When a service member comes home

The whole family needs time to adjust

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imageSpc. Brent Goolsby says hello to his son Jonathan Aiden Goolsby for the first time.

By Paul Boudreau

C26D: The flight from Dallas to Los Angeles is tedious, but it’s the final leg of a journey that started two days ago in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad in Iraq. It was there Sanchez lived for 18 months with his Marine unit, in the midst of some of the most violent fighting of the Iraq War. Now Sanchez is coming home.

He leans back and closes his eyes. The drone of the jet engines is a welcome departure from the hollow diesel clatter that accompanied his daily Humvee patrols in Fallujah, or the slapping whack of the helicopters that came and went from his base.
He thinks about what it will be like to be home. He thinks about waking up next to his lovely wife, making a pot of coffee in the kitchen, and holding his daughter on his lap. But memories of the last year and a half crowd out his thoughts of home. He can’t help recalling Fallujah, remembering the horror that is the war in Iraq.

A weapon of death
Like every American service member stationed in a battle zone like Iraq or Afghanistan, Sanchez was dedicated to accomplishing his mission and staying alive. To that end, he carried a loaded M-16 assault rifle wherever he went. He knew it intimately and could take it apart and put it back together again in less than a minute, blindfolded. He slept with it nearby. It could fire a burst of three 5.56 mm, high-powered bullets in a split second, and do it over and over again as often as Sanchez pulled the trigger. Each bullet could inflict massive and deadly destruction on a human body.

For the last year and a half, Sanchez and his M-16 had become a deadly fighting unit; he was always ready to aim the rifle and fire. And on more occasions than he cared to count, he did just that. He can picture in his mind the fate of each enemy combatant he’d fired on. He doesn’t forget it.

There was the constant threat, too, of the hundreds of insurgents in and around Fallujah who were equally deadly. Their AK-47 assault rifles could do as much damage as an M-16. He remembers vividly the day a bullet ripped through the cloth of his trouser leg and left a long, burning furrow on the skin of his calf before it tore off the heel of his boot. The scar is still on his leg, a painful reminder of how much difference an inch makes.
This constant state of readiness kept Sanchez on edge 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Every sound, every movement around him sparked a sharp twist of his gut. You know how it feels when you lose sight of your child in a crowded mall or have a close call on the freeway. Sanchez felt just like that for a year and a half. The approach of every person, every car, set off alarms in his body, because people and cars were sometimes rigged with explosives to be set off near the Americans. Sanchez knew guys who were killed by exploding cars. And the feeling didn’t stop when he left Iraq. Even as he stood outside the airport in Hamburg, Germany, he felt a rising fear each time a car pulled up to the curb close to him.

Language of the warrior
When a service member spends a long time in a combat zone with other service members, his or her language may change. It’s not just the military lingo. It’s the swear words that pepper the military conversation. Before long, when Sanchez gets home, words he does not intend will fall out of his mouth in front of his wife, his daughter, and his parents. They will embarrass him and offend the people he loves and who love him. It is going to be a struggle for him to bring his language back to the way it was before he went off to war.

At home with the war
Sanchez is coming home. He can live with his wife and daughter in the security of their little house. He can walk to the store without fear of attack or drive to see his parents without worrying about a roadside bomb going off along the way.

But it will be a long time before he will feel safe, before the constant terror of the last 18 months will fade. There will be times when a sound or a movement will cause him to react in ways that may seem unusually harsh to those around him. He will say and do things that might be disturbing to those who have not gone where he has gone. And sometimes he will experience profound emotions, deep moods that will be hard for him to understand or control, feelings that rise from the soul of a good man who has seen the horror of comrades torn by violence, and who has participated in the killing of men.

Fortunately, Sanchez is blessed with a caring family and an understanding community. He knows about the lingering aftereffects of war from his military counselors. He will seek help and guidance from the Veterans Administration, and from his pastor. He’s a smart man and after a period of adjustment, he’ll do fine. The important thing for Sanchez is that he’s coming home. But for a while, home will be a strange place.

This article is reproduced from February 2008 issue of Catholic Digest

Paul Boudreau

Father Paul Boudreau is a priest of the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, currently serving in the Diocese of San Bernardino, California. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and retreat leader.