By "Larry Nicholas"
Best Defense guest columnist
When I was in college one of my professors asked me what I thought our generation of veterans had to offer our society. I could not give her a good answer at the time and that always bothered me.
Every year on Veterans' Day I think of that question. I also think of the Corporal. The Corporal and I served together years ago when we were both very young men. He was a Marine and I was a Corpsman. He was a good man; easy going, confident, a proud Texan. We were in the same battalion, but in different platoons. I was close to his platoon Corpsman though, and I knew him fairly well. While serving we were sent to Iraq on the same deployment. It was a unique situation. The entire battalion didn't go, only a few. He was with his platoon, and I had volunteered to go with another platoon.
The year was 2004. Our unit had been tasked with taking back the city of Fallujah from insurgents. We attacked the city, and after weeks of savage combat we succeeded. Several of our brothers were killed, many more severely injured, but in the end we accomplished our mission. We stayed in Iraq a little while longer, after which we went back to our duty station. Upon our return though, we were grasped by a surreal regard.
Everything around us was the same, except for the way people looked at us. They looked at us like we were superhuman. Everywhere we walked people would move out of our way, like Moses parting the Red Sea.
The Corporal was especially well regarded. He had a right to be. While I was proud of my part in the battle, it was nothing compared to what he had done. The tales that were told about his heroism were unbelievable, unimaginable, but they were true.
Shortly after coming back the Corporal started to have problems. He had taken to alcohol too readily, often becoming very drunk. During the Marine Corps Ball he was walking around his dress blues sloppily incoherent, intoxicated out of his mind. Seeing him like that was devastating. I felt as if I was watching him being slowly reduced to ash. I tried to talk to him for a little bit, hoping some sense would come though. He only said this to me, "I wish I was still the man I was in Fallujah." I feared that the Corporal was becoming lost in his own anguish.
I had some issues as well. My hands shook from time to time. I mistook strangers for departed friends. A grim stare had become my default facial expression. People would ask why I looked so sad, often telling me, "You need to smile more." I regarded these as minor developments however. After all, I had no issues with nightmares, no problems with alcohol, and I had a promising military career ahead of me. I thought I had a handle on the situation.
My confidence was boosted by doing something peculiar that no one else had done. I decided not to go home. We were stationed overseas and when we came back everyone went home on leave, except me. I felt that I was not ready to go back home. Fallujah was still very fresh in my mind and I did not want it to be when I saw my family. So I stayed, I worked, I tried to forget.
Some of my Marines thought I was foolish for staying. One of them stated his opinion colorfully by saying, "You're crazy Doc. I'm going home. I have girls to seduce, babies to make!" The Corporal understood what I was trying to accomplish, although I don't think he approved. I had spoken to him about it once. I told him that I just wanted to forget about Fallujah and move on with my life. He gave me a strange look; part sympathetic, part scornful, part amused, part knowing. I wasn't sure what the look meant at the time.
I waited until Christmas to go back to America. I went back in my hometown. I was surrounded by my family. It should have been a wonderful time. There was just one problem. I wasn't home. It was at then that I knew what the Corporal's look had meant. The warmth and comfort associated with the concept of home was absent. I had forgotten what it felt like to be home. To know a place where one felt safe, felt at ease, felt happy. The concept that was once so natural became alien to me. Overtime, I compensated by sometimes becoming hyperactive, expending enormous energy in pursuit of certain goals. But that only covered up the problem, and only for a short while.
So you see, I was more affected by Iraq then I had thought. I had tried so hard to forget Fallujah, but I could not. The place had become a part of me. The Corporal realized this much sooner then I did. The Corporal and I exhibited different symptoms, but we both had the same problem. Our souls had become fragmented. The days that we spent in battle had changed us. They were difficult days. Days filled with hatred, anger, fear, suffering, and sorrow. But they were also days of great pride.
That pride supersedes any pain we could ever feel. If there is a saving grace, any silver lining in what we have been through, then that is it. Those were days when we felt privileged to be able to fight for our country. Days when we made each moment very sincere because we knew that we might not have many more moments left. Those were days when our pride was felt not in fleeting moments, but was instead weaved into the fabric of our being.
In retrospect, that is the answer that I should have given my professor. I should have told her that I believe the greatest gift our generation of veterans can offer society is our pride. But not pride in the superficially vain sense of the word. The pride we offer must be more genuine, more sincere. That pride must be the sort that compels us to encourage our fellow citizens to excel. It must be the sort of pride that drives us to remind people that extraordinary things can be accomplished. In an age consumed with cynicism and doubt, that is a service that is gravely needed. That's what being a veteran means to me.
To all my brothers and sisters that are still haunted by the violent memories of war, I want you to know that I know how you feel. I have walked in your footsteps. Those memories can be a terrible burden to bear. They often inhibit the joy of present moments by pulling us back into the past, sometimes putting a dark overcast on the future. But you do not have to accept things as they are. There is hope for a better tomorrow -- if you are willing to fight for it.
In my dreams, I sometimes see the Corporal. In those thoughts he had fought to get his life back. He was able to secure some peace in recent years. He found a good woman to love. He finally made his way back home. I hope that is his reality. No one has earned it more. In a group of proud warriors, he was a giant. But I cannot be sure. I have lost track of the Corporal, and I have not spoken to him in many years. I do like to think that he is well though.
I hope that all of our veterans can one day come home. Not just physically, but also in terms of spirit. In order for that to happen we will need to offer them more then just a simple plane ride back to their country. In order to ensure an adequate homecoming we have to respect their service without shunning the realties that came with it, appreciate the experiences that they can offer our society, and most importantly, we must try to understand.
"Larry Nicholas" is an Iraq War veteran who fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 while attached to the ground combat element of the 31st Expeditionary Unit.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.