This week marks the first of a number of conversations that I am having with each of my soldiers in preparation for going home. I realize that this is only the beginning of the process of reintegration and, more importantly, finding some kind of closure after a year in Afghanistan. We have all had varied experiences here, some more stressful or tumultuous than others. This is the nature of deployment. Likewise, the reintegration process will not be homogeneous. Some soldiers will make the transition back to the United States, barely noticing the scenery change, just that the food is much better. Others will find themselves struggling over daily responsibilities-- shopping at the grocery store, picking up children from school, and waiting in line at the gas station. It’s sometimes the easiest things that surface our anxieties, often because most of us do not anticipate being challenged by the menial tasks we have done our entire lives.
We have turned the page in our book, and discovered that there are but a few paragraphs left in the present chapter. Beneath the final period, blank space looms. There is a part of all of us that wants to read ahead, as the next chapter is now visible, almost within our reach. We also realize that we can’t move on until these last paragraphs have been brought to a close. We must read to the end. We must come to the final period, and face the gap between between these two worlds.
A few months ago, I decided that one-on-one meetings with each of my soldiers would be a good way to start the process of redeployment. These conversations would aid me in understanding the issues that soldiers were facing as well as help them to think more broadly about what it means to go home. Most everyone feels excitement at the freedoms which accompany “home,” yet very few brace for the rocks and crags which threaten derailment. I hoped these conversations would be a gentle way to identify some of the potential issues which lurk just over our horizon.
What I didn’t anticipate was how exhausting six or seven hours of counseling sessions would be, or that regular work would continue to demand at least some of my attention. With about half of these appointments behind me though, I am realizing how important this process is for my soldiers as well as for myself. While I have constant interaction with many from my unit, the harder subjects don’t often come up, not over a casual lunch or in passing. I have been shocked at the openness displayed in these meetings, even from people who have been otherwise standoffish. I have been reminded that stoicism often masks pain. A cheerful facade may be skin deep. A half an hour and a handful of questions has revealed a lot. It has helped me remember that above all else, ministry is about offering one’s presence. It is about a willingness to feel compassion.
In a few weeks we will close this chapter for good. It’s pages will remain a part of our whole story, but we won’t get to revisit them but in our memories. There is only so much we can take with us from this season. We will need to make room for new experiences and people. Talking about this truth, I have remembered a few phrases of a benediction I first learned while on a mission trip to Guatemala during college and that I now pronounce each Sunday at the close of our worship service.
“Hold on to what is good, and exchange no one evil for evil.”
As we continue on this journey, there is only so much that we can carry with our two hands. Despite the stress, the annoyances, the drudgery, the drama and the disappointment, there was also a lot of good that happened over this year. In our next chapters, may we keep this goodness close to our hearts, letting go of all the rest.