[I am very grateful to Steve for writing this eloquent and powerful article about his experience of combat and his own journey home; the journey that has brought him back to the fullness of his humanity.
Steve was in an infantry platoon based on the Namibia/Angola Border a few years before I was there - Paul]
Your first combat experience profoundly impacts your life. No military training fully prepares you for the sudden intensity and violence. It’s a shocking experience that momentarily paralyses you, then turns you into a killer. That’s the reality – you must kill the enemy before he kills you. It is some experience to be the one still standing afterwards, a man dead at your feet. It was you or him, and you prevailed.
The bush is quiet afterwards, and a series of emotions wash through you. Astonishment, elation, horror, pride, regret. Your comrades congratulate you quietly, search the body, then wander away. Suddenly you’re alone with your thoughts. You sense you’ll never be the same again.
And you never are. You’ve just taken an exponential leap away from the person you were only minutes before. You have crossed into the dark side. Once there, you’re part of a foul brotherhood, the killers of people. And it just gets worse. A long war looms ahead, more death beckons, and you’re one of its proven agents. In this world, others hold you in awe, spurning a corrupted pride. Your morality is the next casualty, followed closely by your soul.
So we became a band of unhappy brothers, effecting death casually in the end and preying on the weak. I’d entered the dark night of my soul. It was a frighteningly long night. We had many perilous adventures and committed countless grave misdeeds. Along the way we lost some of our own. This was another order of profundity, dealt with by heavy drinking and emotion suppression. Besides, there wasn’t time to linger. Tomorrow there were more people to hunt and kill.
Suddenly the war was over and I was ejected into the normal world.
And so began the Journey Home. It’s the journey back to your self, the rekindling of your humanity, the discovery of your compassion. It takes decades but at some point you feel healed, and you realize what’s happened on the journey – that you’ve forgiven yourself, and started to make amends.
I thought I’d killed that first man thirty years ago. I realize now that he actually took my life away. I’ve only now, decades later, resurrected my scarred self into someone new. Paul, my brother-in-arms, may you travel safely on your own journey and come home soon. There’s a place by the fire for old soldiers like us. Here our stories are significant to those seeking their own way in an uncertain world.