Jacob Meeks

Coming Home, Part Two

Jacob Meeks describes “coming home” twice and the adjustment back to civilian life. Meeks shares insights into the anger he experiences while trying to connect with others who can’t understand what he and other veterans have been through.

[This is Part Two of Two. Read Part One here.]


“Coming home” a second time has been a trip. In late December 2015, I returned home to Portland, Oregon, after six years working outside the U.S. for a large, international humanitarian aid organization. My travels had taken me from a small bush border town in a contested area between Sudan and South Sudan during the birth of the latter nation to the capital cities of Jordan and Lebanon respectively as we worked on various support operations for programs focused on people displaced from Syria.

Returning home I thought I knew what to expect both on the inside and the outside since I’d already been through a similar process after the Army over a decade ago. I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. My head is a bit of a jumbled mess from time to time. It was far easier explaining “coming home” from the Army. I’ve had over a decade to reflect on that. Now, I’m still figuring things out.

Coming home during the heart of the election season didn’t help. I have not enjoyed listening to political rhetoric that tries to simplify complex problems into a few catchphrases. I’ve not enjoyed watching people demonize entire groups of other people so they could have some boogeyman to point at. My last job overseas involved working with a lot of Syrian individuals who had to flee their country and ended up being displaced.

I hear this rhetoric and …

I think of a man that ran a small aid organization remotely, who never slept, always looked like he needed more food, and would come up with these crazy organizational policies that he would plaster all over his walls.

I think of a woman, one of the bravest people I ever met, who would manage to get herself through some dangerous shit to reenter places she shouldn’t be so she could get people the aid they needed. She would do things that would make soldiers I know be like, Yup, you’re a badass, and you’ve got some serious guts.

I think of my dear friend who would always listen to my bullshit over a beer and empathize, never minding the fact that she had lost her country and was basically stuck in limbo unable to move from the country she was in due to documentation issues.

I could go on and on and on. I know people for days. A lot of these people are Muslim. I got at least ten Mohammads on the Facebook. Some people practice their religion, some don’t. So what? People are just people. Religion and nationality are just two factors in the overall complicated mess that is a human being. Again, so what?

I come back to America and I read things on Facebook or in the media that make blanket statements about 1.6 billion Muslims, or 6 million or so externally displaced Syrians. I read a lot of things from people I know, people I respect, and people I served with. I read these remarks, I get pissed off, really pissed off sometimes. I get pissed off because some people I know would simply quote a Breitbart article which has questionable facts and sources at best and hold that up as truth compared to years I’ve lived, people I know, books I’ve read, etc.

I have not enjoyed listening to political rhetoric that tries to simplify complex problems into a few catchphrases. I’ve not enjoyed watching people demonize entire groups of other people so they could have some boogeyman to point at.

I get into it with a few people I’ve served with. I can understand where they’re coming from in one sense, if your only interactions with the Arab world or a Muslim population was in a combat zone in Iraq, I can understand how your thinking might paint all people in a certain way. That is a very, very small piece of a much larger puzzle though; I’d like to prove it to you, but I don’t know where to begin breaking through that chain armor. Then again, I know a lot of veterans who have served in those same places and don’t hold those views.

I get upset because I see America arguing about whether to let Syrian refugees in in small numbers, whether 10,000 or 50,000, and people don’t conceptualize how small that is in a larger context of 6 million people, the clear majority of which are in neighboring Mideastern countries. I get mad because people seem to begin discussions from a place of fear and ignorance rather than a place of perspective, compassion, and strength. Then they get mad if I call them ignorant. Not sure what to do with that.

In the end, I’m disappointed. I think the world has a humanitarian imperative to assist people and alleviate suffering. I think we have an imperative to assist in smart, reasonable, and productive ways the countries that are inching towards famines right now (parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen). I think all this, not because I have some Western savior complex (which might be one of the stupidest things on the planet) but because I naively think we can and should help each other as human beings. And where people suffer the most, we should prioritize that help but do it in a smart way (which we haven’t really found on a holistic level yet).

I get upset sitting here in my decent apartment in the U.S., because I feel like we’re still swimming in this sea of ignorance about the world, each other, and ourselves and we don’t do enough to make things better for all of us together. A lot of the times we seem to make things worse, it’s frustrating.

That’s where I’m at in my travels. I’ve seen a bit. I’ve gone through experiences of hope and fear and disillusionment. I’ve been selfish. Maybe not selfish occasionally. I’ve definitely been angry. I’ve directed my anger towards others because of what I perceived as their ignorance. A lot of that anger is probably just anger at myself; for not being smart enough or figuring out ways to do things that make a difference while maximizing my own skills and admitting, and thereby lessening, my own ignorance.

Some days I feel like a hamster on a wheel, just running around and around, chasing my own tail without seeing forward progress. Some days I feel like a hamster in a maze, that while I hit bumps and turns I’m making progress towards completion; I’m just not sure which maze I’m in sometimes. Some days I just get off the maze and go seek out mind-numbing distraction. That gets old after a while.

Coming home this time has been a challenge. I’m still angry from time to time but much less pissed off than I use to be. I get pissed off at people because it feels like we jump to judge other people or groups that we don’t even know before we even look inside our own head and heart. I’m tired of working at things that I feel are ineffectual and that make me bored after a while.

I am grateful for the journey though and all the people that I met along the way. That’s been the most valuable part of my experience by far.

Now, I’m just looking for a mission. A real mission. A mission that has a clear, tangible, positive impact, that’s part of a larger set of goals that’s looking at the world through a lens of reality and not through all this political, biased, I-made-some-shit-up-on-the-internet nonsense. One that contributes to a more positive world.

Shit, man, I feel like humanity is behind the curve right now. We should be up exploring further into the stars, not getting into bullshit arguments that end in, Of course we can’t help a tenth of a percentage of a group of people that are going through more suffering than most right now. Or we’re stuck having conversations about, It’s the people over there’s fault, etc., etc. (which is not a uniquely American thing at all, that’s humanity, everybody does that).

Anyway, we’ll see where it all goes. Time to move on to a new chapter.




Jacob Meeks

Jacob Meeks is an aid worker, a leader, an operations professional, a complex problem solver, a veteran, and a writer. He has been working for the past seven years as a humanitarian in a variety of different locations from South Sudan to Lebanon. These experiences have afforded him a broader cultural look at the world and also offered a great many learning opportunities. Jake hopes to learn from these opportunities, stay involved in the humanitarian world, become more involved in the veteran’s world, and eventually become a writer in film, television, or another medium.

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