by Kristopher Russell
I’m a cheater. I’ve been flirting with another woman. My entire adult life has been focused on warfare and war. Let me tell you about my girl, War, she is a drug. She is addictive like heroin. Shooting up is an escape, a release from all the norms of society, a slip into an opiate bliss when the drug flows into the vein. War dulls the trivial and enhances the primal. The list of concerns shortens, becomes simpler, and bonds become tighter. Like I said, I’m a cheat. I’ve recently been flirting with normal life, or whatever sense of normalcy can be had after these experiences.
Many veterans have a struggle similar to this: What to do when War has been put away, like a photo of an ex, tossed in a shoebox and only to be thought of in memory when randomly discovered again. When you take a look at that time, a wave of nostalgia may wash you away for a moment, even days, taking you deep into that ocean of memory with no sight of the shore.
Experiences may differ, but I found myself feeling lost and lonely and went right back to my reliable, wild, War. Postponing my transition for the further search of glory and financial stability was only part of the equation. The remainder was totally that addiction to my drug. I’ve gotten clean, gave up my drug, there’s no need for some twelve-step program. I don’t need a sponsor, it’s probably better I don’t have one. I don’t know that I can stay sober forever. They’d be so disappointed when I end up right back where I started, with my beloved, War.
The transition for veterans can be one of the hardest times in their lives. Having a rigid, structured environment every single day before, then suddenly having to figure it out on your own is a difficult move to make. Sometimes the person in the mirror isn’t the same. You’ve changed. The stranger staring back at you is now the reality. The soldier lives on inside you.
I recently told a beautiful woman while on a date, that being overseas is like riding a roller coaster every single day, then getting off the ride and walking into the parking lot, standing on uneasy feet still feeling the rolls and turns of the thrilling ride, but now you’re stationary, watching it all go by. We used to have set goals. The mission was passed down and we met the commander’s intent, whatever that may have been. We either directed, supervised, or were the labor. We made it happen, regardless, and failure was never an option. For those who find themselves working a typical boring job after an exciting few years of military service, it can be hard to compare to the theme-park-rush of the war-time military.
Sebastian Junger, in his book, War, puts it like this:
“Perfectly sane, good men have been drawn back to combat over and over again, and anyone interested in the idea of world peace would do well to know what they’re looking for. Not killing, necessarily – that couldn’t have been clearer in my mind – but the other side of the equation: protecting. The defense of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea, and once you’ve been exposed to it, there’s almost nothing else you’d rather do. The only reason anyone was alive at Restrepo – or at Aranas or at Ranch House or, later, at Wanat – was because every man up there was willing to die defending it.”
Sebastian Junger’s opinion is one of a few that I respect. He spent months with one of our platoons. He walked the mountains of the Korengal Valley with them, sweated with them, and closely observed the actions and interactions of the soldiers he was surrounded by.
I recently turned thirty years old, but I will always be twenty-three. I still feel young most days. Maybe my mind was slowed by not living a normal life, slowed down by speeding up through the experience. Psychologists and doctors with degrees I’ll never understand have found that the experience of war on a young man’s mind increases mental maturity at a much faster rate than the average male. I feel young until I start moving around, hearing my joints pop, feeling my back-ache, or noticing the gray in my beard. I creak and crack like floorboards in an old house while I stumble around every morning on my routine search for caffeine, stretching as I go, to loosen my body so I might stand up straight and move freely throughout the day. A few pops, like twigs snapping under my feet. A groan, more like a scream of some wild animal in the wilderness, then finally a gulp of bitter, hot coffee, and suddenly I’m ready to go.
I used to wake up, in the blue twilight of pre-dawn, dress and be off. Rushing through the humid air on my thrift store bicycle, the scent of fresh espresso drifting out of every corner shop while I whipped through the ancient cobbled streets and back alleys. I’d arrive, maybe a little drunk, hoping they wouldn’t smell the vodka seeping from my skin when I slam the brakes and rush to change and begin my day leading soldiers. I don’t necessarily miss that. Trying to run eight or so miles while nursing some harsh dehydration and simultaneously motivating soldiers to continue to push hard is never a fun way to start the day. But I still treat every day as I did during my service. I have a certain list of goals and tasks to accomplish, and I don’t stop until they’re finished.
Some days are harder than others. Some days you don’t want to get up and fight through the fog that is clouding your mind. Some days you find no satisfaction in the menial tasks that lay ahead of you. That’s okay, finish them anyway. So what if they don’t seem as important as what you’re used to? You’ll inevitably find days where you think you’re beaten. Women will break your formerly steel, tough-guy heart. Exhaustion will wear you down. Did you ever let that stop you before?
No longer do I have to rush to work, to train and mentor America’s young men. Eager young men, confident in their trade but lacking in practiced skill, ready to do the Army’s killing. That’s all over now. My toy soldiers, stood in a neat row, ready to do my bidding, and wage my war…but no more. Life is not as hard as war. It is much, much harder. Transitioning veterans feel lost because they feel they have no new challenges. Everything in life is a challenge. Every move you make, every job you accomplish, every relationship you forge can be considered a challenge to be met with the same vigor as battle. If you prided yourself on the accomplishment of your mission when you wore the uniform, then make every day have its own mission, and accomplish it just the same. No, every day won’t be a hand-me-down of instruction to be followed and completed and assessed for effectiveness, but that does not mean that day is without purpose.
Find your purpose, and if you don’t see one right in front of you, make one. Everyone wants to consider themselves a warrior. Author Carlos Castaneda wrote, “The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” So, will you sit idle and let the world move around you, or will you accept the challenge like you did in the past and conquer it?
Ten years. Ten years of fighting, watching friends and crew fall to different events. Ten years just fighting to survive. What was the goal of the Odyssey? Some would say the journey, the hardship; that was the importance of the story. That Odysseus’ adventures and conquests over mythical beasts and fighting back against the gods’ wrath was somehow the most valid facet of the tale. I disagree.
What did Odysseus desire more than anything? He just wanted to come home and be with his friends and family, and live. He owed that to the men he lost, despite the minimal emphasis the story makes of that. He had to live, because the others didn’t have that choice or opportunity.
Let the story end on the high note. Once in a while, if you happen upon it, open that box containing your memories. Relish them. Wash yourself in that nostalgia. Then cap it off, put it back on the shelf and move on. You raised your hand, you conquered adversity, and you can further the cause by opening some people’s eyes. Be the leader, be the strength, and live the life you deserve.
Kristopher Russell is a US Army Infantry veteran. As a paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne, 2nd of the 503rd in Italy, Sergeant Russell served two tours in Afghanistan. He is currently working full-time toward a degree in History and Political Science.