Warriors: We Have Earned the Rest of Our Lives
by Joe DeCree
To All My Brothers and Sister Warriors,
I have been reading the traffic on this blog for a couple of years and it has helped me immensely in my own journey back to light. The recent post “When You Can’t Be a Warrior Anymore… Is There a Reason to Go On?” hits such a chord in us. I love the feedback. I am also impressed that Britta, who never served a day in a uniform, has captured the essence of our struggle so well. Reading the almost 200 comments that followed is the inspiration behind what you read next.
Combat was perhaps the seminal moment of my life. I remember thinking when my tour was up that I wished I had been blown to pieces overseas because nothing would top it and deep down I knew that nothing else in my life would measure up to those events; but more importantly, nothing else would give me the feeling of purpose that combat gave me.
I stood on an Afghan mountain and asked God to take me then. I got back and proceeded to prove myself right. I had a couple of really interesting jobs that kind of felt like a mission, but I lost them to various reasons. The biggest one because I wanted more. In Afghanistan, I screamed into a radio and things happened. My guys got the supply drop or medevac. I got aircraft. I got what I needed and flipped the switch on our province. As a civilian, it seems like I cannot get a working computer at the office. What a comedown.
Being a warrior is a calling. It is a cosmic purpose. Most of us lost that too soon, even if you retired from it. It is an identity. It is a mantra. It is a way of life. There are so many losses when we come home. The loss of all of that being the most profound. That loss is as indelible as the death of brothers in war.
We face additional losses, too, because time was not still back home while we were out grinding foreign policy objectives. My youngest left the house right after I got back the last time. I was not ready for it. I still had things to explain to both my girls; who was going to protect them if not me? Who would counsel them? It is easy to go from loss to loss to loss.
After that, things began to unravel. I picked up an addiction, had an affair, almost lost my marriage, lost two businesses, and was in danger of being fired from another job. It felt like I went from someone who could make anything happen to someone who was completely incompetent in my own life. I used to sit on the edge of the bed a couple nights a week staring at a .357 daring myself to pick it up and end the great charade of life. I was pretty angry at God. He had several chances to take me out and did not. I got even lower when I thought that I did not even have the courage to do so.
Thank God my wife did not leave me. I think I would have if I were her. I even had a couple of army brothers tell me “Dude. Get. Help.” I checked into the vet center in town. I did the PTSD screening and despite having checked yes to 75% of the questions, I was arguing (more like bargaining) with the counselor that this could not possibly be me. Eventually, I started counseling and now am doing alright. I also went back to church and had some honest conversations with my Maker. They were not pretty, and I think I lost the arguments.
But a funny thing happened about a year ago. I was sitting with my family on Thanksgiving. Both my girls and their husbands (both of whom had combat tours), my wife of 25 years, and my in-laws. They were all just laughing and having fun. At that moment, I was grateful that I had been spared. I would never have seen my daughters so happy if that had not happened and seeing them that way was worth all the crap I had to go through to get to that point. That was nine years after my last deployment.
I finally got up the courage to get involved with other veterans who are not doing so well. I am active in church, too, and I recommitted to my marriage. After all, my wife deserved better than what I had been giving her, and killing myself would only have aggravated her struggles with me. I still do not feel the same sense of purpose I did in combat and I never will again, but I have gotten into some very worthwhile things. I am the patriarch of a very impressive family. I do not know how much credit I deserve for that, but it is what it is. I don’t know how much I have done for the local veterans, but I get more requests all the time.
It is harder to see real outcomes in the civilian world. In uniform, I called for CAS (Combat Air Support) and things blew up. Problem solved. I set a charge that took the door down and rounded up the nefarious characters inside and sent them to an all-expenses-paid Caribbean vacation in Cuba. Problem solved. On the outside things happen slower and you have to look for the results. I do not know what, if anything, I have actually accomplished for fellow vets, but I do know they keep asking me. Not as sexy as CAS and certainly not as definitive, but that does not mean it is not something.
It is a long road back and the road never truly ends, even after death. We have earned the rest of our lives. What do you want that story to be? That you gave out and shot yourself? That you started a camp for troubled boys and girls? That you became a professional athlete? All of these are things combat vets have done.
There are and will be times that we do not want the rest of our lives. The problem for us is our lives were never our own, not truly. We lived our lives for the nation, for our families, for our brothers in arms, for the ideal of America, for our God. The reason we felt so purposeful in combat was because of the number of lives we were impacting for a better future. The good news is that we can still do all of those things. Oh, it is not the same as taking on ISIS and freeing a village of that ilk, but in the larger picture what we do now has the potential to be more impactful and for much longer than the battle we are so proud to have been a part of. Please do not waste that.
The rest of life will take amazing turns for you, but only if you let it. Those turns will not always be good, but the good ones can have a way of making the bad ones seem worth the price of admission; again, you have to let that happen.
You cannot isolate. Things look worse in your own head. You need another trusted perspective. Find some other veterans that you feel safe with. Let them know how you feel about life. Work it out together just like we did for training scenarios. Don’t abandon what you know works because the terrain looks a little different on this side of the uniform. See yourself as mission-critical personnel. I guarantee you that the other folks in your life do.
You cannot do this alone. If you cannot talk to anyone else, then talk to Britta or to me. Get involved in something. Possibilities present themselves once you start pressing the attack. Do not assume that the way it is now is the way it always has to be.
This was originally published on Lifeafterwar.org and first appeared in The Havok Journal on January 15, 2019.