How Being in the Military Changed My Mind Forever

soldier in uniform with US flag patch

During my first Christmas in Iraq, we were hit by a roadside bomb. It could have been worse. Luckily, no one died in this explosion. Back at the firebase, we were allowed a call on the satellite phone. Some people freely told their parents or loved ones about what had happened. I felt that unbecoming of an infantryman—why scare people back home?—instead I settled on my favorite topic: the weather. Oh stoic me.

Half a year later I was touring Europe with a friend of mine from the same platoon. I wouldn’t say we had seen all that much action, yet there was an anger that was evident in both of us. A hundred and fifty miles per hour seemed too slow. We threw our wrath at anyone in our way. Verbal wrath, but troublesome nonetheless. Whatever I was experiencing I merely concealed by being a stranger in a strange land: the prattle of a foreign language and people going about their way provided a perfect cocoon for me.

It’s an odd thing to look back at the young man I once was. I’m aware of the alchemy involved to truly capture my frame of mind back then, to not assign some current epiphany, some current vocabulary back into the past, into my memories in some half-baked attempt to smooth out who I was then with who I am now. It would be remiss of me not to mention that I was experiencing a state of mind — along with all the accompanying feelings — of which I was not aware, and to which I truly had no words for.

Instead it was easier to grasp other words, other phrases, other slogans that were readily available in my zeitgeist. I’m speaking of grasping my role as a soldier — a word coherent to both the civilian and military world —and all the inherent values of that role: be it from movies or other soldiers around me or what have you. As I’m writing, these bubble forth, words and states from another time: with us or against us, honor, fight for your freedoms.

Of course, this role includes belonging to a community, along with all the sacrifices required at the altar of a mission, of doing for the person next to you. This is the brotherhood one hears referred to often. And indeed, in that teamwork one can easily find something to lose oneself to, something to keep the demons at bay and eat up any time for reflection.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. This teamwork is something that started early in the military. It was in basic training that I was indoctrinated into the culture and belief system of the Army. It included this idea of a brotherhood, though it also introduced a very measured separation between us and the civilians we were protecting. This mental separation is now something I’m trying to overcome, but back then it was a welcome way to help with the very real distance between me and the civilian world.

After being through the military, I could not, cannot, help having a different outlook on life, a different worldview than those who did not serve. I don’t only mean my stoicism, like on that Christmas phone call back home. I’m talking about the different cultures, about how no longer having the same idea of teamwork — that brotherhood again—represents a loss or at least a gap to be filled.

This chasm says something of the effects on my mind, to my mental health. Because it’s almost a question of understanding one’s reality: how to work with the person next to you — individuality or teamwork; how you see the world — the easy talk of war as a panacea or as a curse; how you take in the news—naively or cynically. If the chasm between me and my fellow citizen is too wide, my reality stretches to the breaking point, somewhere beyond reckless driving.

When I drive I don’t speed any more. Too old, perhaps. Or maybe a sign of coming back to normal. It’s been a Sisyphean ordeal. To bridge the chasm I’ve been reading as much about the world as possible—part of a self-enforced reeducation. All that young me did, he did under great misconceptions. If that brotherhood was a powerful drug, so too was my ignorance, a sin I might forever be recovering from.

Reading history and literature brings new knowledge and plants my feet on firmer ground, sheds light on the chasm even if it doesn’t always bridge it. I have also turned to writing about the world to help assuage my guilt, to communicate with that world. Fiction, non-fiction. I mentioned how I didn’t have the vocabulary back then to understand what I was going through. I should clarify that even now it’s an ongoing process, still searching for the words. I write, a man possessed. Perhaps the attempt is futile. I note the very different reactions from veterans (no matter the war) and civilians, yet I keep writing. Chasm. Ignorance. What else is there but to keep trying to reach to my fellow human?

Bio: Nelson Lowhim is a veteran and a writer. He currently lives in Seattle and is the author of 1000001 American Nights. You can find out more about him at nelsonlowhim.blogspot.com.