I have been gone now for more than nine months. Hard to believe it’s been so long. When I left, my wife was just recently pregnant. Just a few weeks ago, we gave birth to a beautiful little girl, Ayla Kate Sparks-Graeser. I had the chance to go back to Los Angeles for the birth. It was incredible, but reminded me of how long its been. So much had happened, both at home and while I’ve been gone. It got me thinking about my own expectations before I left.
Studying transition for the last decade, I knew firsthand the transition that service-members have to make when they return home (especially National Guard and Reserve). I have been a witness to thousands who have made the harrowing journey. Being a chaplain and social worker, I hoped that my experience and expertise would help me avoid some of the common pitfalls and pains of disconnection. I figured there was nothing that social media and Facetime couldn’t bridge.
It took about two months in country before I realized how hard it would be. Kind of like watching YouTube videos of a back yard project and then finding out it takes more tools, skills and time than you thought. Spending long hours in meetings, briefings, counselings and an endless array of soldiers issues (in a different time zone) made staying connected to home harder and harder. Maybe it was wishful thinking, avoidance, or my passion to fight the social isolation I see at work in our society, but the thought of disconnecting from the people I loved seemed hard to fathom.
I knew how much my family, friends, community, and Los Angeles meant to me. I figured I could beat it. All I needed to do was use my chaplain social worker “super powers” and miraculously avoid the disconnect. All I needed was a trusty phone, an education and a smile. I guess I watched too many Marvel movies, because try as I might, I got farther away. Eventually being thousands of miles away feels like being thousands of miles away.
It turns out, there is no escaping it.
Recently, I have been thinking a lot what it takes to support someone in transition. Last month, I finished my Doctorate in Social Work. I spent most of my time focused on rethinking how we connect communities and transitioning service-members. Being deployed has only heightened my awareness of this. I can sense my reliance on my community back home. If you are reading this, then that means its you. The questions I will need to ask, the support and friendships, the career decisions and community- all of whom I rely on. Knowledge and know-how only take you so far. There is no substitute for a good old fashion community.
We all need family, friends, community and our city to help us navigate life, especially in big transitions. As hard as it is for veterans to admit, we are vulnerable. We need others to land successfully. I am more aware of this now than ever. Like an old trusty chair, I am thankful its there when I sit down. Our collaborative work in LA seems more important than ever right about now.
I’m thankful for you and your support. I’ll be home in less than three months (in time for Christmas) and can’t wait to reconnect. Send a note to Rachel when you think about it. She’s got her hands full.