'No one had prepared us for peace'

The following is part of an occasional series of guest columns highlighting the work and concerns of veterans groups. Jonathan Raab is a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who is currently preparing for his second deployment with the New York Army National Guard.

We had spent the better part of a year training for war. No one had prepared us for peace — or for the uncertainty of the next few months. My National Guard unit had just finished a long and difficult rotation at the Army’s National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. We spent several weeks in the unforgiving desert, sweating while we ran missions into mock villages, defended a mountain from a mass enemy attack, trained on how to take care of dozens of casualties while under fire, and worked with minimal sleep and resources.

The Army had put us through trial and exhaustion in an environment that looked remarkably like Afghanistan. The training wasn’t always what it aspired to be, but we came home feeling confident in our skills.

By the end of November, we would be heading to two more training centers. We would be in Afghanistan in early 2012; we would leave home for good before the end of 2011.

We said goodbye to our families, we got our finances in order, we left or were fired from our civilian jobs, we didn’t apply to fall college courses, we sold our cars, we arranged for the care of our children, our friends said farewell, our loved ones cried, and our families planned for our departure before the holidays. That was it; in a few weeks, we were going to leave for war.

Except we didn’t.

Our government failed to negotiate an extended status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government. Thousands of service men and women had to stream back to Kuwait months ahead of schedule. Units scheduled to go to Iraq were diverted to Afghanistan. Units preparing for Afghanistan hit the brakes.

For active-duty troops, this change of plans is often met with a mix of relief and disappointment. For them, what does not change — or changes very little — is the expectation of a paycheck. For many reserve component troops, a deployment can be a financial windfall. They rearrange their lives around going to war and returning home.

When that deployment is canceled — or “pushed to the right,” Army-speak for postponed — it changes everything. Couples break up over the new pressures of financial strain and personal readjustment. Soldiers are left unemployed. Families and friends start asking questions.

Are you going?”
That’s what they tell us.
“Where are you going?”
They’re saying one place, but it could be anywhere.
“When are you leaving?”
There’s nothing set in stone yet.

Since the cancellation of my unit’s deployment to Afghanistan, I passed from joy to relief to disappointment to anxiety to depression. I had geared my entire life — professional, personal and spiritual — to going back to fight. I was, like so many others, relieved that I would be safe at home with my family. But that relief gave way to a stinging disappointment, and a pervasive guilt.

We had put our loved ones through an emotional wringer — one many of them had been through before. As I watched the news reports of soldiers leaving Iraq, I thought that maybe the wars would be over for us, and for the rest of the military. I selfishly began to lose interest in the fighting that was still going on in Afghanistan. I told myself that I had been there, and I had volunteered for a second deployment. I didn’t owe anyone anything.

Not even my attention.

What, I asked myself, would I do with my military skills? Leadership, discipline and organizational skills transfer over into anything. But I had trained to fight for so long; it was hard to simply walk away from my efforts and feel like society would have much use for me if I didn’t deploy.

Many people offered well-meaning congratulations, which I met with forced smiles. My own elation crumbled as the days wore on and the realization of my predicament set in. I was unemployed, low on money and overwhelmed with the responsibility of finding work in order to survive the next few months of my life. How could I explain to everyone that no, I wasn’t going, at least not for now, without feeling like I had somehow failed as a soldier and as a man?

My anxiety was compounded by rumors — and mixed-messages from leadership — concerning the possibility of another deployment. They told us we were not going to Afghanistan, but that we might go elsewhere. The new rumored deployment date was far enough down the road that I’d run out of money well before then; I had just enough time to find a new job or a new place to live, to get settled back in with my friends, family and girlfriend, and to get on with life before having to let go of everything and everyone all over again.

I could not shake the feeling that I had just returned from a deployment. I had to find work. I had to scramble to fill my free days with constructive activity. I had to keep myself from falling out of shape. I had to give myself something to look forward to again. So did many of us.

This is the same set of problems facing those who are leaving the military as it prepares to downsize. Service men and women returning from Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere are facing a struggling economy, uncertainty about their future and a distance between them and a population that wants to — but often cannot — understand them. Just as loved ones emotionally served with the veterans, together they now face the horrors of peace.

As the Army gives my unit more information — small tidbits at a time, supplementing the vicious rumor mill that, last time, turned out to be right — questions come from other soldiers. As a leader, I’m expected to provide answers. Sometimes I ask the questions, and I see the pressure on my leaders to deliver answers they don’t have.

“Should I apply to classes in the spring?”
I think so, yes.
“What if we get deployed then?”
We’ll worry about that if it happens.
“Are they for real this time?”
I don’t know. They said they were for real last time.
“Are you going?”
I don’t know.
“How can they do this to us?”
Maybe this was the plan all along; maybe someone just wants to get a general’s star.
“How do I address this in a job interview?”
Do you really think they’ll hire you if you even mention any of this?
“What do you think of God’s plan now?”
I’m confused. But someone once told me that all things work to the good of the believer.
“They canceled my health insurance because we don’t have new orders. What should I do?”
I’m in the same boat. I don’t know what we can do.
“What happens if they deploy you even if you don’t want to go?”
Then I will soldier on and do my job like I always have.

Military service is hardship, whether the hardship of combat, of delayed life plans or of lost jobs and relationships.

Hardship also means uncertainty. As countless soldiers return home or prepare to leave for one more deployment, they face the uncertainty of their future, and the uncertainty of war’s end.

You can follow Raab's blog at WithABibleInMyRuck.blogspot.com.

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