Friday, October 7, 2011

Notes from the Front Lines - Back Home, and Homeless

This is a first person account of life after the military for a veteran of Afghanistan - homeless, broke, and emotional unstable - 16 months homeless out of the 18 months he has been back in country.

It's incomprehensible top me that we send these young to occupy a foreign country and fight a faceless enemy, then abandon them when they come home with broken minds and hearts.

Back Home, and Homeless

Courtesy of Matt FarwellThe author on deployment in Afghanistan.
Mid-June, 2011: I find myself alone in a dark wooded park tucked between million-dollar houses south of Stanford University, looking for a spot in the bushes to stash my bags. Until that morning I’d been living in a cheap weekly-rate motel in Palo Alto. Before checkout, knowing I couldn’t afford the $48 fee for another night, I laid out my stuff on the bed. Over the cigarette burns on threadbare sheets, I scrounged for quarters, dimes and nickels. There was enough for an extra value meal at Taco Bell. I divided everything else I had between three bags; an olive-drab backpack my brother used in the Army Rangers, a black duffel I bought at Goodwill and a satchel for my laptop.
This was my life. I was two weeks shy of my 28th birthday, unemployed, broke, thousands of miles from my family, watching the weather forecast to see how uncomfortable sleeping outside would be that night. Whatever the prediction, I could handle it. Four and a half years in the Army, including 16 months as an infantryman in eastern Afghanistan, provided plenty of skills with no legal application in the civilian world. It was, however, wonderful preparation for being homeless.
I was searching for a hole in the bushes to hide my bags. They were heavy and awkward, cumbersome to lug around Palo Alto. They clashed with the mishmash of designer bags embroidered with labels from Silicon Valley tech companies that the Stanford kids carried. Walking with them, I stood out, the opening scene of the first Rambo movie cycling through my mind: Sylvester Stallone on the side of the road with a big, green duffel bag slung over his shoulder and blending in with every part of his faded green field jacket except the red, white and blue flag patch, attracts the attention of the sheriff who wants John Rambo and all the bad mojo he carries from Vietnam out of his town. That movie ended badly for Rambo, the sheriff and the town. My life wasn’t a movie and I wasn’t John Rambo, but the same possibilities for a bad ending loomed. I’d learned that fact the only way fools like me learn anything: experience.
As infantry on the ground in Afghanistan, we were introduced to the ugliness of violent, unpredictable death. Over the 16 months of our tour, we caused it and we endured it; we grew well acquainted with it. Sometimes I think that we took it back, an invisible scythe-carrying stowaway on board the airplane we took back to the States. How else to explain my friend Michael Cloutier, whose spot-on shooting probably saved my life when our observation post was attacked by Taliban who outnumbered us three to one, dying of a drug overdose a year after we came back?
Or the staff sergeant from my former battalion — Second Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, Third Brigade, Tenth Mountain Division — who committed suicide by cop on Fort Drum later that year when military police were called to investigate a domestic disturbance? I didn’t know him that well and had already left Fort Drum for a cushy assignment as an assistant in a four-star general’s headquarters, but I wrote the eulogy my old company commander delivered at his funeral.
Not too long after that, when my friends in my old unit were rotating back, I started to crack a bit. 
 Read the whole story.

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