Six months ago, I returned from Afghanistan. I had been there as part of the civilian-military effort to build a government and deliver security, rule of law, and development to that dangerous corner of the world. I was elated at first, happy to be home safe and sound from the harsh desert of Helmand Province. But, after a month or so passed, and the initial euphoria of simply being in the United States started to fade, I realized I was angry. Angrier than I had ever been. I was frustrated and depressed, and I didn’t know how to take care of myself. I drank all the time—four or five beers a night would be a night off. I smoked, a lot. I didn’t want to talk about Afghanistan, but it was there, unspoken, in everything I did. And it made me mad.
Most people of my generation have only a passing experience with war, and especially with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My brother served two tours in Iraq, but in an age when less than 1% of Americans serve in the military, we often don’t even live the wars by proxy. That’s fine, because wars are scary and boring and violent and fruitless. But it also means that the collective experience of those wars is not some grand shared moment—there is no defining of who you are by where you stand or what you did.
In Afghanistan, I had the privilege of working with our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen (and with their British counterparts.) They worked day in, day out in a violent dance of which I was proud to be a part. They put their lives on the line again and again for me, and I appreciated their courage and their strength. And it hurt me that we could do so little, that we wandered through the Helmand desert without plan or end state. The same mistakes were made over and over again, and our top civilian and military leaders were working without any set goals—so we did what good we could while we could. Whether you agree with the wars or not, it was our job and we did it.
Over there, the ups and downs of the war resembled a jagged ridgeline of elation and failure. The sudden pressure when a V-22 screamed off the earth, the feeling of relief when shedding body armor after a patrol, the camaraderie of cigars; these contrast to the IED placed inside a community school, the basic inability of the Afghan government to function, the superiors who fundamentally misunderstood the situation. I met some of the most amazing people, both civilian and military, and some of the worst cowards, backstabbers, and sycophants (not simply the enemy.) In Afghanistan, the outside world was white noise, and we lived on that erratic ridgeline.
When I left, the rest of the world poured in, and it didn’t care about Afghanistan. And I didn’t want to talk about it, but I did. The disconnect between what we say and what we want to say was killing me. I would read some item on Helmand, or about ‘transition,’ and it would shatter me—I’d wonder if I had done enough, if I could have done more, or—flipside—how they could be so wrong.
I don’t believe that mountains are simply stone and ice. Yes, I know that when we’ve finally melted the last glacier and burned the sky to brown and our wildlife is nothing but coyotes and rats, the world will go on without us. But I don’t believe the wilderness is impassive—it accepts you and treats you how you need it to. I needed to tell the mountains about Afghanistan, to talk about the desert with the lakes, to rant to the trees and wild skies. And the wilderness listened and accepted; the wilderness healed. Some people head out to conquer mountains, to reign in their stolid ignorance of humans, but I don’t see it that way. I find that the mountains (and lakes, rivers, streams, woods) are the home I make for myself. My anger poured into the granite of the Cascades, and they listened, stoic as always. Across the months spent in their care, they’ve heard the depths of frustration, and healed those wounds.
Veterans’ Day is only one day a year. Many people returning from the war share the same frustrations and anger—many have seen much worse than I have. Some come home both mentally and physically scarred, and some simply live for the war. That anger isn’t solved in one day, the salve cannot be a simple expected expression of thanks. Many seek a form of healing that is outside of available care; they seek the healing from understanding. Some find that in the wilderness, some in family, some in forgetting. I can say that the mountains helped heal me (I still get angry, but less so) and I know they’ve helped heal others, but what’s most important is simply listening and understanding. So go beyond the trite, “Thanks for your service,” this one day, and—if you know a veteran—ask what helps heal him or her. And then listen.