A Brief Account of One Marine’s Journey to Rediscovering Home
By Stacy W. Hester
My mind and thoughts seem to never shut down. After a TBI, while serving as an active duty Marine in 2009, my thoughts seem far more difficult to channel, to keep focused, to find the rest that my pastor,Ricky Jones, recently preached about; a message I desperately needed! I wrote much of the following thoughts after returning home from a national veterans conference by Justice For Vets where I spoke on veteran related struggles and the importance of relationships as the bridge to home. This is a small piece of my journey.
For the warriors who are combat heroes, and the warriors who many would say were fortunate to have never experienced a live firefight in combat, yet served this country: These words are for you, but they’re also for those of you who never served, but would desire to better understand our plight:
Our journey as warriors is not new. From the ancient literature of Homer’s Iliad, and the Odyssey; to the war that inspired the writings of Hemingway, and all who have served before and after, we have learned that going to war and returning from war, is each its own unique journey. We leave home unable to fathom what is getting ready to happen in our lives, then we try to come home, only… we can’t!
These two journeys have gone on for thousands of years, and each journey involves battle: one external, one internal. Warriors move from being trained to kill, to killing visible enemies on an external battlefield without, then later needing to do battle against the invisible enemies within–PTS, TBI, Soul Injury–or the deep struggle and chasm from military to civilian culture without losing ourselves; without killing ourselves. As a U.S. Marine I trained Marines during the final months of my career. I trained them for mission: “to locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver and to repel the enemy’s assault by fire and close combat.” I trained them to kill. As Marines and other branches, we exist to kill and in that world we live together; we die together. Our experiences make us a brotherhood that is inseparable! A bond that often comes to run deeper than those of our own family. But then we separate from the military, leaving our brothers and sisters behind, and are expected by a society that couldn’t possibly fathom our experiences to just turn it all off.
But what if your best friend was blown up breaching the doorway to a known terrorist hide out and now you can barely walk through a door, even the door into a church building, without being triggered back to that place of war. Maybe your team was hit with an RPG from a bridge and now you can’t drive underneath a bridge without entering into that fight or flight mode; without intense levels of anxiety. For those who have never served, you’ve probably never even thought of a bridge as a potential threat or in terms of life and death; we have! Or the car during the intense battle for Fallujah that was tailgating you and turned out to be a suicide bomber that killed half your team, so now when a car gets too close, it’s not just some jerk tailgating you; it’s someone trying to kill you. Or, Marines you trained that were killed in combat and you believe it’s somehow your fault; if only you had trained them better, a little harder; if you had just been there you would have made sure they came home alive! We are not a light switch where our world and experiences can merely be switched off.
I have now lived and discovered what is most often missing as warriors is the journey home. That journey, sadly, doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is a date on your End of Active Service contract that says to the warrior: On this day, you are no longer a warrior. Go be a normal citizen. The burden is deep and still alive within my own heart: I trained Marines to kill a visible enemy, but none of us received training for killing the invisible enemies within which haunt so many of us. How do we come home? Where is home? What is home? Home is not what we few, we proud warriors once knew prior to our service; not in our minds! If you had been a stranger who passed me in an airport and asked me, “Where is home?,” you would have likely received an uncomfortably long silence as I wrestled within my heart to navigate your question, because… I wouldn’t have known the answer. I suspect I may have said, “home; home is on the battlefield with my brothers who are dying for you.”
The journey home and back to whatever normal once was does not exist; not for the warrior. We are changed forever after our military service. The desire to return to the normal of our past is simply unrealistic. It is a hopeless endeavor, and one that will kill us if we do not discover something deeper after our service to country! Unless we transform nightmares into hopeful dreams of new missions while capitalizing on the riches of our military, cultural experience. That is, as veterans, we must discover new purpose! I am learning that this takes finding a new home where we feel safe; where we belong and others seek to compassionately understand us. Many of us feel trapped somewhere between the past of our military experience and the past which preceded it.
This can only mean one thing: we are not living in the present. As a United States Marine veteran, I am ever confronted with how to continually evolve and develop programs so that these provide a way for our veterans to bridge the past to the present while guiding and supporting us across the bridge from military culture to civilian culture, successfully. The question almost haunts me in my desperation to create “bridges” of hope so that 22 veterans will stop killing themselves every single day. It burdens me that I often seem to come up with more questions than answers! It often keeps me up long into the night, but I am learning and even I am moving towards hope! A bridge must have structure to support its crossing, and the weight which each veteran carries when crossing that bridge is unique. We must not homogenize the individual’s experience. Thus, the structure must be sound. I am discovering that the structure of which I speak is you! You, the church!
As my journey “home” continues, I am seeing, finally, that home is not a particular place. It is not the walls which provide the supporting structure of the “homes” we live in, or the church where we may come to worship. Home is each of you. The person to your right; the person to your left. The ones, together, doing battle on this spiritual journey between two worlds, and it is war! Home is our community. Home is together. And for me, I am discerning that my journey from Marine to becoming a citizen warrior is not entirely unlike the Christian’s journey. We are all warriors in this way and our battle is not against flesh and blood, and only together will we make it home. As Christian’s, like the warrior leaving active duty, I believe we, too, often feel trapped, struggling between two worlds and we’re fighting for home; longing for home. To be present with our Commander and with each other, where we are safe, no longer seeing dimly as in a mirror, but fully accepted for who and what we are. Egypt and the promised land; earth and Heaven. Heaven wouldn’t be heaven without Jesus. Heaven wouldn’t be home, when we finally cross the Jordan, without each of you. Home isn’t about a place. It’s about who’s waiting for us! To receive us!
I believe the Church can and must be what’s waiting for veterans as we transition from one world to another. You are home! Community is home. Be what is waiting for the warrior longing for home! When we realize that all of life and all of war is, at its very deepest place, spiritual, then we will be warriors together! Semper Fidelis