14 Oct 2009
Home...family...friends. When we return home, will it be they who have changed, or will it be us? I remember when I came home from Afghanistan after a tour with the Air Force in 2003. The war and the effect that it had on soldiers then was still new and virtually unknown. There were no briefings then about how to re-establish yourselves into the lives of those who had gone on without you. Nobody told us what to expect, or how to deal with what was to come of our new lives. I came home and just assumed that things would pick up where they had left off. It wasn't that easy. I soon found myself frustrated that my wife had become so independent of me. I had missed out on my newborn daughter's first several months of her life, and had to learn how to be a daddy all over again, and I felt like an intruder in my own home. Then there was the job. After more than a year away from the Carson City Sheriff's Office, I could'nt wait to get back into my patrol car, doing what I did best.
Until that night on July 4th, 2003. I was parked at Lompa and Menlo as the fireworks started to explode over Mills Park. When the first concussion reverberated in my chest, I started to panic. I didn't know why, I just did, and I couldn't control the crushing feeling of fear that overcame me. It took a few minutes of hyperventilating before I was able to get a hold of myself and tell my brain that they were just fireworks, not exploding landmines, or distant artillery. I couldn't believe what had just happened to me. I was Gary Underhill...a nearly two decade veteran of law enforcement! This wasn't supposed to happen to me. I had just returned from Afghanistan. I had faced gunfire before. I had spent an entire career running toward chaos when everyone else ran away. And I was scared. To death. By something as innocent as July 4th fireworks, and I didn't have a clue why.
It only got harder as the months went on. My wife saw changes in me that I could not or did not want to see. I know I scared her. Most of the time, I didn't care. I was too wrapped up in my own self pity, putting other things ahead of her and our newborn child to worry about how anybody felt but me. In time, I plateaued and eventually, I forgot all about Afghanistan and my time spent there.
Those feelings, fears and insecurities that I experienced when I returned home were simply buried in a time capsule somewhere in the pit of my stomach, to be ignored, and ideally never faced again. Until now. How will I be different when I come home? Will I suddenly swerve instinctively, every time I drive under an overpass, hoping to avoid an IED over my head? Will I hold my breath and duck down in my seat whenever I pass a pile of trash, or an old tire along side the roadway? Will I become uneasy, impatient and claustrophobic stuck in traffic at a red light? Will I be quick to anger again? Or will I be a better man and a better cop for my experience, more compassionate for the poverty and hardships suffered by others that I've seen, or more suspicious of anyone but those closest to me?
The hardest part about being over here, at least for me, is two-fold: We've yet to see any combat. We've had a few close calls, some found IED's, two IED detonations, and some recent small arms fire, but every time we go out, we're aware of what MIGHT happen to us. Sometimes the anticipation is almost too much. Then there's the boredom of hours on the road that can lead to complacency if left unchecked. But we go on anyway, concentrating on the mission ahead of us and put all of that out of our minds. Second to that, is the absence from those whom I love the most. I really miss the daily face to face contact. I miss how warm and soft my girls are when they cuddle with me. I miss holding their little hands. I miss my wife's smile. My wife is my rock. I have yet to find anyone whom I have ever felt closer to. I just wish that I had done things differently for us in the past.
Returning home this time will be different, and the jury's still out on exactly how. First, we will have been gone for just over a year. That doesn't take into account the several months of training that we went through stateside that took us away from home for weeks at a time prior to our deployment. The Army is much more acutely aware in 2009 than they were in 2003 about the changes soldiers go through when they deploy. We all bitch and complain as our deployment end-date draws near about the countless briefings that we will have to endure before we will be allowed to go home. Those briefings, meant to ease the trepidation for both soldiers and their family's are invaluable and have come to fruition as a result of the US Military ignoring for too long the danger signs. I tried telling my commander and senior NCO's in the Air Force of my problems shortly after coming home the first time. No one cared. Instead, I was ostracized and ridiculed.
For me, I look at the mistakes I made and the danger signs I ignored when I came home in 2003, and I look to that time as a frame of reference, making a mental note now and again not to repeat the mistakes of my past. I look forward to returning to life after Iraq. This time, I will to treat every single day as a gift and a blessing. I want to get up every morning and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my girls' school lunches like it's the most important thing I will do that day. I want to be a husband and a best friend to the woman who has meant everything to me, but whose presence in my life, I always took for granted.
This deployment will eventually end, and in a few months we'll all board that big, chartered jet that will take us home. That's when the adventure really begins. We will all be changed to some degree, and that doesn't have to be something to fear. For some of us this is our second, third, even fourth deployment. For others it's our first. Either way, it has been the opportunity of a lifetime and concentrating on coming back better than when we left is the key.
As I get ready to go out on another mission soon, I realize that there are things far more precious to lose than my own life.