Best Defense

Thoughts on coming home from combat: Some things you never leave behind

Best Defense columnist reflects how combat changes people.

Army Medevac Unit Tends To The War Wounded Near Marja, Afghanistan
MARJA, AFGHANISTAN - SEPTEMBER 23: Army MEDEVAC helicopter crew members with Dustoff Task Force Shadow of the 101st Combat Aviation Brigade help Marines carry a severely wounded Marine to a helicopter on September 23, 2010 near Marja, Afghanistan. The Marine later died of his injuries. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

By Keith Nightingale

Best Defense guest columnist

Combat changes people. It is not a simple matter of leaving it all behind when one boards the plane to return home. Everyone has some secret file cabinets of the mind that store the emotionally searing moments and darker residue of their lives. For the combat veteran, this vault can be quite extensive and subject to unprogrammed withdrawals and viewings. The human coping mechanism provides a variety of resolutions that each person draws upon to keep the vault closed and unknown to his or her domestic companions and relationships.

On the surface, there appears normality. Underneath, the suppressive mechanisms are hard at work keeping the darkness away. In many cases, the bearer is unaware of the activities until in some specific moment, gesture or scene, the past becomes present and a new part of the person is noted. Domestic relationships become adjusted as new aspects of a personality emerge. New obsessions, behavioral patterns, long moments of silence, inability to communicate as in the past or just a distant eye on a quiet day indicating the vault is opening. “Yes. I was in combat today—and I always will be.”

Walking through a farm field, aspects of the terrain take on new significance. Fields of fire are mentally plotted. The best defensive terrain is selected. Likely avenues of approach are scanned and noted. The new corn and soybean fields are seen as visual distractors as the mental military calculus unfolds–not to be noted by the walking companion who sees only the progress of the green. The fields he walked as a boy with his father are no longer friendly.

Crossing the street, a judgment is made as to sniper placement, the best building access point, the location of covering forces and the best position for overwatch. Starbucks is just across the walkway but there is an imaginary platoon securing its perimeter.

The most important game of the year is on the tube a bright Sunday morning. A phone rings and a conversation unfolds. The game is ignored for considerable time. The conversationalists agree to meet at a specific time and place. The life partner mentions the conflict with an important family event. Unfortunate but this is more important and has to be done. This person on the other end was with me one dark day.

The helicopter ambulance passes overhead. A quick glance from sound to sight opens the vault full wide. Out pours a scene of some time ago with dust, smoke, streaking tracers, sudden explosions and enshrouding dark silence accompanied by great pain. No one else sees that but the one that opened the vault. Despite his location, he is in combat.

In a quiet moment, he can hear past conversations that are unheard by other people in the room. They are of hard cynical jokes with a morbid dark sense of humor. He hears the talk and in his mind’s eye the faces of his fellow soldier’s with shoulders against the mud dike of an unnamed village just discernible in the silver grey light of a dawn. We survived the night. Now we have to work on the day. “One more day God. One more day.” There is a pause in the room while everyone looks at him as he returns from his world to theirs.

The kitchen has always been the repository of the best of family feelings. The aroma of a roast, a soup, or a favorite pastry unlocks pleasant memories. Sometimes, for whatever reason of stimulus, the aroma changes. It is harsh with cordite, hot JP 4 and the ugly deep breath of a newly opened abdomen. Blood has a unique odor that lingers far longer than it takes to wash off the hand. The reason for the sudden grimace amongst all the goodness is lost on the room. To clear his head, he walks out the door. The rich earth of his home yard as he rakes the rose bed suddenly becomes that pungent odor of the village last cleared. He is back from the war but he is still in combat.

Purple Hearts are awarded for wounds received in combat. The regulations require that they be the result of hostile action and require medical treatment. For those that receive the award, the wound is and was obvious. There is no provision for mental wounds and the weight carried by each combat participant as he or she struggles to keep that dark vault closed. Observers are privy to moments but never see the whole catalogue enclosed in the labyrinth of the mind. There is no Purple Heart authorization for wounds not seen and not treated-but they are wounds nonetheless.

The child’s innocent question–“Were you in combat?”–requires an affirmative answer. “Yes. I was.” (And still am.) There are many more wounds than awards.

Scott Olson/Getty Images News

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1
Tag: War
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