At the end of the book If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, Tim O’Brien’s searing memoir of life as an infantry grunt in the Vietnam War, he wrote about returning to his native Minnesota after a year in combat. In the Vietnam War, the majority of soldiers deployed as replacements, joined units already in the fight, and if they lived, they often returned home to the U.S. utterly alone.
“You go to the back of the plane,” the narrator describes at the end of O’Brien’s book. “You take off your uniform. You roll it into a ball and stuff it into your suitcase and put on a sweater and blue jeans…Much as you hate it, you don’t have civilian shoes, but no one will notice. It’s impossible to go home barefoot.”
In the years and decades after Vietnam, the military and veterans groups realized that coming home without a support network, or even someone to understand what they had been through, many veterans suffered through the anguish of returning to civilian society on their own. They had to process their experience and try to begin their lives anew without their buddies, without a unit, an experience that drove many into crisis.
Because troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a unit and returned home with that group, they faced those early days at home with the friends they fought beside. But after leaving the service, many veterans began to feel lost. Some suffered from hidden wounds such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury without knowing what was happening to them. Others were mentally and physically healthy but had lost the sense of purpose that drove them to fight for their country. Nearly all, according to surveys, wanted to continue to serve in some capacity.
In this week’s magazine, Joe Klein writes about a remarkable group of leaders in the veterans community who started organizations designed to help veterans by giving them a path to continued service. By serving their communities, responding to natural disasters, and taking care of their fellow veterans, many vets who were lost found a renewed sense of purpose and a path forward.
One of the young veteran leaders who has touched thousands of lives is Eric Grietens, a former Navy SEAL. After returning from Iraq, Greitens visited some of the severely wounded troops at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He talked to men who had lost limbs and eyesight, and he asked each of them, “What do you want to do now?” Nearly all said the same thing: they wanted to return to their units. If that wasn’t possible? Most said they wanted to go home and serve their community. “Great,” Greitens told them. “We still need you.”
He started an organization called The Mission Continues, which provides fellowships for veterans to serve in their communities. Hundreds of veterans have returned to towns and cities all over the country, helping rebuild schools and volunteer as coaches; many have started service organizations of their own, having found not just a renewed sense of purpose, but a new calling in their lives. Through organizations like The Mission Continues, Team Rubicon, and many others, veterans returning from our most recent wars are learning that though they have left their units, they are not alone. The skills and experience they gained in combat can be useful in their communities, and most importantly of all, their service doesn’t have to stop just because they have taken off the uniform.
Next Team Rubicon