They call the plane that takes you home the Freedom Bird. You wait for hours or days for that Freedom Bird, and then a day or so later, you’re home—in the Land of the Big PX, a holdover term from the Vietnam years.
Returning home is a complex process, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t quick. In this age of air transportation, you can be in the combat zone one day and then, in just a day or two, back on American soil.
The helmet that bore down on your head and rubbed your chin raw is put away, the weapons that were a constant weight on your hip and shoulder are taken. The uniform you wore is exchanged for a different version, and the ballistic vest you never took off is remembered as a second skin your body now misses. The weight is gone, but the war remains. The body is home, but the mind and emotions don’t travel as fast as that Freedom Bird.
Even a soldier’s physical home can be a source of confusion, even turmoil. Little changes—like a new carpet or different furniture—can incite out-of-proportion emotions. Big changes like returning to work can trigger overwhelming anxiety. For a soldier, after months of remembering and using those memories as an anchor for sanity in the insanity, losing what was remembered, expected and anticipated is like a ship suddenly losing all its ballast—and sinking.
Upon returning from the first Persian Gulf War in 1991, the first thing we all did after being released from that final formation welcoming us back was to go to the closest fast food joint on the base. A dozen other soldiers and I hurried inside to order, and then… we just stood there. Mouths open, glazed eyes looking up at the menu board. Freedom…. freedom of choice. Ordering a burger was never so difficult as that first time after months of combat rations and mess tent menus. At times, having so many choices everywhere still overwhelms me.
Perhaps it sounds odd, but the first action I took when I stepped off the plane—before the final formation and heading to get a burger—was to walk over to a tree, lean against it with my palms along the bark, and kneel down to scoop up the rich, dark soil to rub the grains between my fingers. I smelled the earth with a long, deep breath inward. Dirt—the dirt of home that was the color dirt should be, not the color of the Arabian desert.
I came home after serving in armed conflict five times. Each time, I felt the same emotions and carried the same nervous concerns. Joy, anxiety, fear, cravings, delight. Will I be welcomed home? How much did I change and how much am I the same person I was?
While the Freedom Bird can get you home in a matter of days, actually leaving the war behind is a process. Coming home is a journey—one that didn’t end when I walked off that plane. Coming home—finding my way back—is a path that this veteran still travels every day.
Lieutenant Colonel Victoria Hudson served in the United States Army from 1979 to 2012.
Keep Reading — Mind & Body: A Veteran’s Story