Before the Veterans Art Foundation was even a concept weaving it’s way inside my brain, I was an infantryman. Some people don’t know what one is. It’s simply a foot soldier, a grunt, the front line troops.
Like everyone who’s deployed, I have war stories. I try not to exaggerate or embellish mine. For instance, I didn’t kill a hundred Iraqis with my bare hands. Maybe one by knocking out his chest tube. It didn’t look like he’d had a chance, anyways.
Truth be told, I never pulled the trigger outside the “wire.” I had made the choice once and was pulling the trigger as my squad leader stopped me from firing on an Iraqi National Guardsman who’d been tucked away in a window, above our heads firing rounds into the field before us.
The real problems I had didn’t start until I touched down with the rest of the first wave home after our 12 month tour was complete. The three weeks that followed were both the best and worst of my life. I’ll never have another time like that. In some ways, I’ll miss it. In others, I’m glad it won’t happen again.
The powers that be had decided to extend my unit, the 172nd SBCT out of Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. Our unit was to take control of Baghdad for four months. The news spread like wildfire, through the media and eventually down the chain of command.
Soldiers overseas were lined up, ready for their plane roster, in hopes of getting home soon. The CO of the unit ripped the dream to shreds. Panic, anger, and disgust swept through our ranks, at home and abroad.
My own thoughts initially were to stay at home, to ride the surge out. The vast majority of us fought the urge to run, to cower, and to opt out medically.
Coming home from war as a unit is an amazing, unforgettable series of events. Being greeted by family and friends is heartwarming. Unfortunately, most of us had no one there to greet us. We’d been moved north for the remainder of our time in the army.
The only sign welcoming our unit back was taped to a dumpster in a parking lot away from the main roadway. If you strained your eyes, you might catch it. Regardless, our homecoming was bittersweet.
After the news rocked the city, fort, and soldiers (families too) our lives became chaos. We fought white rappers in the streets, drunkenly screamed at military policemen, vandalized, and womanizer. What else could we do but unleash the fear and horror of returning to the unknown of war.
Those weeks, without the fanfare, politicians and anger were the best of my life and I’ll never be able to find that again. Good or bad.
– Mike Hawley, co- founder.
Some wounds can’t be seen.
PTSD can be a death sentence, if untreated.