How the Outdoors Brought Me Back Home
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Roughly 17 veterans a day take their own life for a multitude of reasons. I didn’t think to end my life but I do understand the empty feeling tons of veterans feel when coming home from deployment. I feel obligated to tell my story about how the outdoors made me feel like I belonged again.
I was part of the invasion force during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Depending on when you showed up in Iraq that operation went through many name changes. My first and only deployment was 17 months long. We initially were supposed to be there for 6 months but our leave date was pushed back three or four times. I wasn’t some pipe hitter taking the fight to the enemy every night. I experienced more than some and less than others.
I don’t think combat or the lack thereof is what makes a lot of veterans feel alone when they come back from deployment. I think some miss the adrenaline fix but that isn't the end game for most. The overwhelming majority of veterans don't see a lick of combat. Which as a side note don't ask veterans if they ever killed someone. The majority have not but it takes that majority to make sure those who's job it is to go and seek out enemy can do so successfully. I digress but there is a purpose, comradery, a shared bond or experience that can’t be recreated once you come home that most people miss. I have never found a way to adequately explain to someone who has never been in a war zone how it feels to experience the change in self-preservation and the randomness of death or survival. I usually use one story to try and explain it but I never feel like I've truly and adequately expressed those feelings in words. Here is that story; one night a random mortar came in and struck close enough to our conex that it knocked the conex around and threw debris off the sides. It took us 5 minutes to see if anyone was injured and fall back to sleep. Life and death could be that random. Some ass hat firing a mortar miles away could have killed 4 U.S. troops with a slight adjustment. Living in an environment that reminds you that you are not in control tends to flip a switch inside your head that I think a lot of us have a hard time turning off when we come home. We are keyed up looking for dangers that aren't there and can't understand why others are using so much time and energy worrying about something that can't kill you.
I was lost when I came back. I didn’t feel like I belonged in my own country and I couldn't relate to anyone around me including loved ones. People would be bitching about a traffic ticket or some gossip and I couldn’t relate. I was happy that I had working plumbing and could flush a toilet but people were complaining about so many little non-issues in life I just wanted to slap them and tell them they have no clue how good they have it. The only people who I could relate to had all left me and returned to their lives just as I had. I ended up leaving home 3 months after I got back and moved in with my battle buddy just to have someone to talk to. We had amassed a nice little savings while being deployed, having no where to spend it overseas. We payed for 1 year of rent in advance and moved in together. We worked a shit warehouse job and lost ourselves in video games to disconnect from a world we couldn't relate to. We had a great time but it wasn't fixing the issue and after that year I moved back home hoping it would be different this time.
My family, even if they never intended to, were responsible for my rehab (slowly). They helped me find joy and purpose again. They did this through activities in the outdoors. That summer and fall I did more hunting and fishing than I ever had in my life. My father and I had one of the best summers of fishing I’ve ever experienced to this day. Our grandparents owned a cabin on a lake in northwest Ohio and that is where we would go for three and four-day fishing trips. Waking up before sunrise and fishing till noon. We would come in for lunch and a nap and be back on the lake around three o’clock and fish till dark. It was the summer of the buzz bait. We caught so many quality bass, fishing one lure throughout that summer. It was magical, and that level of success has never been replicated since that summer. Bonfire talks and friendly fishing competitions with my family helped me start to connect with those around me.
When fall came and duck season opened, my support group became my uncle, grandfather and brother. We were smashing ducks four or five times a week on Lake Erie until it froze. I don’t think we got skunked on a single hunt that season. Again, I hunted more in that one season than I ever had before or since. It was being outdoors with a those who love you and sharing a common purpose, which was to smash as many ducks as we could and have a ton of laughs while doing so.
It wasn’t a bunch of therapy sessions while in the outdoors that slowly brought me back around to feeling whole. It was the outdoors and a shared purpose with others while experiencing them. It was marveling at the beauty and wonder outside and realizing how lucky I was to live in this great country. It was the peace and quiet between talking which provided time to reflect on how great it was to be home sharing these moments with loved ones. My return to feeling apart of my own country was given back to me by quiet reflection in the outdoors sharing those moments with family and friends.