Through Jonathan Raab’s interview, part 1, we were there when James Caggy landed and lined up at Syracuse. He stood with his battle buddies and others anxious to officially end their deployment in Afghanistan.
We met his girlfriend who was there for him, just as she had been at his return from his previous deployment and in the years of service before and after. Caggy let us come along on an important home visit. And then we were back to his New York apartment where he left us with this thought:
“I was kind of debating what the hell I was going to do over the next three months – if I was gonna sit on my ass, or try and find a job,” he said.
So, now on to find out from James Caggy, via Jonathan Raab:
- what he decided to do
- how this transition was different
- the challenge of his choice
- should he stay or should he go, back to the army?
His former employer, a company called Map Digital, offered him the opportunity to do some network engineering consulting work in San Francisco. He accepted the offer.
“Out in San Francisco, I didn’t have anyone. My girlfriend was back in New York, my family, girlfriend, and all my friends. No one was there. It was just me.”
After spending one morning working, he found himself alone with a free afternoon.
“You had that feeling – for the first time in a long time that you’re accountable and responsible to no one but yourself,” he said. “And you don’t have any friends or family around as a backstop. It’s just you and the world again. It’s exciting and scary at the same time.”
Being a self-described “technology guy,” he was excited to be at Union Square, downtown San Francisco, a cultural and commercial center for industry leaders like Google and Apple.
“[I was] just walking around there, and everyone’s smoking pot, the homeless guys are being overly aggressive as they always are there,” he said, smiling. “I’m walking down Market Street and there’s a homeless guy, broad daylight, 2 PM. He just walks right up to the side of a building. A real ritzy mall with all these high-end shops like Bloomingdale’s. And he’s just urinating in broad daylight, right there. And I’m like, ‘Here I am.’”
The final two days of the trip, Emily flew out to meet James for a visit to the Napa Valley wine region. Despite feeling somewhat overwhelmed at the beginning of the trip, by the time he returned home, James was glad he accepted the offer to work and to travel.
“Going out on that trip and working, not just sitting on my ass, was a kick starter for me,” he said. “It definitely sped up my re-integration.”
James said that he had to readjust his expectations.
“I hate to say it, but I’m not used to getting yelled at over something completely trivial and stupid,” he said. Working in the corporate world provides challenges that he had not had to deal with for over a year.
His flights to and from San Francisco illustrated other forgotten facets of civilian experience.
“Having to wait in lines, go through security, and getting yelled at by TSA for not having all your bags unpacked correctly,” he said. “All the little trivial details of civilian life. Once you start getting into that again, you start reminding yourself, ‘I’m not in the military anymore.’ It’s done, it’s over. You’re just like anyone else now.
“And everyone else is really serious, for things we might see as menial. A lot of little details are just so trivial and mean nothing [to us], but to civilians, it’s the big stress of the day.”
James recalled coming home from Afghanistan in the fall of 2008 as a more difficult experience.
“It took me about two months to really understand how much I had changed, and how screwed up my transition was,” he said.
After returning home, he spent the first two months reconnecting with his girlfriend and friends. He also spent a lot of time drinking. Not only did he deal with the stress of his deployment experiences, he dealt with the loss of friends. He even considered leaving the Army.
“I lost three friends in 18 months,” he said. “Two of them in Afghanistan, and one of my really good friends died in Iraq at the height of the surge. I didn’t deal with any of that. Just drank, sat on the couch, didn’t look for any jobs, I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do.”
The National Guard sponsors mandatory “Yellow Ribbon” events that re-deployed soldiers attend. There, the state provides briefings, classes, and throws paperwork and benefits information- en masse at the soldiers.
Alpha Company attended one such Yellow Ribbon Event in January of 2009.
“It was really good for me,” he said. “Got to see everyone again, got to laugh, got to cry. I’d say that was probably the first day in two months that my sense of humor came back. I didn’t have my sense of humor …It was gone when I first got back. It just wasn’t there. I wasn’t fully there. When I went to that Yellow Ribbon, I finally started to realize how much I had changed, and how emotionally disconnected I really was.”
James doesn’t mince words on how well he handled his first transition back to civilian life.
“I completely screwed the pooch on that,” he said. “I messed that one up completely. Too much drinking. Wasn’t facing my emotions, wasn’t opening up to anyone, wasn’t being realistic to myself, wasn’t setting expectations or goals for myself.
“This one… I think that I did this one right. Here I am – I’ve already gone on a job interview. I’ve already done some work. My girlfriend and I are getting along great. I’m probably going to propose to her next week. We were on vacation in Hawaii. I feel like I’m home again. I can laugh. I think I did this one right.”
As for his future, James knows where he wants to be, but isn’t sure of the path that will get him there. He is considering going back to the corporate world, and is balancing his own wants and needs with that of his girlfriend – now his fiancée.
One point of contention – and compromise – is his continued service in uniform.
“So selling my girlfriend on me staying in the military is a hard one right now,” he said. “Really, pretty personally, I don’t know if I really want to stick around in staff for the next seven years. After company command, there’s not much for an infantry guy other than to toil around behind a desk in a staff type job.”
Generating PowerPoint Slides and organizing seminars for staff lacks the appeal and the excitement of his early years of military service. Still, he’s open to the possibility of remaining an Army officer, and barring that, continuing to serve in some capacity.
“One thing’s for sure, I’m not done with public service,” he said, expressing a sentiment widely held by many veterans. “I’m not done serving my country.”
Jonathan Raab is a writer, teacher, and a veteran of the Afghanistan war. He is currently exploring career opportunities in the Denver, Colorado area and is continuing work on a satirical novel about war and the post-modern veteran experience. Follow him on Twitter at @jpraab.
Colonel (Ret) Spain mentions the choice many service members must make between a good paying job, they like and location in his post on transition from military to civilian placements.