Justin Guiffre: Twenty feet from the usual

So here I am, up at 2 a.m., as usual. Talking to friends on MSN Messenger while halfheartedly watching CNN, as usual. Trying to ignore the fact I have to get up in five hours, as usual. That’s when a friend who is serving in Afghanistan logs online. Ecstatic as I am to talk to him, the knowledge that the sun will be up in a few hours keeps my enthusiasm at bay as the conversation starts with, “Hey man, what’s up?” as usual.

The way it ended was anything but usual.

I spent a good portion of my childhood around the military. Five years on an Air Force base and working with the Marines has pretty much taught me everything a civilian could hope to know about the military world. With that said, The Hatchet article “Back from war, a new fight” (Sept. 29, p. 1) did an excellent job characterizing the challenges veterans face in returning home and adjusting to college life, as well as the improvements that need to be made in veteran support here on campus.

It also left me thinking on how often we expect these soldiers to snap back to civilian life without considering what we need to do for them in our daily interactions.

The nature of war has changed, and talking to my friend in Afghanistan now appears natural even though five years ago it would have been impossible. On this particular night he seems to be in good shape, and the conversation carries on as it has these past several months he’s been over there. But that’s when he starts on the story that would define the night, “I was out on the flight line refueling our truck when I heard that old, familiar sound.”

That sound, it turns out, was a high-pitched whistle. It was “old” and “familiar” because it was a mortar. He tells me that he hit the ground, but by then it was too late anyway. A mere 20-something feet away from the makeshift gas station, an explosion sends sand, heat and rock flying overhead.

At this point my heart may have stopped. Realizing that one of my closest friends was 20 feet away from death quickly snapped me out of my late-night daze. My friend, lying on the ground with his fellow soldiers, looks around for a second – nobody was hurt. Then they all just start to laugh.

“What else can you do?” he asks me, but I have no answer.

Many people are quick to rush toward too much outward sympathy for our men and women returning home. Sometimes the last thing a “jarhead” needs is pity and tears, but that’s hard to see when your heart goes out to them so easily.

But understanding is a different thing; there can never be enough of it when interacting with these veterans. When you spend six months or more in the desert with a constant threat of death or worse, a fellow soldier’s death, returning to a place where people complain about not having iPhones and BlackBerrys is something of a shock. Students and professors need to understand that this disconnect is a huge stumbling block to leading a normal life. The key word here is understanding, not pity.

So here I am, up another night. Only this time it’s much, much later but I won’t allow myself to look at a clock. I keep playing that conversation in my mind and it won’t let me sleep. If this is keeping me from sleeping, what could it possibly be like for my friend, or a medic or anybody else returning home?

I can only imagine the kind of motivation it must take to keep college from seeming trivial after deployment; it seems an even further stretch to find purpose in everyday life. Even though school with its tests and homework is happening right here and now, it must be far from the usual.

The writer, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

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