05/08/2013 12:53 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2013

When the War Comes Home

The 10th anniversary of the Iraq War's beginning hit me a week late. The week of, I was so busy with a flurry of activities that the date didn't even register. Leading up to it, I'd written a couple of pieces about the upcoming milestone, so when it came and went with barely a blip on my emotional radar, I assumed all was well -- actually congratulated myself on how well I'd processed everything.

The photo of a crying 5-year-old Iraqi girl in a collection of photos from the war is what wrecked me. She is splattered with blood because Americans had just killed both her parents when they accidentally drove too close to one of our checkpoints. Killed them right in front of her and paralyzed her 10-year-old brother from the waist down. In the picture, she is wailing, her face a rictus of agony, and it is awful.

They're inconceivably horrible, the things we did.The children we killed, all of them were born, snuggled, held, prayed over, loved. The parents we killed, all of them once babies themselves, all of them leaving behind grief-stricken children.

For years after the war, I threw myself into busyness: caring for my wounded husband, school, work, EMT classes, parenting, advocacy on behalf of my fellow veterans. I distanced myself from the war itself and its aftermath with the antiseptic clarity of numbers, facts, figures. It's easier to discuss what percentage of troops sustained traumatic brain injuries or developed post traumatic stress than delve into their messy lives. Cleaner to talk about international relations theory and regional stability and the future of democracy than dead children.

If you're too busy to think, you can't feel.

My own symptoms of post traumatic stress had faded within six months or so of coming home, and I was relieved. That's normal. They hadn't persisted, taken over my life, drifted dangerously into disorder. I'd experienced growth, developed greater appreciation and perspective. I'd talked about my worst experiences. I was good.

Then came my delayed reaction to a 10-year passage of time from the day I drove over the berm into Iraq as a soldier, sparked by that photo, and it all washed away. I was driven to the floor, clutching my knees, crying in great gulping wracking sobs that made the dog pace nervously around me. Weeping with guilt and rage.

I can give you lots of reasons I don't engage those emotions. Pretty palliative excuses about self-care and the good work I am doing and how everyone has important roles to play.

But the truth is uglier: cowardice.

Fear that if I let the emotions come, they will drown me. Terror that if I start to cry I, will never stop. Nervousness that if I acknowledge my culpability, I will have an obligation to act. And I'm not ready to delve that deep, take those risks.

Maybe at the 20-year anniversary.

But not now.

I have to keep busy.