On service and sacrifice

It’s this blog’s 2nd birthday. Something I started as a way to bridge the civil-military divide, and also to help me piece together a memoir. Life has often pulled me away from this and that is something that I’ve had to learn to accept. Tonight I read over my posts from the previous two Veterans Days. I’ve written about the need to temper our habit for overdoing holidays and about spending this day in Iraq. For this installment I want to express some ideas that have been brewing for some time but have not yet made it onto the blog.

Yesterday I read great pieces from Angry Staff Officer on continuing service after leaving the military and a tremendous article in the New York Times from Phil Klay. They helped me take a couple nebulous ideas that have been bouncing around in my head and start forming some half way decent sentences.

ASO’s blog touched on something I’ve been kicking around since July. The idea that separating from the military does not mean the end of our service to our communities. Many Vets form an identity around their service. While we should all be proud of what we volunteered to do, shaping a lifelong identity around something that most of us did for only a few years is not healthy, and downright sad. The majority of Vets serve 3, 4, or 5 years. We all laugh at the Uncle Rico types who hang on to their high school sports glory, the people who still live like frat boys 20 or more years after graduation, all these people who can’t move on to another chapter in their lives and find something meaningful to live for. We never really call out Vets for doing the same thing though. It’s a striking example of the civil-military divide that civilians do not feel able to call out this behavior.

I’m not here to rant on this, although it grates on me all the time. I’m writing to talk about my own struggles with this. To be fair, it’s not easy to transition out of the military and into civilian life. You want to build new friendships, but all you have to talk about is your military experiences. You want to start a new chapter, but there’s usually nobody to show you how to put, what at the time, are the most formative and impactful years of your life behind you. Everyone else in The World had normal lives while you were serving, and now you’re trying to catch up in an un-empathetic world.

If you’ve never seen the movie ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’ please make a note to look it up. The first time I saw it I was left in tears. I still choke up watching it, but that first time really shook me. It showed me that these transition struggles were something that Vets of even a popular war (WWII) went through.

For me I tried to make a clean break from the Army and move forward as a civilian as if that was no big deal. I failed horribly for years. Bouts of depression, despair, apathy, nihilism, and anger plagued me. I was bitter over not finding something to do with my life that felt remotely as important as wearing the uniform felt. Life felt empty. Jobs were meaningless. Everything was just a time filler. Make money, pay bills, die.

Slowly I realized that service was a foundational part of me. It’s what drove me to join the Army in the first place. It was something I had amputated from my life without thought and I spent 8 years bleeding out.

That brings us to this past July when I joined my district’s volunteer firefighter company. For months my wife had been softly nudging me to join. The fire hall is on the corner of our street, so nearly every day we were driving by, the sign outside flashing “Join Now!” I went back and forth with it. I didn’t know if I’d have the time to commit, and I had doubts of my physical ability to perform having asthma and two bad knees. As summer began things were starting to settle down for us for the first time since October 2018 when we moved. I decided to stop at the hall on a night when they were training and talk to someone about what the demands were like and what to expect. Later that night I returned with my application.

A week after Independence Day I officially became a member of Union Fire Company, and since Labor Day I’ve been in a Basic Exterior Firefighting Operations class every Tuesday and Thursday night. Being welcomed into the company and made to feel part of the team, part of something bigger than myself, being able to serve my community in a way that I feel matters has been life changing for me. My mental health has improved considerably. It’s also been an exercise in self awareness. After responding to calls for a couple months I recognized what had been missing from my life since July 2011. When someone asks how things are going so far I tell them I’m loving it. Being a firefighter has a lot of the things I liked about the Army and very little of the stupid bullshit that drove me mad. I feel a connection to my community that I never felt before. I no longer feel like I’m just marking time as life slowly expires.

So to Angry Staff Officer’s point, we all need to find a way to continue service beyond the military. This is how I’ve painfully gone about figuring that out on my own. I offer my story as a small example. I hope others who may be struggling with the same problems might read this and shorten their suffering.

Do not let military service define you for the rest of your life. It’s something that we did, something to be proud of, but we cannot let a few years exercise tyrannical power over the other 70 or 80 years that we will live.

 

To the other article I mentioned above. I’ve been a fan of Phil Klay’s work since he published ‘Redeployment’. It’s a beautiful collection of short stories that capture the Iraq War from several perspectives. Truly something that should be widely read.

Klay’s NYTs piece is a lot to unpack, but I want to focus on one thing specifically – the story of Charles White Whittlesly.

**

Whittlesly was an officer who served in one of the Army’s most diverse units, part of the ‘Melting Pot Division’ that was formed of recruits from New York. An outlier in the US Army of 1917. He saw the unity that came of shared sacrifice. He saw that individual backgrounds didn’t matter, each soldier was an American in every sense. What Whittlesly witnessed was one identity forming out of many, the true American Exceptionalism. Our ideals and values are what people come to America for. It’s the mythology of equality and the fable of freedom unabridged that compels people to risk so much to become Americans.

Upon return to the States Whittlesly saw these ideals for the lies they so often are. American history is riddled with hypocrisy. We’ve turned out backs on the values we brag about too many times to count. The racism that fueled slavery is what provided an economic foundation for America. That ideology has never died and at times has roared to public embrace.

Post-WWI America was one such time. The Roaring’ 20s saw a spike in KKK membership,  public lynchings with no hope of justice, and non-white Veterans being pushed back to second class status at best, ripped apart and left on display at worse.

For all the high idealism Whittlesly experienced in the hellscape of No Man’s Land, it was a much gentler environment for non-white Americans than their homeland would be. The people Whittlesly would become friends with among the machine-gun serenade would return to an America of unspeakable violence of retribution designed to put minorities in their place. A righting of the social order.

Years of this broke Whittlesly, he ended his life jumping from a cruise ship destined for Havana.

Just like watching ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’, reading Whittlesly’s story brought on a connection that bridged decades. The America I grew up believing in, the country whose uniform I wore, is not a country that I recognize anymore. Our wars have plodded on and our hysteria over terrorist threats have caused us to abandon our ideals. We are again debating what a ‘real American’ is. We are persecuting immigrants just as we did in the 1920s. Purity tests are being established, Federal officials are allowed to question citizenship status without any reasonable cause or evidence.

America of 2020 may very well be the America of 1920. We didn’t get this way overnight, it’s not even a single Administration’s doing. It’s a culmination of two decades of wars that we’ve been mostly too busy to pay attention to. Our reverence for Veterans is only outdone by our indifference to foreign policy. The slow erosion of civil liberties is barely noticed.

At one point, I looked around and realized that we were the Empire, that I was not serving a great Republic, but I was participating in the sinister deeds of a government intent on hoarding power and dictating how the world will work.

Hyperbole? Sure. But I felt it in my bones, just at Whittlesly had.

And just like Whittlesly I’ve had to contend with the dreadful knowledge of my country not being what I was taught it was. Knowing that some of the most sacred truths I held dear were platitudes doled out by those in power for the sake of keeping power.

Like Whittlesly I’ve fought with the demons of despair and depression. Infectious nihilism and an apathy that atrophies one’s will to live.

I’ve often considered my own cruise to Havana out of sheer hopelessness. I cannot stand the thought of all I hold dear being burned to ash.

My plea to you is to consider these stories. Think of how they repeat after every war America wages. And then ask yourself what you can do to break this cycle. Please do not spend Veterans Day wantonly expressing empty ‘Thank You For Your Service’ platitudes. Please do not make a show of your gratitude on social media. For the love of all that is good do not boast of your support for the troops. Do not do any of this if you are not willing to begin holding our government accountable for the needless death and slaughter that continues in your name. Don’t you dare engage in any solemn praise unless you are going to live up to the promise of all people being created equal, of inalienable rights and universal freedom.

If you want to honor Veterans, show us that America is what we all thought it was. Be engaged citizens. We need you to play your part in society. If you don’t, what we do doesn’t matter at all. We will be left with a Nation of Nihilism.

Until we meet again.

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