“Like You Never Left” by Gregory Ferguson

The longer I stayed in Iraq the more it changed me. Every day it was in my veins, consuming, burning, and leaving something else. I was deep into my deployment. The nobility of the mission had long since withered on the vine. My Bible gathered dust as I surrendered to indifferent fatalism. I thought of home less and less as time had passed, but sometimes I laid down in my rack, Samuel Barber or perhaps Claude Debussy to bring me down, and thoughts of home wandered into my mind. It was not merely memory, it was an ideal; the torpid suburb of my youth that had left me so restless was transformed into a picturesque and bucolic Eden of serenity, in all ways perfect. It was an important contrast against the turmoil within; it had no name or form, but there was an unmistakable churning. When I got home, back to my quiet suburb, it would all be okay. I would get home—and what a beautiful sight it would be!—and see my family, and it would all be hugs and tears and pride. I would wash the sand from myself, I would cleanse Iraq from myself, and I would find peace.

When the time came to leave Iraq, I was naturally excited to be heading home. I’ll never forget the relief of flying out of Kuwait, watching it disappear behind the clouds. But from the time I came home it was clear something was wrong; there was no heartfelt reunion. I felt nothing when I saw my family again. Instead of relief I felt an indescribable burden. All I could do was sleep. I sank into depression, and I couldn’t understand why. I was home, I was with my family and friends again, what did I have to be so crestfallen about? I felt like my experiences had some profound, abstract meaning that I could not yet fathom, leaving me with a mysterious sense of pronounced discomfort.

I don’t think I wanted to face that something was wrong with me, that in fact Iraq had come back with me. Being back home though, in the places I was familiar with and in company I cared about, it became clear just how much I had changed. Two instances in particular stand out in my memory that made these transformations apparent.

The first was very shortly after getting home. There was a small gathering at home to celebrate my return with a few beers. I was enjoying myself when, for no reason that was apparent to me, I began to feel a sense of deep despair. Suddenly I didn’t want to be around anybody. I went outside by myself in the dark and I wept. My brother came out looking for me, and I was ashamed to let him see my crying like that. He asked what was wrong and I didn’t know what to say, only that “you wouldn’t understand.”

It was not much later that I reunited with many of my old friends at a restaurant in Isla Vista. So large was this group of friends that we had to take many tables and put them end to end to seat them all. And yet I felt so unfathomably alone. I didn’t understand, and struggled to mask my unhappiness. How could they understand that? It would only hurt them.

These memories stand out in particular because they were early signs of the changes in me that I could not understand, and because they presaged the struggles I would face for years as I tried to make sense of it. Most often, I felt nothing. Even around those I loved, it was as if I knew I loved them intellectually, but the feeling wasn’t there. I felt no pleasure in the things I once enjoyed. No amount of company eased the painful loneliness that was crushing me. Over and over I hurt the people I cared about with my coldness and words whose harshness alluded me. At times I was reminded of one of my favorite books since middle school, All Quiet on the Western Front: there was a scene in which the protagonist comes home from the front on leave and in his room looks at the things that had once interested him. His greatest passions had been rendered empty trivialities. Maybe I would have read it again for some empathy from Remarque, but novels did not interest me anymore.

The only emotions I felt were in extremes, and seemed unmoored from my immediate experiences. I would get intensely upset over nothing and take it out on others, until it subsided into numbness that washed over me, like slipping into an ice bath. That was the image that always came to mind as I felt its onset.

Eventually I started drilling on reserve duty, and no matter how unpleasant it might get, it was the one place I never felt depressed. It highlighted the things I had felt I lost coming home: every day I had a purpose. I knew who I was and what I was to do. I could be myself and was accepted for it.

It is this sense of identity whose importance, I think, cannot be overstated. I identified as a Marine first, Lance Corporal Ferguson of MAP 2B, everything else was secondary at best. One can see how that might cause problems when I was not in my platoon doing my job as a gunner, but rather was back home being bothered to take out the garbage or in class being told to calculate “marginal social costs.” I felt like I was floating through my days for no reason, just to go through another restless night and start all over again ad infinitum. The lonely cog without its machine.

In the years since, separating myself from this identity, finding inherent value in myself as an individual, has been an integral adjustment. While time, effort, and learning to cope are of course important, unraveling the whole experience, interpreting it and understanding it in a way that makes sense has been the only way to come to peace with it—and that is the best I can hope for, I think, since I cannot simply undo the changes that occurred in me, nor would I want to.