On Being a Veteran

Now that Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, and it’s unlikely that the US will find itself entrapped into large military engagements for a while ( at least until a generation or two retires and a new round of pugnacious policy bros descend upon Washington DC) the pipeline of civilians turned service-members turned civilians again is going to be reduced to a trickle.

Periphery

Whereas a post-9/11 military probably experienced an increase in breadth across American society in terms of socio-economic status, race, etc., the military will once again be dominated by legacy kids, small-towners, and southerners.  Most importantly, most of you will never meet or run across these people; they will probably retire or stay in the areas their final duty stations were in, or they’ll return to their former communities.

This is to say that the military will pass back into the shadows of the American psyche, back where the ugly stereotype persisted of the military being only the failed high school kids and crazies, only reaching public awareness when service-members do bad things or when the Twitterati decides that a military is, like, sooo passé in today’s cosmopolitan society.

Since I got out of the Army in 2007, I lived in DC for 4 years, and then moved to NYC where I’ve been since 2011.  DC actually has some veterans, though most people you’ll meet probably work in the periphery of military affairs: analysts, military groupies (of which there a lot), policy, advocacy.  NYC has virtually no veterans at all.  At NYU the main contingent of veterans is definitely in Stern Business School, so you know what that’s like.  I’ve been told there’s also a large group of veterans at Columbia’s business school and at my grad school’s competitor, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.  I don’t really hang out with any of them.  When I do see a veteran, he’s just visiting town on leave and recognizes my tattoo.

This is all to give you some background for what I really wanted to say, which is to respond in some sort of truthful way about what it’s like to be a veteran in today’s day and age.

In a Former Life

Being a veteran is something you sort of tuck away — it just has no relevancy to a civilian life.  What I mean by this is, no one you meet knows anything about the military, nor do they particularly care or like it.  If anything, people finding out you were in the military probably makes them feel some annoying twinge of responsibility to say “thank you for your service” or to exert a little extra energy to make sure your poor veteran is alright.  Or maybe there’s some fascination there: “I was gonna join, but…”

To me, I was lucky to have an Army job with lasting benefits to my personal and career competency — military intelligence — so I wasn’t hamstrung there the way some others might be.  But in terms of hiring I’m not sure that background imparts much of an advantage at all.  It’s unapproachable by most people who don’t know how that side of things works.  If anything, the insinuation of military intelligence smells of NSA, Snowden, massive surveillance, etc.  It’s as if people don’t even realize that nations collect on each other and that there are large forces at work 24/7, that not everything in the world is just hunky-dory, that legally-permissible wiretapping is a requisite for both intel and law enforcement.

This is the kind of disconnect that will really get to you — when something you really care about and worry about and wish to protect people for is completely taken for granted and even reviled.  A thankless job.

The Years We Spent Disconnected from the World

Day-in, day-out, I think the biggest impression that is left upon others from my veteran status is that I’m a little old for my position.  That is to say, those 5 years I spent wearing the flag on my shoulder and little hair on my head or face were 5 years that most people spend climbing the career ladder.  If it weren’t for 9/11, or for enlisting, I’d be a 31-year-old instead of 36, and that changes others’ views quite a lot, whether they realize that veteran status or not.

Just imagine this disconnect.  Most young kids turn into precocious young adults full of potential where they’re told they have the entire world open to them, then they claw their way to some sort of sustainable position and then they grow old and they hopefully reach contentment and/or have kids and grandkids so that in the end they can die happy.

Meanwhile, I knew some young adults who trained for battle, who trained how to kill and how to protect and how to serve, dying in some dust pit somewhere, or in some shitty barren wasteland, such that two service-members in Class A uniforms appear at their young spouse’s or parents’ door to inform them of grave news.  That dude who did my dentist checkup or that dude I did US weapons training with died thousands of miles away in a war zone and everyone else moved on.  Those dudes helped defend turf in some other country that we’ve since given up.  Those guys’ lives were cut way short in comparison.  My 5 years, which pales compared to the 10-25 years of military experience many I met in the Army now have, was spent getting to know THOSE people.

I hope most people who have lost friends on the job (military or other hazardous jobs) would tell you that the job itself isn’t quite as meaningful as being among brothers and sisters and being able to help them and live with them and work with them.  It doesn’t matter on a personal level so much that we gave back territory that we fought and lost blood and life and treasure for, as long as we cared for each other.  I mean you hope that in such a sensitive job as being a soldier, that you are asked to do things that really mean something, but you don’t always get to pick your battles.  It’s a valid argument to say that maybe the US handled Iraq completely wrong, but what we know now is not what we knew then and some of us enlisted right after 9/11 to go fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  What’s not valid is hearing criticism from people who willfully remain unaffiliated to anything so that they’re never called upon or held responsible for anything.  Lack of action can be wise at times and cowardice at other times.

In a post-military world, where everyone is essentially out for themselves, what’s missing is that sense of camaraderie and esprit de corps and real compassion for those you work with.  This generates some sadness, particularly for a former sergeant who was trained to always be improving and mentoring and living amongst his soldiers.

Thank God for families, and for being able to build them.  I’m on my way, there.

Outer Perspective

Anyway, back to the topic.  What being a veteran has left me with is an unshakeable confidence in my ability to self-assess, self-improve, and self-correct.  I’m happy I sacrificed my time for a greater good (the mere act alone proved to my internal self that I would do it, if called upon).  I also know what I’m not, and I hope I never try to act like someone I’m not.  I’ve seen great people, who sacrifice all their time to family and country.  Great people who are continuing to serve their entire careers in the armed forces.  Great people who serve in elite units as well as the worst-managed, poorly-financed units.

I hope I can identify good people from bad, and knowledgeable people from the willfully ignorant, and never stand in the way of people who do good for others, their community, and the world.  I know how far I can push myself and when I need to push myself harder.  I definitely became a man in the meaningful sense of the phrase because of being in the Army.  I saw how other people live, throughout the US and abroad.  I hope to retain that humility in understanding and respecting how other people live, even if they hate your guts just because of what you’re wearing or where you’re from or what you’re doing.

All this gets tucked away — I keep to myself mostly — but if I meet other veterans or others who have served in the line of fire (police, fire, State, USAID, DART, etc.) then it’s like being with old friends.  It’s a virtual community, as they say.  You can talk about things you can’t talk about with others outside the community.  It awakens a dormant part of my very vivid past, a past I care for very much and am very proud to have experienced.  It doesn’t happen often that I get to talk to other veterans, and not all veterans are good people, but it’s definitely at least some sense of feeling “at home”.

Perhaps one thing I’ve noticed after leaving the military is being able to identify really stand-up people in civilian life.  GREAT people!  The kind of person you know would excel in leadership, who cares for those around him, who makes others better, who pushes himself to his limits, who shows humility and empathy and sympathy to even the people he meets whom he stands nothing to gain from.  There aren’t many of these people but man, they shine out from the rest like the freaking Southern Cross.

With that afore-mentioned pipelines of veterans trickling to almost a stop, the virtual community of veterans is going to get smaller and that part of my life will get tucked away even further.  We all have virtual communities and past parts of our lives that make us feel like this, I suppose.  But like I said, what I took away from it — a deep love and appreciation and respect for my own limits and talents and vulnerabilities and strengths — will stay with me forever.

So that’s how I feel when someone asks what it’s like to be a veteran.  It’s a solitary experience, but I think other brethren will agree — there’s a richness there that can never be taken away and will always be compared against.