Monday, March 29, 2010

Photos (20100330)

There are now 85 photos taken in Charkh district posted online at:

Several are unprofessionally grainy, but this is due to the fact that most photographing of local nationals was done "offhand," or on the sly.  The result: sub-par photos.  My apologies.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Earthen Walls

While on patrol with the Soldiers the other day, I had the rare opportunity to observe just how mud walls are constructed here in Charkh district. I would imagine there are many ways to build them, but here is the one I've seen. More than being simply utilitarian; they're works of art. And obviously, some builders are more artistic than others.

For a culture which claims to be quite community-oriented, perhaps even communal, the profusion of walls throughout Afghanistan is astounding. In many regards, it is the most compartmentalized place I have ever seen – even in the more rural areas. Walls are constructed for a host of reasons, no doubt, but appear fundamentally intended to keep others out.

I wondered for a time if they were erected to keep animals away from fruit and vegetable crops, but that theory fell collapsed when I quickly observed that most walls are nowhere near secure enough to keep out anything smaller than a human being. Small animals could easily breech these walls, and I haven't seen enough sheep, goats, or donkeys to presume that they pose a significant threat. The walls, I suppose, are to isolate one's home and property from everybody else.

While on helicopter flights, I've looked out the windows to see long, high walls skirting the perimeter of a local's property. Oddly, directly on the other side of his wall is another wall – skirting the perimeter of his neighbor's property. The narrow spaces between the two contain foot paths, occasionally a small canal (more a rut, really), or nothing at all. It seems like a waste of effort. 

One could probably argue that Afghans are fiercely private people and wish to conceal their day-to-day lives from scrutinous (and frequently abundant) onlookers. Perhaps. I would also cautiously propose that this is a shame-based culture, and privacy reduces witness to one's behavior incongruous with Koranic law. Some of these walls (and the houses often incorporated into them), more closely resemble near-windowless fortresses. In a way I don't fully understand, privacy to the point of isolation is important to the Afghans.

Walls here range from precarious and weak to absolutely massive, depending on their location, the dedication of those building them, their intended purpose, and a number of other factors. The only reason mud is a viable building product, incidentally, is that rainfall is remarkably low here; most water comes from snow melt or qanats (I'll save that one for another day). Additionally, the composition of the dirt itself, when mixed with a few key additives, makes for a cheap, stable, and undeniably abundant material.

Walls of any size or height aren't simply placed on the ground. A number of I've seen have a loosely-fitted stone base (usually the nicer ones). Stones are, after all, another readily-available building material in this region of the world. Depending on the size of the wall and probably the laziness of the builder, the stone foundations will be anywhere from eight inches to 36 inches high. This structure effectively preserves the lowest portions of the wall from seasonal runoff and erosion, freeze/thaw cycles and maybe even the abuse of traffic and animals. Atop this stone base, damp soil is shoveled into place.

When I observed the practice along the roadside, one man shoveled uniformly-sized, roughly rectangular clods to a second, who grabbed them and adeptly tossed them into the slowly-forming run of wall. A third man, using his hands and what I suppose was a trowel, tightened the packed clods and shaped them into a course of wall approximately 16 inches high and perhaps 14 inches deep (the depth diminishes as the wall tapers upwards with height). Though I cannot prove it, I would hypothesize that the consistency of the dirt (how wet it is, mostly) determines just how high each course will be built. If the soil is too soft, it sags. If it's too dry, it never packs properly and remains weak. Just how high to make the course, as well as soil moisture content, probably requires some skill and practice. So, course after course of wall is shoveled into place (after letting the previous one dry sufficiently), and the final result will be a wall of impressive strength and size. As the mud/soil sun bakes the entire project into virtual bricks, cracks will slowly develop (at fairly even intervals, oddly enough), giving the impression that the wall was actually composed of earthen blocks (see below photographs). These are the nicer, more elaborate examples: *Click on photos for a larger image, if desired.

In other areas (and seemingly at random), walls will be of lesser quality. Instead of clearly-defined courses, Afghans appear to have simply heaped dirt/mud into a winding, rough wall that skirts the edges of their yards, crops or properties.

It is difficult to tell which walls are simply poorly-built and which are ancient. I can't determine if some of them are 500 years old and showing their age, or five years old and shabbily constructed. Assessing their age and original condition is made all the more difficult by the practice of stuccoing. A number, particularly the nicer structures and frequently homes, are covered in a troweled smooth layer of softer mud – oftentimes mixed with straw (as a primitive strengthener). It, too, cracks and deteriorates with time, slowly revealing the workmanship beneath. See the photo below:

Since any rain at all jeopardizes the top edge of a wall, various things are done to protect them. For many, it simply means heaping soft mud atop the structure and expecting to replace or repair it on a fairly regular basis. For others, they run a course of flagstones or of loose stones mortared with mud. On some of the largest walls, builders will level off the top, install a layer of boards, and then sculpt a final course of mud atop them. Without a doubt, these top courses need considerable attention, at least relative to the remainder of the wall. See the photos below:

If you look closely at that last photo, you will see that in addition to simply throwing on an semi-expendable layer of mud, the builder also added sticks as reinforcement (hard to see, sorry). At first glance, I thought they were all raspberry shoots, but I have since seen a number of other plants represented there – to include cuttings from the cottonwood-like trees seen in the above photograph. None of them, at least as far as I can tell, have taken root. They're just there. If I ever get any video footage uploaded successfully (and I promise I'm trying), you will see examples of this practice more closely.

And so, with the great availability of soil and only a modest need for water, the only significant investment into a mud structure is labor. I imagine they're very time consuming. All the same, it's a very versatile material, and I've seen it augmented with bricks, mud bricks (probably not kiln fired), and concrete. All a builder need do is build a wall, add in some logs above doorways and windows (or breaks in the wall around the property), and an entryway is created. For a roof, the same can be done, and houses are probably reinforced with internal supports, too. In the end, a structure of consider height and durability can be built quite inexpensively. The first photo below shows a two-story structure with mud bricks in the background note the smoke from the small window or chimney port), and the second illustrates some of the colossal compounds that may be seen in more open terrain (near the flood plain).

 Looking around the homes and walls in Charkh district, I get the impression that some homes and walls are genuinely ancient, and residents have been simply adding to them for years. The final product is a strange and confusing labyrinth of not only walls, but also the interiors of homes. Three steps lead into a small foyer, where you can turn one way, walk up more stairs, and enter a two-story tower. Or you can walk straight and enter a courtyard. You can walk to the right and enter living quarters (which are also elaborately compartmentalized). It is a unique building style which I have seen nowhere else.

There are a few mud homes in Iraq (usually along the river and very rural, impoverished regions). The favored building material is concrete, bricks and cinder block. It could be due to an excess of sand in the soil (which would limit the soil's use as a building product), or it could be the ease of constructing a plumb and true concrete or block wall relative to the great efforts of a mud one. But out here, with poverty, abysmal road conditions, seasonal problems with mud and snow, the one consistently available and inexpensive building material is soil itself.

If the occasional car and far more frequent motorcycle were removed from the picture, photos from here could very well be from ancient times. Building practices appear relatively unchanged, save for the improvements of metal doors, glass windows, and electricity. A walk through nearly any area of Charkh, along the Pengram river in the valley, or moving out towards the hills in any direction, consistently strikes me as a walk through time.

 Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, March 26, 2010

Photos from Afghanistan (1)

 US Soldier observes a Charkh District marketplace from elevated overwatch position.

US Soldier spots for snipers overwatching nearby marketplace.

A mid-sized Charkh District town from nearby hilltop.

US Soldier spots for snipers overwatching nearby marketplace (Charkh District).

 Walled fruit orchard with small graveyard in foreground (Charkh District).

Blossoming fruit trees in Charkh District.

US Soldiers patrol the edge of a Charkh District town.

Fruit crops and mud walls, Charkh District.

US Soldiers patrol public road in Charkh District.

Charkh District.

US Soldiers patrol through Charkh District.

Grape arbor (without trellises) in Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Afghan farmer manually tills field in Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

 Farm in Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Afghan farmer tills soil while others look on.  Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Afghan rests while working in field.  Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Secondary home entrance.  Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Afhgan villager.  Jan Qadam village, Parwan Province.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Afghanistan (12 Mar, 2010)

Though it may be viewed by some as premature (for it frankly is), I have collected a few assessments of the Afghani countryside, terrain, the people, and the international effort to aid them in restoring and maintaining order within their borders.

It should be noted that the culture is altogether fractious – due to ethnic tension, geographic isolation, pockets of extremism, international influence (namely in the regions periphery to Pakistan), and widely-varying economic conditions.  As a general rule, however, survivalism appears to trump almost anything else.  I will return to this momentarily.

To the surprise of many, I touched down in a civilian airport in this country – Kabul International Airport (however small), was quickly processed by customs, grabbed my bags, and wandered outside alone.  No military personnel were waiting for me (nor was I expecting them to be there).  Upon reaching the parking lot, a local national approached, inquired in English if I needed a cab (to which I responded in the affirmative), and he grabbed his driver, stuffed my gear into the trunk, and we drove off into the chaos of Kabul.  The total cost for this transport: 100 US dollars.

Traffic was much as I expected; road-beaten old cars, jumping along pothole-ridden streets, opposing traffic careening towards us, open vendor stalls on either side of the roads, and a high number of pedestrians.  I attempted to get some footage of it, which can be found online here: 

As I witnessed firsthand in Iraq, there were frequent police and military checkpoints.  Also as I noticed in Iraq, they're virtually ineffective.  Personnel simply wave vehicles through, perhaps wave a greeting at a familiar face, and that's about it.  That, friends, is how Iraqi security forces failed to effectively reduce ordnance trafficking into Baghdad (ordnance which later became devastating carbombs in crowded public areas).

For lack of a better way to put it, some degree of poverty is commonplace here.  One could argue it's a lower standard of living, but such things are usually the consequence of necessity, not conscious decision.  Nothing is new, nothing is clean, and very little appears particularly improved.  I did see some new structures under construction, but they seemed to be the exception.

In terms of terrain, northern Kabul sprawls.  It extends away from the road, and up the surrounding hills (mostly to the west).  Most of it appears to have been developed DESPITE the inhospitable terrain.  Buildings are perched on rocks, or rocks are carved back a bit and a home is butted against them.  Most homes, however, are just square concrete structures built on dusty soil and rock, and the land is utterly devoid of vegetation.  I honestly don't recall seeing but a few trees or shrubs (whereas portions of Afghanistan to the south of here are quite superb for growing certain crops).

Aside from a strong propensity for peace, the other fundamentally missing element here in the north is water.  Rainfall is already minimal, a drought has worsened it, and Afghans complain that the bulk of their water is “lost into Pakistan,” which I presume means the river flows out of the country and Afghanistan, for more reasons than I can list here, lacks the sustainable infrastructure and finance to create a canal system.  Everything is dry, and this is considered the tail end of the rainy season.  Come later in the year, the dust will be choking.  The Afghans told me that.

The picture is decidedly bleak, insofar as poverty creates an imprisoning culture of hand-to-mouth survival.  People don't seem to thrive here.  Frankly, they don't seem to live, either.  No; they survive.  They get by.  It's probably best summed up by a recurring sight I encountered on the road north out of the city.  Firewood, of all things.

Anyone in the US who has spent time outside of a major city knows what firewood looks like.  Even if they live in a city, they've probably seen it.  Around Christmas, many grocery stores SELL it.  Vendors sell it here, too, but I initially didn't even recognize it as firewood.  It's all wrong.

Firewood logs – typically – are roughly 20 inch lengths of a tree, usually fairly straight, and chopped into manageable sizes.  Yet here, that isn't the case.  Here it's gnarled, twisted, and looks more like short pieces of root than tree.  At first glace, that's what I thought it was.  But after a saw it a few more times, I concluded it was from grape vines.

If I can drive nearly an hour and not observe hardly a single scrap of vegetation, I can presume that most vegetation is going to be cultivated.  Unlike the US, grapes probably don't just grow naturally around here.  They are planted, tended, and used to somehow support oneself and family.  So, if it's firewood, there's something severely amiss.

A grape arbor transformed into a heap of firewood indicates that a crop is dead or dying, a primary source of income is diminished or altogether gone, and there's little more to do but sell the scraps as fuel.  I even observed a boy attempting to SPLIT some of these short “logs.”  He appeared unsuccessful.

So, if you're burning your dead crops (the only fuel available) for firewood today, what will you burn tomorrow?  Moreover, what will you eat, what will you sell, and how will you survive?  None of these are easy questions, and I confess I have't a single reasonable answer.

I do know for a fact that the Army Corps of Engineers is building wells in the area and that the locals are supremely excited that they may now be able to irrigate their crops.  I heard of one village today where the population has dwindled from about 1,500 to 500 – mostly for reasons of water unavailability.  As much as it will help, wells won't fix everything.  They merely represent a positive step in the right direction.  Also, take into consideration that this is a problem around NORTHERN Afghanistan.  To the south, the objection is with WHAT they're growing.

Survivalism, if I may overuse the word, is not conducive to a sustainable culture, region, country, or geographically isolated locality.  It is a philosophy of “make do” today, and worry about tomorrow whenever tomorrow arrives.  Typically, tomorrow will require a greater sacrifice; but the troubles of today make that a distant second to the present.

Survivalism also provides a breeding ground for a host of other social problems.  Moral flexibility takes root (at least here), as Afghans concern themselves less with doing right and more with not starving to death.  Now, if you factor in a longstanding history of violence (from a myriad of sources), the conditions are further worsened.

Despots will rise abundantly with the promise that they can provide some sort of sustainability.  People, in dire need of food and stability, will eagerly follow them.  But despots also have agendas – often very self-serving agendas – and use their positions of power for person gain, overtly or subtly.

Violence is also given a dangerous foothold, since overwhelming fear of somebody or some group becomes the only means by which to control them.  When despots aren't promising things they rarely deliver, they're using fear to maintain their positions.

Now, factor in ethnic tensions, Islamic extremism, and whatever localized problems plague a culture, and the situation is worsened even further.  In fact, things spiral out of control.  Kindness is generally confused for weakness, and the kind give up after they've been exploited.  Good leadership challenges a populace, so they're often killed off before they have opportunity to make much difference.  Battle lines are drawn, people arbitrarily align themselves on either side (and frequently switch, too), and chaos ensues.

International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), the collaborative effort of more than 40 countries serving here under NATO command (54% of whom are US forces), are caught in the middle of it, and faced with difficult problems for which there are few (if any) easy remedies.

How do you convince a culture of the merits of peace when “peacemongers” are consistently killed off by the opportunistically violent?  How do you raise good leaders when it guarantees an imminent threat on your life?  How do you break a cycle of violence more than 1,000 years in the making?  How do you encourage a culture to consider sustainability when they don't have the luxury of thinking beyond what and how they'll eat today?  How do you bring forth lush vegetation and crops from a land where the rain rarely falls, winters are brutally harsh and summers are oppressively hot?

Fundamentally, how to you convince a culture unfamiliar with it, that some sort of peaceful self rule, free from the fear of their leadership, is a better way of life?  They've never witnessed it, after all, so it's unreasonable to presume it an innate conviction.  No, you have to DEMONSTRATE that it's a viable alternative to perpetual war with other nations, one's own countrymen, and even a neighbor.  But that, however, takes an enormous commitment of time, resources, and the unwavering attention of people who genuinely care.  Time, though, is in short supply.  Neither the US public, nor the citizenry of any other country serving here under ISAF are patient.  They want results, and they want them soon.  They want their boys and girls home, and less time invested in foreign catastrophes while they face lesser ones domestically.  They want results now, or yesterday.  At the very least, soon.

Looking about Bagram Airfield (BAF), one gets the impression that NATO forces have committed enough troops to make a difference in Afghanistan, but a wholly insufficient number to make a LASTING one.  A public relations war is not won strictly by creating “sustainable wealth” (the favorite catchphrase in both Iraq and Afghanistan).  Nor is a kinetic war won by simply killing the enemy.  Eliminating a dominant threat may be necessary, but truly sacrificial leadership must be poised and ready to step into the void created by dispatching the enemy.

The nature of Afghanistan is that the populace isn't terribly inclined to align with the “right” side.  Instead, they're inclined to align with the side they think will win – and thereby stay in their good graces.  Yet NATO, fighting a PR and kinetic war on multiple fronts, doesn't want to win.  They want a legitimate Afghan government and defense forces to win.  And that has proven quite difficult.

Unfortunately, international efforts are notoriously top-heavy, full of overlapping logistics and planning personnel, redundancy, confusion, and organizational nightmares.  I have to wonder sometimes if a number of personnel, isolated as they are on Bagram, have forgotten there's a war going on.  The best example of that was what I observed yesterday.

While walking along the roadside, I passed a foreign airman (perhaps Polish?), appropriately dressed in his fire-retardant flight suit.  Inappropriately, he was sporting at least ten individual unit patches which virtually covered both shoulders and the upper torso of his uniform.  And even some shiny pins.  Worse yet, he was also wearing a blue silk ASCOT.  Who, may I ask, wears an ascot in a combat zone?  I would equate the sporting of an ascot in a combat zone to a Marine infantryman buckling the NCO sword to his waist every time he prepares for a mission.  I'll say no more.

It's hard to make generalizations about this place, this terrain, and this culture.  Because of that, solutions – which require a degree of generalizations – will meet with only limited success.  But everybody's learning, and the battlescape is changing quickly to reflect this.  Over the next two months, I'm looking forward to discovering how individual units and commands are tackling the challenges unique to their areas of responsibility.  Please keep reading, and encourage others to do so as well.  As a nation, we need to know what our servicemembers are doing.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Video Footage - Afghanistan (20100311)

Video footage shot from a cab going north out of Kabul, Afghanistan.  Clip is muted and slowed for the sake of detail:

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, March 1, 2010

What to Expect

If you are veteran of OIF or OEF (preferably with combat experience) and are now transitioning back to the civilian world, you should read this.  It doesn't provide much in the way of solutions, but it does offer explanations, which will hopefully enable YOU to find solutions.  It isn't exhaustive, either.  It only addresses some of the most common challenges a transitioning veteran will face.  What you do with it is your decision, but it is my hope that this somehow helps you move beyond an active participation in war and towards the myriad of opportunities and adventures that life has to offer.  This time in your life will be among the most trying.  That is almost irrefutable.

Foremost, you will be angry.  Things which didn't used to bother you now will.  In fact, nearly everything will anger you.

However much you enjoyed your time in the military and whatever you got out of it, it doesn't change the fact that you're now exiting – for a reason.  It's difficult to make generalizations as to the “why,” but it probably centers around you being weary of an extremely demanding deployment schedule, tired of the relational sacrifice the military requires (in this day and age), lack of belief in the missions you've been called to undertake, and very likely a great deal of bitterness with your leaders.  Looking back on it, nearly every aspect of it will either invoke anger or grief.

You'll be angry that you answered a call to patriotic service, but learned somewhere along the way that your peers, subordinates and leaders are all human and prone to mistakes.  Subordinates make mistakes that create more work for you.  Peers make more mistakes that create more work for you.  Leaders make mistakes that get your friends killed, seemingly endangered you needlessly, and at the very least made life miserable.  You'll feel like you've just burned some number of years of your life and have very little to show for it but a number of deceased friends and a body that's falling apart long before its time.

You will be angry at the leadership that sent you out on missions you swore were unnecessary.  You'll be equally angry at the rules of engagement under which you were forced to operate.  They sent you away to war, but handcuffed you when you tried to complete your missions.  Individual mistakes of your leaders may have resulted in some of your friends never returning home – or at least returning broken and mutilated.  You'll be angry at the conduct of the war.

You'll be angry with your service, but when people attempt to tell you how stupid the wars are, you'll fiercely defend your service, not willing to make the admission that the past few years of your life have been invested in something that a number of US citizens vocally condemned.  You'll avoid them as best you can, and may not even mention that you're a veteran in their presence.  It might seem like the best way to avoid a confrontation.

You'll go out to stores and observe with horror how people rudely complain when the express checkout aisle takes more than a minute to navigate.  You'll overhear conversations from your peers that center around what appear to be meaningless subjects.  Which celebrity is dating so-and-so, and what movie star is having an affair.  Most, when asked, won't be able to find Iraq or Afghanistan on a map.  You might observe a few fussing how the barrista gave them a skim milk latte instead of a soy latte, which will drive home your belief that your peer group is completely out of touch with reality.  They will often have no knowledge whatsoever of current events.  In the back of your mind you'll think, “I defended THESE people?” and you'll question the fundamental merits of your service.

People will rarely know how to approach you.  Many, for lack of anything better to say, will thank you for your service.  Despite their sincerity (as much as they're capable of expressing legitimate thanks), you'll frequently see their comments as condescending.  You'll avoid them as best you can.  Others will start a conversation with, “so what are your thoughts on the war,” but before you even begin to answer, they'll continue with, “because I think...” or “because I heard...”  What you mistook for genuine curiosity turned out to be simply a clever means for them to initiate talking AT you about their support, opposition, or indifference towards your war.  Much of what they say will be firmly rooted in misinformation.  In reality, their minds are already made up, so attempting to change them will be an angering – and futile – endeavor.

After repeated encounters like this – people trying to share their opinions without regard for yours – you may reach the conclusion that nobody really cares that you served at all, that they're incapable of understanding what you did, and also unable to grasp any of the dangers the United States faces abroad.  Once again, you'll find yourself wondering why you bothered to swear an oath to defend these people.

Fundamentally, you are now a different person – and the consequence of this is that you've lost a lot of connectivity with the public.  Your civilian friends, though they may not put it to words, will notice changes in you – perhaps sufficient to drive a wedge into your relationship, or even ruin your friendship.  You'll be angry that they're appearing to abandon you, and you'll blame them fully for not making any greater attempts to understand you, to listen to you, or even let you explain what you've endured.

Your family will view you differently, too.  The young son or daughter they sent off to war has come back fundamentally changed.  They'll be keenly aware that you're angry, and will probably try to steer clear of any subject or situation that might set you off.  You'll view it as abandonment.  More than this, they won't know how to engage you very well.  Your experiences, though now similar to nearly 2,000,000 other young men and women who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, are so vastly dissimilar from their own lives that they'll have no idea how to connect with you, find common ground, and continue the same level of relationship you perhaps once enjoyed.  In truth, they may also be afraid of you.  News articles, reports, and television programming has repeatedly painted veterans as easily-inflamed, prone to violence, and socially awkward.  As they draw away from you from lack of understanding, you will get more frustrated by it, which will serve to reinforce their misinformation.

Because you've spent the last few years in the military and a number of months in a combat zone, you're going to try to make up for lost “party time.”  Though you know it's impossible, you're going to try to drink a year's worth of beer and shots in one sitting, go out entirely too often, and soon realize that it doesn't make you any happier or more fulfilled.  Realizing this will be a great disappointment, but you'll probably keep trying anyway.

The nature of combat is that your body and mind have chemically and psychologically adapted to a different perception of “normal.”  There's an immediacy and urgency to everything, and you've grown accustomed to it.  Your physiology has received frequent injections of adrenalin, endorphins, and whatever other naturally-occurring hormones the body released when in firefights, their aftermaths, and high stress.  In some ways, you will be like an addict coming off a drug.  Just like addicts, you're probably going to look for a substitution.

Alcohol will seem like the most convenient solution because it calms the nerves, dulls whatever hyper-vigilance you might be experiencing, and helps you relax or talk more freely.  Alcohol, however, is also a depressant, so it may very well bring out the darkest things you have on your mind, but would have never discussed sober.  And because alcohol also impairs judgment, it may also cause you to consider violence.  You will frighten people, worry others, and a number will simply avoid you.  

When friends or bouncers try to restrain you or calm you down, the first thing you'll retort is that you're a combat veteran and don't deserve to be treated so rudely.  In reality, they are in the right, and you are in the wrong.  Your status as veteran does not authorize illegal, violent, or socially unacceptable behavior – despite however honorable your service to the country might have been.

Aside from alcohol, you might try other substances as “substitutions,” but they, too will be be disappointments.  For a number of veterans, it will be more subtle.

Because of the high impact lifestyle you've lived in the military, civilian life will strike you as extremely boring, unrewarding, and in some cases, “not worth the bother.”  You might seek out new ways to get an adrenaline rush or at least experience some excitement.  For some this means buying a motorcycle because you crave the danger.  For others, spending huge sums of money will be the drug.  Others will get into fights all the time, and a few will simply withdraw altogether in defeat.

You will occasionally find yourself willing to talk about difficult subjects and presumably in the company of a receptive audience.  Carefully, you'll start to tell a story about losing a friend, or about a car bomb that caused catastrophic injury and deaths.  Just as you think they're starting to understand what you're trying to explain, they'll blurt out, “oh my God that's so scary,” or something similar.  They won't know how to “receive” what you're telling them – and much of it is so horrifying that they can't listen without comment.  You'll be angry with them, and might give up talking to them completely.  Part of you may also be sufficiently afraid of your own anger that you flee any situations that may cause you to feel like you're losing control.

In your heart of hearts you will believe that nobody understands you except for the few men and women who went through the same experiences over there with you.  For lack of an alternative, you'll turn to your fellow veterans as the only people to whom you'll be able to relate in the least.  You will be tempted to spend all your time with veterans, not only sharing stories of your experiences, but also complaining about how stupid everybody else is.  You might conclude that the country you swore to defend is full of people who are too ignorant and blind to reality to deserve defense.

The nature of combat service means its participants will see first-hand the “underbelly of life.”  Whereas the average American might believe that people are generally good and nice to each other, you have seen with your own eyes just how horrible humans are towards each other.  While a US civilian may assume the best about humanity, you will likely presume the worst.

Because you feel naked without it (from so many months of carrying one), you might attempt to carry a firearm everywhere for safety.  Part of you is aware that it's probably completely unnecessary, but another part of you wants to be prepared regardless.  You just want to still feel in control.  Your fascination with firearms, however well-founded, however much you sincerely enjoy shooting, however trained you might be, will scare people unaccustomed to seeing guns.

Even though you probably don't regret getting out of the military, there will be certain aspects that you miss about it – and you'll try to recreate them.  A few might choose to go back in, but others will try alternatives.  You might look into becoming a private military contractor, a mercenary, or even consider joining Israeli Defense Forces or the French Foreign Legion.  These all fall into the category of “substitutions.”

A number of you will attempt to pursue the closest civilian equivalent to combat military service – police officer.  Very quickly, however, you will realize how fiercely competitive the hiring process is, and, even though you have years of exemplary military service, you aren't nearly as qualified as you might think.  You will also experience this when applying for other positions.  You thought your military service represented some degree of maturity, intelligence, and responsibility.  The civilian world, however, does not.  For the most part, they still want to see college degrees, college transcripts, or some other certification.  Just because you know how to maneuver house-to-house under fire, doesn't mean you're qualified to be a police officer.  You will be angry when you realize that military service prepared you for very little in the “real world.”

College will frustrate you, since it is often taught by men and women who have never left academia long enough to see how the world really works, and because it is attended by students who strike you as extremely immature and sheltered.  You will try to voice your opinions in classes, but teachers will often shut you down or shut you up.  If they disagree with your ideas, they may very well give you a poor grade in their course.  It will only increase your contempt for them and discourage you pursuing school any further.  You might give up altogether.

You will have nightmares about certain things you experienced in a combat zone, but you will be reluctant to talk to anybody about them.  Civilians won't understand, and even psychologists won't be much help, you'll think.  It's something you'll have to suffer through alone.

You'll play and replay events in your mind and wonder what you could have done differently – or what somebody ELSE could have done differently.  If they made a mistake, you will focus all your rage on them.  You'll forget that the enemy was the one attacking you and your fellow troops, and instead blame individual leaders for whatever went wrong.  You will be dissatisfied with your own performance, and therefore also angry at yourself.

You will genuinely want to talk about certain experiences you had in the military, but you'll be too angry to know where to begin.  If you're you able to do it, it'll still come out as a shotgun blast of information, emotions, and anger, and unless your audience is extremely patient and empathetic, they might be so uncomfortable that they never ask you anything again.  Some of your friendships will end because of this, and you'll be angry at them for it.

Leaving the house at all will put you in contact with people you will no doubt determine are ignorant, uninformed, impatient, and extremely rude.  It's possible that you'll start seeing your home as one of the few safe places left.  You'll leave the house only when you have to, come home as quickly as possible, and avoid human interaction in environments that you can't control.  The isolation, however, will also make you angry, reaffirm your belief that people will never understand you, and convince you that even trying is a waste of time.  Out of loneliness, you will turn to the only two groups that don't judge you wrongly: fellow veterans and substances.

Isolating yourself may become so second nature to you that leaving the house becomes a nightmare.  You won't like crowds because you can't control them.  You won't like busy restaurants because you can't hear what people are saying at your table – which is both frustrating and socially awkward.  You might even give up talking on the phone – because your hearing isn't so good, people don't want to listen, and you're convinced they're only checking in on you out of guilt, anyway.  You may retreat from reality altogether – not a civilian, not a servicemember, but something in between.  You will consider yourself a misfit, and it will anger you.

You may wrongly conclude that the most interesting, important, and honorable times of your life are already over.  That after being a war hero, or at least a warrior, everything else you do will be ultimately meaningless, unrewarding, and a total waste of energy.  You will feel abandoned by the very country you swore to defend, misunderstood by your family, apathetically ignored by your peers, and scornfully judged by your professors.  You will be so blind with rage that you'll be unable to step back long enough to gain any clarity.  That place of total discontent will feel like a trap, and at a certain point you may determine that your life isn't worth continuing.  At least it will be a merciful escape from what you're experiencing.  With embarrassment, you'll consider it, never talk to anybody about it, and then dismiss it.  But it'll creep back when you least expect it, and you won't know what to do with it.  You will feel helpless, and ending it will seem like the only way to regain control.

If you look at all of this, it paints what may appear to be a hopelessly bleak picture.  But that's not the case.  Speaking from experience, none of this lasts forever.  Time has a mysterious way of mending things, and people have a beautiful way of helping.  And truthfully, you are not alone.  Every one of the 26,000,000 United States veterans alive today has dealt with this on some level, moved through it completely, or at least begun the process.  Their questions are the same as yours and mine, and  the answers we find, in time, will closely parallel theirs.  These men and women, more than any others, are perfectly suited to help us, reach out to us, and provide peace where we currently have little.  They're reaching out to us right now, eager to help, and all we have to do is reach back.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

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