In May 2009, after serving four months as chaplain for the Air Force Field hospital in Balad, Iraq, I checked five pieces of luggage onto the military charter flight that would carry me home.
The five bags were heavy with my uniforms, mementos and military gear. However, as we approach another Veterans Day, I’m becoming more aware that I carried some unseen baggage, too.
For instance, I was carrying the weight of a job undone. It felt undone because my four-month chaplain rotation was out of sync with the six-month deployment of the hospital staff. I was returning alone while many remained. There were moments where I felt more like a deserter than a returning vet.
Like most vets, I was worried about friends I left behind. I felt much like the only Marine I saw cry during my deployment. She was sent home with a broken ankle and her tears weren’t from physical pain, but from the spiritual pain of leaving her squad.
Insomnia is a common thing vets carry. Mine started on the second day of my deployment when I found the bomb squad digging outside my quarters. They were searching for the unexploded mortar that floated over the fence the night before. The insomnia gradually increased over the weeks as I stood beside a dozen mortally wounded soldiers, praying as the doctors administered comfort morphine.
Once the plane was loaded, we flew 20 hours, only to have a hard landing in Baltimore. Five passengers were taken to area hospitals and the plane was a total loss. At that point, I was willing to walk home, even with all we carried.
Two weeks after unpacking my bags, I found more psychological stowaways. For instance, I carried a hypervigilance common for many vets. I avoided crowded places; I stared at rooftops and walked around anything that could hide a bomb, such as backpacks, packages or overstuffed trash cans.
From all of that, the VA doctor told me I was likely carrying secondary traumatic stress (STS), more commonly called “compassion fatigue.” STS is a condition characterized by the gradual decrease of one’s ability to show compassion. It’s a common side effect for those who care for the injured and dying, STS takes a lot out of one’s psyche and soul, so now there’s a name for it.
As the weeks went on, I realized I also carried some things that offset the weight of these burdens.
I carried the camaraderie of veteran organizations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) as well as the traditional VFW and the American Legion.
I also carried a new confidence in my ability to get things done. Still in my early 50s, I found strength to run marathons, get a master’s degree in creative writing and find a job nearly anywhere.
Moreover, I carried a stronger faith. I discovered the kind of faith that grips the parachutist when his harness tightens. I learned the kind of faith the trapeze artist knows as she hangs for a second in midair only to be snatched by a skillful partner. I found a faith that comes from just beyond the edge of the darkness in which we stand. It’s a faith that knows the darkness, but comes from the light.
Finally, during this month in which we honor veterans, most vets would say they are also aware we carry the thanks of a grateful nation. Thank you, America, for the parades, the airport welcomes, the applause and the prayers. We heard them all — loud and clear.