Over the course of the Marine Corps Birthday (Nov. 10th) and Veterans’ Day on November 11th, I, and millions of other veterans did what they seem to do best: occupy poorly-lit, smoke-filled bars, buy drinks for strangers and poison ourselves. Amid all the conversations, all the speeches about honor and service, all the toasts to friends who never made it home, and the poorly-remembered second and third lines of the Marine Corps hymn, it was one Vietnam veteran who I most noticed. Despite the blur of alcohol, whenever something meaningful was said, he adjusted his campaign cover (drill instructor hat), snapped to the position of attention, and executed a sharp salute. His behavior loosed a cascade of difficult questions I don’t particularly want to address. Do I want to be like him in thirty years?
For how long can we look back on our service as the most meaningful, memorable experience of our lives and remain uninterested in other memories? For how many years is it acceptable to introduce ourselves as veterans and not simply by our names? When will something else be more important?
How many free drinks can we accept from strangers and older veterans before we drop the title of returned heroes and become the ones buying drinks for others? How long is it appropriate for us to live each day like our last and drink ourselves into a stupor? How much longer will people excuse us for it because we’re veterans and deserve to live a little after all we’ve lived through over the past few years?
How long can we legitimately be angry about at leadership decisions that we’re convinced killed our friends, or bitter at a government that really seemed to have little idea how to properly employ us? For how many more years will we visit the gravesites of fallen comrades before our obligation and guilt fades? For how much longer can we reminisce about out glory days at war and sincerely believe that we’re fundamentally different and don’t want to fit in again? How many more nights can we get away with puking ourselves or wetting the bed? How many more mornings can we justify reeking of booze?
When will we stop devoting all our time to news stories about the war before we grow tired of it and conclude that there are other things happening in the world that deserve attention? How much longer will we watch war movies even though they take us to places we don’t particularly want to be? When will we drop the military jargon and acronyms and make an attempt to speak like everybody else? When will we grow tired of wearing paraphernalia from our uniforms and dress like those around us?
How long will it be before we can no longer hide the secret that we actually enjoy peoples’ sympathy, as much as we may insist we don’t want it? When will we stop telling people we’re deaf because of IEDs and machine guns and simply lean in a little closer? When will we throw away all our old uniforms or stop putting military bumper stickers on our cars? When will we quit limiting our closest friends to veterans and grow comfortable speaking with those who haven’t served? When will we stop wearing combat boots? When will we no longer want to be different?
How much longer will we sputter, “I’m a combat veteran” whenever we’re insulted and conclude that most people really don’t care? When will we grow tired of muttering, “fucking civilians” and remember that we, too, are civilians? When will we stop missing the military? When will we lose interest in being identified by our rank? When will we stop trying to explain?
When will we determine that our short years of service aren’t who or what we are, but instead something adventurous that we did? When will we be interested in seeking out other adventures? When will people no longer ask us our opinions on the war? When will we no longer want to talk about it? When will our stories be about other things? When will we grow our hair back out to normal lengths?
How much longer can we ride the wave of quasi-fame because we’re veterans and instead set out for greater things? When will our service evolve into a memory and cease being an identity? When will we no longer try to defend ourselves when somebody accuses us of being warmongers? When will we move forward? When will we stop abusing ourselves? When will we stop killing ourselves? When will we awaken?
When we are older? When we are old? Tomorrow? Next year? When there is another war underway? When we accept defeat? When we acknowledge smallness? When nobody cares anymore? When we have other things to occupy our thoughts? When we hit rock bottom?
Inarguably, many of these changes, both good and bad, are irreversible. It is impossible to simply forget participation in a war. It’s just hard to see other things. I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but one thing is certain. For us, the generation of warriors who are prone to self destruction, time is definitely running out.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved