For Veterans, A 'Sense Of Purpose' Hard To Find In Life After Iraq
MATT SHERMAN: I thought that I was only going to go out there for six months, so it was a real kind of roll of the dice in the sense that I'd be giving up a very comfortable career. But I wanted to take part in something.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That's the voice of Matt Sherman, and he took part in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sherman is one of thousands of civilian advisers and contractors who worked alongside members of the American military and diplomatic corps. More contractors have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than service members. Sherman worked in each country twice and ended up spending most of the past 13 years in those two places, putting him way to the right on the bell curve of Americans who've served in our two long wars, military or otherwise.
SHERMAN: Even though these sorts of tours are very challenging and very disappointing at times, they also give a great sense of purpose that is really difficult to duplicate elsewhere.
MARTIN: Now he's back in the U.S. trying to find purpose in life outside the war zone. Matt Sherman is our Sunday Conversation.
SHERMAN: I had just completed law school and needed to pay off some bills. And so I went to a law firm, and it was fine. But at that time, in that immediate post-9/11 environment, there was lots of activities that were going on, actions in Afghanistan. Then there was Iraq. And I was reached out from some former colleagues if I'd be interested in going there. And I thought it would be a change and fitting for my educational background and, in some part, a professional background.
MARTIN: In the profile that was done of you in The Washington Post, there was a little blurb in there that said that you appreciated the simplicity of life in war zones. Can you tell me what that means?
SHERMAN: It allowed me - and allows many others, civilian and military - to focus on the work at hand. My commute every day was about a minute from my hooch to the office.
MARTIN: The hooch is, like, the container where you lived.
SHERMAN: The container that I lived, right. And so as a result, I was able to fully immerse myself into my work. That was another thing that kind of fed into the sense of purpose, the sense of mission, because you're able to kind of fully dedicate yourself to it.
MARTIN: When did the sheen of all of it start to wear off - I imagine it did - when it stopped being such an adventure and so new, when the severity of the war and what you were witnessing really started to hit home for you?
SHERMAN: There were - a close friend of mine, colleague, who was shot early on - about three months into the tour, four months into the tour - and that really - that really hit home personally.
MARTIN: Shot how?
SHERMAN: He was ambushed in Baghdad and shot, I believe, five or six times. He - miraculously, another Iraqi picked him up and brought him into the green zone and the hospital. And he was near death. We all thought he was going to die, but he was able to recover over a series of years, actually. And it really impacted me a lot.
MARTIN: Did anyone accuse you of being an adrenaline junkie?
SHERMAN: I actually don't agree with that at all. That's not what this is about. And I - people have said that. What I do see is that...
MARTIN: ...Why do you have the reaction to that?
SHERMAN: Because it's not an adrenaline thing. It's a sense of purpose thing for me. You're part of something that's much larger than yourself. You work with colleagues that put their all into something. You have people who - whose lives are being impacted for better and for worse.
MARTIN: I guess where I would push back a little bit is - because it's about life and death, right? - that they're married somehow, this idea of having purpose but the purpose is so meaningful because the stakes are so high.
SHERMAN: The stakes certainly are high. But at least from my personal perspective, it was a sense of purpose and a sense of mission that really drove me and made me kind of continue and return to these sort of things. And while it's been difficult to kind of step back and decide, OK, I'm going to move on, I'm also very much looking forward to the next chapter of my life.
MARTIN: You have devoted so much of your professional life and your life generally to these wars, these places. And Iraq and Afghanistan - when you say those words to a lot of people today, Americans' eyes glaze over. There is so much fatigue. What is that like for you, having poured so much of yourself into these conflicts for so long?
SHERMAN: Well, I'm mentally proud of the work I've done. And even though these endeavors have been immensely costly to so many people, I'm proud of the work that I've done.
MARTIN: Are you hesitant that you won't find anything that will ever compare, that will never give you the sense of purpose?
SHERMAN: What I've learned is that you can't equate those two things. You've got to be able to separate them. The time that I had in Iraq was the time I had in Iraq. The time I had in Afghanistan was the time I had there. And I've got to look at the next phase as the next phase and the next chapter of my life.
MARTIN: Matt Sherman. He just wrapped up more than a decade serving as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thanks so much for talking with us, Matt.
SHERMAN: Thank you.
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