Elisa A. Escalante/ LCSW/ 2-22-2022

I returned home from Afghanistan in January of 2013. Immediately after I got off the airplane and into the airport waiting area, I saw my long-term boyfriend of 5 years, there to greet me. My eyes brightened as we went toward each other for a hug. Unfortunately, my mood took a plunge as I noticed my Commander (A Lt Colonel) intercepted us to shake my hand first. ‘This woman is really going to ruin my magical return home moment??!’ I thought to myself as I reluctantly shook her hand. She welcomed me home like a true Officer/ Commander that does not give a shit… but has to be there, and would rather be sleeping in. After our handshake and fake conversation, I went to my boyfriend for the hug as she stared awkwardly at us. I did not kiss for very long, as it is ‘frowned upon’ to show PDA while in military uniform. (sigh….)

      About 2 weeks after home coming, I went to the local pet store near my base in Abilene, Texas. Through this town ran a railroad with a very active train service. As I was unlocking my car door to go home, the train conductor blared the horn full blast. I uncontrollably jumped into my car to hide. I immediately felt adrenaline and shakiness course through my body, and I cried for what felt like, no reason at all. Although I did find this situation odd (I had never struggled with anxiety), I put it behind me rather quickly. Fast forward through the months, I got the occasional nightmare. These nightmares often included fighter helicopters or jets flying above and bombing my immediate surroundings. I figured, “Hey this is normal, it’s acute. It is going to happen sometimes. I did just come home, after all…”

     When I returned to work at the mental health clinic stateside, I found my mind wandering more than usual. I also experienced more negative and pessimistic cognitions and attitudes toward my typical duty day. “Now Team, this is an important matter…. We need to make sure we are not using the color printer too much. Use the black ink and cut down on costs…” My Flight chief lectured us in one of the regular morning meetings. I stared at her blankly as I wondered in my mind: ‘Why the fuck is this important exactly? It’s…. ink.  Ink!!! Who gives a shit about ink?! There are people dying in the world…’ This was just one example of how I could not take the stateside military world seriously anymore.

      My fellow enlisted coworkers tried to lecture me the way they had before I deployed. “Your pockets are unbuttoned Escalante…” they said. (Military regulations require us to keep them buttoned at all times when not in use) “I know”, I retorted back. They stared at me shockingly: “So… you’re just not going to button them?” They asked.  Me: “Nope”. (In a combat zone, we did not care about such insignificant things.) I also made the executive decision to remove every single one of my coworkers off of my Facebook. They did not take lightly to this new form of boundaries/ isolation. They confronted me about this, including my supervisor. My reply: “It is not in my job description to be your Facebook friend.” I went back to work. I stopped hanging out with them, I stopped messaging them between shifts. I may have been a bitch in their eyes. I did not care. They mocked me while I was deployed. They acted like they were busier, and I was ‘lucky’. They pressured/ harassed me to travel all the way from my FOB to Bagram to do CPR in a warzone, so they could ‘meet numbers’ back home. (If I had gotten killed on that unnecessary 45-minute Helo ride…, would it have been worth it? Those numbers?) They also pressured me to reenlist, and when I chose not to, disowned me for my decision to pursue honorable separation. (Haters!!!!)

     Besides my anger, which I mostly kept under wraps, I had bigger issues. I did start to notice acute trauma symptoms, as well as heightened depression and an influx of new eating disordered patterns. However, I worked in the mental health field. I already knew what these mental diagnosis could potentially cost me: my entire career. So, I had to be an actor, and it was a lot trickier than it would be for the average military member. Why? I was surrounded by mental health professionals, every single day. When I say I deserve an Oscar for my performance, I truly mean it. In that last year and a half on my military contract, I had many social workers and psychologists complimenting me on my ‘ability to bounce back’ after a deployment to a combat zone. One social worker even mentioned that I was the only military member he had ever seen that “did not change one bit”.

      I did have one thing to look forward to: NCO (Noncommissioned officer) of the year! I had made/ pinned on SSgt (E-5) while deployed. And, surely while I was away, my flight chief had put me up for NCO of the year. (Or so I assumed) I did deploy, after all, and I took her place on this deployment. (The formal orders to Afghanistan were actually for her, but she got out of it) I had the utmost confidence that she had put in an award package for me. Imagine my surprise at the award ceremony, when I saw her name get announced for NCO of the year, and saw her go up and take the award as if she had deserved it. (The look of surprise on my face had to have mimicked that scene in Horrible Bosses! Ha!) Then, imagine my shock, six months later, when I found out she had also put herself up for Mental health NCO of the year, and somehow ‘earned’ that too. This lady was a professional at writing bullshit award packages for herself, while everyone else did real work. I was boiling inside but had to keep my mouth shut… for … forever.  

      There was no formal recognition for me at all. My Afghanistan campaign medal was never formally given to me in any type of ceremony. It was thrown on top of a filing cabinet while a busy officer talked over her shoulder and told me to grab it and go. (While I was traveling through Bagram on my way back home) My Air Force commendation medal was never formally given to me, it was mailed to me after my final out. When I was done with the military, I was done. I had bent over backwards for both my chain of command, as well as my patients. And all I received was one ridiculous informal patient complaint at the end of my six-year career, on my way out the door. My chain of command ‘milked me to the bone’ up until my separation date. I barely had time to do my formal separation! I barely had time to pack my belongings in preparation to drive to Dallas and fly TF out of Texas. This was my personal homecoming story. For the next blog, I’ll discuss my FINAL OUT, and my personal transition story from the military to civilian life.

Published by functionallymentall

Social Worker, Writer, USAF Veteran

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: