I remember crossing over the Iraq/ Kuwait border for the last time on my final combat mission in support of Operation Iraqi freedom and feeling sad. Truly sad. I recall holding back the tears as I took off my Kevlar helmet and IBA vest and thinking to myself "now what?"
I was a week away from turning 23 and the whole previous year was spent as a soldier in a combat zone. I can't say that my particular deployment was overly hard as far as deployments go but it was my first time away from home for any length of time. It was the first time I'd seen a dead body, the first time I had been shot at and the first time I had to detach myself from myself to get the job done.
I was a .50 cal machine gunner on a poorly armored Humvee for my first 4-5 months in country and a truck driver the remaining 7-8 months. I never fired my weapon at an enemy and my vehicle never got hit with an IED yet on the day of my last mission I feared for the battle to come. During the course of my deployment, and all the experiences a combat zone had to offer, I somehow gracefully made it through unscathed. I can’t explain it honestly, it seems like everyone I talked to in my unit had the same eerie realization that despite the chaos around us we seemed to be always right before or right after the bad stuff on our convoys. It was like we were shielded. That’s not to say that traumatic things didn’t happen but it suggests that those moments always seemed less than they should have been. Like I said, hard to explain.
The realization of a war raging within my heart hit me like a bomb when the physical threats ended. What's my mission now? Who am I in the real world? I just spent an entire year answering the call for my country and even though I was reluctant to fight this war, by the end of it, it felt more like home than my own bedroom in the states. The men to my left and right showed me what it meant to be a real family, bonded not by blood but by virtue and shared experience. This was something that made the end of the deployment that much harder.
One moment I was useful, a soldier with a purpose; and the next moment I’m all alone sleeping for days and drinking to black it all out. To say my life spiraled downward after Iraq was an understatement. As many people that have shared this experience can attest, it’s incredibly hard to relate to “normal” people once you return home. Your world was on pause for the length of your deployment but the world around you seems to have been on fast forward and you’re just left with stories you can’t tell to a people that have moved on.
Veterans day always makes me reflect on what that day actually means to me. I can’t tell my story without telling the story of Iraq. That experience rocked me to the core and changed my life forever. Although I regret many of the choices I made upon returning home from my tour of duty, I can honestly say I would do it all over again if given the chance to serve again.
The lessons I learned, both the right and wrong ways, from that deployment have shaped the man I have become. I thank God for his providence in placing someone in the right place and right time to tell me about Jesus. I’m thankful that even after our shared experience in Iraq that he continued to minister and walk with me and ultimately lead me to salvation in Christ. I think the brokenness that came from that experience allowed me to finally swallow my pride and see things clearer.
Even though I feel like a good part of who I was died in Iraq I’m glad for it. Maybe in order to become a man I had to loose that innocence or ignorance to a certain degree. Although I still wrestle with the questions that flooded my brain on my last mission I know that I was spared for a reason. So what is my mission now and who am I in the real world? I’m still figuring it out honestly but at least at the moment it seems like the sky is literally the limit. I want to honor all of the men and women that didn’t have the luxury of making it home by truly being all that I can be. How are you making the most of this mission called life? Happy Veterans Day.