Much to the confusion of those who have not experienced combat -- parents and spouses, siblings and friends -- many young people say that 'going to war' was one of the best things that ever happened to them. Several of my friends from the Vietnam era attribute maturing and gaining purpose in their lives to serving in the military. Others find a new family and sense of belonging during the trials of combat.
But few are exempt from experiencing bad memories and emotional swings upon coming back home. They are changed, and as a changed person they now must fit into a world that has not moved along as they have. Indeed, those closest to the soldiers, so relieved and happy to be together again, only want them to get back to who they were before the disruption of a deployment.
The Hurt Locker is a fictional story, and each viewer has his or her own take-away message. But as a former soldier and clinician, two scenes from the movie provide a glimpse of the vexing homecoming for many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
In one, SSG William James, played by Jeremy Renner, is back home, off at a remote cabin, feeding his small son. Between mouthfuls, James is talking to the boy, with a mixture of agony and anxiety, a father wanting to impart a truth to his son that the boy is far too young to apprehend. "You love playing with that, " James says. "You love playing with all your stuffed animals. You love your Mommy, your Daddy. You love your pajamas. You love everything, don't ya? Yea. But you know what, buddy? As you get older... some of the things you love might not seem so special anymore."
On that day, or another one that was just like it, he is grocery shopping with his wife. Pushing an empty cart, staring at all the shelves of cereals, he is utterly unreachable. Lost in thought or perhaps overwhelmed by the choices. Even the most banal and quotidian activities of normal life become challenging.
For too many soldiers, after a year away from home, consumed by the grit of combat duty, adjusting to family and garrison duty is much too hard. Over the past years, I have seen soldiers like SSG James on visits to posts across the country and in my clinical practice.
These soldiers say that they are just not the same. They don't know why, but they feel changed, and the important stuff around them has changed. Combat will do that to almost anyone - everyone is changed, for better or worse, and sometimes both better and worse. These are not the great traumas of the war, but much more corrosive micro-traumas: an inability to relate in comforting and familiar ways and the tendency to feel like an alien when doing the most ordinary things.
Typically, mental health experts talk about the trauma of combat, PTSD, and its lasting effects. Just as important is how the soldiers adjust on returning home and reintegrating with family, community, and friends. The process of reintegration or readjustment is difficult after any lengthy separation, even for those who live overseas to teach school for a year. Add to that separation the unimaginably intense experiences to which the combat theater exposes the young man or woman and you get the psychological alchemy that can cause immeasurable suffering to the soldier and to those closest to the soldier.
That was part of the message that SSG James was giving his son: the people and things once cherished may not keep their importance. Things that once seemed so valuable were now less so and the experiences that superceded those things in importance can never be replicated in normal life.
How does the combat veteran make the adjustment? Many soldiers feel that their service in combat has been the most meaningful contribution they've ever made. They say so in the boldest way and now, once they return to the routine of home life and garrison duty, they feel frustrated and depressed, lacking any sense of purpose. The lucky ones enjoy the blessings of their relationships and love of family that centers them and endures, but many don't have such good fortune. They don't have the benefit of social interactions that are healing and protective. The dwell time -- the interval between deployments -- is often too short to help the soldier readjust and restore those supportive relationships.
The scene in the grocery store reminded me of comments by soldiers who have been exposed to intense IED blasts. They complain of problems in sustaining attention and short-term memory. Frankly, they often don't recognize their problems and get treatment because their complaining spouses take them to the clinic. The microscopic damage that repeated blasts inflict is not known, but complaints of problems with attention, memory, and mood are very common. A good number of soldiers have moments like SSG William James and, as inconsequential as they may appear, they exact their own kind of suffering.
Critics of The Hurt Locker observed that the uniforms are wrong and the realities of being in Iraq during that time were quite different. I am not a movie critic, and would not begin to debate those points. But the facts of feeling changed after intense combat duty and feeling disoriented are drawn with impressive precision. SSG James may be a reckless cowboy, but he shares the secret sentiments of many soldiers.
For more information, visit www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife
Stephen N. Xenakis, M.D. is a practicing psychiatrist, who retired from the Army as a Brigadier General after 28 years of active service.