As this month draws to an end amid the usual clamor of Christmas music and frenzied shopping, some 40,000 troops will be returning home from Iraq to face one of the hardest challenges of their lives: turning back into civilians.
Military culture, training, and war itself do a splendid job of “taking the civilian out of a person and putting in a soldier,” as troops like to say, but nobody is offering a course on the reverse process. So, as some 10 years of veteran studies have shown, troops will be coming back to face a series of hardships that, in some ways, can be even more challenging than war itself—so much so that the military has already seen record rates of suicide, domestic violence, and divorce.
The reasons for this are manifold. After living for months, or even years, in an atmosphere of intense urgency and danger, quotidian life at home can seem suffocatingly dull, trivial, and irritating. Who, after killing or seeing others killed, can care about family squabbles, movies, fashion, or sports, let alone the little nuisances of life? Thus the returning veteran mother finds herself numb to her children’s fretting; the spouse to her husband’s problem; the friend to his buddies’ worries about jobs and girlfriends. All seem unimportant, self-indulgent, boring.
The new veteran is also likely to be filled with horrible memories and nightmares, to be suffering from survivor guilt, and to be mourning the death of friends. Many will have also experienced sexual persecution in the military—harassment, assault, or rape. Others will be eaten up by remorse and self-loathing over the deaths and suffering they have caused, the kind of remorse that rots the soul. Many will also be suffering from physical wounds and ill health.
Compounding these problems is the fact that troops are coming home to bleak job prospects and a foundering economy.
Traumas like these often lead veterans to numb themselves with alcohol and drugs, which in turn can lead to criminal violence and homelessness, but most commonly, war trauma turns into isolation and silence, the same silence we saw in our fathers over World War II. The silence can be a veteran’s way of protecting his or her family from the horrors of war, it can be avoidance, or it can be shame.
Whatever lies behind a particular veteran’s struggle to return to civilian life, all have one problem in common: they feel lost because they no longer have a mission, a burning reason to get from one day to the next. And that is where hope lies, for a new mission can be found.
Of the 50 or so Iraq War veterans I have talked to over the past five years, the ones who are doing best are those who have found a passionate cause, either to help others or to correct what they perceive as a wrong.
Some have turned to helping veterans worse off than they are through organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project, Veterans for Common Sense, or Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which advocates for veterans’ rights.
Some have found a mission in supporting women veterans in particular, through Swords to Plowshares, for instance, or by helping victims of military sexual assault through organizations such as A Black Rose Campaign, Make the Connection, Carri’s Dad, or Stop Military Rape, which runs an online Military Rape Crisis Center.
Others have focused on helping gay and lesbian troops, such as American Veterans for Equal Rights, while some veterans, depending on their politics, have found their mission in working for peace through organizations such as Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace.
They feel lost because they no longer have a mission, a burning reason to get from one day to the next.
And yet others have discovered their mission to be reparation, choosing to help Iraqis through the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which provides legal assistance to thousands of displaced Iraqis, the Iraqi American Reconciliation Project, or the Checkpoint One Foundation, started by Capt. Jason Faler to help soldiers rescue their Iraqi interpreters and their families.
Many more such organizations exist—veterans love to create organizations, for they know, whichever war they survived, that community and a mission can help them adjust to life at home.
So here is something that all the friends, families, teachers, and lovers of returning troops can give them for Christmas: invite them out for a dinner or a walk, don’t let them isolate themselves, and collect organizations like these that can help veterans find a new mission in life—one that might rescue them as much as it helps others.