Finding Your Creative Voice Again After Combat
An Army veteran on how three deployments to Iraq changed his views about darkness being central to making art
This is the sixth installment in our series of essays written by veterans. We asked service members to share how their time in uniform shaped their perspectives on American life.
When I came home from my first deployment to Iraq, readjusting was literally impossible for me. I was a 33-year-old Army combat officer and I could no longer feel or see beauty in anything. And while I didn’t know how to leave the destructive path I was on, I also couldn’t stand to crush the hearts of my wife and children anymore. So, I temporarily moved out of my home and slept on various couches, more concerned with drinking than eating. When I would sit down to write, like I had done my entire life before deploying, I’d come up with nothing but blank pages. I had lost a lot of myself on the battlefield, it turned out. Large, significant pieces of who I was had been killed off somewhere in the desert, missing in action, never to come home.
On my second tour, two and a half years later, I tried my best to prepare the first-timers for the realities of war. My soldiers would ask me what I did before the Army, and I would laugh and tell them I used to be an artist. Those words sounded so foreign to me, too, so profoundly silly coming out of my mouth. An artist. My muse, I believed, had been gone for some time at that point. All I really felt like writing was my obituary, but even that proved too difficult an exercise. I was exactly what I needed to be for the Army, though. My job was running a unit in a combat zone, not explaining the world for the sake of art.
Five years earlier, the idea that I could ever run out of inspiration would have been unthinkable. Just before the terror attacks of 9/11, I was an advertising executive in my late 20s living in Texas, where I was born and raised. I had stumbled into my career while an undergraduate English student writing freelance copy for a boutique marketing agency. A couple of the firm’s senior concept and design chiefs, two artists in their early 50s named Brant and Brian, were dear friends who spent a lot of time helping me develop my interests in poetry, painting, and music when I first entered the industry. I had always been creative and, as my mother would say, was on an endless journey to discover new ways to articulate my feelings. While Brant and Brian were spared the period of me loudly expressing my disillusionment with a fledgling punk rock band in my parents’ garage, they were still enthusiastic about my potential in not only the fine arts, but in advertising design as well.
By my junior year in college, I was given a small but full-time salary sketching storyboards, designing layouts, and writing jingles. It was a glorious time, in no small part because I had found a way to pay a few bills with my talents—whereas before I mostly gave my paintings away to friends and family who could appreciate my abstract depictions of everyday items like ladder-back chairs or half-smoked cigarettes in dark oils and acrylic. Now, I had an office with a drafting table, a light box, and a window; I participated in that age-old workplace rite of learning to appreciate scotch and cigars. Before long my wife was driving a Mercedes wagon and I had been fitted for a decent suit or two.
Because I continued to write short stories, poetry, and the occasional guitar ballad, I didn’t feel like I had sold my artistic soul for the nine-to-five. I actually felt lucky to work with such talented colleagues. They were in some ways also my teachers; middle-aged women and men who had gads of experience to share, like real-life former Don Drapers and Peggy Olsons. Many of them had served during Vietnam as young officers, often fresh out of art or business school. They’d share with me fantastic stories of life abroad, and, sometimes, following a drink too many, of war itself. But their accounts of the battlefield were little more than compartmentalized ugliness on the back shelves of their memory. Something that happened decades ago, and a world away, in another lifetime.
* * *
A few years later—after a couple of job changes, and just when I thought I was ready to step away from the agency world and commit to a serious writing career—the unconceivable took place. On a Tuesday morning in September of 2001, I stood in a corporate conference room watching the horror unfold on the news: crashing planes and fire and falling debris. That’s also when I knew I would soon be in uniform.
I wasn’t itching for an excuse to dump everything I had been working on and head off to the sound of the cannons. The calling was deeper than that, fueled in no small part by the romantic notions of a lifelong dreamer. I could see myself serving my country as great icons like Jack Kennedy or Jim Wright had done before me. Young men who put their lives on hold to do their part, later emerging as heroes who’d go on to say that war had helped shape them into the leaders they were. And maybe part of me hoped I would return from combat with the wisdom of these giants, and write of my own experience on the field of battle just as Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, and J.R.R. Tolkien had.
There were, of course, more practical reasons to join. While a military career was never expected of me, someone in every generation on both sides of my family (including my mother and kid sister) had served in either the Army or Navy, going back to the Civil War. And if I had ever felt guilty for not doing my part, 9/11 made me feel downright condemnable. So with my wife’s cautious blessing, a day after the terror attacks, I began the recruitment process. Less than a year later, in August of 2002, I raised my right hand and took the Oath of Enlistment.
Hollywood had warned me through the years that my initial training was going to suck, but no matter how many times you watch An Officer and a Gentleman, you can never fully prepare for what will happen when you step off the bus for Basic Combat Training. After two years of intense instruction, the second lieutenant staring back at me in the mirror looked nothing like the once out-of-shape artist I used to be. My wife and three children could see a different kind of transformation, too, one that seemed to foreshadow the trouble to come. Already I was reckless and brooding, my drinking had reached troubling levels, and I was more prone to respond violently to any affront, however small. The perfect time, as it were, to deploy to the cradle of civilization.
It’s not the heat, the long missions, or the terrible food that dominate the memories of my time in combat. Rather, my mind takes me to the feeling of always waiting for something bad to happen: to be driving along a main supply route, resting in your tent, or visiting with locals—and waiting for a rocket or sniper to kill you. Like the Sword of Damocles, but with no great fortune or power to offset the pending doom. And as much as I can tell myself we were all only doing our job, my most haunting thoughts are about the innocents caught in the crossfire. So, when people ask me what it was like, I usually take them down a friendlier road, one of sandstorms, biblical landmarks, and the cornucopia of free energy drinks and cheap pirated DVDs. I tell them about the unbreakable bonds that wartime brothers and sisters in uniform will always share, but I don’t bring up what it is like to lose them.
I left the Army after 12 years, following my third Iraq deployment, and tried to get back into my old routine. I wasn’t the same angry, self-destructive person who came home after the first combat tour, but there were little reminders here and there—the nightmares, an aversion to fireworks and war movies—that I would never be normal again. My family stuck around long enough for me to get my act together, and I was more grateful than they will ever know. Within a few days, I took over as the head of marketing for a regional telecom company, but I had lost my ability to think creatively, to devise catchy phrases and effective copy. So much had changed since my career had been interrupted. I struggled to get out of bed on most mornings and found no meaning in the hackneyed Monday-to-Friday ritual. With my artistic soul seemingly gone, I began to wonder again what I was doing and why.
Eventually, something simple but profound happened: I started to slowly accept that I was just going to be different. A new future was stretching out ahead of me. I began to spend more time enjoying golf, cigars, and espresso. I took up spice gardening and made pho a weekly dining event. I set aside the whiskey and learned to make exotic cocktails. My wife and I made James Bond movies part of our Sunday afternoons. I turned 44 years old and arrived at the intersection of banality and stereotype.
And then it was safe; the coast was finally clear in my subconscious. I was a civilian and once this new normal set in, and the uncertainty and ambiguity of life as a deploying soldier disappeared, my muse returned. I sat down one afternoon three weeks ago and wrote a short story about a Vietnam War vet turned Hollywood actor in his 70s who is staring down his own mortality. It was good—really good. And it has since been, once again, a glorious time. I have my voice back, and it no longer feels awkward to tell people that I’m an artist.
I’ve always thought there are two primary forces, angst and eros, that drive humans to create. It’s perhaps no surprise that the artists I admired most were Jackson Pollock, John Cheever, and Morrissey—sad souls with a darkness that I could relate to starting in my anxious teenage years and continuing well into my 30s, and whom I tried my best to emulate. While it took a major attack to get me to become a soldier, part of me once saw war as a chance to truly understand tragedy, to internalize and then capture sorrow on the written page or on the canvas or in a song. But seeing such ugliness firsthand planted the seed of a revelation that wouldn’t arrive until years later: I need enough brightness and security, not suffering, to make art. I now possess certain omniscience: the ability to see the gloom and record it, while no longer being consumed by it.
Most of my military past—the certificates, the medals, the regalia—has been boxed away, but it hits me on occasion that I was once a soldier. Like while I am sitting at a red light. Then the light turns green, and my thoughts begin to focus on whatever is next in my quiet world. And what I should write about.