It was supposed to be a routine patrol. Two hours up a main road and back to the base on a relatively light day in a week filled with roadside bomb attacks, sniper fire, and house-to-house fighting northeast of Baghdad. My buddy Steve and I just had to make it through the day so we could go on leave to Europe. We had been deployed nearly ten months already, and it only became more dangerous as the days ticked off the calendar. I was daydreaming about the girls in Parisian cafes when a deep-buried IED destroyed a vehicle in our company in an ambush. The ensuing firefight and evacuation kept us out until the evening, and Steve and I missed the bird to Kuwait. Europe might as well have been on Mars.
My mind was nearly turned sideways with the rigors of our deployment. I had forgotten how to communicate with society outside the context of an infantry platoon and knew I couldn’t go from a battlefield to my mom’s kitchen table the next day, only to end up back in combat. My friends who went on leave told me about the questions they got, like “Did you kill someone?” and “Why are we really there?” I was revolted at the prospect of dealing with that. I had to get my head back on straight somewhere far from home.
Even though I’ve been home for a few years, I still deal with the effect of the war. Sometimes I need to put distance between me and everyday life. In Iraq that meant raids and firefights. Back here it’s the lifelong process of integration coupled with a challenging job and school quickly approaching. Just like on leave to Europe, I had to get away from it all, and it did great things for me. If you haven’t tried it before, it too could help ease your mind.
Getting away from routine
Last month, with leftover money I still had saved up from my deployment, I left the office for the bustling city of Quito and the jungles of eastern Ecuador. I had never been south of Florida, speak only broken Spanish, and didn’t know a thing about the country. And it was exactly what I needed to clear my head before jumping back into work this summer and school later this fall. It’s the disruption of routine that allowed me to come back with a fresh perspective on what matters. Travel provides both a physical and mental distance from priorities–a job, school, and family–after a military career. That distance can help prioritize what you need to accomplish when you return home. And kicking back at the beach or exploring another continent offers ways to decompress unique from simply leaving town or visiting another state.
For many, a first chance
A majority of service members leave after their first enlistment. Many are young and likely had at least one deployment (and hopefully some money saved). The time between the military and school or a first job is a great window to do something completely different that might not be possible down the line. In my case, I don’t have a wife or kids, and school hasn’t started yet. In just a few years, my circumstances may change. It’s important to keep that in mind so you can take advantages of opportunities to pick up and leave. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.
Learn how to embrace change
We spend relatively short periods of time deployed–six months, a year, one tour or perhaps more–but the rest of our lives are spent coming home. Readjustment is just that; a challenge to deal with the things that have changed since going to war. As we’ve said before, the sizable gap between civilians and Veterans can make the transition difficult. Time spent abroad can help develop skills necessary to make it back home. Everything from currency to food to language and culture is a completely different experience, depending on where you go.
My time in Ecuador felt like my first two weeks back home after Iraq; both were strange places full of people I did not understand. But I adapted the best I could, learned the customs and watched how people interacted with each other. After a few days I bartered in markets and jumped off moving buses. The same type of observation is just as necessary when you re-enter the civilian world, where people don’t speak in acronyms or follow a military regimen. Just like being swallowed up in an unfamiliar country, it takes time to make the pieces fit together.
Your best qualities at work
Most Veterans I know started in the military when they were young, or had careers well before. They’re usually self-sustaining problem solvers, but those skills may have been lost since leaving the military. I wrangled carts in a parking lot for a year after the Army, and it wasn’t exactly an environment where I could thrive intellectually. But once I gathered my senses in Quito, I developed plans to head into unfamiliar (and sometimes dangerous) places and lead groups of fellow tourists, armed only with a map. It was a surprising place to hone skills that have been packed away, and it felt oddly familiar. Brian Turner, an infantryman-turned poet, recently traveled to Baghdad as a tourist for National Geographic. He too reflexively tapped into dormant survival skills.
It’s a blast
Finally, the most obvious reason to travel: It’s simply fun to see and do things you can’t get back home. Nothing could have prepared me for a hike to 5,000 meters up an active volcano, or a stroll through a humid jungle at night. Though many Veterans might have deployed anywhere in the world, there’s still a lot to experience out there. And the best part? Unless you take a summer vacation to Juarez, no one is trying to shoot you.
It may be challenging to take a trip anywhere past your state border. Money, jobs and families are obligations that can often impede a luxury like travel. But if the opportunity comes up, it’s wise to take advantage of it, or pretty soon you might be old and gray and wishing you would’ve taken a chance to see other side of the globe. And it’s a chance like no other to get away from the sometimes overwhelming difficulties of life after the service.
Just make sure you have a passport before you start.