Note: I wrote this as an email to Sebastian Junger after reading Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016). His website doesn’t list contact information for the author himself, so I decided to post it here as an “open letter” instead of sending it to a publicist or agent. The letter assumes familiarity with the thesis of the book. Both WarIsBoring and WarOnTheRocks have published excellent reviews of the book. In any case, you should read the book.
I finished Tribe about a week ago. It explained more to me about myself than any other nonfiction book I can remember.
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan from 2002 – 2004. I returned and earned an MA in History, thinking I would go into academia or the foreign service. The insurgency in Iraq was heating up at the time, and I decided it’d be a shame to miss such a perfectly good war. I applied for the US Army Officer Candidate School, and reported to Fort Benning three days after I defended my thesis. I deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader in 2009 – 2010. Later, I spent six months at Kandahar Airfield as a brigade staff officer in 2013 – 2014.
Shortly after I returned, the Army notified me that I would be involuntarily separated from active duty in support of the Army’s “force restructuring.” My wife and I left Germany (where I was stationed at the time) in December 2014 and returned to Colorado, where we’d met. I’m part of a local Army National Guard battalion, but one-weekend-a-month “drill” builds all the camaraderie of a recurring business trip.
Before reading Tribe, I’d never really “connected” what I experienced as a returning Peace Corps volunteer with returning from deployments and leaving the Army. When I returned from my first deployment in 2010, veteran suicide was starting to get a lot of intense attention both from within and outside of the military. The Army was pouring loads of money and resources into PTSD research and treatment, and it mostly focused on combat trauma.
My first deployment was very “warlike.” One soldier in our platoon got killed, one was crippled, and we saw multiple other combat fatalities and severe injuries – enemy, friendly, and civilian alike. Ours was mostly an IED fight, so there was the added mind-fuck of just cruising around, waiting for the ground to blow up, and most often not being able to do much about it. By “conventional” PTSD theory, I was fucked.
But returning from my first deployment was cake. Yes, I was more sensitive to a range of “popping” sounds, and I remain intolerant of a certain type of firecracker, but I didn’t experience the depression, the flashbacks, or anything too substantial. I bought a motorcycle and spent a lot of time hanging out with other lieutenants in my battalion. I dated a lot and eventually met my wife. I later got transferred to battalion staff, where a lot of my buds were by that time.
When I returned from my second deployment, I lost my mind. I suspected I was on my way out of the Army, and it turned out I was right. Because our Regiment did a “phased redeployment,” I didn’t really leave as part of any unit, but rather just as a random staff officer who showed up back in Germany. Everybody still had to do all the insufferable psychological screening where you pretend to talk about your feelings to some condescending “therapist,” but it made no difference. I began drinking heavily and avoided people. This continued until we returned to the States. I now work part-time and spend the balance of my days reading, riding my motorcycle, and otherwise trying to escape my own head.
I’d never compared my experience as a returning Peace Corps volunteer with my experience leaving the Army. I was a disaster when I got back from Kyrgyzstan also. The one time I did well returning from a formative experience was after my first deployment, when I was still with my buds. That’s the single discriminating factor. It’s a near-perfect model.
Reading Tribe, I was overcome by the sensation of staring down an enormous amount of work. Our military, our economy, our educational and job-training infrastructure – it’s what you would get if you were to purpose-design a society to break the bonds of group kinship. We encourage young adults to attend college hundreds or thousands of miles away from home just to achieve a marginal “educational advantage” and to “forge (their) own identity.” Even in the peacetime military, we still transfer soldiers to new posts every few years, ensuring a trail of awkward social-media “friendships” and families of “military brats” who aren’t really from anywhere. A neurotic society is a near-certainty.
Anyhow, comparing the experience of returned Peace Corps volunteers with that of veterans struck a chord with me. I hope I was able to provide some useful perspective on the subject. Thanks for writing the book.