The gunner on the convoy was following guidelines when he fired his machine gun at a car speeding toward the U.S. Forward Operating Base at Spin Boldak in Afghanistan. Joseph Mah, who was near the convoy at the time, watched the unidentified car stop as frantic voices on his radio blared.
The gunner misperceived the threat — the car was full of rowdy civilians who were on their way to a wedding, but they would not live to see the ceremony. The bullets killed them instantly.
Now, four years later, Mah sits on a grey couch in his cozy North Portland home with his wife of almost four years curled up next to him. The 28-year-old is now a junior at the University of Portland, but he still talks about his time in Afghanistan in present tense. He sits in classrooms with students who will likely never see the things he’s seen.
According to the , at least 20 percent of the 1.64 million veterans who served active duty in combat zones in Iraq or Afghanistan return with mental health problems. Mah is one of them. The organizational communications major suffers from social anxiety disorder, but many would never know that about the big, burly, bearded man sitting next to them in class.
When he does open up about who he is, in the classroom or in other settings, he feels like he is lumped into one of two categories. He said people either assume he is a washed-up, former Captain America, or a shell-shocked, unfortunate wreck. The truth is, Mah is neither. And he struggles to combat the stereotypes that come along with being a war veteran.
Thank You For Your Service
Despite the frustration that the stereotypes and assumptions cause him, he understands why they exist. Most civilians learn what they know about military life from movies and television, which Mah said often greatly misrepresent what life as a serviceman is actually like.
This is a big part of why he feels so uncomfortable when people walk up to him and say, “Thank you for your service.”
Often when he has these interactions, he feels compelled to fire back with “Well, thank you for paying your taxes.” It’s frustrating, he said, because he can’t imagine that most people know what they’re thanking him for.
Mah said people tend to tune out after they hear him say the word “veteran”. They think they know his story, as if every combat zone deployment experience is the same homogenous war movie. But in reality, everyone’s experience is different, he said.
“(War is) something other people can know about, but not really unless they’ve experienced it,” Mah said.
Mah enlisted in the military after a short experiment with island life — he’d been doing work-trade farming in Maui, Hawaii, but soon realized that he’d come down with Island Fever. He walked into an Army recruiting office: “Sign me up! Get me off this island!”
He enlisted with deferred entry and flew home to spend time with his family before heading off to basic training in May 2011.
After six short months, the self-identified ‘wanderer’ crossed the country to attend basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He trained as a water treatment specialist, only to find out shortly after completing basic training that that position was eliminated. He served as the utility guy in Fort Lee, Virginia, and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, before his time for deployment came. He was restless.
“You felt like you were on the bench until you were deployed,” Mah explained. “This is what you were trained to do— you wanted to go do your job.”
The Pacific Northwest native was in for a surprise when he landed in Afghanistan. The dry, desolate desert was unlike anything he’d seen before —The infertile soil bore no resemblance to the lush, green surroundings he’d grown so used to at home in Washington. The only sign of non-human life was camel spiders that were “the size of a dinner plate”. The creepy arachnids hid in the shadows, and would scare grown men so badly they’d jump.
He was deployed to Spin Boldak, Afghanistan in Jan. 2013, and stationed in a small base 80 kilometers south of Kandahar, just west of the Pakistan border.
It wasn’t glamourous. It was lonely — he grew acquainted with some of the people in Spin Boldak, but still, it was very difficult.
“It was long stretches of boring broken up by short excitement,” he said.
It wasn’t like the movies, Mah explained. “Traditional war isn’t fought like that.”
One day while in Afghanistan, Mah received a package from his grandfather. It contained letters his great-grandfather had exchanged with his great uncle during his World War I deployment.
The 1917 correspondence between the Canadian solider and his brother was set in a totally different world, and yet, the narrative made sense to Mah.
“I’d be like flipping through and they’d be talking about how they’re taking vacation from the front to go to wine country in France or how they’re picking lice out of their bedding— it was very different, but the tone of the narrative just really resonated with me,” Mah said. “Being a soldier, no matter where you are or what era, it’s very similar in experience I think.”
After returning from deployment, Mah served one more year on Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and was soon done with the active duty time requirement on his contract. His contract, which was for eight years, will be up at the end of 2018. Until then, he could still technically be deployed should the U.S. go to war. But it’s very unlikely, he said, and this possibility does not cause him to worry.
Still, upon release from active duty, The military provides a regimented lifestyle, a sense of purpose, and an irreplaceable camaraderie. When all of these things suddenly vanish, many find it difficult to self-direct, and lack a sense of purpose.
“When you’re a soldier, you have a defined purpose. But when that is taken away from you, what are you?”
Mah explained that this abrupt transition often ushers in mental health struggles for floundering veterans. For him, it’s been a battle with social anxiety disorder.
According to the , this disorder manifests itself in many veterans, and “the anxiety is strong and long-lasting and gets in the way of them doing things they want to do, especially when they avoid social situations that cause them to feel uncomfortable.”
“Joe doesn’t have full PTSD, but he would have these anxiety episodes where he would lash out emotionally or have panic moments,” Kanaeholo said, reflecting on the first few years after Mah returned from deployment. “Once he started getting involved in things and found a focus of where he wanted to be, I’ve seen a huge shift in how he deals with things, and how he interacts with people.”
Mah found the support he needed in the , an organization that provides free health and wellness services to Oregon veterans, and in the , a program that was developed through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that funds education or vocational training for veterans deemed disabled after returning from combat.
It is because of this program that Mah is able to fund his education at the University of Portland, an institution he chose because of the small class sizes and the close proximity to his North Portland home, both of which ease his social anxiety.
He hadn’t expected much when he accepted an invitation from an old friend to take a spontaneous road trip and see Portugal The Man, a band they’d both liked, just days after returning from his deployment. He had saved up almost $27,000 and he craved anything normal after living on what felt like another planet for nine months.
He hadn’t expected much, and he definitely hadn’t expected to meet his future wife. But he did.
When the music proved too loud, and the crowd too wild, Mah stepped outside to get some air. Craving a smoke, but finding his pockets empty, he approached two women and bummed a cigarette off them. One of them was Kanaeholo.
They spent only that evening together — Mah offered to buy her and her friend a drink in exchange for the cigarette, and they danced and bar-hopped the night away. Kanaeholo had had fun, but still declined when Mah asked her last name and phone number, knowing he would soon return to his military base across the country. But when she woke up the next morning, she’d changed her mind. She called the hotel she knew Mah was staying at, and left her name and number.
Mah was headed back to Seattle the next day, and soon back to Fort Campbell in Kentucky. But they spoke day in and day out, without fail, for exactly two months.
“Every second I had I’d pick up the phone and we’d be talking,” Mah said.
The next time he saw her was Dec. 23 — the eve of their wedding.
“I lied to my folks and told them I couldn’t make it back for Christmas,” Mah said, explaining that although his parents were used to their son making drastic decisions, they weren’t ready for the shock of a surprise wedding.
Mah and Kanaeholo were married on Christmas Eve 2013, on the third day they’d ever seen each other in person, at . (Although they did not make use of the drive-thru for their nuptials.) Mah smiles when he flips through their dusty wedding album that Kanaeholo jokingly calls their “white trash wedding album.” She wore a black dress and a custom-made headpiece, and Mah had dressed up in his formal military uniform. It was not a traditional ceremony, but they are not a traditional couple.
“We just kind of winged it,” Mah said. “We’d only met each other that one night.”
After nine months on what he said felt like another planet, it was something different for Mah to be a husband.
“She had nothing to do with the military — things just came together that way,” Mah said. “She liked me for me.”
As for the future, Mah plans to graduate in May 2019, and said he and Kanaeholo may move to the Oregon Coast so that she can pursue an education in marine biology. As long as they bring their three cats, Ernie, Eddie and Kwitten, Mah is willing to move.
“I’d be happy being a bartender-fisherman out on the coast,” Mah said, laughing. “But I also wouldn’t mind making more money, so we’ll see.”
He and his wife live in a small, North Portland home with a big grey couch, homemade curtains, Kanaeholo’s art collection on display and seasonal candles burning. They still live with a roommate, the friend Kanaeholo was with the night she met Mah for the first time.
He’s not a normal guy, and he’s definitely not a normal UP student. He never will be.
The day he decided to enlist, and the years that have followed, have changed his life. He is a completely different man than he was when he suited up for the first time.
“Before I was a little selfish and entitled and I just wanted to do my own thing,” Mah said, looking back. “I just didn’t have that same level of investment, which I think has changed a lot with the military.”
“I’m a lot more awake now.”
As Veterans Day approaches, he knows he’ll see dozens of “Thank you for your service” messages on social media, and boasting discounts or free entrees at chain restaurants. He knows that many of them will come from well intentioned people who have never seen the giant camel spiders in the Afghanistan desert, who have never watched anyone die, who have never been presented with the sinking feeling of coming home and feeling aimless after the structure of battle is done.
But all that’s ok with Mah. As he sits sipping beer with his wife, snuggling with his cats, he finds himself somewhere in the middle — not quite a soldier anymore, but not quite a college student either. He knows that his time in Afghanistan will never leave him, but he’s grateful for his life now.
This story was first published here: http://www.upbeacon.com/article/2017/11/a-veterans-journey-combat-to-classroom