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Monday, March 23, 2015

When The War Hits Home

 It was a gorgeous day in central Texas. As we climbed Enchanted Rock, I thought about the warrior next to me. Although this was only the third time we'd been together in person, we'd climbed a lot of mountains together…figuratively speaking. For the past six years, we'd shared a journey of transition - I, the civilian, attempting to help him, the wounded warrior, to find peace with his past and learn to move forward into a fuller life. 
There had been some dark days along the way. Some moments of hopelessness had led me to wonder if he would pull through. But I knew God had a plan for his life, and that belief helped me to keep trusting…to keep hanging in there with him and hoping for the best. Now, all these years later, we hiked up the hill and talked about his combat experiences. Four tours of duty had taken their toll. I had heard the stories. I felt as though I knew his fallen buddies personally…I had heard of Grant's humor, of Michael's ability to more than make-up for his lack of physical size by his incredible leadership of the Marines he served with. We talked about defining a "hero." We talked about the effect that war has on those who endure it. As the hours ticked by, the conversation continued. Later on, as I lay in my hotel room, I thought about the unique privilege I've had for the last decade of my life: since my mid-teens, I've had the honor of getting to know these warriors in a special way. Away from the media, the rolling cameras, the political bias, I've been given an opportunity to see these individuals for who they really are: regular people who were inspired by a higher calling to go and fight for their brothers in arms and for their country. They are not superhuman as some might think of them as; they have families, favorite sports teams, beloved pets, and favorite songs just like the rest of us do. The main difference between them and the civilian world is their job…and, to them, that's what it is…a job. All of us are changed and affected by the work we do.
 Our service members come home from deployment(s) to a world that, while once familiar, is now unfamiliar. Their fellow comrades have become their family. Their job has become their life. And then, we fail on our part to comprehend or acknowledge that change, expecting them to simply return and pick up right where they left off. While I do believe that some service members have a greater ability to transition than others, all of them still carry a life-long impact because of what they've been through.
 I thought of the tattoo on my friend's left arm - a quote from Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." As this quote confirms, war does change people. But I wondered if the commonly-held opinion that war has to change you for the worse is really necessary. Perhaps the attitude of the person determines if it becomes a negative or not. I have met and known individuals who experienced the same horrors of war and, rather than taking the negative, their lives became positively different in the years that followed. I continued to reflect on my day spent with my friend and thought, could it be that war can change you for the better if you let it?
 While there are many aspects of combat that are traumatizing to the mind, body, and soul, there are also timeless lessons of courage, faith, hope, and bravery that emerge from the bloody battlefields too. There are friendships between warriors that last a lifetime. There can be more good than outweighs the bad if one chooses to focus on that. So often in life, we are told that all pain is bad. We are trained to think that suffering is bad. Then, when life brings either of those things our way, we crumble under it's weight. We fight it because we think we have to. We think we deserve to be out from under its crushing blow. But would we suffer differently if we had the perspective of knowing that suffering teaches us things we would never learn otherwise? As painful as war may be to the one who experiences it, war doesn't have to forever negatively alter the person's life-story. War doesn't have to have the final say in how the service member decides to live his or her life in the aftermath of it. I've seen warriors who endured horrific combat experiences go hard at life following their adversity, meeting each day with a smile and an infectious attitude of thankfulness and joy that would put most civilians to shame! Their appreciation and love of life inspire others in so many ways. They often say that they are living an even better life after their war-time experiences than they ever did before…or hoped to upon their return home.
 My thoughts drifted back to my friend and all that we had talked about that day. He had given me an even greater insight into the challenges all warriors face as they attempt to integrate back into the stateside life following a combat tour of duty. Several months ago, my friend had to make a choice as to how he was going to live the rest of his life. He felt guilty that he was still alive and his best buddies weren't. The therapists had told him that he'd be "disabled" for the rest of his life because of his injury. The world had come crashing down on this young man, and he felt helpless. But, somewhere along the way, I noticed that a change began to take place: he started to choose a path that would lead to healing. He stopped making excuses for the things that had happened, and he faced the darkness for what it was. On this day, we had stood at the top of the rock formation and reflected on how far he'd come. Life has its share of mountains. Of seemingly insurmountable circumstances that one must face. How they climb those mountains…if they ever choose to climb them at all…proves to be their making or their breaking. All of us must face our own war of sorts, that crucible through which we must pass and only by which we will learn what true victory is.
 Sadly, the civilian population fails to understand the changes that a life of military service brings about. When the warriors come home, civilians must learn to meet them on their turf. There is so much that these individuals have to contribute to society. Their mission isn't over when their boots touch U.S. soil. Through the many friendships I've developed with them over the years, I've come to respect and admire them for so many reasons. I feel privileged to know and support them. They have taught me so much more than I could ever hope to give to them in return. They are my friends and neighbors. By coming alongside them and reaching out to them where they're at, by not expecting them to immediately transition back to the people they were when they left us, by giving them the grace and the time to find their post-war identity - to begin that post-traumatic growth that so many of them seek - perhaps then, we will see an easier transition from the battlefield for those who serve this nation and, like my friend, they will discover an even more fulfilling life than they would've had otherwise.