A soldier’s struggle to transition out of the military and resist the urge to fight
By Adam Polaski
Two years ago, in October 2008, Matt Thompson felt that something was missing from his life. That’s why he drove to the offices of the Army National Guard, enlisted, and requested to be placed with the first unit headed overseas. He picked up a uniform and almost immediately reported for training. Less than three weeks later, he was on a plane to Iraq.
Matt had only been a civilian for five months since returning from nearly four years of active duty Army in Fort Sill, Okla. But he wasn’t cut out for civilian life, he thought. He just wasn’t any good at it. He got fired from job after job, got into heated fights with friends and family, and was genuinely unhappy. What’s more, he missed aspects of the life that he had come to know throughout the previous four years. He missed his unit and the lifestyle it offered.
“When you’re in the Army, you’re in the Army 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Matt said. “You’ve got to do crazy work all the time—you’re constantly pushing your body—and all along with you are a bunch of people doing the same thing. You spend enough time in that situation, under shitty circumstances where everything sucks and everybody’s miserable, and you make these really unique and strange relationships.”
When Matt joined the Army in 2004, he didn’t realize how difficult the work would be. He reasoned that it would be similar to his time in the Navy, a military experience that he thoroughly enjoyed when he served from 1999 until 2003. As an operations specialist, he worked in radar navigation, which granted him significant, stimulating responsibility. Aboard the U.S.S. George Washington, he got the chance to travel the world and learn a unique skill set that was dramatically different from the high school lessons fresh in his mind from just months before. “Before I drove a car, I was driving an aircraft carrier, and that’s pretty exciting,” he said.
Matt was honorably discharged from the Navy in 2003 and subsequently returned home to Juniata, Penn., but after his five-year deployment, he found it hard to adjust to life as a civilian. He was only 23, and while he’d picked up some trade-specific skills, he wasn’t qualified to do much other work. He took side jobs, painting houses and washing dishes.
“I went from being an adult—a grown-up military person making a lot of money doing interesting and unique things—to being a civilian, where the only thing I was really qualified to do was wash dishes,” he said. “I just thought [those things] were silly in comparison to the things that I had done and could do.”
The regimented lifestyle and sense of adventure that the Navy afforded him also contributed to Matt’s dissatisfaction. Without it, he lacked direction. He missed the idea that others were accountable to him and that he was accountable to others. So he tried to recreate his time in the Navy, seeking to enlist again, but the Navy was only accepting new recruits, not veterans. He chose an alternative: the Army. There, he worked as a corrections specialist at the Fort Sill Regional Corrections Facility, attaining the ranking of staff sergeant before again being honorably discharged.
“I expected to have adventure,” he reflected on his decision to join the Army. But he quickly found that Army and Navy experiences weren’t interchangeable, referring to his time with the Army as “four years of back-breaking work.”
Still, the back-breaking work, he decided just a few months after returning from the Army, was more desirable than humdrum civilian life. He hoped that going to Iraq as part of the National Guard would fill the void he felt.
In Iraq, Matt’s desire for excitement was fulfilled. He faced combat, endured missions and experienced episodes of real danger. He quickly learned how to deal. He explained that serving in combat military situations requires you to commit to “being dead.” It’s hard at first, but you get used to it.
Matt explained, “At first, you live with this constant fear of dying. It’s kind of debilitating for a little while. And then eventually, you’re just like, ‘If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.’ And once you’ve conceded to that possibility, you’re able to do things. That’s kind of what you give yourself: You say, ‘I’m not gonna come home, so while I’m here, I’m just going to laugh with my team. I’m gonna have some fun and do this crazy-ass job, and that’s OK. I’m completely fine with the fact that I’ve already given up any possibility of ever getting back home.’”
But Matt did go home, 14 months after deployment, in November 2009. He had achieved the unimaginable: He had come back from the dead. It wasn’t easy. “Once you live like that for any period of time, you’ve so totally conditioned yourself to being OK with it. But then you get home, and you’re like, ‘Fuck—I did not plan on being here, so now I have no contingency. … I don’t know how to act. I did not anticipate having to live the rest of my life with normal people or normal circumstances.’”
Now, more than a year after returning from Iraq, Matt still craves the adrenaline he associates with “being dead.” He misses not having to make his own conscious decisions and longs for the thrill of knowing that at a moment’s notice, his world could be turned upside down. “I don’t imagine ever being the same,” he said. “Things are still incredibly boring. But the process is learning to be OK with that. And in order to do that, it’s very difficult.”
Matt has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a common anxiety disorder among soldiers returning from the service.
At first he resented the diagnosis, comparing his emotions to more dramatic episodes he had heard about from other soldiers with PTSD—episodes that involved violent outbreaks, horrific flashbacks, alcoholism and self-alienation. When he did more research, however, he saw that these symptoms of PTSD are commonly misunderstood as the only signs of the disorder. Today, he takes issue with mainstream portrayals of PTSD. “It kind of turns off people who should be seeking attention for PTSD,” he said. “It’s advertised that this is what the disorder is, and if you’re not acting like that, then you’re fine.”
Matt’s not alone in his struggle with PTSD. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, as many as 40 percent, or 800,000, of the two million troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan show signs of PTSD. A December 2009 study by the American Journal for Public Health reported that soldiers with multiple deployments are more than three times as likely to develop PTSD when compared with soldiers with no previous deployments. Even soldiers who have never been deployed have shown signs of PTSD, demonstrating the stress of serving stateside.
To cope, Matt goes to regular therapy sessions and checks in with a veterans’ center counselor. He also finds it useful to stay in touch with others from his unit. He said, “Just hearing that they’re having the same issues is really validating, and that’s important, because you can’t really articulate the lifestyle you had with anybody else because it seems absurd. This way, you can feel as though it was a real thing—it wasn’t just a dream.”
He spoke further about the need for a support system: “It’s really important to have someone who can just objectively keep you in check without you feeling as though you’re being attacked every time you fuck up.”
For Matt, that person is his girlfriend, Debbie. They met two months after he got out the Navy and have been dating with various degrees of seriousness ever since. They hit some rocky patches along the way, breaking up more than once when Matt’s fixation on military service overshadowed his commitment to his relationship.
The month after Matt returned from Iraq, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which makes him ineligible to work in the U.S. Armed Services. The diagnosis cut short his plans to return to the National Guard, since he was diagnosed the month before he was supposed to finish his enlistment. Now he’s forced to make it work as a civilian. He said that he has considered other routes to getting back into combat, including joining the French Foreign League or even a private paramilitary organization.
But he said he wouldn’t do that to his girlfriend. Debbie studies mental trauma in the military and PTSD as part of her graduate degree program, so she understands his thought process and desires to return. Still, they have agreed that military work has its negative effects on Matt and that in order to make their relationship work, he cannot be exposed to that. He explained, “One of the stipulations of our relationship is that I can never again be in the military. Despite my urge to want to be in a military situation and to be in a combat situation, I know that I really want to be in a relationship with this person who’s been supporting me for about ten years now. I’m really focused on trying to be in this relationship.” Matt and Debbie currently live together in Boston. They plan to marry when Debbie finishes her master’s education.
Matt, meanwhile, is an undergrad at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, with the ultimate goal of a master’s in social work. He plans to be a veterans’ center case worker, committed to helping people struggling with issues that he personally experienced after returning from Iraq. He spoke highly of the veterans’ centers, saying that they help returning soldiers navigate the bureaucratic maze of resources that are out there—how to access health care benefits, how to get information on adjustment disorder, how to use the GI Bill. “They fill that gap and buffer that zone so that they’re there for you,” he said. “When you get out, everything is a culture shock. The vet centers, they kind of stand in for a period of time until you just figure it out. They coach you on how to be an adult.”
Matt didn’t know much about veterans’ centers when he first came back. He said this lack of awareness stems partly from the military’s poor cultural assimilation policies. “I didn’t know veterans’ centers existed when I got out of the Army. I found them when I got back from Iraq last November, and I feel as though if I had known about those things back in 2003, or even in 2008 … I might have been able to make better and more informed decisions for my life,” he said. “I could have possibly saved myself from a lot of the combat exposure that I now crave, like anything else that people are addicted to. Maybe I could have prevented a lot of it.”
Despite the problems he’s experienced as a result of his time in the military, Matt still wants to go back. “There’s always a desire to return. It’s compulsory, and it’s strong, and it’s almost, like, magnetic,” he explained. “I could never shake it—I could never shake the urge to go back.”
He continues to feel a tug from the unique world of the military, similar to the tug he felt back in 2008, when he enlisted with the National Guard. “I was really relieved to know that I was getting my uniform and rank back. I hated being a civilian,” he said, remembering. “I wore the uniform they gave me everywhere. It was like having a new toy that you just couldn’t put down. That night, I sat in my apartment going over old Army manuals, reviewing drills and tactics and policies. [I was a] total Army nerd. And it was fantastic.”
Note of disclosure: Matt Thompson is the maternal cousin of writer Adam Polaski.
Adam Polaski is a junior journalism major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.