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All Points West: Coming home, a veteran’s perspective on what it means
November 06, 2014 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
When I returned from Afghanistan in early 2012, I wrote about what the experience meant to me. My unit – a military history detachment from the North Carolina National Guard – landed at Baltimore-Washington International one week before Christmas. There were hundreds of supporters cheering as we made our way to baggage claim.

So many of them had reached out to shake our hands and pat our backs as we filed through with a mix of a hundred or so other Soldiers. I was struck by the children who stared at us like we were larger than life. I wondered if this is how famous actors, rock stars and athletes feel when they are mobbed by their fans. I thought maybe.

There was one big difference. I don’t know if any famous people ever risked their lives fighting for their country. The people who gathered at the airport called us heroes. The word was on banners and posters. Our supporters, through tears and smiles, offered free food and drinks, and limo rides to anywhere in the country, including Las Vegas.

I couldn’t understand the connection between that world and this one. One of my military mentors said they call us heroes because it’s their way of saying thank you. They can only imagine the kind of dangers we faced; they will never truly know about the sacrifices we made.

We are forever changed by war. Veterans must endure the experience of war even long after leaving the battlefield. When I came back home, I opened the door to an empty house. My then wife moved out during the deployment. She couldn’t cope with the thought of me dying. I lost my house and teaching job. Because of the emotional rollercoaster, I was no good to my students.

My career had taken a sudden violent turn. My recruiter failed to warn me about days like this.

I joined the Army in 1988, probably for the same reasons as a lot of other recruits. I needed direction and more importantly, a steady stream of income. There was no guarantee of a job even with a college degree in English. My education, in the Army’s book, was a perfect match for training me to become a photojournalist. I would become like Ernie Pyle who crisscrossed the battlefield in World War II to tell the stories of the dog faces living in trenches.

I did something similar as a field historian.

At Kandahar Air Base, I interviewed a number of Soldiers who spent time helping with about 60 boys attending math and history classes during the weekend — they were eager to learn, unlike many of my own students. Girls secretly gathered in a nearby private residence. The school house was built by NATO troops, primarily Americans and Canadians. A week after my visit, the school was bombed. That didn’t deter our troops. Months later, the school was rebuilt, and the children returned.

During a visit to another part of the country, at Combat Outpost Charkh in Logar Province, Afghanistan, I listened to a senior leader in the 10th Mountain Division tell about a daylight attack by the Taliban that left several of his Soldiers dead, and worse, three small children who belonged to a shopkeeper who sold him soft drinks at the Charkh Village bazaar. In recalling the events just hours after the firefight, his voice didn’t waver or crack, but he tapped his foot incessantly, and wiped at an already clean table as if to scrape some of the tension away. He described how he held one of the small children in his hands. Without a chance for a medical evacuation, she bled out. The senior leader stared at his hands. He paused to gather himself.

I realized that many stories like the troops that helped the school kids and the ones they couldn’t will never be told. Some stories will be pieced together through clinical data and diaries, and other Soldiers will refuse to talk about their wartime experiences. The memories are too deeply embedded in a complex web of emotions. To let them out can at times be overwhelming.

Now, back in the United States, military members returning from war face a different kind of struggle. In my fulltime job at a federal agency in Washington, D.C., I am a member of a Veterans Integration Program panel that looks into how our nation can ease the transition for my fellow military brothers and sisters who are making the effort to again become productive members in the civilian world. The program focuses on shedding some of the direct ways of doing business. Some situations don’t require making snap life-or-death decisions.

While some employers have opened their arms, others have not. VA counseling sessions reveal a very real concern with regard to sharing too much information about mental and emotional scars. Employers wonder and worry if who they hire might just one day snap. I won’t argue the liabilities, but I will say it was the price our nation was willing to pay.

As we move forward and try to repair the damage, we will need to pull together in our communities. Veterans — while they may have been heroes fighting to preserve our way of life — will need new heroes to emerge here at home. One of those heroes might be you. I ask that you simply get to know your hometown veterans. They need more than a handshake and a pat on the back. In that respect, some of them are still waiting to come home.

When a Soldier is hurt or killed, we have a saying which describes the profoundly unbreakable bonds that exist between us. So much that any of us would give our lives to bring us all home, hell or high water. If our nation is to thrive, we should understand and live this warrior credo: Let us leave no one behind.

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