As ISIS Gains Territory, Veterans Battle Emotions Back Home

It is tough enough to go to war, to endure the madness of it all, to do so honorably, skillfully, and very effectively. Coming home after this kind of an experience, to reenter the social environment of one’s hometown again is its own kind of “tough” because you have been changed by those experiences. You have gained a perspective on life that none of your peers, or even your families, can truly understand. You often feel quite alone in that, or like an “outsider” with everybody else.

This has been true after every war. Hemingway wrote about it in his famous short story, “Soldier’s Home,” which is not about an old soldiers’ home, but about a soldier’s experience of coming home after WWI. It deals with the feelings of being different, of not fitting in, and of being stunned by the manic and meaningless conversations everybody else has about superficial things that they think are terribly important. It’s like you’ve come back to another planet, where the most important things in life are what you did last weekend or what you are going to do next weekend. Homer’s Odyssey is about the same kind of experience for its main character Odysseus who has fought before the walls of Troy for ten years and who struggles for another ten years to get back home. When he finally gets home he has to fight usurpers to win back his home, his wife, and his kingdom.

A U.S. soldier calls for a medic after as the detonated remains of a car bomb burn nearby.

But our Iraq War veterans are having to deal with another emotionally wrenching experience at this time. Those who fought there were also involved in many efforts to rebuild the country after the fighting died down. It is almost a decade ago now that American troops were fighting and rebuilding in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit. But in the past couple of weeks we have seen those two cities fall to the swift and violent advances of the ISIS Islamist forces.

For those who had been there fighting and rebuilding, the news brings back hard to define emotions. They see news stories and they see places that they are familiar with — where they had fought and then rebuilt, repaired, or built new — are now shattered and in ruins again.

“It’s like you’ve come back to another planet…”

Sergeant Jason Hansman was deployed there from 2004-2005. He is now employed by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America as a case manager. He works with returning veterans helping them to deal with the difficult transitions back into “The World.” He says about the news reports of the fighting going on there now:

“[They] can feel distant, even as it brings back memories of the sacrifices U.S. troops made on the same turf now under dispute. I think that is one of the struggles we’re seeing within the (Iraq and Afghanistan veteran) community right now. They are collectively trying to figure out, how to feel about what’s going on there, and whether that affects, or does not affect their time there.”

A U.S. patrol passes through the ruined remains of a building in Baghdad.

Building Bridges

Hansman himself was deployed there as an Army Reservist and part of the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion. His job was to help rebuild the city of Mosul, which had been destroyed. He was involved in the efforts to rebuild roads, buildings, schools and medical facilities. In an interview, he told NPR’s Arun Rath that he arrived in Mosul in September, shortly before an offensive by Sunni militants in 2004, which became a major insurgency by November. He remembers that during that time every police station in Mosul was destroyed, and just before Christmas a suicide bomber blew himself up in a military mess hall killing 22 people, 14 of whom were U.S. soldiers. The violence began to subside in early 2005, and he and his unit started their efforts to rebuild the city.

One project he was involved in was the building of a bridge, which made it possible for commerce to return and for the free movement of people from one part of the city to another. He remembers that it made a huge difference in the lives of the Iraqis and American troops. He reported to Arun Rath that, overall, he was proud of what he had accomplished in Mosul.

When he returned home in 2005, he went on with his life. He used his Army Reserve job to help pay for college and got the job he is in now, helping to support other veterans. He was getting ready to go to work one morning earlier this month when he heard the initial reports of the ISIS advances into Iraq and, in particular, into Mosul, where he had done so much to try to help the Iraqis get back to a normal life. He, understandably, cares a lot for Mosul, and he says, “It was tough to watch.” He also saw American Humvees now being driven by ISIS militants. He reported that his fellow veterans were finding their own emotions about watching the videos out of Iraq as troubling, confusing, and frustrating. “It’s like: you know what? That looks really f-ing familiar. That looks really, really familiar. And that’s kind of tough.”

Hansman was asked by a veteran recently, how he was supposed to feel about the recent events in Iraq. All Hansman could tell him was that there is no correct response. Hansman says, “It’s a trying time. Not having any feelings is not a bad thing.”

A Familiar Feeling

I remember feeling a number of troubling emotions on my return from Vietnam in 1969. I had dealt with them by shutting down, not talking about Vietnam, just going about trying to stay in control of my emotions, and not doing very well. But when Saigon fell, even though I had never been there, because I was up in the northern and western-most areas of the I Corps, I felt as though the bottom was falling out from under me. It was tough enough to come home to a nation that thought of us as either baby-killers or failures, but when I watched those helicopters lifting off from the U.S. Embassy roof, and all those desperate Vietnamese trying to get documents to get out of the country, I felt deflated.

And then watching the North Vietnamese tanks rolling through the Embassy gate a few hours later and raising the North Vietnamese flag over the compound, I felt empty. I felt like everything we did there was meaningless. It was very depressing. I’m sure that these Iraq War veterans are experiencing many kinds of emotions about these events.

I just want to let our Iraq War veterans know that what you did there was noble, and worthy of all of your efforts. Your sacrifices are meaningful. You did all that you could do to improve the lives of the Iraqi people and to give them the beginnings of a freedom they had not known before. But know, too, that you can not do it all. When you left Iraq, you left a rebuilt infrastructure, as well as schools and hospitals. When you left, it was up to the Iraqis to protect, defend and maintain, even improve upon, what you had left them. If they have failed to take the reigns of democracy properly and effectively that is their failure, not yours.

I say this for my fellow Vietnam veterans too. We did not fail. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, as well as Vietnam veterans can be proud of their service. We did what we were asked to do and we did it with skill and affect. If those who were given freedom do not have the knowledge, or the courage to maintain it and make it grow on their own, that is their failure, not ours.

We here at the Veterans Site can not thank you enough for the willing sacrifices you made. We honor your service and are committed to ensuring that you get the services you need to recover from your wounds, both physical and psychological, as well as to get the educations you desire and need. We thank your families for their sacrifices as well. You are the best. You are the less than 1% that continues to protect and defend the freedoms and rights of this democracy. We would be less without you and your service. Thank you from all of us here at the Veterans Site.

1) U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Shane Chapman yells for a medic to treat an Iraqi civilian injured in a vehicle borne improvised explosive device explosion March 6, 2008, in Mosul, Iraq. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Robertson, CC BY 2.0).
2) U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to 3rd Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment, Headquarters Headquarters Troop, 4th Brigade, 10th Mountain Division patrol through Baghdad, Iraq, March 27, 2008. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason T. Bailey, CC BY 2.0).

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