Heading Home

Story By Keni Thomas, (U.S. Army Ranger SSGT Vet)

Sergeant First Class Gordon is in the 10th Mountain Division. He’s heading home in a few days as is the rest of his unit that he came to Afghanistan with way back in 2010. I met him last night seemingly by chance as I was hanging out in Pete’s Place at an Air Force base called Manas in Kyrgyzstan.

“Transit Station at Manas” is the staging point for most of our units traveling in and out of the Afghanistan theater. You can usually tell who’s coming in country to begin their deployment by the seriousness of their faces and the cleanliness of their uniforms. Its easy to spot who’s going home. Look for the smiles and the well-worn boots.

I was heading to Afghanistan this time with an organization called American300 as part of their “Warrior Tours,” a small motivational tour sponsored by Armed Forces Entertainment. Officially, “AFE is a Department of Defense program whose mission is: to provide quality entertainment to all military members and their families stationed overseas, with priority provided to remote & isolated locations, contingency sites, and ships-at-sea” Not many ships at sea on Manas. But they got the isolated and remote part right. . Bordered by Russia to the north and China to the east, this seems an unlikely place for a bunch of Americans to be hanging out, having a beer, and listening to a Lady Gaga song in a makeshift bar named after a NYC fire chief of 9/11.

Our particular tour of warriors featured different generations of Rangers going back to Vietnam. It’s a handshake tour where we get to spend our days visiting with soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen as they go about their daily routines. Here on Manas that can be just about anything from pulling a 12-hour guard shift at a checkpoint or staying up all night to repair a C135 Stratolifter. It may be a 58-year-old aircraft qualifying for an “antique” license plate, but that tanker is desperately needed in the fight to refuel fighter jets supporting the troops on the ground in Afghanistan engaged in direct contact with the enemy. Every person in uniform is a key piece of the puzzle crucial to mission success. It’s astounding how many resources and personnel it takes, and to what lengths America will go, to support the solider on the ground like SFC Gordon and his platoon of men.

We had just finished up a scheduled meet and greet there at Pete’s Place. America300 and I teamed up to give away a couple hundred copies of my new book GET IT ON, so

I had been signing some for all who were interested. I had just put away my Sharpie when I met SFC Gordon.

“Are you the guy signing books?” he asked me.

“I am. But I gave away everything we had with us. I was fixing to go try one of those

Krgy beers. You want one?” I offered.

But Ben didn’t really seem in the mood for a beer. I could tell he had other things on his mind…thoughts that seemed out of place for the festive atmosphere of Pete’s Place.

“Hey you know what, I’ve got a couple more in my room. I’ll run back and get one for you. What’s your name?”

“Sergeant Gordon” he responded as we shook hands.

“Yeah, I see that” pointing out the obvious name-plate on his uniform.

“Sorry...he said “It’s Ben. Been here so long I forgot my first name!”

“Well good to meet you, Ben. You guys are heading home right?”

“Yeah…most of us,” he replied.

It takes one to know one, and as a combat veteran I knew instantly what SFC Gordon was telling me. I knew his heartache, the anger, the frustration, the confusion, and the guilt that are all rolled into those three short words. Most of us means someone is not going home. Not because they are staying, but because they are gone.

“Who did you lose?” I asked

“He was my PL. I lost him a week ago.”

Notice SFC Gordon said I lost him. I can tell you why he said that. Because Ben feels responsible. As a platoon sergeant you have years of experience over a young lieutenant who gets assigned to you as your platoon leader. It’s your job to get that young lieutenant squared away and up to speed, because many times it’s that kid’s first assignment out of college. Leading a platoon of 40 or so men in combat is a huge leadership challenge. But as any good PL will tell you, the man who really runs the platoon is the platoon sergeant. “Listen to your Platoon Sergeants!” is what they teach the young infantry officer. SFC Gordon felt responsible for that kid, and he had lost his PL just a week before they were going home.

Why SFC Gordon had come to me for a book was a bit of a miracle really. I do not believe in coincidences when it comes to the folks we meet in our lives. There is always a reason for it, especially when you are “sent” to a combat zone with the purpose of spreading good will as we were on this tour. I thought giving away books was a good idea. It would give the soldiers something to read and help spread the word. But in this case God had a bigger reason for Ben and me to meet.

I ran back to my room hoping I could get back before Ben changed his mind about opening up his feelings a little. In fact, he was doing just that…walking out the door as I got back to Pete’s Place. The voice of reason inside was already telling him to shut it down. “You are not allowed to feel.”

When you make it out of something where others did not, you will spend the rest of your life thanking the people who were on your left and right that day. Because you know by the Grace of God, they are the only reason you survived. However and wherever that fight went down you are immensely proud of your unit and what you accomplished together. And that accomplishment, you reason, has got to mean something. It has to account for some sort of difference. The death of a good man has to matter, because if it doesn’t matter, then why did your comrades have to die? And that’s where it all begins: the confusion, the frustration, and the anger.

Why? That is the question that will haunt any veteran struggling with the loss of a comrade and a friend. “Why did it happen to him and not me? Why, God, did you let me walk out of there when he was twice the soldier I was? He had a wife. He had kids. He deserved to live. Why was I one of the chosen ones? Why me? What am I supposed to do with this?” And that is when the guilt begins to take hold like an ugly cancer, slowly deteriorating your ability to be happy.

You can do one of two things with the guilt. You can get angry and let the unfairness of it all bury you. Or you can choose to let it motivate you. See it for what it is. It’s more than an opportunity or some divine “second chance.” See it as a responsibility, a duty, and a commitment to those who got you out of there; to carry on and live a happy life filled with purpose, direction and motivation.

How do I know this? Because I’ve lived it. Years after the battle, even after the noise of slamming doors no longer made me duck for cover, and the mere site of Old Glory no longer made me cry, I was still feeling the effects of combat. I was still fighting the Battle of Mogadishu, only now I was years away, safe at home in the middle of a good life.

Guilt continued to haunt me. Sure, I followed my dreams of music. The intestinal fortitude instilled in me as a Ranger would not allow otherwise. Outwardly, Keni was a positive, motivated dreamer skipping through life doing what he loved to do. Good for him. Way to go, Keni.

But down inside I could never fully commit to enjoying the life I had. In fact, I could never fully commit to anything. Why? Because it just didn’t seem “hard” enough. Somewhere in my heart, I felt I wasn’t supposed to be happy. It should be enough that I was here when others were not.

Guilt affected everything—my sense of self worth, my relationships, and my ability to enjoy the life God had given me. The moment I felt the good life closing in, the voice of guilt began to whisper. “You know you’re not allowed to be happy. Think about Casey’s wife. Think about Pilla’s parents. How do you think they feel?”

And so the enemy within me would covertly sabotage whatever good God had sent my way. I became a master of disguise, camouflaging my emotions. On the outside I appeared passionate and full of fire, declaring “I love my life. I love you!” Because as a “good Christian,” that’s what I knew I was supposed to be. In reality, however, I was shutting down my feelings because somewhere between the streets of Mogadishu, the hospitals of recovering friends, and the tombstones at Arlington, I convinced myself I didn’t deserve to be here.

Like I said, it takes one to know one, and it was a Vietnam veteran, a friend of my father, who wrote to me after yet another painful breakup I had somehow managed to manufacture. And without talking to me or knowing me all that well, he pinpointed the problem with the accuracy of a laser-guided missile.

“You know, Keni, you are allowed to be happy,” he said. “In fact, you owe it to those guys who got you out of there.”

Yeah, yeah tell me something I hadn’t already heard.

But it was this next line I remember most that planted the seed of change in my restless and guilt-ridden heart.

“If any one of your friends could come back from the dead and talk to you today, do you really think they would tell you that you were supposed to feel guilty?”

I’m not saying the change was an immediate metamorphosis, as if God himself had spoken the words and then “shazam!” I was struck by a bolt of lightning. But the spark was ignited and I knew that combat veteran of Vietnam was right. I’d grown accustomed to the numbness and was comfortable within the walls I had erected around my heart. It is exactly those walls we build to protect us that ultimately imprison us. This guilt I dragged around with me like a ball and chain was self-imposed. I had the key all along. God had indeed spoken to me. The choice was mine to make.

I told the same story to Ben, as we stayed a little while and talked.

“It’s gonna be a long road” I assured him. “This one isn’t gonna be easy. You’re gonna think people wont understand or don’t want to hear about it. But the more you keep it in, the worse that guilt of surviving gets to you. So tell your story. Tell his story. Because if you don’t, then who will? And please remember and NEVER forget, if your PL could come back today, he would never—not once—tell you to feel guilty for being here. You are allowed to be happy.”

As I handed the book over to SFC Ben Gordon, I realized I had become that Vietnam vet passing along the same wisdom learned from those before us. God had used me to speak to Ben. Perhaps it helped. I hope it did.

I signed his book with these words: “Thank you for your service. Welcome home. Enjoy your life. You’ve earned it. Godspeed.”

For all the hands we got to shake on the American300 Warriors Tour I pray that they all make it home. The reality is that some will not. But for those of you who do, please remember and never forget. Tell their story. For if you don’t, who will? Please remember and never forget. You are allowed to be happy. Welcome Home. Enjoy Your Life. You’ve earned it. Godspeed.

The war is over for me now. But it will always be here for the rest of my days. For those of us who did make it, we have an obligation to teach others what we know and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and meaning to this life. (Oliver Stone, from the movie Platoon)

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