Advice About the End of the Pandemic, From a Combat Veteran | Opinion

Someday, maybe soon, this will all be over. Things will start to get back to a kind of "normal," whatever that may look like, and lives will begin to pick up where they might have left off. At least, that's what many are hoping for.

As a former soldier, someone who has deployed for a long stretch of time away from home, and as a combat veteran, I think I have a few things you may want to know about what comes next.

You see, to a degree, we have all been living a bit of a deployed life since those hectic days in March 2020. We've all likely developed some fantasies about what the end of the pandemic will be like as well. To me, this feels eerily similar to counting the last days of a deployment.

Though it still may be quite some time before this is over, with vaccination efforts ramping up and some other positive signs, many will be starting to feel like they are "getting short." That's a phrase deployed troops use as their year in combat winds to a close. They start making jokes to relieve the pressure of those anxious days. How long have you got left? Me? Oh, I'm so short I've gotta use a step stool to pet a grasshopper. I didn't say these were good jokes, just something of a tradition.

Still, "short" is a phase most soldiers can tell you about. The army brass can tell you about it as well. Leadership knows the most dangerous phases for a unit are when it first arrives and learns its job—and the last months, weeks, and days in the combat zone. During those times, all the troops can think about is what they will do next and the homecoming party they're going to throw. Your head is just not in the game. And the consequences can be disastrous.

Sound familiar? It's the same danger zones of the early pandemic (Where do I get a mask? Do I need to wash my groceries?) and now the end (I'll just go see these few friends. Lockdown was lifted and I haven't seen anyone in months.)

While that last phase of a high-tempo life in danger certainly has its risks, what comes next also demands consideration. People all around the globe are experiencing some of the most stressful months of their lives. Many are pushing on by bottling up emotions, ignoring problems, and sidelining unsolvable issues that will all come due when this is over. As many soldiers can tell you from sad experiences with the onset of PTSD, those things aren't gone. They're just sort of waiting their turn.

Some of these delayed reckonings are structural. Rent payments, overdue utility bills, deferred student loans—all of these mental, social, and financial burdens will have their day and it will seriously impact our hopes for a return to "normal" long after the virus has receded.

Chad Gibbs
The author during a tour of duty in Iraq

Remembering my own return from war and the homecomings of my friends in the service, I just hope to temper expectations of what comes next. The return to the everyday will also come with hopes for renewed social lives, time with family, work back among our peers, and a host of other things that are going to require the exercise of some muscles that may have atrophied over the last year.

If you're in medicine or a frontline worker, you may dream of lighter days and some well-deserved gratitude. You might be thinking about trips you'd like to take, vacations, conversations with people outside your bubble or profession and just generally reaping the rewards of a job well done.

You deserve it. Whether you are a delivery driver, a nurse, or a grocery stocker, or a teacher, you've done the time and kept us all going and alive.

For others, the challenge hasn't been so acute. They've worked from home, relied on those lauded frontline workers, and quietly done their part by doing very little of what used to be normal life. For retirees, this might have been the most isolated time in their entire lives.

To everyone in any of these groups though, I want to say be careful with what comes next.

When troops get home—if they safely made it through being short—they rarely find exactly what they'd hoped for. They also sometimes let out too much pent-up steam and the desire to live the lives they've missed out on all at once. Dashed hopes can be just as dangerous as the late, unfocused days in combat. Soldiers hop on their motorcycles and go too fast, they go to bars and have too much, they drop back into paused social lives and burn through bridges faster than the 2020 wildfire season.

I've lost friends to all these things—sometimes relationships lost, sometimes lives lost. There are cautionary tales for us today in all the problems of returning home from war.

Having made my own mistakes and had the time to think about those of others getting back from combat, here's a few things to think about:

First, don't build it up. Try to approach the return to normal as if it is just another day. Give yourself some time when it hits. Don't try to do everything and see everyone all at once. Keep in mind the fact that your friends and family will be approaching the same issues as you but they might not be on the same timeline.

If a friend is also a nurse, maybe their hospital slowed down before or after yours. If a neighbor is a retiree, maybe their family received vaccinations before or after yours. Anything can make the timing go wrong.

You and your friends may not see each other right away. When you do, things might be very different. Relationships will be changed; you no longer have the same shared experiences you once did. On top of that, some may be out there living like there's no tomorrow.

The best thing to do is take it slow. Don't take all the invites at once and don't expect a parade for your efforts or your reappearance in the lives of others you've been missing.

Above all, remember that there will be people out there whose homecoming and celebration will never come.

We're on the cusp of losing as many American lives to this pandemic as we did in the entire Second World War. Think about all the families that did not go to tickertape parades because the loved one they were waiting for never came home. Keep those heartbroken friends close and help them with their delayed reckonings as you celebrate your luck, pluck, and return to everyday living.

All in all, the best caution a soldier can give is to put one foot in front of the other and keep your expectations in check. We'll all go through this together, though it will be different for everyone. The worst thing you can do is let yourself down and ruin the joy of a return to what you've missed by painting a picture in your mind that reality can't deliver.

Take it easy, take care of each other, and take it as it comes.

Chad S.A. Gibbs served in the US Army from 2002-2009, including deployment to Iraq. He is currently a PhD candidate in the history of the Holocaust at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He tweets at @Chad_G101.

The views in this article are the writer's own.