial service and to lead them through the last two months of the deployment.
After I came home, I thought about it every day. I either thought about that day specifically or over there in general, but I thought about it every day. It didn’t consume my thoughts, but it was never far away. It framed the lens through which I saw everything.
It would not be accurate to say I thought less of people who had not served, or had not served over there, but I certainly felt closer to those who had. They were the ones who held my respect, the ones in whom I would confide. It wasn’t because I admired what they had done, but simply because they understood. As if we were from the same tribe, and a small clan within the tribe. We, the combat veterans.
I thought life would always be like this, that my thoughts would daily drift back to over there. It had been like this for years. I still functioned. I arguably enjoyed and appreciated things in life better since coming home. But there was this cloud on the horizon, a bittersweet taste as I thought about those who didn’t come home and who couldn’t enjoy this … the good life.
I know many from the tribe felt this way. I think that’s why so many live recklessly. They unknowingly manufacture conflict to replicate the dangers once felt in combat. Others sabotage their own lives because they feel guilty about having a good life.
Those factors are then amplified by a certain segment of society that lionizes the wounded warrior. They see him as a conflicted, great hero to be praised. He is idolized.
Some, who are indeed warriors with wounds, then feel trapped in this persona. The wounds must remain open and fresh to maintain this image. The idea of being “OK,” “normal,” or even happy often feels like a betrayal to the ones who did not come home.
He is caught in the loop, he can’t forget, and he can’t move on.
One day I realized I hadn’t thought about that day or over there in a long time. It was a sobering thought. I did not feel guilty. I felt …
I now reflect on how that came to be.
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I was a lifer; I stayed with the tribe. I remained in uniform for many years after Iraq. Being immersed in the culture, having new missions and a continued sense of purpose helped. Those who had shared experiences were never far away. My buddies who left the service and moved back to their hometowns felt much more isolated. Many of them struggled alone.
The realization came to me that I hadn’t thought about that day in a long time as I sat by a fire. My family and I had rented a small cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina where I grew up. I had taken an early morning hike alone. It was spring, a little chilly. As the day warmed, the air smelled sweet with honeysuckle, and the dogwood blossoms danced around me. Quiet time in a beautiful place provided a medicine no doctor could prescribe. I have made it a habit to backpack in these places as often as I could over the last few years. To be alone, to gain distance, and to be still.
It wasn’t simply the passing of time, though, that helped. I also ceased the distracting self-medication, which included alcohol and promiscuity. I’d seen others who turned to illegal drug use. Some pursued constant change, always moving away from the thoughts, but never toward anything. Peace was elusive. These distractions hinder healing.
I also had a break in fellowship with others like me. Not “break” as in a broken relationship, for our bonds are intimate and lifelong. Rather some time apart, some time off. I can see now that we had a kinship because of the hard times in combat together, the shared emotions and circumstances.
It seems we also enabled and perhaps encouraged each other in our recklessness. I had the great benefit of a loving family and faith in God above. I can see now how these things all worked together, to let me be “here.”
I still think about that day, over there sometimes. When I hear the sound of a loud boom, I have a physiological and emotional reaction. There are certain smells—melting plastic, rotting trash—that cause my mind to flash back. Certain days on the calendar, such as April 17, bring clear memories. But these thoughts don’t possess me like they once did.
I remember, I reflect, then I take a deep breath. I look at where I am now.
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And I move on. Enjoying today. Thankful for what I have.
The ones who didn’t come home? They wouldn’t want us to remain in that day, over there. If we want to honor their memory, we have to live here, today.