Coming Home: Giving Veterans the Time and Space They Need to Mourn
Coming Home: Giving Veterans the Time and Space They Need to Mourn
Recently the meme shown below popped up in my social media feed and it hit me like ton of bricks. Most memes are funny or perhaps even poignant, but they’re seldom grounded in reality. For those that are Veterans and have recently separated from service or soon will, this one is strikingly real world. For me it wasn’t just real, it was an exact match and perhaps why it hit me so hard, despite these events being 25 years in my past.
Let me take you back to 1993, I’d just completed my three years of service with the U.S. Army Airborne. Any thoughts of making the Military a career had passed and I’d ETS’d at the end of my first and only active duty term. In that time, I’d served in the first Gulf War and did the rest of my tour in Panama and Honduras. It was a mix of typical rear echelon time and some very hardcore field time. I both loved and hated it, but those I served with, as any who have served know, I loved as brothers.
The time it took to get on a plane at Howard Airforce Base as a soldier and walk into my father’s home as just another guy was three days. For three years I was a soldier, first as Private Spirko then PVC Spirko, etc. Now I wasn’t even just Spirko, as Military equals always just use each other’s last name. No, now I was Jack and just Jack. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to be home, happy to be done and I liked being just Jack. However, three days and two plane rides had just taken away three years of my identity.
A week later I met up with an old high school buddy at a stone quarry we used to drink beer at as kids. When we arrived, a bunch of the old gang was there and it was like a reunion. There was a fire, a few rods in the water and a lot of BS stories going around. At first I was happy, there were so many guys I hadn’t seen in years and everyone was happy to see me. However after about an hour of all the talk, well, it sounded like these guys were still in high school.
Nothing they were saying mattered, there was no talk of mission, no talk of the next deployment. Just who said what about whom and would Jimmy ever get a real job, etc. At that moment, surrounded by people who really cared about me, I felt very much alone. The noise of the talk sounded like a train that wouldn’t pass. I took two beers out of the case, walked about 50 yards away and sat on an old boulder I used to fish from when I was a kid. The stars were out, so I just sipped my beers while looking at the water and stars for about 30 minutes. I then went back and enjoyed the rest of the night until we went home.
Over the next few days, I got questions and heard others asking the same things to each other, chief among them, “What’s wrong with Jack?” I didn’t understand this. It was no big deal and if a brother soldier had done this, perhaps a simple, “Hey man is anything up?” may have been extended. However a reply of “It’s all good,” would have been the end of it. Two weeks later I was still hearing guys saying, “Is he okay, what’s wrong with him?” when they didn’t know I could hear them.
I’m sure it was more than just that one moment at the lake. I’m sure at times I’d stared into the distance or was distant from the group in some other way. I made a decision, if I was going to fit back into society I needed a reboot. That summer before moving to Texas from Pennsylvania, I did a section hike on the Appalachian Trail; hiking from central Pennsylvania to Northern New Hampshire. That helped a lot, but even after that, I didn’t really understand what was wrong. I wanted to be a civilian again, I was building my career, life was good, but something was missing. Surrounded by friends I was still lonely.
I’m happy to say this wound healed over time and today I’m a proud father, grandfather, husband, Veteran and successful entrepreneur that lives very happily on my small farm. I’m also older and wiser now. Time does that to a man and I finally understand those emotions from so long ago. That meme, God bless it, brought it all back.
When a vet comes home, no matter how positive the circumstances, he or she will mourn the loss of their brothers and sisters. They’ll mourn being part of something larger than themselves. They’ll mourn the end of a chapter in their lives. A person in mourning at times simply needs some quiet time, space and understanding. One thing they really don’t need is some variation of the question, “What’s wrong with you?”
It seems so simple, but people really do have a hard time understanding this. This is exactly what happened to me and sent me off on a very long walk in the woods to get my perspective back. People meant well, but when you simply walked off to a quiet spot with a beer by yourself they constantly wanted to know, “What’s wrong with you?”
Folks, when the vets you love come home for good, give them space. While PTSD is a real thing and those with it need help, some of us just need some time and space. It isn’t just what we’ve been through, it’s also mourning for a life left behind. Even though many of us are very happy to come home and really wanted to leave the service, we still mourn it as we would any loss. Just like you would mourn a divorce where you know you needed it and are better off for it, you still mourn the absence of something that was such a part of you for such a long time.
We go from being surrounded every day by true brothers and sisters who understand us. Men and women that pledged to die to protect each other if need be. Some of them we don’t even like as people, but as brothers and sisters we love them still and would defend them to the death. Now they’re all gone. Worse, they’re not gone, they’re still there and are still “doing the job.” We’re gone and have left them behind. That makes you both mourn their absence and carry a burden of not being there for them.
It isn’t that we’re not happy to be home, or happy to be with you again. It’s that we were part of something larger than ourselves; something special. We mourn the fact that we won’t ever be going back. That we’ll never again “fall out” at 0500 for PT with 500 other hungover soldiers on a Monday morning. That we’ll never again march to cadence, etc. Again, much of this we didn’t even really enjoy, but it became part of who we were and we were surrounded by others in it with us. It’s something you can’t possibly understand if you didn’t serve, so it’s best not even to try. Just give your vets some space and know time is all they really need.
Again, if you think someone is in danger, get them the help they need, but if all we’re talking about is a guy picking up a beer, walking away 50 yards and staring at the water and sky for 30 minutes, don’t worry. Just let them be.
In 1993, I lived this meme in real life. I have no expectations that my article will prevent others from doing so as well. My only hope is that when this time comes they and those who care for them may simply better understand it by reading my thoughts on the matter here.
I would like to send out a huge thank you to Disgruntled Vets, the awesome Facebook group that put out this meme. Sometimes actions that seem so small have major effects in ways you can’t imagine.
Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Please join us in welcoming Jack Spirko as a contributor on ITS. Jack is a prior service U.S. Army Airborne soldier who served from 1990 to 1993 in various foreign theaters. He’s a longtime friend to the ITS community and today lives on a small farm near Azle, Texas and makes his living as the Host of The Survival Podcast.