This might be painful to read. Just a warning.
One of the things that tends to get glossed over in various discussions of the current war is the severe emotional toll that gets inflicted on our troops during a conflict. You occasionally hear something in the news, but for the most part people just don’t notice. And for many soldiers even admitting that these problems exits is taboo. Real soldiers don’t get worn down emotionally. Only weak soldiers do.
I have considered this carefully, and decided that I am going to share my experience on this subject. Long time readers may recall that I served in Bosnia and Kosovo. Bosnia wasn’t really all that bad. By the time I showed up the multi-national force had been in place for several years. I worked in an office, and for the most of the serious fighting had ended by the time I arrived.
But Kosovo was another matter.
Now before I go into this I want to stress a few things. I am not trying to claim that my experience in Kosovo was as bad as what soldiers in other conflicts had to deal with. This isn’t about being in some sort of pissing contest with other veterans. Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq experienced far worse than me. I don’t even like imagining what soldiers in Viet Nam went through. And many soldiers got through those conflicts emotionally unscathed. This is actually what trips some people up. They compare themselves to other soldiers in other conflicts and go, “Well it wasn’t as bad as they had it. I don’t have the right to feel all messed up.” But it’s not about how bad other people had it. Its about what you went through, and how it made you feel.
In Kosovo I was in a non-combat, tactical unit. This meant we traveled around “outside the wire” all day, but we weren’t specifically tasked with patrolling or engaging hostile units. We got to speak to the locals, find out their needs, advise them on US Army activities, and try to help encourage a better relationship between them and US Forces. Oh, also we were supposed to undo roughly 300 years of ethnic strife.
I wasn’t involved with very much combat. There was some while I was there, but for the most part, I was pretty lucky and avoided the worst of it.
But the sheer amount of suffering that the locals had gone through started to grind on me after a while. That and the fact that even after all that suffering, nobody was willing to quit. It was like the entire country was one giant asylum filled with the violently insane. People treated grudges from four generation ago the way you or I would treat something that happened yesterday.
And when you’re in the Army, it’s not cool to talk about how stuff like that is starting to seriously bug you. And so I kept it to myself.
Eventually I shipped back to the states. And then I had trouble sleeping. And I started snapping at the people I worked around. Eventually I decided that I needed to take up some sort of hobby in an attempt to get back into a decent head space. Since I used to build models when I was in high school, I decided to give that a try. And as I have always been a huge history nerd, I got a scale model of a Mesopotamian step pyramid. Over the course of a week, I put that sucker together until after a particularly bad day, I took it out to the parking lot and set in on fire. One of my NCOs noticed me doing this and gave me a “Are you nuts?” look, but he left it alone.
Well I felt kind of stupid after that, so I bought another one, and tried to finish it again. I got closer to finishing it, but again, a bad day set me into a rage and I took it outside and put it to the torch.
The same NCO witnessed this act as well and he decided that something was wrong. And The next day I found myself ordered to go to the health clinic to see about getting some help.
And that’s when the doctor told me the news:
“Son, if you don’t stop smoking ziggurats it’s gonna kill you.”