Think, think, think. Rhinelander soldier reports from Afghanistan
Editor’s note: the Star Journal will be publishing periodic articles from Staff Sgt. Rick Peterson of Rhinelander during his deployment to Afghanistan.
It’s Sunday morning, about 7 a.m., as I write these words. I am usually the only one awake in our 8-man tent at this time of the day on our one down day of the week. I like it that way. It’s as close to “alone time” as one can get over here. Mostly, it is nice to have peace and quiet. On the other hand, when one is busy there is little time for deep thought, daydreaming, or real emotion. This does not hold true when the workday is done and all of the additional tasks have been completed. One can only sleep so much, work so long, find so many distractions, and then… You think. And you think some more.
Each night as I climb into my bunk, with helicopters and airplanes droning on overhead, I cannot help but think of my wife and how much I want to be back home with her. I think of her, and I think of my kids. I think about work; whether things will be as I left them, or better (or worse). My mind then moves to thoughts of projects I need to do in the yard, in the garage, and in the house. Ideas occupy my mind often at night: small businesses that we might operate from home, landscaping projects, improvements for programs at work, etc. I rethink past decisions. Did I do the right thing there? What are my goals? Are they the right goals? Are they worth pursuing? Will things go back to normal when I get home? My mind races from one thing to another until I finally fall asleep.
Homesickness is a tangible thing. Actual physical symptoms present themselves. While I am sure that it is different for everyone in one way or another, most people will describe it as an ache in their stomach. However small, this is the body’s response to emotional distress; a physical manifestation of an emotion. When it’s quiet in the tent and the day is done, it’s hard not to think of home, of my wife, my kids, parents, of Grandpa, aunts, uncles, and of close friends. I worry about my Dad’s health. I worry about whether my grandpa will be around when I get home. I get pictures and comments about life back home via mail and the internet and I’m glad to have the opportunity to stay in touch. Yet, it cuts both ways. There are times when I would rather not know. I sometimes wish I didn’t have an easy conduit to home and maybe then it would be easier to avoid thinking about what I am missing. My stomach aches a lot lately.
I remember vividly my first night home after the 2009 deployment. I remember how great it was to wrap my daughters in my arms and to feel them hug me tight when we got to Tomahawk. I remember the raw emotion at our first stop after arriving in Rhinelander. I remember being released to our families after the homecoming ceremony a bit later. I remember hanging out with my daughters and smiling so much that evening it made my face hurt. I remember how scary it was to drive a car on the highway at the breakneck speed of 55 mph! I also recall that when the day was done, and I crawled into bed alone, it was so quiet I couldn’t sleep. There were no helicopters overhead, no artillery booming at regular intervals in the dark, no nothing. The thinking started again then, but it was different. How was I going to adjust? How would the decisions I had recently made impact my life now that I’m home?
After I got home in 2009, I was surprised to find that the deployment had affected me. I did not expect it. I found that I was anxious when in a crowd, and still am a little. I didn’t dream… Not a single dream for at least six months after we got back. For weeks and months I slept fitfully, and for short periods of time each night. I was more careless and irresponsible than I had been in the past. People told me I had changed. The odd thing is, I experienced about one tenth of what most of our guys experienced during that deployment. If I was affected in these ways, how much more then were they affected?
My life was in turmoil when I returned from that deployment. That turmoil was at least partially self-inflicted, and some of it had nothing to do with my experiences overseas. I learned a lot about myself. I also learned a great deal about what matters, about who matters. It is true that absence can “make the heart grow fonder.” In my experience, there is also truth to the saying “out of sight, out of mind.”
So, in the quiet times, I think. I deliberate. I ponder, plan and contemplate. This time will be different I know. I am in a much better place today than I was back then. I have stability in my life now that I did not have then. I feel more understood, more supported, more in touch. But I still wonder what will be different when I get home. Something will be different, that much is true, and I’m a bit troubled with the knowledge that things do change. I am a cautious optimist; I hope for the best while planning for less. I am mindful that my expectations may not be met and that many of my plans will likely not come to fruition. But, I can be sure of one thing. I can be sure that my homesickness will be cured. It will be cured because I have the best medicine awaiting me upon arrival – my wife, my family and my true friends. The other stuff will all fall into place. I think.