I had no idea how much September 13, 2001 would change my life’s trajectory. This September 13 marks nine years since I joined the Guard and two years since I’ve left it. I didn’t mean to join two days after September 11, it just happened that way. I made the decision over the summer of 2001, and conveniently enough all my paperwork came together the first week of September. There was a small delay at the beginning of the week, and they asked me to come back on Thursday to get sworn in. Tuesday was September 11. Thursday was September 13. Only a few weeks prior, my recruiter had laughed in my dad’s face when he inquired, as any good father would do, if I would ever be called up.
People often ask if I miss it, if I’ve thought about going back in. And I do, and I have. But I know it’s over and done with, and it doesn’t need me any more than I need it. But that doesn’t stop me from reflecting deeply about my experiences every year around this time.
Fundamentally, what I miss most about the military is what I thought I would miss. I miss the discomfort. I miss witnessing and experiencing human adaptability to an environment that is less than ideal. A world that is not only uncomfortable, but is downright hostile…in many senses. The hostility of other human beings launching explosives in your general direction, the hostility of the men who are supposed to be on your team but demean you when they think you aren’t listening, the hostility of your family members back home who are vehemently against the war, the hostility of your friends back home who adamantly believe in the war for all the wrong reasons. The hostility of loneliness when you return.
When you are challenged to your core, you grow. That is the biggest lesson I learned in the military, and the biggest noticeable void in my life since I left. When you don’t think you have a friend in the world, when you are legitimately fearing for your life, when you are holding the hands of handsome young men with their legs blown off, you grow in unimaginable ways. But it’s not just the extreme challenges, it’s the little things too. Not being able to open a fridge when you want. Not being able to kiss the boy you think is cute. Not being able to take a shower when you’re filthy. Not being able to seek cover during a ferocious dust storm, because you have to inspect and re-load bombs on a trailer. Your lungs turn to fire and you hack up black phlegm for days. And you deal. You just deal. Because you know that other people outside the wire are suffering much greater tragedies than coming down with The Crud.
So many have suffered the unimaginable hell that is war, but it is a very small fraction of America. And I think that’s why I gravitate toward people who have served in the military initially, when I meet them. It’s not that I think I can automatically relate to them. There’s nothing more annoying to a veteran than a stranger’s futile attempt to relate to your personal experiences, and I try hard not to be that person. It’s more that I am drawn to the fact that at some point, they have probably gone through something extremely challenging, and came out on the other side changed.
A few months ago I was neck deep in Sebastian Junger’s book War. Just about every chapter I had to stop, dog ear the page, and calm myself down. My heart raced and my hands clenched. I don’t know why this happens. Most of my fellow Air National Guard members walked away from multiple deployments and didn’t give it much of a second thought. It was not that hard. It was not that violent. It was not that dangerous. It was not that tragic. But I can’t shake it. I think Junger’s book really brought this out because I personally know so many people that went through experiences like the soldiers’ experiences chronicled in his book…but I saw the aftermath of their suffering, not the combat.
For a good chunk of the last decade, my closest friends were nearly all veterans. By nature of my line of work, most of my acquaintances were veterans too. So sometimes when I try to fall asleep, I am haunted by their stories. Their stories follow me. Sometimes they make my mind race. I don’t know why I can’t shake other people’s stories. Am I too impressionable? Too weak? Too soft?
The stories are sickening, tragic, infuriating. My friend who kept a loaded 9mm in her bedside table drawer years after her deployment. Watched my friend literally hallucinate the appearance of an M-16, as we sat on a deck on a cool night drinking beers. He realized it was not there and became ashamed. Cried when another friend told me he was going back into the military because he felt he couldn’t function in the civilian world and felt more at home in war. Flinched as another friend told me he had indeed killed people. Consciously told myself to keep breathing as another recanted watching a little girl get blown up by a rocket propelled grenade.
There are my own experiences. The dying children. The special forces guy drooling blood into a pan. The Marine I will never be able to speak of. The staples, stitches, bandages, iodine, wound packaging material. When you get blown up, your body looks like a giant bloody chicken cutlet in shrink wrap.
To be honest though, I rarely think of the hospital. My memories of the hospital bother me much, much less than the experiences of the men and women who have confided in me, who have felt so alone with their grief and tragedy. Most veterans are not broken people. But some of them are hurting, and I have this consuming desire to reach out to them, to tell them they are not alone, to try to do something small to help them. I caught a glimmer of the misery and that was enough. For lots of them, the misery is blinding. I know I can’t carry this burden alone, and I know there are others who are carrying it far more bravely than me. But the place where I find the most peace is the place where I know I have done some tiny thing better to make one tiny step a bit easier for a veteran.