Reflections from conflicts past: No PTSD, but returning can still be a challenge

Alison Brody
Public Insight Network
US Army 1st Lt. Zack Geneseo on a humanitarian aid drop in Baghdad.

1st Lt. Zack Geneseo on a humanitarian aid drop in Baghdad during his service in the Army. (Photo shared by Zack Geneseo)

Editor’s note: This is the second post in our series on veterans, reintegration and mental health.

One thing Zack Geneseo wants people to know is that not all veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are crippled by their experience.

“Sometimes I think people are surprised that I’m not an alcoholic, covered in tattoos, self-medicating for PTSD, living on the streets,” he says.

Geneseo joined the Army in March 2005. Now a captain in the Army Reserve, he spent much of 2010 and 2011 in Iraq.

Geneseo recently received his law degree from Boston University. He hopes to work in criminal law some day, but with the poor hiring climate in the legal field these days, he says he’ll take what he can get.

Despite his own successes with returning to life after war, Geneseo says he sympathizes with those veterans who have been unable to put the war behind them. He admits that he, too, struggled psychologically and emotionally when he first returned from active duty.

“No matter how many times the Army told me that people have a hard time adjusting, I thought – I knew – that it wasn’t going to happen to me, that I would be just fine because I’m so self-aware,” he says. “I couldn’t have been more naive.”

Geneseo says that, from the outside, it might have seemed as though he made the transition from combat zone to law school seamlessly, but from his perspective, the war left its mark. He remained in a state of hyper-vigilance after his return, a common experience among veterans. He misread audio and visual cues, momentarily mistaking city sounds for alarms and gunfire. But, more than anything else, Geneseo says he felt disconnected.

“I came back to a place where I was thrilled at the abundance of food in a grocery store and relatively mild temperatures.” Yet, he says, he felt a sense of isolation. “You go from spending 24/7 with people who have very similar experiences to you while surrounded by unfriendly, if not hostile people, to being surrounded by friendly people, but you find yourself alone,” he says. “It’s a level of seclusion that feels very strong.”

He was easily annoyed by those around him who seemed unappreciative of all that they had. “People were so closed off to what other people experience in this world that they had the audacity to complain about the smallest insignificant things, like humidity and traffic.”

He received the advice that letting people in and sharing his experiences would help, but Geneseo didn’t find that comforting.

Now, almost two years later, Geneseo says he’s feeling better. He no longer hears phantom gunfire in the streets of his hometown and his sense of isolation is not as intense. “I do have the same thoughts about people here not appreciating what they have,” he says, “but I just don’t get upset about it.”

Are you a veteran with a story to share about how you have – or haven’t – been able to move on from war? Share it here.



Alison Brody Analyst
Public Insight Network

Alison Brody spends her day surrounded by stories from people all across the country. She works with journalists from newsrooms like NPR and The New York Times to help turn these insights into meaningful journalism (i.e., not from a press release or a political speech).

Before joining the PIN team, Alison worked as a PIN analyst at the public radio show Marketplace. For two years she asked questions about credit card debt, employment, unemployment and health insurance. She's also worked at Los Angeles’ public television station, where she helped produce an international news pilot and a digital prototype that was half game, half social network, aimed at teaching students about the U.S. Constitution.