by Brian Smith
Your soldier is returning home from war. The months of anxiety, sleepless nights, heartache and uncertainty are in the past. You can now leave the house without worrying you’ll miss that one phone call. You will no longer jump at every knock at your door, heart in your throat, expecting to open it to a grim-faced trio delivering the worst possible news. Your soldier is now safe. Your soldier is now secure. Your soldier is now only a phone call away at any time. Your life, which once revolved around CNN reports and soldiers’ blogs, can now return to a semblance of normalcy.
If you have been through this before, it is because your soldier has been deployed more than once. You have an idea of what to expect. You know which expectations are realistic, and those that are not. If you have not been through this before, the experience may be a mixture of joy and trepidation. How has my soldier been affected by the experience of war? How will my soldier adapt to a life in which every piece of trash in the road does not have the potential to explode? How will my soldier sleep at night? Will my soldier want to share with me all the experiences that now shape his everyday life?
These questions will not be answered by friends and relatives who have never experienced the return of a soldier from war. They will not be answered by well-meaning folks who say you are lucky your soldier is returning at all. They will not all be answered by the soldier. They will only be answered by time, patience and unconditional love.
When you first hug your soldier, you will want to run your hands up and down, as if frisking a perp. You are checking for parts, making absolutely sure they are all there.
When you first sit to talk with your soldier, you will be checking the signs. Do the eyes still smile? Does the voice still have the trace of the laugh you remember? Does the face betray worry, or relief? Tension, or serenity? Do the hands shake, do the legs twitch? Is my soldier smoking?! All of this, normal.
Be prepared for an emotional decompression. All of the pent-up worry and fear has now been lifted, and it may bring with it unsettling feelings. You may feel neglected, left out if your soldier wants to spend time with friends or “the loved one.” Remember, they have been waiting and worrying, too. You may be confused by all the jargon your soldier spits out, or the unusual routines your soldier goes through in order to leave the house. You may cringe in terror as the soldier drives you to Denny’s for brunch, or roll your eyes as your soldier peeks around corners before turning them. Remember, your soldier has adapted to an existence in which everything must be considered a threat. It is a survival strategy, and it is what brought your soldier home. It will take time to adjust.
Be prepared to be introduced to a changed person. Your soldier will talk differently, react differently and think differently than you remember. You may feel you don’t recognize your soldier, that the experience of war has changed him so much that he is a completely different person. This is not true. A soldier’s life demands this kind of change. Your soldier has been trained to act, to respond immediately, to not question but to do. This, again, is normal, and with time should pass.
It may help to keep in mind the following: You sent off to war a son, a daughter. You get back from the war a soldier. A soldier’s life demands doing things that cannot be undone, seeing things that cannot be unseen, and the ability to bury emotions that do not directly increase the chance of survival in combat. You are proud of your soldier, and your soldier has earned your pride. You are in awe of your soldier, and your soldier has earned that respect. Be patient, kind and tolerant toward your soldier — your soldier has earned that as well. Above all, when you first throw your arms around your soldier, speak first the words that have greeted returning warriors for ages, and that every soldier deserves to hear over and over and over:
Louisvillian Brian Smith is a Gulf War infantry veteran and an anti-Iraq War activist. Contact him at