Location, Location, Location: How shared locations bond two generations of U.S. military veterans

When I was a shiny new soldier, fresh out of Army basic and advanced training, I was placed in the rear detachment of a unit that was forward deployed.  There were a few other brand new soldiers in the detachment, but quite of few of the soldiers were coming off of Active Duty into the National Guard.  I wouldn’t say we were in awe of these guys, but they did stand apart, especially because of their combat patches and combat infantry badges.  Most had been to Iraq once or twice, while some had experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  They came from units and bases all around the U.S. to this small National Guard unit, but they already had a bond that those of us who were new did not: shared locations.

While us newbies tried to show how tough we were by sharing “harrowing” basic training stories with each other, the veterans glanced at each other’s combat patches, evaluated where they had been deployed, and casually asked how they liked FOB Speicher or if they missed rolling down MSR Tampa and getting shot up.  Many of them freshly home from deployment, they discussed their uncertainties about driving under overpasses or panic at seeing debris in the road.  Their shared locations gave them a bond that was unusual amongst men who had just met.

Fast forward six years, and I’m home from my own overseas adventure to Afghanistan.  Talking to an officer more senior to myself, and much older, he began discussing some specifics about Bagram Air Field, where we had both been stationed for the majority of our tours.  I was pleased to note that Bagram was hated back in 2004-2005, just as it is now.  We were able to relate to each other through a shared location, even though our deployments were nearly ten years apart.

In a time where veterans are becoming more prominent, from their increasing numbers, from their struggles to cope with post traumatic stress, and from the lack of care often provided, this shared experience becomes even more important.  The U.S. military has been deployed to combat zones for thirteen years.  The children of those who deployed in the initial invasions of 2001-2003 are deployed now.  It has truly become a generational conflict.  What can unite all veterans are the shared memories of place.

Place is, philosophically, a powerful idea.  Oftentimes, identity is wrapped up in the idea of place.  Locations are etched into our minds by the events that happened there.  For many veterans, they struggle to find a “place” back home in the U.S.  Words of familiar places in Iraq or Afghanistan evoke strong memories: Sultan Kheyl, Mosul, Ghazni, Korengal, Tikrit.  Foreign syllables that do not roll easily off the tongue are reminders of friends, and enemies.  Installations with such names as FOB Shank, Camp Anaconda, COP Keating, Camp Victory, and FOB Lightning bear meanings that are not easily conveyed in words.  Service members deployed and sometimes redeployed to these locations, over and over again.  While they were there, the world at home did not stop: family members died, babies were born, friends got married.  All these events are wrapped up in the names.

Route names, base names, town names, all blend together to create what those who use militaryspeak refer to as a “common operating picture,” and what most would call “shared memory.”  Rather than shove memories deeper when hearing these words, they can be used instead as a somewhat cathartic exercise to share our experiences with other veterans.  Millions of service members have deployed since 2001, meaning that there are now millions of new veterans who need to be able to talk about their experiences.  A good starting point is location.  Even discussing common locations is a good way to share experiences.

On Twitter, I was recently part of a discussion with other veterans about the best chow halls and food in Afghanistan.  None of us had been deployed together or at the same time, but we had a collective memory that served to bond us together.  These bonds are vital to keep us from withdrawing in ourselves, or even getting bitter from dwelling on the things that “went bad.”  For myself, discussing the banal and commonplace aspects of deployment with those who have undergone the same awful KBR food, the same containerized shower units, and the same “moon-dust” is helpful.

Because if we can’t all bond in a therapy sharing circle, we sure as hell can bond over memories of cigar nights at (insert any given base name here).

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