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What are soldiers searching for when they return from the frontlines?

A text message instructed me to report to a midtown Manhattan sports bar, where I would find the members of the expedition recharging before the next day’s exertions. I was meeting two of them for the first time, yet, even over the din, conversation was natural and easy. Dan, lean and earnest, spoke of his last assignment in the Army and added, with that distant, intense gaze I’ve now seen many times, that his old unit had recently deployed again. “But,” he looked me in the eye, “I’m doing this.”

“This” is a more than 4,000-mile bicycle ride—from Maine to Southern California—that will take most of the summer. The cyclists, Dan, Pete, and Joel, all graduated from West Point in 2005. Among them, they have five combat tours in Iraq or Afghanistan; all three have just left the Army. Dan will attend business school in the fall, and Joel law school, while Pete remains undecided about what’s next. When we met up in New York, they had just finished day five of the ride.

In the weeks since, I’ve been keeping up with their progress through intermittent texting and by reading their blog. As I write, they have just made it over the Rockies. And they've been posting pictures of each stage: stymied in midtown Manhattan traffic; in front of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; looking a little tired under a historic marker informing us that the state of Ohio has been, among other things, home to eight U.S. presidents; sunbaked and smiling in the high altitude beside a sign marked “Continental Divide.”

On the most basic level, Dan, Pete, and Joel are riding to raise money for wounded soldiers returning to civilian life. The importance of this cause to combat veterans with friends and classmates among the war’s casualties is obvious. But, for this trio of riders, the trip has other less, tangible motivations. It marks their passage from a highly regimented mode of living to one whose outlines are not yet clear. After almost a decade in uniform—cadet gray then Army green—the three men find themselves on the cusp of new lives, even as they are still trying to make sense of the old.

I’ve known Joel since he studied English with me at West Point. On his second tour in Iraq, he was struck anew by the energizing sense of “focus” and the “no-nonsense feeling of purpose that takes over.” Meditating on the narratives of travelers in the Middle East such as T. E. Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger, and Rory Stewart, Joel confessed that he had once envied “their proximity to ‘real life’ and getting to have ‘real experiences’. ... Now,” he reported from Iraq, “I feel I get to live the life of meaningful decisions again.”

To the untrained ear, this might sound like naive boyish enthusiasm: war as the ultimate adventure. But it isn’t. With its clearly delineated units and chains of command, the Army cultivates a deep sense of responsibility in those who are paying attention. Joel, like so many of his fellow soldiers, discovered authentic experience in making “meaningful decisions” on which others rely.

I think it is a mistake to assume that the intensity of wartime service derives purely from a soldier’s proximity to danger and death. It seems more properly to owe to the fact that relationships forged in the context of such heightened stimulation—connections first established in training through a shared imagining of hardship—have a force and clarity more difficult to realize in everyday life. Once they rejoin the ranks of civilians, soldiers can find themselves forever searching for that same quality of experience elsewhere, attracted to a life of risk, perhaps, or prey to nostalgic longings, unless they figure out a way to meet the world without the armor to which they have grown accustomed. “I don’t want to be one of those guys,” Pete had insisted at the bar, as we contemplated his past and whatever lies ahead.

As he was preparing to leave the Army, Joel shared with me the urge he felt to make his next career as meaningful as his first: “Friday marks my last day in the Army, and I hope I can someday find a career grounded as closely to purpose and duty as the military.” But the rules of engagement back home are different. Soon after his return, Joel wrote that he was figuring out how to live the “temporary life” that will be his until he begins law school in the fall. He found himself at his “Home of Record,” Abilene, Texas, occupying his old room, leafing through his English textbooks, and staring at his biography on the wall—diploma, commissioning certificate, proclamations, photographs from his Army football games. “I sit,” he wrote to me, “in a museum of myself in another life—THAT other life.”

The realization that he had left the Army “hit” Joel twice: once when he got his final goodbye gift and a handshake from the NCO with whom he had worked most closely; and again, weeks later, at a reception for prospective students at his law school. Having spent an inordinate amount of time figuring out what to wear, accustomed to being in rooms where, in important ways, everyone looked the same, he arrived to discover, “all at once I was decidedly an individual. … I could have shown up with a beard. I could have long hair and put my hands in my pockets. All the little things … added to a larger whole: you’re on your own now. … It was a very lonely morning.”

And so, it seemed entirely natural, to me anyway, that, before embracing this new life, Joel decided he needed to bicycle across the country with some friends who would understand all of this without ever having to say a word about it.

Coming home can make a soldier want to hit the road. Sometimes the goal is to return to war, but, more often, it is simply to keep moving, to embark on another journey. Popular culture tends to pathologize this instinct. Witness Martin Sheen’s demoralized Lieutenant Willard in the opening moments of Apocalypse Now, holed up in a Saigon hotel room, kissing with the end of a lit cigarette a photo of his wife and pondering the emptiness of home as the snapshot sizzles: “When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” It’s an old story of course. In antiquity, we find Homer’s Odysseus, who reaches home after a decade of war and another of wandering, returning to a difficult reunion with his family. Happiness is clouded by a prophecy: If Odysseus wants to die peacefully one day, an old man in his bed, he must embark on another trek to find a nation ignorant of the sea and, once there, bury an oar in tribute to Poseidon. Tennyson, perhaps unwilling to believe that the warrior-wanderer could bear the “still hearth” of home, provided a different ending to the story, one of perpetual adventure: “I am a part of all that I have met,” his Ulysses explains, “Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades / For ever and for ever when I move.”

This restlessness, the disconcerting sense that “here,” no matter the delight that homecoming brings, is not “there,” is something I’ve noticed even in the most well-adjusted soldiers. One of them, a former student now commanding a company in Afghanistan, where he spends his share of nights in a foxhole, captured the paradox this way: “I can’t decide if I want to live here and do this forever or leave and never come back.” On the other end of the spectrum, a veteran general told me that coming home, joyful as it is, nevertheless carries with it an enduring “sadness … in knowing that this was the most significant time of your life. And that’s not to denigrate marriage, or babies, or grandbabies, or events … but it is to say that one knows that you might never contribute fully like this again.”

In the New York City sports bar, as the national anthem blared from one of the televisions broadcasting the NBA Finals, Dan, Pete, and Joel looked at one another and smiled at their instinct, even here, to come to attention, as they have done automatically for so many years. When the singer concluded with a rousing, pre-game “Come on!” we all shrugged our shoulders, and Pete said, “Yeah, that’s the way I always remember it.”

Ulysses and his comrades set sail again because they could not bear to stay home. Joel, Dan, and Pete strike me as voyagers of a different kind. Their epic journey, bridging as it does the community of warriors they have left behind and the civilian society they are poised to join, seems, instead, a way of learning how to come home.

Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

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