Sometimes it seems like life is a series of costume changes.
After leaving active duty in 2010, I remained a Navy Reservist. Last May I was picked for an Involuntary Mobilization to the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Resolute Support. That November I was ordered to say goodbye to my family, leave my job, and put the rest of my normal life on hold.
I had to set aside many roles – Erik, father, husband, developer, writer, @themindfulbit, podcaster, civilian. In their place I put on a set of very different, somewhat ill-fitting, but not entirely unfamiliar masks: CDR Erik “Burns” Hess, naval aviator, Tomcat guy. I added a new one as well: Chief of Combat Operations at the Combined Air Operations Center, Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
I wore those masks for most of a year. They grew more comfortable over time, even if they never quite fit me as well as they fit the capable folks around me. Yesterday, with the stroke of a pen, I was finally able to take off those masks and return to my old life. Like the civilian clothes I’d left behind, many of my previous costumes fit differently now, both comfortable and unfamiliar. Like a time traveler, I’ve returned home to find much that has changed. The things I used to do for my family and my job are done by others now. Where I was essential, I am now warmly welcomed but also a bit in the way.
It’s joyous to return home after a long deployment but more than a little disorienting. I don’t remember homecoming being this bewildering when I was on active duty, but that was before I had a wife and son, and when deployments were part of my regular military existence. On active duty we deploy with our whole unit, which means keeping nearly all our work, social, and support networks through the transition out and back. Not so as a reservist.
This perceptive dissonance is to be expected, of course. Even without a military deployment we all struggle to integrate the new and the old into that part of us which endures and evolves beneath all those costume changes. Still, it’s a reminder that many of the things we take for granted about ourselves, the people, and the world around us aren’t as permanent or inherent as we think they are.
Change happens all around us, all the time, but it’s usually so gradual that we don’t notice. Step away for a little while, change your costume, and you see it all at once.