So, once again I had to be reminded that it is Veteran’s Day.
It happens every year… and I’m still not quite sure I can articulate why it doesn’t enter my mind to remember it. But I want to try.
I guess initially when I came home from the war, I just wanted to forget about that entire horrible, wretched affair altogether. It’s taken a very long time for my mind to process the trauma that ensued during my tenure in the desert and for years being reminded of it would provoke flashbacks, bad dreams, all the effects of post-traumatic stress, and at the time it seemed too much to bear. The last thing I wanted was to be reminded of that year when my life changed so radically and permanently. I wanted to run from it as fast as I could, until it disappeared on the horizon behind me so that when I was able to stop running, when I looked behind me, all I would be able to see was a clean, beautiful sunset, golden rays gracing my eyes.
Maybe that’s why I grew my hair and my beard out when I came home, why I isolated from people, why I tried my best to stay in the shadows. I didn’t want anyone to know I was a veteran and I certainly didn’t want to be reminded of it.
Some of it was shame, I must admit. For a long time after coming home, I felt ashamed to have been a part of that war, for what I had done, for what I had seen, and I felt my participation in it was criminal in a sense. I’ve reconciled a lot of those feelings, I’m a little more comfortable with it now but, I still question myself, however mildly.
I’ve never liked war, I don’t know who does. I’ve always felt there are better ways to solve our problems and that war is essentially stupid. For the life of me, I still can’t comprehend why people feel this incessant need to go around killing each other, even outside the combat theater.
So, I hid and did my best to forget and not let anyone know I was an Iraq War combat veteran. Even now, when people find out that I’m a vet and want to earnestly shake my hand, expressing deep, heartfelt gratitude at my service and sacrifice to my country, I still feel uncomfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate their sentiment and it’s kind of them to acknowledge veterans but, part of me doesn’t even understand that I’m a veteran.
I know… it sounds strange doesn’t it? But it’s true. There is a very real part of me that to this day looks back on that time in my life and feels disconnected from it, detached, as if that was someone else who sweated out the days under that searing sun, as if I’m watching a movie with someone else as the main character.
I look at my desert uniform still hanging in my closet and it looks foreign to me as if it doesn’t belong there somehow. I look at all the ribbons I earned on my Class A uniform and scratch my head, wondering who was it that earned all those things? Who is that once small child who used to play “war” with his friends out in the back woods? What is he now? Is that really me? Did I really do that? Did I really travel halfway across the world to confront someone who I know nothing about and they know nothing about me? Are those my ribbons and medals? What on earth do they all mean? What did I do that was so special as to deserve the thanks, the awards, the earnest handshake?
And yet, I know it was me. I know I lived it. I know I confronted issues within my mind that I never wanted to confront. I know I learned things over there that I never knew existed.
I can still remember the relentless heat, the sand, the helicopters, the gunfire, the mortars, the explosions, the anger around me, the disillusionment of soldiers fighting for something they had no idea or even cared about.
I can still see the palm trees outside my base perimeter, the long lines to the mess hall, the hole in the wall of the mess hall from where a mortar exploded, the wind rippled sand, the bombed out buildings of Baghdad, Blackhawk helicopters flying over my head so close the treads of the tires were clearly visible.
I can still hear the explosions of mortars while I scribbled in my journal, wondering if this was going to be the attack that killed me, the whine of the mortar that flew over my head, the gunfire in the distance, the whop of a rotor blade, the yelling, the rumble of a Humvee passing by me.
I can still feel the concussions, the sweat on my brow, the sweat running down my back, the weight of my rifle, the rumble of my stomach, the sense of losing myself to the effects of war.
I know all these things… and I know it was me. I simply know, that’s all. To this day, I still have trouble integrating it, absorbing it, even owning it. It’s a memory… was it real or something I dreamed? There are times when I honestly can’t say one way or the other.
I often say that I’m on my second life now, that I’ve been reborn somehow and have been given a second chance to live fully. There is the pre-war me, the war me, and the post-war me. Three separate entities in one mind and body. They live together, sometimes uncomfortably but, they’re learning how to get along no matter how many arguments they might have.
I guess for me, I just don’t think about Veteran’s Day.
But I do want to say, thank you all who take the time to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, there are people out there who have put their lives on the line for something, whether or not they even agreed or disagreed with the cause they did it for.
It’s an honor to be acknowledged… thank you.
I’ll say goodnight with the words of Douglas MacArthur: “The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”
Be at peace world.