The first time I came home Iraq, I knew something was off when I found myself literally burning rubber backing my car out of my parents’ driveway in LA. It was July 2003, and this young reservist was home from the war. I had always been a mellow driver, but I gunned my car and screamed down the street doing sixty. Why do I feel so antsy?
It was like that for the next month as I prepared to go back to school in San Diego. I would race down every street, brush past people on the street as I power-walked past them, and tapped my foot constantly. Anxious. Impatient.
I couldn’t pin it down. Sure, I had been in a few (very few) dicey situations in Iraq, but I didn’t think I had Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not me. I wasn’t traumatized by what I saw. I didn’t have nightmares or feel the need to sleep on the floor. But I did drive like a maniac, couldn’t stand waiting in line, and every morning when I woke up, I reached for my rifle.
It didn’t help that when I made it down to San Diego, I practically had to give my school registrar a pound of flesh to convince them to let me back in. When they first told me that I had to re-apply, I came home and slammed the door shut. I threw my car keys against the wall, kicked over a chair, and screamed. I went to war for you. I just want to go back to school. Why are you doing this to me?
It could have gone downhill from there. I know for some guys and gals, it has.
But it didn’t for me. Because the chair that I kicked landed next to my surfboard. I had bought the board before I deployed, but I never really learned how to surf. As I picked up the chair, I caught a whiff of the wax on the board. It smelled sweet, like those sugary fruit punch juice boxes you got when you were a kid. It smelled happy. I picked up the chair and told myself that I might as well go to the beach.
The ocean doesn’t care if you went to Iraq. The first time I went out, the crest of a wave dropped on top of me as I was trying to paddle out. A few hundred pounds of water poured over me, sending me tumbling end over end. It didn’t care that I was just home from Iraq. I popped up to the surface, gasped for air, and inhaled the next wave that hit me. When it was all over, I was lying on the beach, coughing and gasping. Two pre-teen girls laughed as they splashed past me with their surfboards.
As the water drained out of my nostrils (a novel sensation, by the way), something clicked. Here was a way to channel all that nervous energy into something positive. I was going to learn how to surf.
For the next month, I went out every day. I watched other surfers sink their boards under the oncoming waves as they paddled out. I learned how to sit calmly on my board as I waited to for the swell to pick up. I paddled hard to catch those elusive, moving mountains of water, but even though I was now good enough to not get pummeled trying to paddle out, I wasn’t hanging ten.
Two weeks after my first outing, it finally happened. I saw the wrinkle in the glassy ocean in the distance, watched it grow. This was it! I lay down on my board and paddled long, deliberate strokes. I glanced behind me, feeling the wave pick up the tail of my board. The giant hand of the ocean grabbed my board and flung it forward. I felt like I was going a hundred miles an hour as I slid down the face of the wave. I laughed with glee as I held onto my board as we rocketed towards the shore. It was the first time I had laughed since I came home from Iraq.
That laugh broke the dam. I calmed down. I was a different man when I walked back to my car that day. I started driving at the speed limit (well, maybe just slightly above). I patiently navigated the university bureaucracy until I was registered for classes in the fall. My heart didn’t beat so fast and I didn’t feel so angry anymore. I landed a student job as a security guard on campus. And I surfed every day.
It took me years to realize that surfing took my nervous energy and channeled it into something beautiful. Watching the sun dip low over the waves as I sat on my board made me exhale and shake my head in amazement. I began to get better at riding the waves, carving graceful lines through the breaking surf before leaping off my board into the churning white water. Sitting on my board bobbing on the water, I took stock of all I had seen and I had done. This ocean that was indifferent to my service, but it had a marvelous calming effect that allowed me to pick my own brain and come to grips with everything that had happened. By the time I sat down with my more carefree classmates in the fall, I was ready to be normal again.
And so the lesson I want to pass on to everyone is this: do something when you come home. We all don’t have PTSD, but we all come back different. A lot of us probably have that nervous energy that I described. Do something with it. Hike. Swim. Bike. Cook. Make model airplanes. Do something that consumes your whole mind when you come home. Follow through with it. This doesn’t replace the invaluable help from the Wounded Warrior organizations in the Army and Marine Corps, or the folks at the VA for those who have serious problems, but it does help all of us who come home bewildered and struggling to reconcile all the outrageous, beautiful, tragic, hilarious, and pointless things that we volunteered to do. And if you’re in San Diego, give me a holler. I have two boards now. I’ll ride with you.
Jonathan Wong joined the Marines Corps in 2001 and deployed to Iraq twice as an infantryman. He is returning to school in September to earn at Ph.D. in policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, Ca.