The below pieces are comprised of fragments from interviews with 35 Canadian Veterans of Afghanistan. Although the participants had widely varied experiences, they speak with one voice regarding the fundamental difficulties associated with the social transition to civilian life. Their voices have been anonymously woven together, line by line, demonstrating this reality.
I’m looking for a rush, I’m looking for a reason to help people,
I want near deadly experiences, I want an apocalypse of this world,
I want everything to go bad,
I want you all to fucking need me to fucking save your life.
Our tracers were red, their tracers were green,
At night you would see red and green tracers going back and forth, one to five ratio.
It was an addiction to have the adrenaline going through you every day.
Jumping out of a plane is better than any orgasm I’ve ever had.
Talk about peak life experiences…
coming off of that and going into a sedentary job…
…it’s like the world is moving in slow motion.
The first months walking in Afghanistan you’re fucking petrified…
It’s that bone chilling fucking feeling: “did I take the wrong step?”
That happens for three weeks or a month, until becomes normal.
For six months or whatever, you’re really in the shit,
You’re in the thick of it, you are really doing something;
You’re doing something that people are talking about.
You’re doing something that’s cool,
You’re doing something with your friends,
It’s hard, it’s crazy, and it feels like you’re really alive for the first time in your life.
When you come back and you don’t have that anymore, it’s hard.
It’s hard to think to yourself, “I’m never going to do that again, I’m never going to be that cool again, I’m never going to be able to go back to that.”
As an eighteen-year-old kid, the military gives you a sense of purpose,
It give you a sense of responsibility that you don’t usually get at eighteen.
At thirty-five I have to be my five-year-old self all over again,
“What do you want to be when you grow up?’”
Trying to find my place; who am I? Where am I going to go?
What am I going to do now?
You don’t have an answer for who you are, you’re just kind of a lost soul.
The military is like your parents,
You’re taught how to behave, how to look, how to react to things.
You don’t have that military conscience on your shoulder anymore,
Now I just have to be accountable to myself, and that’s a problem.
I found it easier to think on my feet for eight guys than it is to organize my day-to-day here.
There were rules in the army, there was a reason for people to do better and to be better.
Everything is so black and white when you’re in the military,
Do something wrong, you get jacked up hard,
In the civilian-world,“something got missed? Oh well, we’ll get it next time,”
To me that’s like “what? Get it next time?”
I came from an environment where sometimes there is no next time,
You do this right or that’s it, somebody fucking dies.
The military is an F-1 racecar in comparison to the company I am at now,
Going from working in a high-performance team to working in a B team or a C team.
I would walk out of meetings going, “that was two hours of god-damn time wasted,”
I work really long hours, but that’s our commitment, that’s our dedication.
I find meaning working with a bunch of people that are motivated, driven, and ambitious,
That’s what I had in Afghanistan.
It’s hard to care about things you should care about in civilian life,
There was just an overwhelming sense that nothing mattered.
I felt like that was the pentacle of my life,
And now you’re supposed to find something else and find new meaning?
I wondered whether my life would be better if I were dead than alive,
I wondered whether my best days were behind me.
The most difficult thing is knowing that I can’t go back.
I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at,
But I miss the sense of purpose that comes with combat.
Beyond your paycheck, you get paid psychologically in the military,
…a sense of purpose, focus, comradare, mission, and all those kinds of things,
There’s a lot of people that would just do it for the psychological payoff alone.
In the army, everybody sinks or swims together,
What ultimately matters to you most are the guys in your section.
These faceless soldiers in uniform, these guys are friends,
What keeps you going is that you’re there to look after each other.
I might fucking hate you because of what you did to my girlfriend last Saturday,
but in this moment, I need you – everything I did over there was for them.
There was a certain utopia to it…
Everyone’s focused on the same thing, everyone focused on getting the job done.
We were attacked, hungry, tired, wet, stinky, no shower or shitter,
Bullets don’t discriminate, so watching each other’s back was an unwritten rule.
Everything was everyone’s and for that moment in your life it’s true communal living,
What brought us together was conflict, and now that conflict is gone.
I miss being in the forces every day, it’s who I was,
It’s not a job, we’re always military.
It’s the only occupation where you can truly serve in an unlimited capacity,
We would redeploy on a dime to get back to that balance that being in combat brings.
Once you’re out of that environment, it’s like god, what do I do now?
Everybody’s kinda sleepwalking through life here.
When you get out in civilian life, you don’t know who your friends are truly,
You’re always investing in the group… that doesn’t really exist at the office.
Joining a team I intuitively connect as much and as fast as I can with people,
That actually freaks out my civilian counterparts.
Once we leave, we are thrown back into civilian society,
Back to dog-eat-dog competition
I have a really hard time connecting with people in the civilian world now.
Their experiences aren’t relevant to me, and my experiences aren’t relevant to them.
We want to serve, that’s our mantra…
“Society is the end on which our better selves depend…
When community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question:
…to what purpose?”
*The final quote is from Émile Durkheim’s book, Suicide.