“It was very stressful trying to fit back in my own family. I nearly killed the baby no less than four times — twice choking on some food I left in his reach, once on coffee I left on the table and he pulled onto himself . . . and a series of me not watching, and him falling on his head. . . . I stepped into a time warp and just felt like I was a third child for my wife to watch. I was doing stuff wrong or not knowing what to do. It is hard to explain.”
This man’s specialty in Afghanistan does not require him to engage in close combat. Imagine how much more deeply estranged from family, from peaceful existence, a heavy-combat returnee must feel. Hard to explain, indeed.
Sebastian Junger, a journalist and the co-director of the award-winning documentary “Restrepo,” probably understands the mindset of a soldier better than most civilians. In preparing the documentary, he spent time with troops at a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan — five visits between 2007 and 2008.
JUNGER ARRIVED in the Korengal a week after troops in the northern part of the valley had shot into a truck full of young Afghan men, killing several of them. The truck had not stopped as ordered at a checkpoint. The soldiers thought they were about to be blown up. A miscommunication, and innocent civilians were dead.
Junger worries about such troops as they try to adjust to life in the United States. In a New York Times opinion piece on July 17, he floats the idea of a national memorial to all the innocent lives taken by war. No matter who killed them. He suggests that if we as a nation take collective responsibility for this tragic by-product of combat, we might help our troops cope with personal guilt over killing civilians.
Maybe he’s right. Only combat veterans could tell us for sure and right now, they’re not talking. In fact they rarely have, if the World War II and Viet Nam veterans I’ve encountered are any indication.
Before I began this column, I asked an Army General what he thought of my trying to interview a soldier who had accidentally killed a civilian. He said it was “a very bad idea. Very bad.” He’s right, of course. If the interview spun out of control, there I would be, pen in hand, heart in mouth, paralyzed by inadequacy.
I SUSPECT the “bad idea” reaction stemmed partly from the sense of exclusivity engendered by an all-volunteer military. We civilians haven’t come under fire, we haven’t shot anyone in return, and we haven’t watched close friends get blown up before our eyes. We have no business peering into the mind and heart of a suffering soldier.
Yet, don’t our warriors share our wish that they will eventually re-integrate into civilian life and prosper in every way? We need them to defend us. They need us to smooth their way home.
We’re trying. There are good hearts everywhere willing to listen, especially the family members. But it’s touchy business. Before our goodwill goes knocking on any closed doors, we would do well to educate ourselves.
I recently read a short book called “At Ease Soldier!” written by a psychologist who has spent many years helping troops returning from combat. It’s designed for the troops themselves, with short, half-page paragraphs. There are many blank pages in the book, where warriors can write their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The instructions for coping are clear and practical.
FOR OUR TROOPS who can’t wait for Junger’s national memorial to materialize, it’s a good place to start. Visit www.SoldiersatHome.com to order. If there’s even a chance it will save one marriage — or one life — it’s worth the twenty bucks.
Carol Megathlin of Savannah is a University of Georgia graduate and the retired public-information officer for the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.