What lies within our own heart of darkness?

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head_measurer ...the changes take place inside, you know... Since I returned from Afghanistan, I’ve had a nearly complete inability to sleep on my own. My nighttime rest usually finds it’s genesis in 4-5 Excedrin PM, chewed up to enter the blood stream all the quicker. And before I actually get to sleep I have to listen to a book on Audio Tape, preferably one which I have heard numerous times, so that it isn’t so interesting as to distract me from sleep, but that I have sort of a soothing voice. I also don’t really like big rooms, having shared my 15x30 foot plywood “B-hut” with 7 guys who make all the noises guys generally make outside the hearing of women. Last night as I drifted off to sleep I was listening to one of my favorite pieces of literature read to me by some British chap who’s voice all but demands slumber. Written by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness is generally associated with the book you were supposed to read in High School (but didn’t, thank you Cliff’s Notes!) or as the inspiration for the movie Apocalypse Now. Anyway, one passage struck me last night and ended up paradoxically giving me insomnia as I thought about it, and the modern implications for coming back from the war zone. Here our protagonist is preparing to take a venture for a mercantile company up a river in Africa, and before he leaves he must be signed off on by a doctor.
"The old doctor felt my pulse, evidently thinking of something else the while. `Good, good for there,' he mumbled, and then with a certain eagerness asked me whether I would let him measure my head. Rather surprised, I said Yes, when he produced a thing like calipers and got the dimensions back and front and every way, taking notes carefully. He was an unshaven little man in a threadbare coat like a gaberdine, with his feet in slippers, and I thought him a harmless fool. `I always ask leave, in the interests of science, to measure the crania of those going out there,' he said. `And when they come back, too?' I asked. `Oh, I never see them,' he remarked; `and, moreover, the changes take place inside, you know.' He smiled, as if at some quiet joke.
Now, I’m not necessarily referring to post traumatic stress, but more the reintegration that I’ve fought to effectuate as I came back. My friend Alex at Army of Dude compared it to a drug:
War is indeed is a drug, a horribly destructive thing men do to themselves that gives a rush unlike anything you can find on this planet. I've never had heroin or cocaine, but I bet it hovers near the feeling of a sniper's bullet missing your head by inches. Or the tremor in your guts when you have a live body in your sights - how the world drops away, and there isn't a thing on the planet that matters more than you, him and the rifle in your hands. And when those rounds explode out of the barrel in a brilliant flash and the acrid smell of gunpowder burns your nostrils, you know that no amount of skydiving or drag racing or sex will ever come close to what war makes you feel in your bones. That's why I can't stop getting speeding tickets or rewatching old videos from my deployment. I want that feeling back. I haven't kicked the war habit yet.
I haven’t gotten any speeding tickets (my Jeep Wrangler would fall apart at 55 mph, and is literally "unsafe at any speed"), nor have I engaged in any behavior that was self destructive, but all the changes he talks about are there, like a constant unwanted companion. When I pay bills I get angry. Not because of the money, just that my life has come down to filling out a piece of paper and moving around something I never saw anyway. Pretty ridiculous compared to walking around with the business end of my boom stick ready to help free one country and help salve the wounds of my own. My nieces just got back from Disney World, and the eldest (5 years old) wanted to go on Space Mountain or some such roller coaster OVER AND OVER. It scared her, but she couldn’t get enough of it. Now, I wouldn’t compare being in a combat zone to a roller coaster, but some of the same elements are there. I do find happiness in the little things, clean sheets, 2 showers a day, sleeping 8 hours…but sometimes I still feel like I am missing things. Every now and again I wake up panicking, reaching for my M4. Not like I am in cold sweats and rocking back and forth Rainman-style, but like I am still forgetting something….letting my guard down. So far my unit has lost more guys to suicide and car accidents back here than we lost over there. One guy engaged in behavior that in a million years I wouldn’t have associated with him. And I wonder what changes did go on with him, on the inside. More so, I worry at which of my friends also has changes that I haven’t been able to size up. I don’t want to say goodbye to any more of them, so, how can we take the measurements, so we don’t miss any others?
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Very powerful post,

After doing the RnR Send Offs for 4 years now we have started to see some repeat business, but the familiar faces look like they have aged 10 years from the previous meeting; it's hard to see that kind change in a 22 year old.

Amen, brother. Hopefully someone who has never been there will read this and get a little insight.

I read "Heart of Darkness" and your post is much better. Yours is a first rate editorial.

One thing you and all our people need to know for sure. YOU ARE NOT ALONE and you never will be, not while so many of us care and are trying to do whatever we can to help.

Whenever I try to explain what it was like, my only real answer is that it was indescribable. Friends and family have certainly noted that I "changed" since I've been back, but although they all have different theories on what it was that changed me...none really fit the bill. I miss it, I really do. I would go back in a heartbeat and nobody seems to understand why I would do that. I can't for physical reasons, but I feel it gnawing at me all the time like a hunger I can't seem to satiate.

Suffice it to say, it was the last place that I ever felt like everything was "right" in my world, everything made sense. Even, and especially probably, the vast amount of things that were wrong or made no sense.

Here is better. Here I don't get up in the morning and wonder if todays the day it all goes South in a hurry. Here I don't have to worry that the pile of trash on the side of Rte. 66 when I'm driving is hiding some stacked Russian anti-tank mines. Here I don't have to watch windows for movement when I walk down the streets...but I do. Here is probably so much better for me in so many ways that I couldn't even enumerate them if I tried.

But here is not there. There's the rub.

When I hear a siren, while my family looks left, right, forward and backwards for a firetruck or rescue vehicle, I find myself looking up for a glimpse of a Patriot intercepting a SCUD. I still get a rapid heartbeat when I reach for my mask and it is not there. Nine seconds still isn't long enough to don and clear the damn thing!

Some say this will pass in time, but it has been 18 years now -- how much more time. Yes, I still jump when a golf cart backfires or someone drops something that crashes to the floor. I am far more observant of my surroundings and especially people who look out of place.

And yes, I still ask cab drivers where they are from and hope it's not from the IRAQ or IRAN because my defensive shield pops up. A wise man once said, "Don't be paranoid, just because the bastards are out to get you!" At one time, I thought it was just a joke -- little did I know.

But what really bothers me is how I am treated at the airport -- no differently than others -- like a suspect. Maybe if I gave them my driver's license rather than my military ID card, I would feel better. But I see GI Joe and Jane getting the same treatment while wearing the uniform.

To quote POGO, "I have found the enemy and it is us!" In many ways, I feel that my fears (real and perceived) are a victory for the bad guys. They have put the "terror" in my day-to-day lifestyle. I don't want to give them the graditude of changing my life or lifestyle. It is an internal battle that I am winning one day at a time.

War is insanity but it's organized insanity.

Your mind has to be in a wholly different state than it is at home. If your focus isn't high enough then you aren't going home. When your life depends on not dropping your guard the habit of not dropping your guard gets pounded in pretty deep.

Here you can have your head there and get by (mostly).
There, if you have your head here...

I still think one of the things that helped the guys coming back from WWI and WWII was the time it took.

Then, you were with your unit and everyone was in 'war' mode. When your time was up you headed home, still together and spent quite a bit of time transitioning. You got to talk together about what you'd do when you were home, and work out the changes in your head. Not to say everyone left their demons behind, but most guys got to get them under control.

Now you can get up in the sandbox and go to bed at home.

Deep sea fish explode if you yank them up from their pressurized homes.

You understand now why all the old soldiers still like to get together, have a couple beers (or more than a coule) and tell their stories? It's all about the Adrenalin Rush. Adrenalin is THE most addictive drug. More powerful than anything else, and those who understand it will seek it out, and don't tolerate withdrawal too easily.

I've been out for awhile now. Yet I still teach my kids about "situational awareness". I like to know who's in the neighborhood. I check out unfamiliar vehicles, often writing down a description or tag #, just in case. I always make certain I'm the last one to go to bed, so i can check the locks and lights. I awaken easily from unfamiliar noises.

But sleep is a precious thing still. I usually need a few drinks before I go to sleep, otherwise I won't be able to stop my thoughts going into overdrive. When I do get to sleep, then the old dreams come backm a couple friends I lost who want to talk, or the image of this little girl I carried out of a rubbled building.

I hear you, shipmate, loud and clear, and want you to know you aren't alone, and you may be different from other folks, but not in a bad way. You've experienced what it means to BE ALIVE. To be someone. To really count when it mattered. I've learned over time that there are many things that I have done and will still do that are important. Nothing, though, will ever be as important to me as my service, nor will anything else make me feel as worthwhile as that time in my life.

We each meet our demons in our own way, but we are not alone. God Bless you, brother.

Bro - a decent book talks about how we change over there, "War and the Soul" by Edward Tick. He gets into some liberal political stuff but not too much to detract from the explanation of the importance of cultural recognition of warriors in aiding past generations to cope with that change.

And all the comments about adrenalin are true as well. I think of it as the immediate gratification one gets downrange - you live through a mission, you return to base, you live another day. That's an immediate and tangible sign of success that few in our normal American society get, except maybe policemen, emergency room workers, firemen... It makes one truly feel that LIFE with a capital L is sweet, sublime. And if you fail, if you feel a life slip away, then you say a prayer and drive on so you can make the loss worthwhile.

But you're right that the daily grind ain't the same and it's tough keeping calm and living a "normal" existence.

No one who's never been there will ever fully understand, but we can now appreciate our fathers, uncles, grandfathers, older bros (and the females of those generations) who lived through worse...and honor them and us by keeping ourselves focused after we return home, on what we leave behind for the next generation. Stay safe, bro.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.