For a country dreading large casualty counts, the word from the Persian Gulf War has been good. The vast majority of Americans who shipped out to the gulf will be coming home, alive and well.
Even so, these men and women will come home changed by their experiences. Confronting war is a real-life exercise in coming to terms with mortality -- with the fact that death is a real possibility, no matter how well or bravely you do your duty.
That's a tall order, especially for the young men, many still teen-agers, who bear the brunt of combat in any war.
Before combat started, news from the war zone was filled with haunting stories of young men scrambling for telephones, finding time for one last call home to wives or parents. One reporter described the conversation of a young sergeant, assuring his wife that things would be fine -- but, just in case, also telling her where he would like to be buried and reminding her that he wanted his 2-year-old daughter to go to college.
In the glow of the coalition's military triumph, American men and women will find a better welcome than soldiers who returned from Vietnam. One lesson this country seems to have learned is that disapproval of government policy should never spill over to the military forces who risk their lives in carrying out that policy. That should help make the transition easier.
Moreover, this time around, there is little dispute among Americans that the military forces have been resoundingly successful in carrying out their mission. Other positive factors are also at work. For one, veterans of Operation Desert Storm are returning with their units, rather than individually, as in
Vietnam. They will have the support of buddies and friends who have lived through the same experiences.
Then, too, they are returning to a country that has learned the wounds of battle aren't always physical, that the stresses and strains of war can eat away at hearts and minds, just as shrapnel can tear into a body. PTSD -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- is now a recognized psychological condition.
Despite these changes, it would be a mistake for families to assume that returning troops will not need a readjustment period.
War changes people. Long desert nights spent contemplating life and death can produce new priorities and new ways of looking at life.
As they reunite, husbands and wives or parents and children will find that their relationships have changed.
Time and experience change every relationship; the challenge is to adapt to changes in positive ways. But when people are separated for long periods of time under dangerous conditions, there is an understandable desire to return exactly to the way things were before -- before the fears and anxieties of war intruded.
That's a comforting thought, but it's not true to life. Life, after all, means change. Only death relieves us from it.
That's worth remembering as the troops come marching home, older and wiser.
Help For All
Whether you're young or old, male or female, working or retired, a parent or a single worker, "Coping" offers advice and entertainment. These columns appear daily on the following schedule:
MONDAY: Mortal Matters
TUESDAY: Child Care
WEDNESDAY: Tales from the Front
THURSDAY: Family Almanac
FRIDAY: In Your Prime