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Morning over the bay

Once a Soldier, Always a Soldier

Emma Neal

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As a mother and onetime soldier reading the headlines each day, I am unable to keep the plight of returning troops from my mind. Many of them will find themselves scarred, both physically and mentally, for good. Many will find themselves abandoned too – not only by society at large, but also by their families.

Each returning soldier is my damaged son or daughter. Their suffering is my suffering. Yet what can one person like me do for them?

Soldiers returning to civilian life face massive problems. When you are in the military, you are in an unreal world, a world light years away from the one you knew before you put on a uniform. Once in the military, you are encouraged to party and drink alcohol at every base function and in your free time, and there is little to do but sit in your room, listen to music, go to nightclubs, and get high on drugs or alcohol.

Outside the gates of every military base in the U.S. and around the world are hustlers, prostitutes, bars (gay and straight), strip joints, pool halls, discos, tattoo parlors, adult movie houses, gambling and clip joints, sex shops, pawn shops, liquor stores, drug dealers, and worse, depending on the country. I still have nightmares of Amsterdam, where women's bodies are for sale in storefront windows and sex shop windows advertise the worst filth imaginable.

I especially remember the night I left my friends to go back to my hotel room and cry the hours away while they prowled the streets looking for “fun.” On Sunday morning I wandered the sidewalks, vainly searching for a church – any church – to attend, but found none. The Lord seemed to have left the city to its own perverted excesses.

After only six years of military service and no war experiences, I found it extremely hard to get used to civilian life. I had changed so much. It had become normal to practice shooting an M16 assault rifle, to throw hand grenades for fun, and to practice killing other human beings. Evil conversation and profanity had become commonplace for me. I could hardly get through a sentence without the "F" word. I was hard, cold, jaded, and bitter. Worse, I was full of rage. Not anger. Rage. And unlike many of the GIs around me, I was a Christian!

I was born on a military base (Fort Jackson, South Carolina) and grew up as a military brat. Almost all the men in my family – my father, brothers, uncles, cousins, and brothers-in-law – were soldiers. It was considered an honorable, respectable, wonderful way of life. There were no officers in our family. We were proud to consider ourselves “grunts.” We were hard-core warriors, and all the boys longed to be in the Army, or even better, the Marines.

War talk was common around the dinner table. I can still hear them talking about how it feels to gut the enemy with a bayonet, to see your buddies blown to bits, to live for days out in the field eating out of your helmet, and sloshing through the mud during field maneuvers. We were all encouraged to go into the military, if for no other reason than that black people and women received the same pay as everyone else.

There were no Christians in my large, loud, aggressive family. Not one. No one felt they needed God. We were taught to depend on ourselves – on our own personal courage, ambition, and initiative. When I became a Christian at age twenty, it was one of the few times I ever disappointed my family. I had gone against the grain, broken out of the mold, gone against the family. I had been a closet Christian for years and they suspected something was “wrong” with me. Something was “wrong” – because of my faith, I’d begun to question almost everything I had ever been taught about how to live life.

After three years of putting up with my going to church, my praying, and my being full of joy, my family told me I had to go. They said I had three months to “find a place.” I was twenty-two years old. I had only been away from home alone once. My greatest joys were working, going to church, reading, crocheting afghans, visiting nursing homes and shut-ins. I dreamed about becoming a missionary one day…

For now, however, I had no money, no real skills, and no place to go. Unless you counted the armed forces , which seemed the obvious thing to a military brat like me. So I joined up.

Unfortunately, the military is an all-or-nothing proposition. Once you have passed a certain point in your career, you become unfit to do anything else. You become unable to function again in civilian society. You can never predict when any one person will reach that point. You just wake up one day unable to be anything else but a soldier.

I never reached that point, thank God. In fact, I found military life hell on earth. I found it hard to imagine actually killing a person, and wondered how I would be able to justify doing it if the time ever came. I felt angry and frustrated enough to want to kill most of the time. That’s the nature of military life. I had also held up my hand and sworn to do so if ordered. But I always prayed I would never be called upon to make that decision.

When I got pregnant with my son, John, I had to make a choice. I had to chose between life (my son) or death (advancement in my military “career”). I chose life, and my parents have never forgiven me for it. That is the problem with warriors and those with a military mentality. Anyone can become a potential enemy, even your own family. Like the Spartans of old who left their weak, sickly children outdoors to die, so it was with my family. To their way of thinking, I had proved myself weak. I was “soft.” I had chosen to throw my life away when I didn't have to.

It was hard to raise a child alone. I barely survived – and I had the moral (and sometimes financial) help from my church family. How are these guys coming back from Iraq going to make it, with their severe medical and mental problems?

They’ll make it the same way John and I did, if they know someone who loves them enough to give them practical help. We found people who really loved us. They showed it in a hundred ways – crying with us, laughing with us, and sharing whatever they had (even if it was only their own poverty).

If we love those returning from war with the love of a parent for his or her own child – a child who was lost but has now been found – I think we can help them find peace and acceptance and forgiveness. As a mother who's always depended upon the kindness of strangers, I am determined to give it a try.

Emma Neal served as a US Air Force sergeant in Germany and England from 1977 to 1983. She now works for Sacred Heart Church in Camden, New Jersey.

a soldier returning home
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