Editor's note: Army Lt. Matt Spartz, a lifelong Lombard resident, served a one-year tour that ended in May with the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan. From there, he provided reports for the Daily Herald on topics ranging from his own wounding to our troops' reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden. His final day on active duty is Saturday. Spartz is a 2008 journalism graduate of the University of Illinois.
Last Veterans Day my hands were shaky. I sat in the concrete cubicle that was my room, my oasis, under the sky-scraping Afghan mountains that our company was going to air-assault into during the coming pitch-black hours. I prayed this largest mission of our deployment would be uneventful.
My hands were shaky. I obsessively cleaned and loaded my M4 carbine ammunition, studied my maps and checked the batteries on my radios.
By the end of this mission, called Bulldog Bite, six of our brothers were killed and nearly 20 wounded, including myself.
Today, also Veterans Day, marks my final day on active duty, though it's technically an Army holiday. My final leave begins Saturday, and I will be separated from the Army on Dec. 1.
The dichotomy of these two days astounds me. A year ago my greatest concern was quite literally staying alive. A five-day air assault mission that involved resources from around the entire country, and a targeted bomb drop that I organized -- one that had to be signed off on by former Gen. David Petraeus himself -- may as well have been a Bruce Willis movie I fell asleep to on Netflix.
At home these past few months has been back to business-as-usual, and sometimes I forget I was ever even in the war.
A few nights ago I was driving down a narrow street, squinting through a dirty windshield to see the road. My eyes nervously scanned the cliffs buttressing our path. Suddenly there was a white trail of smoke darting from a house. It was too late. It sliced through my windshield and exploded in my face with a concussive BANG! That startled me awake at 2 a.m.
These dreams are now rare but sometimes seem to be the only thing that make my yearlong deployment seem real. Only intense experience could cause such a visceral reaction, I tell myself. Looking back at pictures and reading journal entries from last year may as well be the adventures of Huck Finn -- fiction, but familiar.
And if you can believe it, life has gotten much more complicated. Some returning veterans have trouble coping with the mundane mediocrity of finding parking spaces in crowded malls, keeping up with grocery lists and abstract political debates. My girlfriend, Brittany, has effectively become my post-traumatic stress-o-meter, venting my anger at simple problems upward and not outward.
My current stress is now job interviews, relearning business professional matters and wondering what people do on dark fall mornings when you aren't expected to run until your eyes water, lungs burn and fingers freeze.
War is easy. Wake up, eat, walk, shoot, sleep. Repeat.
After our deployment, and during the readjustment period of last summer, it seemed like I had to run away from the noncombat garrison Army and away from the newly complicated civilian world. I wanted to finally live close to Brittany and find meaning in a nonviolent world. I'd given the Army everything I had on as many days as I could; I ran through a piece of broken bone in my foot, narrowly escaped the shrapnel that ripped a speck of flesh from my arm, the memories of brotherhood lost now a sullen hole in my heart.
Every vet has a life after the Army, and so begins mine. I leave the Army with a smile on my face, knowing it was and will be something I wanted to do in my life, but not for my entire life. The important thing for every separating veteran should be how to revive and appreciate the memories of our service, recognize those who are currently forging their paths, and to serve and strengthen our civilian communities.
But most of all, we honor our fallen brothers. To those I've served with: It has been an honor and my greatest pleasure. To those we've lost: You'll never be forgotten.