United States Army
El Segundo, CA
Last week, when I was in search of veterans to interview for this project, I stumbled across Rodney. I found one of his postings on Facebook where he iterated, "I don't regret going, I just regret coming back." It's a sentiment that I've heard before and I wanted to hear Rodney's story so that I could begin to understand.
When I first contacted Rodney, I didn't know what to expect. It's easy to feel discarded , especially if you feel alienated. I know that I went through several years in my life where I purposely did not allow myself to hope for anything as a way to bar against disappointment. And when you isolate yourself, sometimes the enormity of your problems makes you feel lost, unimportant, and forgotten.
Like most people, Rodney joined the military when he was very young, and describes his career with the United States Army as a successful one. He spent several years in Germany, and in 2003, he was deployed to Iraq. Two months before leaving, he found out his wife was pregnant. Nine months later, while he was overseas, his first child was born.
When Rodney first arrived in Iraq, things were difficult for him. He was wrought with distress about being away from his wife, and rattled by an environment that was hot, uncomfortable, and dangerous.
One day, a few words of wisdom gave him the perspective and clarity he needed. An NCO (non-commissioned officer) told him one day that he had a choice. "What's gonna happen's gonna happen. You can worry about what's gonna happen and do a shitty job, or you can suck it up and do your best. Would you rather go out crying or go out fighting?"
Rodney attests that this testament to tough love got him out of his funk and carried him through his deployment in Iraq. Sometimes it just takes the right person saying the right thing at the right time in order for you to turn fear into inspiration. Every day we find ourselves faced with situations where we have the choice to be brave or to hide from the judgments of people and the obligations of a confusing world.
Rodney painted a picture of the Iraq that he knew in 2003 as a desolate and grotesque place. He talked of people living in the medians of freeways, storing their food next to heaps of garbage, and living out hteir days in absolute squalor. He describes destitution and poverty that most people in the US have never encountered. It still scares me when soldiers like Rodney describe acts of horrific violence with the calm of a Buddhist monk. You have to see a lot of horror to become that numb. It makes me feel grateful for everything I have, and silly for that gnawing sense of scarcity that tells me I don't have enough.
More and more, I realize that my position as a pacifist is an extremely privileged one. I just happened to be born in the right country, at the right time. I realize that my idealism about hope and non-violence exists only because I do not hear mortars and explosions in the middle of the night. I am able to live without terror because I have not known it. My generation has never seen a catastrophe of epic proportions, and we have been kept safe from the brutality of war.
Rodney decided to get out of the military when he heard that his 18 month old son was diagnosed with autism and he realized that having a stable home life was essential to his son's progress and happiness. Soon after returning home from Iraq, Rodney accepted a job working as a civilian for the Army in Washington DC as a civilian.
Then, Rodney heard about a job available in California with a large defense contracting company. It took a lot of humbling for Rodney to finally accept help from the myriad of organizations that promised to. As Rodney relates this part of his saga, the tension in the room is palpable. The pain and betrayal he feels from this is evident in his eyes alone.
The way Rodney tells it, they used a program geared towards hiring veterans as a publicity stunt to look good. They hired a large number of veterans to reflect their good intentions, but soon after they secured their reputation as a patriotic company, they laid off most of the new hires. Rodney was one of them. He moved his entire family across the country, only to be laid off less than a year later, financially and morally destitute.
Feeling like he is incapable of providing for his family only exacerbates Rodney's growing fear that he is powerless in his own life. He attests that finding employment would be the first step towards creating a healthy and prosperous future. This hurdle is the first one he must clear, and also the most difficult.
When you are deployed overseas, you are working together with thousands of other people to accomplish something impossibly important and dangerous. You know your value as an individual and as a part of a cohesive team.
When you leave the military however, you are back where you started, at square one. Except now, you have a resume full of accomplishments that most civilians probably can't even read, much less understand, plus whatever traumatizing experiences you are carrying with you and whatever injuries you might be sustaining. You have cultivated a work ethic, bravery, discipline, and fortitude, but in the chaos of the civilian world, you have lost your sense of purpose.
I can imagine going to a data entry job, or working in a restaurant, or filing papers must seem ridiculous and meaningless after going to war. Adding insult to injury, your identity as a part of the military is amplified once you step outside it, because you are removed from your peer group, and more than ever people see you as different than them. No longer are you the class clown, or the star athlete, or the well-loved, scrawny hero, but you are pigeonholed as a veteran, and it becomes an identity that is difficult to escape.
Ironically, it almost seems by reaching out to help veterans as a demographic instead of focusing on them individuals, we are possibly stigmatizing them even more. In the end, we have to relate to each other not through what we've done, but through who we are. If veterans need to reinvent themselves in order to find a place in the civilian world, how will they be able to do that when they are told it is necessary and healthy to continue identifying as apart from it?
Rodney says that he would rather be back in the middle of a war zone than at his house three blocks away from the beach in Southern California. I've heard other soldiers also fantasizing about going back to war, so that they can regain their sense of belonging and their sense of purpose.
I don't know the solution to that problem.
I think it lies in Rodney's advice to me about how civilians should approach relationships with veterans. "Just treat us like everybody else."
"What's gonna happen's gonna happen. You can worry about whats going to happen and do a shitty job, or you can suck it up and do your best."
"You dont need to buy us a beer or give us a pat on the back. Just treat us like everyone else, I guess."
Rodney talks about how sometimes it seems that combat is a more comfortable environment for him and other veterans.
Rodney talks about how and when PTSD started becoming a problem.
written by Anna Judd