What could motivate someone to jump at the chance to join a group of strangers for the duration of their favorite holiday? To show up in the wee hours of the morning in a jam-packed, standing-room-only terminal for a 5-hour wait for a flight? To stay awake night and day for 3 days? To travel over four countries on three continents?
Ending a deployment a tad early to return home-that's what motivated me! The travel part is not fun, and lugging a back pack, a vest of body armor, a rifle, and three huge green Army duffle bags full of heavy gear you knew you'd never use (but are mandated to take overseas anyway only to haul it all on your back again) is a hassle. But I was all smiles along the way, I was so excited to get home, although I had mixed feelings as well. Other Troops I talked with along the way expressed various thoughts of returning home.
For Troops who have been gone overseas for an extended amount of time (the longer, the more noticeable), coming home isn't simply a joyous occasion. It just isn't. Oftentimes it's more complicated, and even a bit scary. This being my second deployment, I've been thinking and planning ahead for my homecoming. Most of all I wanted my return to be deliberately relaxed. Last time I just thought I'd be thrilled to see my parents and friend at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. And while I was happy to be home & happy to see them, excitement wasn't my strongest emotion.
Instead I felt guilty, awkward, out-of-place, numb...things I hadn't planned on feeling. The guilt came when I noticed tears in my mom's eyes while I just felt numb and tired and irritable. I felt as though I was just at another stop or destinationy, not home. The deployment, while not necessarily pleasant, had become my "norm" and now I was in a place that wasn't normal or comfortable to me anymore. I felt like I was in a dream-like nothing around me was real. It seemed like I was watching a movie instead of actually hugging my loved ones and going out to eat at a Tex-Mex restaurant. I thought once I was home everything would just pick up where it left off. Boy was I wrong!
Once home I quickly became stir-crazy with my time off, not knowing what to do with my free time. Among other things I decided to do several redecorating and remodeling projects at my Nana's house. I wanted to see all my friends and make trips out of state. My fiance' and I ended our engagement. Due to that change I made a last-minute job change and moved to a new town I didn't like at all, which led to me being away from my family & friends again for the next year--all culminating into a pretty rough transition.
Transitioning back to "real life" may not always be an easy task for Service Members or their families. I realize the media likes to play up the "messed up Soldier/Marine returning home" theme, but oftentimes loved ones back home are at fault for difficult transitions too and I think this is important to note and discuss-specifically in our profession. There are so many things family members can do to help a returning Veteran to ease back into life, but this does not typically happen (from the general impression I've gotten from military friends, colleagues and clients over the years).
I am fortunate to have a father who is retired military who understands me, a mother who shows me unconditional love and support, a grandmother who is a rock of stability and acceptance, and friends and extended family who are nothing short of dependable, loyal, loving, and supportive. But in my work in the behavioral health field in the Army, I've seen many Troops who lack such good fortune and the drastic impact that has on their morale and their psyche.
I'd like to feature more specific homecoming-related issues in upcoming blogs as this is an important and inevitable topic when counseling Service Members. Just returning from Afghanistan and having talked with many returning Veterans, I'd like to share some of what I've learned in hopes that it might help others to make their homecoming experiences less of a struggle and more enjoyable. Because it is a great thing to be home alive and in one piece when so many others were not so lucky. I think if more Troops and their families focused on just that, transitions would be much easier. It's what I've chosen to take away from my deployment experience-how thankful I am for my life and everything in it-and keeping my focus on that helps put everything else into perspective.
Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.