Thomas Wolfe’s 1934 novel “You Can’t Go Home Again” popularized that exact phrase, which for nearly 90 years has explained that, after you’ve had life-changing experiences, you can never quite return to the way things were.
Service members often feel this way when they return home from war, notes author and long-time combat reporter Sebastian Junger.
“I think veterans feel that they’re a kind of a less, maybe a lesser version of themselves when they’re back home,” he told Military Times Sunday at the three-day MCON miliary culture conference in Las Vegas. “They mature very quickly, and they change and they grow and they get stronger — all these things that we all know are good. Then you come back [...] and you feel like ‘Oh my god, this is this is a step backward. This is the place where I was a child. I’m not a child anymore.’”
Junger likened this phenomenon to the civilian experience of returning to your childhood bedroom after years away, noting how often we feel like we’re in high school when we visit our hometown during the holidays.
“I think it’s very disorienting,” he said. “I think people can have that even if they’re in their 30s and 40s and coming home to a marriage with children.”
Moreover, the return to civilian life from war also brings the challenge of feeling like there isn’t much purpose or common bond within the community.
“The demands of combat, the benefits of combat, and just being in a close unified group are so enormous,” Junger said. “They play to such ancient human values of altruism, and connection and courage that they’re very hard to give up in civilian life.”
Junger’s work with veterans spans the length of the Global War on Terror. He produced the critically acclaimed documentary film, “Restrepo,” which followed troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, in addition to three war documentaries.
He has written extensively of the importance of having a community in his 2016 book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” and has suggested one of the ways to make it easier to come back from combat is to avoid self-alienation.
Veterans, he notes, often struggle to assimilate back into society because they view themselves as different.
“Stop thinking that you’re special,” he said. “You are special. You had experiences that few of your peers had. If you keep thinking of yourself as someone who’s special and different and better, you’ll never reincorporate into the civilian world of just ordinary people.”
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.