Imagine living thousands of miles from home with no cell phone coverage. You spend your days tending to battle wounds, dehydration, and injuries caused by heavy equipment accidents. Days are long. There are no days off. And sometimes you are put in the position of healing the enemy – the same men who have put your friends in an early grave. As you walk the mile home in the 117-degree heat, you sometimes begin to dread what waits for you back at your CHU (Containerized Housing Unit). The boredom during the evening is mind numbing sometimes, so you occupy yourself, watching dozens of bootleg DVDs, or working out in the base gym after the sun goes down. But within the boredom is a restlessness . . . an underlying awareness that something could happen at any moment. Truly relaxing means that you may not be ready when an attack comes.
[The above description was gathered from Oral interviews with the Maryland 224th]
A portion of Team K’s upcoming exhibit will aim to put the visitor in the shoes of a soldier from the 224th ASMC (Area Support Medical Company) of the Maryland National Guard. These men and women train and are deployed from a readiness center only 8 miles from Sandy Spring Museum.
Five of these service members agreed to sit down with me last weekend to answer questions about, not only their experience at war, but about their experience coming back home to Maryland after living in a war zone. Research tells us the transition can be tough. Some experts call it the “war after the war” because soldiers develop a “battle” mindset that is hard to let go of. They have a tough time adjusting to life at home with their families. Some have PTSD and can’t function in their jobs. They’re angry and react violently to minor problems with their children and spouses. Others lose direction because they are used to the rigid lifestyle in the military. Sadly, the suicide rate for veterans is twice as high as it is for civilians.
But not all soldiers have lasting struggles. Some that I talked to say their experience “down range” has made them a better person. They are proud of their service and would eagerly go back for another tour of duty. They believed that their missions were purposeful and they felt genuine satisfaction about helping Iraqis and Afghans. They wanted me to make sure that our exhibit shows their pride and strength.
In my life, I’ve had little contact with those in the military. And I’ve definitely never had honest, thoughtful dialogue with anyone who has served in battle. This experience was eye opening for me. For the first time, I began to truly separate the wars and my political views of them, from the men and women who serve. With their oral histories alone, they’ve definitely earned my respect and my empathy (not sympathy). The challenge will be to communicate, with due complexity, what I’ve learned as we represent these stories in the museum. Come see for yourself when we open in mid-March, and ask yourself, “How would I react to working in a battle zone? Do our life experiences fundamentally change who we are?”