*Reprinted with permission of the Fluvanna Review
*Retold with permission.
I’m growing weary of sitting in airports and bars and hearing some guy regale a typically female audience about all the missions he’s been on, how many times he’s worked with special forces, and how many people he’s killed. I’ve asked a few what their MOS [military occupational specialty] was, and they usually say something like “cook.” That’s when you know they’re lying. I don’t even bother correcting them, though. What’s the point?
People that feel the need to measure their self worth by the number of missions they’ve run or how many people they’ve killed have something wrong with them. My calling their bluff isn’t going to change them, either. They’ll just say I’m a poser or accuse me of being jealous. Far from it. I’m not jealous at all.
The reality is that the people who HAVE done something aren’t going to talk about it much. There’s nothing to say, really. It’s not an experience we have much desire to dwell on, much less remember for the rest of our lives. Only the liars talk about it openly, no doubt to make up for personal insecurity. But none of us really want to discuss it. It doesn’t accomplish anything.
I know what I’ve done out here, and while I take pride in knowing that I have what it takes to accomplish the mission, there’s nothing to be gained in telling people about it. For one, they’ll never understand unless they were there. More than that, though, they’ll probably be horrified – even though they’re often the ones who initiated the conversation.
Perhaps the most inappropriate question I’ve been asked is, “did you kill anybody?” I have several problems with that, though. Why do you want to know? Isn’t that a sick thing to ask? Will it change your opinion of me if I have? Also, only a small number of the troops overseas are serving in combat positions. The rest are support. They’re not all out there engaged in glorious combat. That’s not how it is out here. Yes, my service is honorable, but there are certain aspects that you just don’t share with people.
It’s kind of like a burden, living with what we’ve done and now do. And it’s a burden that I don’t want others to have to carry. I definitely don’t want my siblings over here, and I don’t think anybody else does either. We’re doing this so they don’t have to. I don’t wish this on people.
People like to pressure us to talk sometimes. No doubt because they read all the time that veterans need to talk about their experiences to be able to move beyond them and get on with life. That might be true, but it’s not a subject you just chat about with a stranger at a bar, or even with your own family. They won’t get it, and they may very well presume you’re a monster.
In a strange way, combat experiences are akin to lovemaking. If you love the woman you’re with, you’re not going to run out and tell all your buddies about it. What happened between the two of you was a private, intimate act. If it’s discussed at all, it’s only between the two of you. The same applies to combat. Talking about it to somebody who doesn’t understand either cheapens or aggrandizes what happened. Talking about it to somebody who was there, though, is acceptable. You bore the same burden together.
Some may think we’re cocky, but they’re mistaken. It might look like arrogance, but it’s confidence. It’s the knowledge that we’ve been through a furnace and we lived to tell about it. We learned what we were made of in there, and we’re pleased with the results. What we’re not pleased with is the burden that comes with it. We’re stronger than most people, which is certainly something to be proud of, but there are consequences. Combat changes you. You keep most of it to yourself.
I see old veterans from time to time back home. Old men wearing trucker hats with the Combat Infantry Badge on the front. I don’t care what their MOS was or where they served, I know they’ve gone through hell. Whenever we spot each other, we just nod briefly and keep on walking. I know what they’ve done, and they know what I’ve done, too. There isn’t much else to say about it. We may be one, maybe two generations apart, but we carry the same burden. In fact, they carry a bigger one, since they saw things none of us have seen or ever want to see. The conduct of war itself has changed, too.
More than once I’ve stood in lines at stores and listened to the person in front of me complain rudely that the express checkout is moving too slowly. I want to yell at them, but I don’t. I don’t say a word, but I’m thinking how ungrateful they are, and how small their lives must be. They have all they need, money to burn, and plenty of ways to spend it. They’re also safe, too. You have all day, lady. Stop complaining and wake up. I’m just thankful to be home.
Personally, I love the Army. I love the operations tempo, the training, and even the deployments. I like everything about it. This is what we do. We’re grunts. I don’t think I could go back to being a civilian even if I wanted to. Sure, there are bad days – plenty of them – but I still love what I do. I’m in this for life.
I think everybody in the United States should serve in the military, maybe three years or so. If they deploy, great, but if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. They’ve earned their mantle and done their time. It’ll help them understand us a little better, at least. Besides this, service itself changes you, if nothing else because you learn to do things that sometimes you really don’t want to do. That’s why it’s called “service.” It’s not easy, and there are plenty of risks. We’ve all lost friends out here. Ideally, though, we’ve done this so nobody else has to.
It may be overused and even misquoted, but I like what the character “Hoot” said about the military in the movie “Blackhawk Down.” He really hit the nail on the head for all of us. Every man I know feels this way.
When I go home people'll ask me, "Hey Hoot, why do you do it man? What, you some kinda war junkie?" You know what I'll say? I won't say a goddamn word. Why? They won't understand. They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand that it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is.
He’s right. We fight so the man next to us goes home, and hopefully we’ll go home too. None of us loves war.
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