On the Regarding War blog, soldiers, veterans, and journalists will share their stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. It will feature personal stories and opinions from those who have first-hand knowledge of past and current conflicts. Those at home directly affected by a family member serving in the military will also contribute. The blog is meant to be a place where ideas are exchanged and experiences are related in an effort to gain a better understanding of the realities and effects of war. Share your thoughts, raise a question, and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
At 0450 on Monday morning, I stand motionlessly in the living room of my 7th floor apartment in downtown Tacoma, WA. My eyes are barely open, but a few glimpses of the waterfront view of Commencement Bay slip through their crusty lashes. The lights are off, no sounds to be heard. On an ordinary day in garrison 13 months ago, I would still be fast asleep, waiting for my alarm to sound at 0500. But this is no ordinary garrison morning; this is my first full day back at work from my 30-day post-deployment leave. Today, I woke up an extra ten minutes early to fulfill a promise I made to my mind and body to continue the fight for my physical and mental stability. I clasp my hands in prayer position, and begin an art form I had long abandoned until last week: morning yoga.
The 0450 wake-up fried my senses into a nervous sizzle. Thirty days was not enough. But when I considered all of the harrowing situations I've found myself at 0450 in the morning at war in Kandahar, I am grateful for whatever time off I had. Thirty days was long enough for me to set up my new living space, enjoy a few meals and drinks with family and friends and restore my sleep cycle, or at least what was left of it. But my path to normalcy — a sensation of belonging — is not yet complete. I had few expectations of what my mental and emotional health would be like 30 days after returning from Afghanistan, but I assumed I'd be further along. That's not to say I haven't come a long way in the past month. Indeed, I'm far from the same person I was when I first left combat. It's difficult for me to articulate the precise ways I've changed during my leave period, but I can best express the transition in a simple, accessible cliche: Eat, Pray, Love.
In Kandahar, I ate for sustenance. I ate quickly and furiously, stuffing my face with the prepackaged and processed goodness of the military cuisine. This came in the form of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). MREs do exactly what they're designed to: keep our energy levels high on enduring missions. But the conditions in which we fight call for MREs to favor shelf-life over nutrition. Thus, as we cycle through the menu of twenty or so MRE meals throughout the year, we inject disgusting masses of preservatives into our digestive tracts, stopping both our hunger and our bowels. But more important than what we eat is why we eat. Sometimes I'd eat just to stay awake, sometimes because I was just bored. More often then not, I ate simply because I was lonely.
These days, I don't eat to offset loneliness. On the contrary, I eat primarily to enjoy the company of the people I love so dearly. There are no MREs in my refrigerator, and few processed foods at all. I find romance in the sound of a knife slicing through fresh bread or chopping through ripe, crisp vegetables. I love the sound of oil cracking over minced garlic, and the smell of rosemary on my hands. I prepare food just as much with my heart as I do with my hands — like my mother does for me. At the table, I eat slowly and nonchalantly. My girlfriend and I sip glasses of local wines and indulge in the luxury of taste. Like wincing eyes at the day's first bright light, my taste buds are still terribly sensitive to spice and flavor. But the main event here is not the meal, rather the laughter and conversation interrupting our bites. There is no mission to rush me, nor any looming attack to anticipate. There's only the nourishment of love and grain warming my soul.
I left for Afghanistan a strict vegetarian and observant Hindu. It was easy to reconcile the inherent conflict of a pious and peaceful life with the violence and aggression of righteous warfare. I could rationalize combat and its fatal consequences. But in retrospect, the most defining characteristic of my spiritual identity was the ability to console myself and others with the altruistic claim that "everything happens for a reason." I had relied on my faith like an airbag in a high speed crash, or in the case of Afghanistan, an IED explosion. But when my friends and brothers died or lost limbs in Kandahar, my airbag didn't deploy. My spiritual identity crashed into the dash of my Stryker, and I still have yet to make sense of what I've seen. How on earth could a just God rationalize such evil? What tangible benefit does the investment in faith yield? Why do millions of people spend countless hours making their case to God in search of salvation when He is the one who should be making His case to us after allowing so much suffering? Why should I give a damn about the hyper-extended ghost story of religion?
My anxiety and distress did not subside upon coming back to the states. I stored the frustration in dozens of knots in my lower back. The stress fueled my heart rate continuously, keeping me sleepless at nearly all hours of the night. It was the most fierce combination of anger, remorse, fear and depression I had ever felt in my life, and I had no idea what triggered any of those feelings. I had never felt like such a stranger to my own self. When I knew I needed a change in my life, I turned to the one source of strength that has never failed me: my parents. And they referred me to the one source of strength that had never failed them: their faith. But I wasn't ready to jump back into spiritual dialogue. I suppose I still felt a sense of betrayal from the promise of religion. But my intrinsic loyalty to my parents and the desire to make a formative change in my mental health convinced me that my relationship with Hinduism should not be foregone. It was time to start at the beginning — the fundamentals this 5,000-year-old religion. And, thus, I began a simple routine of basic meditation and yoga.
I begin each morning with a series of yoga poses known as the "surya namaskar" or salutation to the sun. The poses are rather simple, but performing the sequence with slow and controlled motions and a deliberate breathing pattern exercises my mind's ability to control the body. The stretches loosen my muscles and increase my flexibility and blood flow. Now, the stiffness in my back from carrying an 80lb load around the Kandahar desert has all but left my spine. Each evening, I go to sleep with a simple meditation cycle. I breath in for eight seconds, hold for three, exhale over eight seconds, hold for three, and so on. With each exhalation, I picture my lungs purging the negative energy and stress from my body. I imagine the toxic air dissipating on the white ceiling above me. With each inhalation, I feel the cool moist air filling my lungs with positive energy, purity and refreshment. I repeat the timed process fifteen times, and at the end, I am ready to fall into a deep slumber. My heart rate is low, there are no burdens on my heart. I simply fall asleep.
The benefits of yoga and meditation have made outstanding impacts on my lifestyle. These small exercises have taught me to still my mind and isolate my senses. I spent my year in Afghanistan monitoring multiple radios, controlling four Strykers and nearly 30 soldiers, coordinating aircraft and fires, navigating my unit and reporting to my higher command. My functional capacity sacrificed focus in favor of multitasking. My sensory inputs have grown addicted to the over-stimulation of warfare, and turning those sensors off has been quite a struggle. Yoga and meditation are helping me regain my focus in the short term. But more significantly, it is impossible to separate yoga and meditation from one's spiritual health. Thus, I have retained some hope that these practices will serve as a conduit to regaining some sense of faith in my life because, honestly, I do miss it.
Warriors show love in the most peculiar of ways. We yell, we scream, we taunt and we whine. But in almost every interaction I witnessed between my soldiers, there was always a degree of devotion that is hardly comparable to anything in mainstream society. I showed my love to my soldiers by being the disciplinarian. I showed love by staying up the extra hour at night to plan missions and getting up an hour earlier to make sure it happened. I showed love by knowing when to stand up to superiors, and knowing when to stand against my own men. Love in combat is not a simple phrase or emotion as it is for most people in their day-to-day lives. For us, it's an attitude.
But coming back to the United States challenged my capacity to show love. In a year, I had been hugged only a handful of times. The common gestures of affection that Americans use to show love in a normal day are not appropriate in combat when a professional relationship must still exist. So when my loved ones showered me with warm embraces and kisses, a small part of me hesitated. Is someone watching us? Why is this hug taking so long? With such inherent resistance to the human touch, I found myself struggling to give my undivided attention and failing to find intimacy with the people I love most.
Learning to love and be loved is a function of practice and environment. Cultivating love among a platoon at war is far different from finding love in peace. But I'm one of the lucky ones. I had a loving brother and girlfriend waiting for me when I stepped off the plane. I had parents who had offered every resource at their disposal to make my transition seamless. I had friends who had patience with my temper and displacement from conversation. Most soldiers, however, don't have the support system that I do. As hard as it is to understand and feel love again upon my return, I can only imagine the internal struggles buried deep in the psyches of many of my own men.
The only thing more difficult than describing the unique challenges of reintegration is describing the remarkable happiness that has overcome me since returning. It's the breathtaking view of Mount Ranier from my apartment's terrace, dangling my feet in the cool waters of the Puget Sound, or driving on I-5 with the sun setting over the Seattle skyline. The natural pleasures in life mean so much more to me after this past year in one of the most violent places on earth. Life is a beautiful and a fragile gift, and there is nothing more fulfilling than spending it basking in the wonder of its simple brilliance. It slows the pace of time, the pace of my heart. And as the earth seems to slow down ever so slightly, I find more precious time to do the things that I know I love — and have re-learned to love — so dearly: Eating, Praying, Loving.
1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, served as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan