“The only reason I drink,” he told me, “is because I can’t ever get to sleep before five in the morning. This is only way I can; getting hammered.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d told me this, and I’d certainly heard it from others, too. In some ways, I’ve been there myself.
For him, and many more in a similar position, the “college experience” is proving far less enjoyable than was expected. “Nobody cares where you came from” he lamented. And he’s right. Nobody cares that you, at least at one time in your life, took an oath and carried a rifle into harm’s way. Unless you walk around showing off a photograph of you in uniform; and that’s when you realize you’re too dependent on everybody else acknowledging you, stow the photograph, and retreat in self-imposed shame – probably to sulk.
But even more than recognition of your exploits, you’d be interested to see that people your age actually care about the world in which they live. In reality, they truly don’t. Somehow, in ways that I cannot understand, they simultaneously think no further than whose party they will attend on Friday night, and also arrogantly assume they will change the world. Yet they haven’t even seen it.
Some would chalk it up to an apathetic generation, yet in their defense I’d say a lot of it has to do with limited exposure. Between thirty-second sound bytes about which celebrity is breaking up with whom and lengthier diatribes about how awful the economy may be at the moment, their age group is left with few opportunities to see, first hand, how the world really works (poorly).
He raises a good point, however. Veterans, for a wide variety of reasons, frequently do not comfortably fit into any social category or generational description. They are a breed unto themselves – hence the profusion of such organizations where they can find other, like-minded friends: VFW, American Legion, IAVA, AmVets, etc. Though I must sincerely question if such camaraderie heals wounds, or keeps them perpetually open. That is something I’ve wondered a lot lately. Are they helping the wound, or is collective lamenting forbidding any significant improvement?
One thing is certain. He, and all the rest of us, very much love our country. Had we not, we would not have volunteered to do what we did. Nor would we closely follow progress on every front, or pray for the safe return of our brothers and sisters still fighting. Yet when they return, they will face disappointment similar to ours.
After the traumatic adjustment to chaos, where violence, action, and even death become the new norm, civilian life is terribly uninteresting, unstimulating, and a monumental let-down. We’re feared by some, scorned by others, and respected by many, but truly understood by few.
Oddly, it is as if the very things he fought for – peace, stability, and some sort of “normalcy” – are the very things he can no longer enjoy. They are fantastic concepts, and true blessings to those that have never experienced them, but they are now just as foreign to us as they are to the oppressed we liberated. We fought for peace by ceding our right to taste it – for, at best, it is shaky. We remain alert and ready, poised for the next disruption of it, domestically or abroad, and thus fail to bask in what we now experience.
And meanwhile, worldwide, oppression continues, whole nations live in fear of their dictators or some other aggressor, and we still see their plight. Frankly, we always will. To ignore such things is to kill an innate sense of justice, right and wrong, and a desire that others live without terror. The draw to protect them, too, is strong, but also infeasible. They are not battles we have been called to fight, at least yet. They are simply a group of people the world cares little for protecting. We still think of their situations, though we can do little about them.
He told me that he’s lost his sense of purpose, and I can certainly understand that. We’ve fought our war, and now it’s over. We did our part, and for a number of reasons chose to walk away from it. War is hell, indeed, but for a percentage of those that fought them, peace is similarly uninviting. It requires the total ignorance of fact: that war still continues. And the character of a warrior is not driven out when our participation in it ceases. We are misfits.
His complaint is nothing unique, by any means. If it was, then why does the Veterans Administration estimate that more than 5,000 veterans will kill themselves this year alone? Suicide rates among veterans are twice as high as they are in non-veteran populations. The veterans feel – more than any single other group – that they do not fit in.
I, as a veteran, still don’t know how to reach out to these guys. I, too, have struggled with a sense of purposelessness. I, too, have felt like an outsider. All I know to do is pray for them, but that seems wholly inadequate. They’re still dying – more to self-inflicted wounds than to those caused by the enemy. And few people seem to notice.
I encourage him whenever I can, call him to make sure he’s okay, and offer suggestions whenever I can think of them, but it changes little. He, they, WE, are still ill-adapted warriors in a country that, though grateful, has no clue how to accept us. And we have no idea how to pursue acceptance. We’re different.
We defended our country and hated war, and returned unable to enjoy the fruits of our labor. The warrior is still there, yet for us the war is not. The battle now is for contentment, and the casualties are high. We fought for our country, but lost our place in it. Collectively, we yearn for a solution, but none quickly comes. We find no enjoyment in peace. In one voice, we cry for help.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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