Saturday, May 7, 2011

Seeing soldiers return from deployment

Yesterday I read an article in Outside magazine, one I'd have originally skipped over, thinking another military story, I'm not interested. But these days it interests me. It's a chronicle of wounded veterans tackling a mountain in Nepal- a moving tale of adventure and spirit.

It's been a year since the big push to prep soldiers from the 172nd for deployment to Afghanistan. They've been trickling back for a while, but returning en masse recently, about 300 every other day. It changes the landscape- groups of greensuits are scattered alongside the road as I drive through post. For a long time, it was a ghost town.

Part of their reintegration is a trip to optometry for a vision check, so I see them in my exam chair. What a different feeling, the returning. An overall sense of ease and relief. I've asked what's the best thing about being back, and they answer: "A bed, time alone, food." The basics. But I know it's not that simple.

I'm a little sad that I'll be missing most of the soldiers- I have only nine days left in the clinic. But at least I've seen some- it makes the experience feel a little more full-circle. What I've mostly learned in these nearly two years is compassion. I didn't know much about the military except how to judge it. I now know the stories of the people behind the scenes: where they come from, their hopes and dreams, the difficulties of military life, the risks of service. I do believe that we'd benefit from some sort of mandatory national service.

Our clinic itself is in transition, with several staff members leaving this summer. Our chiropractor died of leukemia on Friday (he'd been sick for a while). The whole place feels a bit dark right now. So many emotions in the air. Life starts and stops when it wants to- what control do we really have over it? But I'm comforted that in difficult times, I've seen everyone pull together and do what should be done, for that is all you can do. One foot in front of the other... never knowing when it will be your last.

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