Shades of Green

A Marine in Afghanistan writes home

by Michael Christman '00SEAS Published Fall 2013
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March 24, 2013

A patrol walks in “Ranger file,” each member closely following the person in front of him to minimize the risk of stepping on an IED.Of course, the most widely discussed topic is our impending return home. The first of our Marine replacements arrive in a week, and soon after that I’ll be back in Leatherneck waiting on a flight home. At times I can almost taste the beer waiting for me in America. Those on their first deployment are jumping out of their skins with anticipation to get back.

I’ve done this a couple of times, and from my experience, the reintegration process is best described from the point of view of ordering a coffee at Starbucks.

Phase 1: You stand patiently in line, happy to be around people who have showered at least once in the last twenty-four hours. You order an Orange Mocha Frappuccino from the girl behind the counter, just glad to be talking to someone who doesn’t have to shave.

Phase 2: You’re standing in line behind a businessman and a soccer mom who are complaining that there isn’t enough foam on their Orange Mocha Frappuccinos, and it takes all your willpower not to strangle them and scream about how you just spent seven months in the filth with a bunch of Georgians tiptoeing around IEDs so that they could enjoy their mornings with a five-dollar beverage made from the beans picked by some kid in Guatemala.

Phase 3: You’re complaining that there’s not enough foam in your Orange Mocha Frappuccino.

Everyone is different, and most people will end up at Phase 3 sooner or later. The experts estimate that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of us come back with some sort of posttraumatic stress disorder. Some of those end up committing suicide. But it’s important to recognize that this statistic also means that between 80 and 90 percent of us come back without PTSD.

These are young men who have stared death in the face and walked away unscathed. It can be hard to go back home and not become bored with the banality of modern life in America.

It’s great that we as a society recognize mental health as an important topic, but I worry that we may have swung too far and that the stigma of the veteran who “loses it” is a burden that we all have to carry.

I’m concerned about the boys as they go back. The first ninety days can set the tone for their reintegration. These are young men who have stared death in the face and walked away unscathed. It can be hard to go back home and not become bored with the banality of modern life in America. Too many of these young men will try to recapture the thrill of combat by going home and driving fast cars, drinking heavily, self-medicating, or all three at once. Sometimes I wish that before we get home we could lock ourselves in a padded room with a couple of kegs of beer and some boxing gloves so that we could get most of the drinking and fighting out of our systems before we’re released back into the general public.

But overall it has been a great deployment, a life-changing event for the better. Nothing focuses a group of young men like preparing for and going into combat, and no other job will ever have as much excitement, meaning, or importance as the last year has had for me. There is a small part of me that would like to stay for another month, just to make sure that everything goes smoothly with the next unit, but in the end, it’s time to go home.

It’s funny what you crave after being gone for so long. For the last seven months everything I’ve eaten has come out of a bag (and all my poop has gone into one, so in a weird way it makes sense). I haven’t watched TV, seen a sporting event, had a face-to-face conversation with a girl, sent a text message, used running water, or flushed a toilet. I haven’t driven in a car that doesn’t require me to put on sixty pounds of body armor and ammunition, had a day off, or showered on a regular basis. I’ve been living in an open tent with nine other guys and little to no privacy, sleeping on a cot in a sleeping bag. I haven’t been without my pistol or handheld radio for months.

My first meal when I get back? A bowl of mussels and fries with a plate of oysters and a tall, cold Belgian beer sounds great right now. Don’t ask why that particular meal sounds so appealing. I don’t know, either.

Michael Christman is a Captain in the United States Marine Corps and a graduate of SEAS '00. He is currently based out of Camp Pendleton, California.

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