Poppies laid at the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Benoit Aubry, 2008

Poppies laid at the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Benoit Aubry, 2008

Where were you this time last year? Mentally, relationally, professionally? Our newsfeed is full of reflection, of remembrance and recollection. But what about our minds, our lives?

Endings are a natural time of reflection, but there are moments throughout our lives that are milestones in the present as well as touchstones to the past. Graduations. Births. Significant events in the present that echo back to significant events of the past. The act of remembering, both good and bad, is helpful to us to remember how far we’ve come, and sometimes how far we have left to go.

Frederick Buechner had this to say about remembrance:

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.”

I’ve been thinking of my own personal year-in-review post, and what shape it would take. A catalogue of successes? Too arrogant. A listing of failures? Too depressing. As a mental health counselor, the inclination is to list the great things that I’ve seen happen this year with the veterans I work with, the awareness gained, the lives changed, progress made, but that would be unethical.

Suffice to say, lives were saved. Not by me, not because of me, but because veterans I know reached out and opened up before it was too late. I’ve seen relationships healed, and, to be honest, unhealthy relationships ended. I’ve also seen lives lost, long before they were supposed to be, and lives almost lost but ultimately saved.

Reflection, as I’ve said before, is a good thing. It can also be a humbling thing. I recall, at the beginning of this year, sitting in the lobby of our State Capitol building. I was preparing to meet some other professional counselors for a day full of legislative events. What was I, a former soldier, doing here? I started to think back to other Januarys in the past.

January 2013: North Africa. An empty part of the countryside, north of Kiffa, half-built structures and language barriers with our host nation partners. The next three months were probably the most satisfying of my career.

2012: Kabul. Preparing to leave, orders in hand. Hadn’t started my Master’s Degree yet, but things were in motion. Standing at the crossroads of staying in or getting out. The Army had other plans.

2011: First Sergeant. Orders in hand again, Afghanistan again, knowing that I’m going back earlier than I need to, but there are reasons for that.

2010: Jalalabad. Regional Command East, N2KL, escorting supplies up the Kunar River Valley. There was no looking forward in January of ’10; just straight focus on the task at hand. Too much stuff, bad stuff and good, going on to think about the future.

2009: Pretty sure we were in Fort Polk at the beginning of ’09, we were all there. All of us, the ones who returned from that deployment, and the ones who didn’t. Even the ones who did return from that deployment, but who are not with us today. We were all there, preparing for a future that was nothing like we imagined it to be.

2008: Reintegrating with the family after a full year-plus in Iraq. Looking forward to a full year at home. The Army had other plans, though.

2007: Baghdad. Rustamiyah. Too much going on in the present, again, to think about the future, but that included being home by Halloween, mission complete. The Army had other plans then, too.

2006: New duty station. New job. War on our personal horizon, but eager to prepare. Interesting fact here: three years into war, and the Army managed to pull off a weird thing: of the twelve senior leaders in our company, only one had been to combat. Talk about stacking the deck. Against us. We sure made it happen, though…

2004: A year into Recruiting Duty, two years into war. Leaving Germany, I wanted to go to a deploying unit; the Army had other plans. It was like preparing for the Super Bowl for ten years, and being sent to the front office just as the game started to kick off. Wasn’t where I wanted to be, but made the best of it.

2002: The new normal, four months after 9/11. In Germany at the time, preparing for the largest mobilization of U.S. and Coalition forces in a decade. Not sure what the future held, but pretty sure it was combat.

2000: Anyone remember Y2K? We just got to Germany at the time. My wife pregnant with our first child, firmly entrenched in the Army life. Stairwell living, rumors of war a long way off.

1998: Bragg. Jumpmaster. Hard charging, clueless goofball who thought he was going to change the Army someday. The Army had other plans, though.

1996: Bosnia. Pushing tanks and tracks from Hungary to Croatia, messing with the new guys about land mines and snipers. Little did we know, when the snow melted, we had made a path through a field filled with unexploded ordnance. God loves dumb creatures.

1994: Had just spent a year in the reserves and college. Living in my dad’s basement. The best part of that year was volunteering to serve with my unit every chance I got, running through the woods. College wasn’t for me, the Army was. Papers were signed, just waiting to ship off to Germany.

1992: High School. The Army was a thing, but not for me. Wasn’t even on my radar, not even a random thought at that point. Probably, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, wasn’t focused on the future much at all. I’ve sometimes thought, knowing now what I didn’t know then, what would I tell my eighteen-year-old self?

Buckle up, pal. It’s going to be a wild ride. And remember: the Army always has other plans.

To finish the quote from Buechner:

“But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us.”

Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks for taking a walk down memory lane with me, even for a brief time. Enjoy your memories, such as they are, and may the new year find you well.

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Categories: Memories

Duane France

Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.