You’d have thought the affects of the war might have passed by now, that I’d be back to my old, pre-war self. But I’m not. My close friends and family have noticed I’m changed in a fundamental way.
A year ago this month, on May 12, I returned home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
Like many citizen sailors and soldiers in the reserve and National Guard, I don’t much look like a warrior. That is, until September 2010, when I was called out of the reserve into active duty. I packed up my life, left my family, and shipped over to the shadow of the Hindu Kush with the United States Navy.
I’m a public affairs officer, so though I carted around some weaponry and wore cammo, my main task in Afghanistan wasn’t in the infantry. Instead, I worked at headquarters as the director of media outreach, briefing reporters and editors to combat the daily lies and misinformation spewing out of my Taliban spokesman counterpart, Zabihullah Mujahid.
Many of our deployed troops in Afghanistan work daily with Afghan counterparts at building a stable, peaceful country, but it’s still stressful and dangerous to work in a war zone.
Roadside bombs, rocket attacks, and insurgent fire remain a daily part of life in some regions of the country. So does bad food, separation from loved ones, the irony of military life (Exhibit A: I was a naval officer in a landlocked country.), and missed holidays, birthdays, and special moments we take for granted here in the US.
Moreover, every one of our troops stationed in Afghanistan sees depressing events and circumstances. That’s just part of being deployed to the world’s poorest country outside of sub-Saharan Africa and one that has been at war for the better part of 30 years.
Like most, I couldn’t wait to return home to the arms of my loved ones and start my life anew.
Prior to leaving, my minister gave me a verse, Jeremiah 29:14, which promised the Lord would bring me back from my exile. And thankfully, He did.
Daily, I think of my fellow 1,943 countrymen who did not return and the many more thousands who will carry lasting physical or mental wounds from their deployment for a lifetime.
And that’s where Afghanistan really changed me; before coming home, I assumed I’d eventually stop thinking about my war experience, but I haven’t.
Some of my thoughts and reactions have been what you might expect.
In Afghanistan, I’d briefed General Petreaus, 40 flag officers, two ambassadors, and 100,000 troops every morning.
So, when I appeared on the "Today" show for the launch of my new book shortly after returning home and the makeup woman in the green room asked, “Are you nervous?” I laughed, “Of Kathy Lee and Hoda? They’re not armed are they?”
Likewise a month later, a shipmate from Afghanistan and I were catching up in the parking lot of a swank Beverly Hills hotel when we both heard a loud noise made by a SUV driving over a metal grate. Instinctively, we leapt to the ground and took cover (then immediately burst out laughing at each other as the valets wondered what the devil two well-dressed guests were doing lying on their asphalt).
That’s training for you, and we’re taught to react without thinking, so of course loud noises, helicopters, and other triggers bothered me for a few months after I returned home.
But there’s something more lasting about my experience in Afghanistan; I find myself pondering my time there in unexpected places. Like when I’m in the checkout line at the Piggly Wiggly and the irritated mother in front of me snips at the bag boy that she wanted paper bags, not plastic.
I think of Afghanistan when I’m in traffic and someone waves at me with one finger for some perceived offense.
I think on my nine months abroad when a friend complains about all the daily stresses he’s had with meetings, luncheons, and fussy clients.
Usually, what I think but don’t say, is you don’t know what a bad day is.
My new reference point for a bad day guides my life back here at home.
Suddenly the very ordinary has become sacred: mowing the lawn, attending Tuesday’s Kiwanis Club meetings, jogging with the dog, grilling hamburgers for friends--these moments are now sacrosanct to me.
This year, decisions that might have scared me in the past--making a huge career change or telling my pretty girlfriend I’ve fallen in love with her--seem less frightening and more urgent.
Less frightening, because I can ask myself, “Does this compare to being awakened by a rocket attack? Nope.”
More urgent because the old adage, “life is short,” has new, real, meaning for me.
Like I suspect World War II did for my grandfather and many other GIs who came home to be risk takers, company builders, family men, and institution joiners, Afghanistan distilled and intensified what’s important for me.
Personally, that’s time with my family, a first-name relationship with God, and a life led by intentional, deliberate purpose.
I’m a more patient person, a more thankful person, a man less driven by daily stresses than a desire to make each day count. I also swear a lot more and refuse to eat with plastic utensils, but I digress.
In the past several days, many well-meaning friends and family have remembered my deployment and said, “Thank God you’re not in Afghanistan.”
I smile, nod in agreement, but often think, "thank God I was in Afghanistan."
Lt. Commander Morgan Murphy, US Navy, is the best-selling author of "Off the Eaten Path" and received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal for his service in Afghanistan. Follow him on www.whosay.com/MorganMurphy.