'The Wars Keep Returning'

On the emptiness of coming home from battle

A field of American flags
Jeff Haynes / Reuters

I’ve been home from the wars for over three years now, after seven years of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily as a State Department political advisor to the Marines. Yet the wars keeps returning.

News of yet another suicide came to me last month. This time it was someone I knew who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Ivy League educated, and one of the quiet, effective ones. Yes, one of our best, who spent years in Iraq. I was not close to him, but we were in the same group that hung out together.

His suicide follows others of people I served with. One friend killed himself in Afghanistan following a bad phone call from home a little over a year ago. Another killed himself in Iraq’s Anbar province a few years before that. The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that in 2014 an average of 20 veterans committed suicide every day. But this latest acquaintance to die by his own hand had been a civilian government employee. Military or civilian, the only people I know personally who have committed suicide have served in combat zones. And there are too many.

I am trying to grapple with these deaths. In Iraq and Afghanistan one gets used to violent deaths. We are set up for it. We have ramp ceremonies where a thousand people might stand at attention while the coffins are brought into the plane for the final ride home. There are memorial services held at the base or at the embassy.

There are just tiny paid obituaries for those who served and then took their own lives, years later and thousands of miles away.

Yet he was a casualty of the war as well.

A friend writes: “In the past few months he [had] not liked where this world was headed. ... He was suffering from what we think was undiagnosed PTSD from his time in Iraq and more recently Afghanistan. He was only 41. Such a tragic loss. A bright young engaging man. ... There are times I struggle but I have people I can reach out to that I can talk to just to talk. That always helps. He apparently didn't have that outlet like so many others.”

I don't know why he killed himself. I can only speak from my own personal experience of the war. Serving in Iraq was terrifying, exhilarating, and the most professionally meaningful experience of my life. You're in an extremely high-pressure environment, “living in a goldfish bowl” as the saying goes, and you enjoy a tight sense of community. Then poof, war’s over and you’re flung into the diaspora, and life has little meaning anymore.

In the case of Iraq, so many of the Iraqis those of us Americans there came to know and trust, and who trusted us, paid with their lives for their association when ISIS took over large portions of the country, which we had left to its fate.

Almost all of the Sunni leadership that I befriended in Anbar province are either dead or have fled for their lives to other countries. Hunted down and marked for death as America’s former allies. So my time in Iraq, in retrospect, may well have been wasted, given Shia intransigence and hatred of the Sunnis, which continues on.

So unlike “good wars”—meaning wars that America wins—for me there’s no sense of accomplishment in looking back at the sacrifices in Iraq. Just desolation and sorrow for the deaths of good people. Bad policy got us into the Iraq war and bad policy led us to having to return there. It remains to be seen what will happen in Afghanistan.

The war reporter Sebastian Junger, in his book Tribe, deals with the issue of coming home. It resonates with a lot of us who were there, civilian or military:

Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.

It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary. The income gap between rich and poor continues to widen, many people live in racially segregated communities, ... and rampage shootings happen so regularly that they only remain in the news cycle for a day or two. To make matters worse, politicians accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country—a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would probably have just punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness, and the veterans know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It's no wonder many of them get so depressed when they come home.

For many of those of us who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, our tours were defining moments in our lives. But returning home was a much more difficult challenge. War changes you. And it changes people in different ways. I knew a 19-year-old Marine so full of despair at the loss of a buddy that he beat his hand bloody hitting a wall. I’ve known a tough senior official, a civilian, who went “red” every day in Baghdad, meaning taking a convoy ride near the Shia slum of Sadr City, then arguably one of the most dangerous places in Iraq, day after day for more than a year. He returned seemingly sound, but sees a therapist and has done so for years. War damages you in ways you don't even realize: When I came home on my first R&R, my wife gave me the keys to the car and then asked why I was driving in the middle of the road. There are no IEDs on the Dulles Access Road. But it was just automatic.

I was lucky. I have friends and family I can talk with.