A friend of mine once told me that you lose part of yourself in Afghanistan. He said that each time you went there, a little piece of your soul is chipped off, and that when you returned to Canada, you felt the loss. After a time, he told me, you were compelled to return and search for that missing piece, only to have yet more chipped off. I suppose that he ought to know; he deployed to Afghanistan three times between 2006 and 2010, and tried to go a fourth.
Despite my friend’s obvious expertise on the subject, I tended to think at the time that he was just kidding. That is, until I came back to Canada and felt the wistful desire to return to active deployment that my friend had described. I now tend to think that he was right; I think I have left a piece of myself somewhere in the dust of that faraway place.
I am not the only one to experience this. When I talk with those whom I deployed with, I realize just how widespread this wistfulness is. We have now mostly moved on, but when we talk, our conversation inevitably turns to Afghanistan. We tell old stories; remember old comrades. In a way, we’re still there in our hearts and in our minds.
I think that this phenomenon can hold consequences for returning soldiers. The simple nature of existence during deployment, the clear sense of purpose, the feeling of camaraderie intensified by the knowledge that some unknown force wishes to kill us: these things can make it so seductively easy to see deployment as the pinnacle of your life and usefulness. In the cold, mundane routine of normal civilian life in Canada, it is not surprising that a Veteran can find his or her mind wandering back to a time that held a greater sense of adventure—a time that can become mythologized in their mind. This is the trap of deployment nostalgia.
When my friend spoke of “chipping” of the soul, it seemed to me that he meant it to hold a destructive connotation. But I have come to think that it can be constructive as well. Michelangelo, when he was carving his famous statue of David, started with a raw block of marble. He shaped that raw material into a masterpiece by chipping away pieces.
In similar fashion, when I deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 21, I was raw material. My experiences there shaped who I am today. I grew; matured; gained experience and felt hardship—life’s great teacher. I left pieces of my young self in Afghanistan, chipped off by what I had seen and done. But when I returned to Canada, I was more fully formed. I worked harder. I had more focus and ambition. I was mentally and emotionally stronger.
My friend returned to Afghanistan again and again to find the lost pieces of his soul. In so doing, perhaps he didn’t realize that those pieces—even the loss of them—had made him who he was.
We hear too often of soldiers who have been shaped negatively by their experiences in Afghanistan. I don’t doubt this, and I don’t demean those for whom this is a reality. However, I want to tell everyone, both Veterans and civilians, that deployment can make people stronger too. It can shape them into someone who is ready and able to succeed and contribute in Canada. We can be made stronger through the process of “chipping.”
My friend was right about one thing: I did lose a piece of myself in Afghanistan; but I have made peace with the fact that I will never reclaim it. A part of me will always be in that faraway country. And it will always be with me.
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