*Retold with permission.
We’ve talked long about how veterans are different from everybody else. Sometimes it’s voiced as complaints about how we’ll never be understood beyond a certain degree, yet other times it’s announced with pride and pleasure that we aren’t as vulnerable to stupid trivialities. But near as I can tell, little has been done to put these differences to words, besides from a haughty “I’m better than you because I’m a veteran” or a fatalistic “I’m different and you’re never going to get it.” Neither explains much of anything. There are differences, though, and some of them are significant.
For starters, we have developed intolerance to injustice. We see something, recognize it’s wrong, and then we grow indignant. As men and women who are trained to lead, to problem-solve and create order from chaos, we will make every effort to right a wrong. If there is a fight, we will pick a side and end it, or we will break it up and throw the offenders out the door. We will NOT be found huddled in the corner and meekly praying that nobody throws something our direction.
If somebody says or does something inappropriate to our wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, or any sort of loved one, we will take immediate action to make sure the person knows what they said was wrong – and that it has consequences. Diplomacy was terminated when they acted as they did, and we graduate to the next measure: apologize and leave, or get hurt and wish you’d apologized – or just not opened your mouth at all. This isn’t unchecked anger, it’s refusal to be a coward.
If we arrive upon the scene of a car accident, we will not keep driving and “just hope that everybody’s okay.” Instead, we will help you, summon emergency services, try to calm you down, tell jokes, mop blood, and be otherwise generally helpful until somebody arrives to take our place. We’ve seen broken bodies before, and we’ve done what we can to help them. Most of them were friends, and some didn’t make it home. Later on, we’ll think about them, one name at a time, and wish we’d been able to help them more. Not one of us will confidently say that we have done enough.
Innately and vehemently, we all love our country. We know how others elsewhere are forced to live, and we’re thankful that we, our families, and friends don’t have to live like that also. Many of you may be blithely unaware of current events and not particularly interested in them, but we follow them closely. We know where our friends are, and we pray fervently for their return. We are quickly angered when somebody announces that they’re embarrassed to be an American. We strongly encourage you to live elsewhere and see how much you like it. Sadly, one is unaware of one’s rights until they’ve been painfully revoked.
If somebody asks us to take down the flags hanging on our porches, we will invest in flag poles and hang them higher. Few more than us have purchased the right to demonstrate our patriotism, and your lack of it encourages us to do it even more. We took an oath to the Constitution, and nowhere in there does it mention anything about sensitivity to lowering our colors because somebody finds it offensive. No, so long as our attempts at self-determination do not interfere or encroach on yours, we can do as we please. If it’s a really big problem for you, move elsewhere.
When the National Anthem plays, we will be standing solemnly, attentively, and place our hands across our chests. Some of us will salute. You may be assured that we will say something if you do not show any respect. That song, that annoying little ditty that delays the start of every sporting event, is a national hymn, and for a pivotal time in our lives we stood at attention and saluted whenever it was played. Failing to do so means you respect neither your country, those who have served it, or yourself. We will help you rediscover that sentiment, or simply embarrass you in public.
I will quickly admit that not all of our differences are good ones. Some are character problems we should all work on, and many of us are. We admit imperfection, as should all people.
We have lost all patience for standing in lines. Years of waiting long hours for gear we didn’t need, shots we didn’t want, or to go places we didn’t want to see have done this to us. We get irritated, and occasionally say rude things. We should work on it. We’ve observed and endured the very epitome of inefficiency and it pains us to see any more of it. Sorry.
We are occasionally too loud in public places, causing discomfort for the rest of our party and potentially displeasure for all those around us. Part of it may be the incorrect supposition that what we have to say bears more weight than others, but it’s mostly an inability to hear very well. Various explosions, machine guns, and roadside bombs have left almost every one of us with some form of hearing impairment. For a few, we just speak more quietly – awkwardly so.
We are not always very comfortable in loud, crowded places. We are trained to seize control of situations and make the best of them, but with so many people and so much noise, there is little we can do. We feel somewhat helpless, preferring to hug the perimeter, or the wall, or a darkened, quieter corner. We can more easily control our little corners. We may not be interested in dancing, either, because people may be watching and we don’t desire the attention. Once again, sorry.
We will yell loudly to get our points across, failing at times to remember that our audience isn’t a lot of idiot subordinates who can’t seem to go one weekend without getting in trouble. We forget that “normal” people always begin by discussing things amicably, not set upon each other with rabid spit-slinging obscenities. The further we move from our service, however, the less we will do this. Just give us some time. Nobody’s perfect, and we know we aren’t.
Sometimes we refuse to talk to you on the assumption that you will never understand what we’re trying to say. We appear silent, or at least painfully reserved, but there’s a reason. Strange as it may sound, we’re truly fearful that what we say will further distance us from you, and we don’t want to do that. We don’t want you to fear us, or hate us, or confuse us with criminals, because we are nothing of the sort. Simply put, we have an understanding of violence.
If, for some terrible reason, somebody runs into a building and starts shooting at people or otherwise attacking them, you will not find us cowering behind furniture frantically punching on our cell phones to dial the police. We will be running towards the enemy. We are trained to assault through the objective, and we will resort to that training as best we can. If we are armed, we will shoot. If we are not, we will FIND a weapon. Somehow, some way, we will kill the aggressor. Later, our hands will shake and we’ll get incredibly thirsty, and we’ll think back to the other times we’ve been attacked and how many of our friends we lost. Without warning, we will be overcome with emotions we long ago tucked into a secluded room and barricaded. Some of us will puke.
There is a high probability that how we act may kill us, but we have identified something far worse than dying. It’s living with regret. For as long as we draw breath, regardless of if we are still in the military or not, we remain keepers, stewards, watchers, and protectors, porters, pall bearers and carriers of a burden. Our actions may be fatal, but they are also right and we’re not going to stop thinking that way. We will gladly use violence to prevent further violence against the innocent. We, on the other hand, are not innocent, and are still combatants. And we’re peacemakers.
Finally, we do not tolerate accusations – particularly when we’re accused of being lazy, ungrateful, ignorant, or members of a generation of losers. When you tell us we don’t know the meaning of work or sacrifice, we will answer you, some quietly and some quite loudly. I, personally, will answer you quietly.
I will reach into my wallet and pull out my lifetime membership card to the Disabled American Veterans, and then I will tell you this: "I can't remember all the friends I lost, or the number of missions I've run, or the years I've spent serving a nation which I am mostly convinced didn’t desire my service. But despite what you may think, and for as long as my body holds out, if they call me again, I will answer."
We ARE different, and these are some of the reasons why. If you look for us, you’ll see us. We may not stand out particularly, but we stand up a little straighter, and perhaps smile a little less, or start limping a little younger than we should. We’re proud of what we did, and proud of most of our differences. This nation needs keepers, and we’re glad to do it. We can’t help it, either; it’s just right.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved