It was supposed to be a routine patrol. Two hours up a main road and back to the base on a relatively light day in a week filled with roadside bomb attacks, sniper fire, and house-to-house fighting northeast of Baghdad. My buddy Steve and I just had to make it through the day so we could go on leave to Europe. We had been deployed nearly ten months already, and it only became more dangerous as the days ticked off the calendar. I was daydreaming about the girls in Parisian cafes when a deep-buried IED destroyed a vehicle in our company in an ambush. The ensuing firefight and evacuation kept us out until the evening, and Steve and I missed the bird to Kuwait. Europe might as well have been on Mars.

My mind was nearly turned sideways with the rigors of our deployment. I had forgotten how to communicate with society outside the context of an infantry platoon and knew I couldn’t go from a battlefield to my mom’s kitchen table the next day, only to end up back in combat. My friends who went on leave told me about the questions they got, like “Did you kill someone?” and “Why are we really there?” I was revolted at the prospect of dealing with that. I had to get my head back on straight somewhere far from home.

Even though I’ve been home for a few years, I still deal with the effect of the war. Sometimes I need to put distance between me and everyday life. In Iraq that meant raids and firefights. Back here it’s the lifelong process of integration coupled with a challenging job and school quickly approaching. Just like on leave to Europe, I had to get away from it all, and it did great things for me. If you haven’t tried it before, it too could help ease your mind.

Getting away from routine

Last month, with leftover money I still had saved up from my deployment, I left the office for the bustling city of Quito and the jungles of eastern Ecuador. I had never been south of Florida, speak only broken Spanish, and didn’t know a thing about the country. And it was exactly what I needed to clear my head before jumping back into work this summer and school later this fall. It’s the disruption of routine that allowed me to come back with a fresh perspective on what matters. Travel provides both a physical and mental distance from priorities–a job, school, and family–after a military career. That distance can help prioritize what you need to accomplish when you return home. And kicking back at the beach or exploring another continent offers ways to decompress unique from simply leaving town or visiting another state.

For many, a first chance

A majority of service members leave after their first enlistment. Many are young and likely had at least one deployment (and hopefully some money saved). The time between the military and school or a first job is a great window to do something completely different that might not be possible down the line. In my case, I don’t have a wife or kids, and school hasn’t started yet. In just a few years, my circumstances may change. It’s important to keep that in mind so you can take advantages of opportunities to pick up and leave. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.

Learn how to embrace change

We spend relatively short periods of time deployed–six months, a year, one tour or perhaps more–but the rest of our lives are spent coming home. Readjustment is just that; a challenge to deal with the things that have changed since going to war. As we’ve said before, the sizable gap between civilians and Veterans can make the transition difficult. Time spent abroad can help develop skills necessary to make it back home. Everything from currency to food to language and culture is a completely different experience, depending on where you go.

My time in Ecuador felt like my first two weeks back home after Iraq; both were strange places full of people I did not understand. But I adapted the best I could, learned the customs and watched how people interacted with each other. After a few days I bartered in markets and jumped off moving buses. The same type of observation is just as necessary when you re-enter the civilian world, where people don’t speak in acronyms or follow a military regimen. Just like being swallowed up in an unfamiliar country, it takes time to make the pieces fit together.

Your best qualities at work

Most Veterans I know started in the military when they were young, or had careers well before. They’re usually self-sustaining problem solvers, but those skills may have been lost since leaving the military. I wrangled carts in a parking lot for a year after the Army, and it wasn’t exactly an environment where I could thrive intellectually. But once I gathered my senses in Quito, I developed plans to head into unfamiliar (and sometimes dangerous) places and lead groups of fellow tourists, armed only with a map. It was a surprising place to hone skills that have been packed away, and it felt oddly familiar. Brian Turner, an infantryman-turned poet, recently traveled to Baghdad as a tourist for National Geographic. He too reflexively tapped into dormant survival skills.

It’s a blast

Finally, the most obvious reason to travel: It’s simply fun to see and do things you can’t get back home. Nothing could have prepared me for a hike to 5,000 meters up an active volcano, or a stroll through a humid jungle at night. Though many Veterans might have deployed anywhere in the world, there’s still a lot to experience out there. And the best part? Unless you take a summer vacation to Juarez, no one is trying to shoot you.

It may be challenging to take a trip anywhere past your state border. Money, jobs and families are obligations that can often impede a luxury like travel. But if the opportunity comes up, it’s wise to take advantage of it, or pretty soon you might be old and gray and wishing you would’ve taken a chance to see other side of the globe. And it’s a chance like no other to get away from the sometimes overwhelming difficulties of life after the service.

Just make sure you have a passport before you start.

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Published on Jul. 19, 2011

Estimated reading time is 5.5 min.

Views to date: 237


  1. Maverik Lacrosse Gloves January 20, 2012 at 11:58 am

    Opposing Views…

    …Considering other viewpoints is important for the creative process……

  2. Charles T. Cauthen August 5, 2011 at 5:09 am

    Vets with PTSD, something to look out for! There are 4 PTSD questions that are now asked by nurses at your PCP. You probably want be asked these 4 questions. The nurse will answer no for you.It just happened to me. I got my records and saw this and confronted the nurse in a nice way, she stated she was very busy and didn’t have time for this. The VA will not make changes to your health records, I’ve tried. You have to see an advocate or health care offical and demand an ammendment,if you don’t, it will most likely be used against your PTSD claim. The war with health care goes on and on. As a combat soldier in Vietnam I fought for mine and my brothers lives. It’s ashame, I now have to engage VA health care in a war for my life again.

    Charles T. Cauthen

  3. Pattie Matheson July 21, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    “…the rest of our lives are spent coming home…” There’s the Alex I remember from your blog :)

    I think Mr Kelley missed your point, but he clearly has other things on his mind.

    As an aside: the theory also works for tired, over-stressed civilians. Just returned from trip to Alaska. I love to see truly wild places :)

  4. brenda hayes July 20, 2011 at 2:24 pm


    The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. is adamantly opposed to an amendment proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to change the manner in which presumptive disabilities related to exposure to Agent Orange would be determined. The senator wants to require veterans to prove a positive connection between Agent Orange exposure and one or more of the 15 presumptive illnesses that the VA now recognizes. We cannot allow this amendment to pass.
    Vietnam veterans have suffered long enough from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange. For decades we told the government that being exposed to Agent Orange made veterans sick. Now that the VA Secretary has determined he had the scientific evidence required to recognize the disabilities, we cannot allow a change in presumptive rules just because the government can’t balance its own budget.
    The cost of caring for our nation’s veterans continues long after the last shots are fired. America and the United States Congress must live up to that obligation.
    Please contact both your U.S. Senators today and tell them that Coburn Amendment #564 to H.R. 2055 is a deal breaker with America’s veterans.

  5. Jack Kelley July 20, 2011 at 12:11 am


    Last article on claims, claims processing was in December of last year. It got 133 comments.
    But it seems any articles about Adjudication generate too much heat here at the VA Happy Blog.

    It seems like the VA is hiding from it’s critics, unhappy Veterans.

    Above article is fine, I would have liked to travel after Nam, but it took a year in Philadelphia Naval Hospital to put me back together. After that I just wanted to go home.

    Try dealing with our complaints sometime more than once a year instead of the “Happy Talk” and boasts of improved service.

    • Alex Horton July 21, 2011 at 9:06 am

      Hey Jack, there are plans for blog posts on the claims process and backlog. We know it’s something folks want to hear about.

  6. Carla Felsted July 19, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    Very eloquently written, Alex. It’s good advice to those in active duty or in transition to civilian life. And, actually to civilians of all ages to find those opportunities to explore, to learn and to recharge physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual batteries.

  7. sgtjosh July 19, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    I needed this… Thanks a lot.

    I hear the Appalachian Trail calling my name.

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