On War and Waves



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.

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Jonathan Wong

Comments

  1. Martin    

    Thanks for this. Semper Fi.

  2. Sharon Whalen    

    My husband was in Iraq at the start of the war and was gone for 18 months total. When he came home he had gone to the VA hospital to ask for help because he said that he felt that something was just not right with him. He had some tests done and one doctor told him that he had PTSD and then was told he had to see another doctor. The second doctor told him he did not have PTSD and that he just had anger problems gee its funny he never had anger problems until he went to war. Well now it is 2012 and he had a break down and we are trying to get him help at the VA. He upsets me that the care that was given to my husband was just horrible. He was a sweet wonderful guy when he left for war and deep inside he is still a sweet guy but don’t get in his truck with him. He will go crazy on the road and the rage is nuts he has no patience with the highways, the family etc. He has horrible survivor guilt and is depressed and has panic attacks now. He am so angry at the VA for having my husband get so bad that they are uncaring people and don’t treat our military man and women the way they were promised to be treated. So hopefully something can be done for my husband what a waste of a wonderful human being. To fight in a country where they don’t want us to be anyway and just hurting our love ones breaks my heart. Enough of our military getting handicapped and having mental issues its time to bring everyone home.

    1. Kate Hoit    

      Hi Sharon,

      I’m sorry to hear about your husband and the experience he has had with VA. Have you tried contacting the Vet Center Combat call Center? It’s for Veterans and their loved ones and is staffed by Vets/spouses. Here’s a link: http://www.vetcenter.va.gov/VETCENTER/media/Call-Center-PSA.asp

      Hopefully this helps you both out.

    2. charlie    

      Im sorry to hear that the VA is not properly treating your husband for his PTSD and the reason that is because if they say he has PTSD from Iraq they will have to give him C/P. I would bet my life on it that if the real truth would come out of ALL these wars, over 70% of combat vets have PTSD or some type of disability from the war .
      and the VA well knows this. You cant send our kids over to these countries who were perfectly NORMAL before they fought for our country and expect them to not come home with disabilities. Wether it be mental or physical, they will most likely have one or the other, if not both. So lets end all these wars before more of our kids come home to a ungrateful government, who doesnt provide the necessary things they were promised.

  3. Conny    

    wow, thank you for sharing your comments. It helps a lot.
    I have a boyfriend who has severe PTSD. but, he didn’t tell me and he was hiding it from me. A month ago, he was acting angry and weird, so broke up and he didn’t give up and try to go back with me a week later; but, I wasn’t understanding his weird behavior; so he started talking and finally told me about his severe PTSD; I got scare at first and I didn’t tell him, and the following day I spent the whole day searching about it and I also spoke to a doctor and was so clear to me and I understood that most of military guys with severe PTSD are and can be normal just people who are not aware of it would not understand and they will think you are a crazy nut and weird; but, I don’t think that way and I got educate it about it and today we are so happy together and I love the fact that his nightmares and flashes are going away, now that I know what’s PTSD I know how to help him and I know I can cure him providing love and understanding intead over reacting and accusing which that was me before knowing about it. Would be nice if every church in the nation could have some kind of help or programs for Veterans and to educate people about it so family and friends can understand and women too. We as women I will admit we are difficult and hard head to understand not only if we get the appropriate education about it so we can love and understand our military partners. I thank you for your service and stay strong, don’t give up and get help. GOD BLESS YOU<3

    1. vets wife    

      Conny, most do try to hide from it but it comes out eventually. They cant hide from it forever, some just are better then others at it. Spouses and family members are usually the first to recognized that something just isnt right but the problem is they just arent educated enough with PTSD to realize they need to get medical help. I would recommend to all spouses,family members, or friends that if you suspect anything that might lead you to believe that the vet just doesnt seem right , please get help right away. Dont wait until it gets worse because the longer they hold it in and hide from the truth, it will only make the recovery harder. And if you dont get the help you need from the VA, seek out private help if you can. God Bless all vets and there families

  4. Giacomo Knox    

    Way to go brother, in channeling your negative energies into something HEALTHY, literally. I too served in combat as a Marine Reservist, and within a month of returning from Desert Storm, had to wade back into college life. The beach was a very hard place for me to go to – all that SAND had a way of making me angry all over again. Keeping healthy, especially spiritually healthy, will help in the long run!

    Semper Fi and G-d bless you richly!

  5. Steven Elliott    

    You are normal, but not like you were. You are a normal vet. You have been tempered into a new stronger metal and measuring yourself against civilians is a fruitless and aggravating action. Do not expect understanding from them, but from your veteran fellows. I suffered from “Why can’t I be like them” for years before I realized I would not ever be, nor would I truly want to. Looking in the mirror, I wanted the reflection to be my old self, but that guy is long gone, replaced by a stronger, albeit more complicated person. I felt alone until I joined the american legion, where I was surrounded with people who understand these feelings. I wish I had found them sooner. I would have suffered less.

  6. thebronze    

    Semper Fi, Devil-Dog! Welcome back.

  7. Gordon Kuhn    

    As a United States Marine Vietnam Vet I understand what most never understand unless you’ve been there. Semper Fi my brother.
    .

  8. Los Angeles Vet    

    We all come back different somehow someway but just joining the military and trying to get out of the military culture and back in civilian life is difficult enough. I do relate to your story and I went through the same situation when I got out. I am still affected by it, but it took me 3 years to realize and admit to it.

    Keeping busy is the hardest task I encountered. In the military, I suppose to be a service member 24/7 and abide by rules,regulations, and policies. I feel that I am responsible to upheld those standard and at the same time, I may feel that everyone should to. When I get out, those standards under the UCMJ does not apply, but at the same time, not abiding by them doesn’t seem right.

    I found that as a Veteran, I don’t like being “help” rather “assist” and “guidance” would be a better fitted word. Keeping busy and continuing to belief and interact with people outside of my Veteran friend circle helps too.

    Personality adjustment was my hardest battle. I had to adjust many areas of myself such as keeping out military jargon out of my vocabulary and not talking to loud or doing things too quick are more appreciative out here in civilian than getting the job done quick and fast.

  9. AJ    

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It will help a lot of Veterans.

  10. Danny    

    Welcome Home…………….

  11. Alena Cola    

    I cam home a long time ago so when I go to my local VA Outpatient Clinic and try to talk to them about my PTSD, they just prescribe medicine that knocks me out. That way they don’t have to listen to me. Is this practical medicine? I don’t have an answer.

  12. Rick Osial    

    “We all don’t have PTSD, but we all come back different.” Shout it loud and often, Jonathan.

    1. Bella Benefield    

      Thanks for sharing. Great story, one vet to another. I served in OIF III. Been through the same thing your talking about except I can’t really surf in AL….lol. I did and I still do, stay involved with my family and two rescue dogs. They get me through the day and focused on something better. Transition does take a little time and civilians really can’t understand. I think some of the energy you spoke about (or for me) comes from the loss of time incurred during the deployment. The entire time in the sand box…the clock was ticking for me to meet certain criteria in an effort to complete my long, delayed desire to complete my last clinical year of my R.N. degree. Unfortunately, I was not able to complete this degree when I first returned home. We sacrifice a lot and it’s unfortunate that others don’t always understand why we have a need to succeed when we return home. It eventually comes together, just not how we plan. Keep Surfin’ ~ Bella

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