The headlines about the Army are alarming these days. Wherever you look there are stories about the high suicide rate in the Army. Google "Army suicide rates" and you will get lots and lots of hits. I think last month we lost more Soldiers to suicide than combat. That statistic alone will cause you to stop in your tracks.
Here at Fort Lewis we've had a few and it's gotten everyone's attention. Personally, I think it's an indication of the pace of operations and deployments, coupled with the pace of life in our cell phone, internet, ipod, blackberry world. People talk more but communicate less; families are more connected, but have less in common. Isolation leads to stress, and stress leads to depression, and depression can lead to dispair. No one likes dispair.
In the past four months I've been honored to welcome home six different units after 15-month deployments to Iraq. When each unit comes home we welcome them at the airport then hold a welcome home ceremony at a gym on post. We do this for every unit, no matter how big or small, no matter the time of day or night. And every time I attend one of these ceremonies I see the same thing; the families show up hours earlier than they need to and wait patiently (sometimes!) for their Soldiers to show up. Mothers and fathers, wives, husbands and children all come out, no matter how late or early it is, no matter how long they have to wait on hard bleachers in an old gym. When the Soldiers finally arrive, after days of Army "hurry up and wait" and after a series of long flights from Kuwait, they march in, tall and proud. They endure speeches and prayers and congratulations while separated by only ten feet from the ones they love. Finally, after what seems like an eternity, they are released and reunited with their families. And then the tears flow.
I am always amazed at the sight of families reuniting with Soldiers after a deployment. Before the ceremony I take time to meet family members and get their stories; at the airport I take time to meet Soldiers and get their stories. Then I watch these families reunite, and laugh and cry and hug and talk all at the same time. It inspires me to see what they can endure, and it breaks my heart to know how much they are asked to endure. The stress cuts across all lines; rank and age and gender and ethnicity. It shows up in some you would never expect, and in ways you would not expect.
And the sad part is that the effects of the stress do not show up immediately. Sometimes it takes weeks or even months for the effects of the stress to have an impact.
Dreams get Soldiers through a tough deployment. Dreams of a happy reunion with a beautiful wife or handsome husband and wonderful children. Dreams of a new car or motorcycle and driving across country with the wind in your hair. Dreams of the rest of your life to live, safe and whole, when others were killed or wounded.
Dreams get family members through a long separation. Dreams of their Soldier returning safe and unharmed. Dreams of a family reunited. Dreams of a shared life and shared responsibilities. Dreams of sleep free of fear.
But these same dreams, these dreams that give us strength to go on every day, sow the seeds of disappointment once we are reunited. No dream can survive the light of day.
Money is tight, so there's no new car or motorcycle. You're glad you survived, but you mourn those who did not and feel guilty for your good fortune.
Your Soldier is home, but changed after long months in combat. Your family is back together, but not whole. You sleep, but your Soldiers can't.
And whatever problems you had before a deployment are still there when you return, waiting for the most inconvenient time to resurface.
When the dreams give way to reality, and the dream fails to materialize, that's when things get hard. I would love to hear your stories of reunion and reintegration. I'll be sure to share more of mine in a future post.
I could talk all day about the stress of deployments, and the stress of homecoming, but suffice to stay that this stress, multiplied over several deployments, can bring someone to the point of depression and dispair. The Army invests a great deal of time and money and effort to identify and treat this stress, but it's like predicting an earthquake. We all know they will hit, but predicting when and where is still an inexact science at best.
I truly love my job, and I am honored to serve. Watching the reunion of Soldiers and families brings tears of joy to my eyes, but it breaks my heart when I think of all they have to go through to reintegrate and reconnect and rebuild their lives together. And yet, knowing what I know, I would still deploy again in a heartbeat. And my wife would still wait for me. At least that's my dream.
Until next time,