When I am asked about the worst experiences of war, I usually respond with something along the lines of brutality or chaos. It’s a simple way to end or move along the conversation. It fits the common themes and narratives promoted by the media and often seen on tv and in movies. It’s also a lie.
For me, the worst part about war, is that it ended.
I think about war every day. I dream about war more nights than I don’t. It does not consume me, or my thoughts, but it is always there. It used to worry me, I used to wonder whether or not I was the only one who felt this way, but I have accepted it as a part of who I am, and I make no effort to control or restrict where my mind goes. In the simplest of terms, I miss it.
War is anything but beautiful, but it is also unmatched in its ability to teach. Killing taught me more about love and compassion than anything else I have experienced in life. Wading through destruction, suffering, and detritus forever changed my perspective and created an insatiable pursuit for appreciation. I have never experienced such clarity of focus, precision of thought, and sense of purpose. My brain and body functioned at a level I have never been able to replicate. I found and became my best self while looking down the sights of a rifle. I also found my worst. Each of these things live inside of me, every day, and it can be a difficult road to navigate.
I understand why people seek out the “black and white” stances and solutions. It makes the world around you easier to comprehend and navigate when there are rules and expectations. In my experience, war was anything but black and white. I often describe it as grey, but I have come to the conclusion that there is no “color,” because it is all of them, and none of them, simultaneously.
War is not a simple heads or tails proposition, neither is being a Veteran.
There are days when I feel normal and days where I feel lost. There are days when I understand the world around me, and days where I can make no sense of it. I do not feel comfortable in a world where my choice is between only heads or tails. In all honesty, the only place I truly feel comfortable is in the microscopic space between those two, the third side of the coin. In that space are those that share my experiences. In that space are those that have seen how truly colorless our world can be. When I need to, or when I simply choose to, I retreat there. I shut down, keep my head down, and seek a place that provides me comfort. Although it seems comforting, it is the most dangerous place I can be. I’m not seeking health or happiness, I’m hiding.
I am not broken, I am not damaged, but I am different. I am less different from those around me than I am my former self, the young man who enlisted. I pursued a community that I viewed with a sense of awe, and after 17 years, left questioning whether or not I had been worthy enough to call myself a member of its ranks. I struggle with self-worth, purpose, and a drive that often robs me of satisfaction and happiness in the moment because “good” never seems to be good enough. I constantly catch myself judging and measuring my success or failure in the rear-view mirror, using a gold standard from an occupation and uniform I no longer wear, instead of what lies in front of me. It is a battle I fight within myself, every single day. Some days I win, some days I lose. It’s not all bad, but it certainly isn’t all roses.
Our country expects a great deal from our service members and veterans, and they should, because we are unique. We, as veterans have the ability, but more importantly, the obligation to serve as a beacon. In order to do so, we need to be honest. We must first face ourselves, and then our own community. Until we do, we are anything but a beacon, we are a burden. There are those that choose to wear their service on their sleeve, and those that choose to wear it on their heart. Neither is right, neither is wrong. Every effort must be made to ensure we have a positive impact, not a destructive one. People will look to you for guidance and as an example, be worthy of it.
For those that are thriving, it is my hope that you realize that you serve as an example to us all. For those that are suffering, I hope that you realize you are not alone. Resist the temptation to pull away, because I assure you, the path to health and happiness will not be found there. You are not damaged, you are just different, and so am I. It is not possible to return from war as the same man or woman you were before, but it is possible to build yourself into something better.
To those that have served or are serving, all I can offer you is my thanks and appreciation. There is no profession more honorable, but please do not allow it to be all that you are, or all that you will become.