Sunday, August 1, 2010

Epilogue (Epiblog?)

I've been back home for two months, readjusting to simple things like indoor plumbing, fresh seafood, and a very nice absence of indirect fire. The month-long "Transition Leave" followed by a return to my civilian job has been spent in part processing the lessons I learned about myself, family, fellow soldiers, and all other aspects of a combat zone deployment. When I began this blog in April, 2009, I knew there would be a lot of new experiences, mixed with familiar situations from both military and law enforcement prior service. The biggest question in my mind was whether or not I would perform satisfactorily during a war. It's a question most military folks ask themselves.  I think, upon reflection, that I did okay. I managed for the most part to keep up with my younger colleagues, I never shirked from "outside the wire" missions, nor did I wet my pants during rocket attacks. My teammates provided me positive feedback, and made me feel like a contributing member of our detachment, rather than an old geezer has-been soldier. Their approval and acceptance has meant the most to me, far more than any medal or promotion, and I suspect I will be friends with some of them for a long time to come.

My perspective about most things has changed somewhat. Stuff that used to get me kind of wound up no longer has that effect. While I considered myself fairly laid back before deployment, now I'm even more so. That doesn't mean I am apathetic, I just don't sweat the small stuff...and a lot more things qualify as "small stuff" these days.  When I hear people who go ballistic over inconsequential matters, such as how our local Major League Baseball team is performing, I just shake my head sadly, and wish that they would apply such anger and emotional energy to something that really matters like finding a cure for cancer, ending child abuse and domestic violence, combating illiteracy, homelessness, or crappy TV sitcoms. My sense of humor is still very much intact, though occasionally I have come close to offering comments which would definitely fail the "Not Downrange Political Correctness Test". I found the frank, often crude humor exhibited by almost everyone over there to be very 1970's in flavor. Some of it made me uncomfortable, or just surprised, but for the most part it was refreshing to be able to joke without every comment risking punishment.  We still had clear standards and boundaries...racism and sexual harassment were never tolerated...but most everything else was fair game.  I especially enjoyed the proliferation of practical jokes, which also served to keep us sane. It was also a measure of social standing...if you were the target of the occasional prank, it meant that you were part of the clan. Those colleagues who overreacted to being the butt of a practical joke soon found themselves excluded altogether, although it usually required much more egregious behavior to rate complete shunning. Liars, slackers, and gross incompetents qualified on the first ballot.  In a war zone, being quietly bounced from the "Band of Brothers/Sisters" is a lonely fate. Of course, the ostracized soon formed their own clique, so nobody was ever truly alone for long.

While there were a lot of positive, or at least interesting aspects to being deployed to Iraq for almost a year, two situations really sucked for me. The first, and most negative aspect of 14 months away from home, was being away from my wife. While a number of my teammates relished the absence from their spouses for a variety of reasons, I definitely missed my wife every day. I am extremely lucky to have found such an amazing spousal unit, and definitely do not take her presence in my life for granted. At our ages, each day is a gift, so I keenly felt the loss of leaving over 300 of those days "unopened". One upside is that the process of getting to know each other all over again is a lot like dating, but without the uncertainty and angst.
The second most unhappy part of being gone for so long was the deaths of a number of close friends, former colleagues, and family members which occurred in what seemed like rapid succession.  Though it helped to blog about their passing, I deeply regret not being able to attend their funerals/memorial services. In some ways, I still don't have closure, and that hurts. I was very thankful that my mother, whose health had seriously declined after I left, hung in there long enough for me to visit her the week I returned. She passed away the following week, but this time there was nothing left unsaid between us, and we had a chance to say goodbye to each other on our terms. (One thing that the Army and the American Red Cross still do exceptionally well is arrange for emergency leave, for which I will be eternally grateful.)

There is one other major lesson that requires mention. Although there were a few frightening moments during my tour in Iraq, and I am now entitled to wear a "Combat Patch" on my right sleeve of my uniform, I don't compare myself for one second to those true combat soldiers who endured daily patrols, firefights, IEDs, or suicide bombers, for a year or more, and for many, up to five deployments in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those soldiers display the same ribbons I now do, but our experiences don't really compare. To those of you who fought in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or Somalia/Panama/Grenada/Desert Storm, I am honored to be allowed to walk through the same door you are, but I certainly don't feel entitled to stand in the front ranks...

Finally, I need to acknowledge the darkest side of my job during this deployment: Investigating soldier suicides. There has been a lot of commentary and discussion in the media, as well as throughout the ranks about this terrible epidemic. There is absolutely nothing heroic, and no benefit served when a Soldier, Marine, Sailor, or Airman decides to end his or her life. Although I had been exposed to a lot of violent death during my civilian law enforcement career, I was still not fully-prepared for the sheer numbers of young lives terminated for some apparently-trivial reason. Long after I have stopped getting a bit twitchy at the unexpected clap of thunder, and my burn-pit induced chronic cough has gone away, I will likely be haunted by the scenes of those deaths, simply because they made no sense at all.

As I wrap up this blog's final post, I must thank all of you who faithfully read it since April, 2009. Your comments, both on and off-line, have encouraged me, and kept me writing. While I intend to transition from blogger to novelist (but doesn't everyone?), The Fighting Leprechaun will serve as fodder for at least one novel, as well as my wartime journal. While I can safely say that this will be my one and only combat deployment (I've checked the regulation to make absolutely sure, and have duly promised my wife!), I remain privileged to have served in these circumstances, alongside some of the finest soldiers in the United States Army, and returned home safely with only the aforementioned cough, and a persistent case of "Saddam's Revenge"... In short, I am one lucky leprechaun!

Very Respectfully,