When I think back on my time in Afghanistan, I don’t remember being stressed. I remember fear, occasionally, when shit felt like it was out of control or something loud and sudden caught you by surprise, but not stress, not the way I’ve felt it at desk jobs when orders start to fall behind. Not like the stress I feel about choices for my kid, because we’ll give her anxiety or she’ll get sucked into a cell phone screen and be lost forever. Never had stress like that in 100 days at COP Eredvi. But still, when I got home, my hair started falling out in clumps. First, there were little bald spots in my beard, which I’ve been shaving since the 6th grade. Then, my wife noticed a bald patch on the top of my head the size of a goddamn quarter while we were on a sailing vacation (instructions for how to transition from Afghanistan to a sailing vacation do not exist yet, but when they do, the title should read: “Turning Third World Problems into First World Problems in One Week or Less” or “Coming Home, for White People“). A second spot appeared a week later and I figured I should get it looked at in case it was burn pit cancer or something more serious, like male pattern baldness. Web-MD told me it was textbook stress-induced alopecia, for which a google-search returned a bunch of eyebrow-less smiling faces, and I got worried. But when I saw the doc, she just injected some steroids into the bald spots and sent me on my way. The hair grew back pretty fast, problem solved. Why worry about the means when the ends can be medicated away in a hurry?
The means were there though, buried deep and tucked away. Because I didn’t actually feel the stress in country, I was left to wonder about the cause. Had it been the combat itself, or the waiting? Had it been our Georgian counterparts, who we patrolled with on a daily basis despite their limited skill set, language barriers, and dangerously quick trigger fingers? I wondered if it was something specific or more generic, just the nature of being far outside the gates we build around ourselves at home. The drugs worked though, and vanity seemed like a more manageable issue than compartmentalized stress. On the scale of possible post deployment issues, temporary hair loss barely charted.
Soon, I came to understand that it wasn’t the war at all, but rather coming home and knowing it was over. That particular brand of insta-tribe that forms in COPs, FOBs and Patrol Bases around the conflict zones of the world had disbanded. We had to start anew in places where the stakes were lower, gates were higher, and the formation of friendship, purpose, and love moves on a slower plane of time. In these circumstances, a blank slate can seem more dangerous than a bomb, and it was this existential threat that had sent small handfuls of hair cascading into shower drains or left behind on the bed. But the drugs did work, and I set about reimagining my life as a veteran with eyebrows and a full head of hair.