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Before I start this rambling, I want to make something clear.  I’m not, in any way, trying to play “woe is me” by using other people’s tragedies.  I’m explaining my real thought processes and real reactions, and my inability to explain my deep sadness and often guilt surrounding them.  The tragedies these people faced are real, serious, and in no way should you take my words to mean that I somehow experienced their hardships vicariously.  I am not claiming to “know” their trauma.  I am not seeking sympathy for something I did not experience.

 

To understand where I am today, I must provide some background regarding my time in the Navy.

I joined the Navy in 2007, rip roaring and ready to go.  My family has a history of serving.  I wanted to serve.  Also, I wanted to get the hell out of dodge.  The military was a stepping stone to me – a way to find out where I wanted to go.

I found myself quickly through boot camp, quickly through technical training, and out to the fleet.  By that i mean I shipped off to Hawai’i to serve aboard the USS Neversail – sitting in front of a computer, on land, for the next 3.5 years.  Not once was I deployed overseas to Sandyland, nor was I ever sent to a ship.

With the exception of AirCrew training that resulted in a dislocated arm while underwater, I was never even really placed in any real danger.  I often joke that my “greatest achievement” in the US Navy was “Never stepping foot on a commissioned vessel”.

I spent my evenings blowing my paycheck on singing, piano, and acting lessons.  I engaged with the local community and was a member of a non-profit organization.  For all intents and purposes, I was basically a civilian who happened to wear a uniform.  At least that’s how many people, including myself, saw me.

Except… I was not a civilian.  I was surrounded by people who did deploy.  There was at least one member of my command who did not come back from deployment.  My best friend was a Marine, and he did multiple tours in Sandyland.  The fact that we were at war in 2 countries, and always preparing for more war in all theaters was never lost on me.

During that time I struggled, some days, to rationalize being part of a war fighting machine, when I knew I never, ever wanted to point a weapon at another human being.   Today I struggle with my apparent choice to refrain, as if I should have taken it upon myself to willingly put myself in danger, and that my lack of involvement was somehow shameful.  The absurdity of that dichotomy is not lost on me, it pains me.

Some of my friends came back from war with injuries, seen and unseen.  Bodily injuries that made rolling out of bed in the morning more than a chore.  Emotional and mental injuries that made having simple conversations a landmine of potential trigger words.

The only words I had to offer when they shared their experiences was… none.  Silence.  I could only listen.  I had not experienced the many horrors of war, how could I possibly have words that could help then in any way adjust back into society.  I still struggle with finding the words, but I’ve also learned that no words can be just as helpful.  Providing a safe sounding board to let out the pain, but bring them a smile here and there, is about all I can manage.  Anything more would be an attempt from me to be something I am not.

In my transition out of the service back to the “real world” as we call it, I spent more time listening.  I spent more time reading about the politics surrounding the wars.  And I also spent more time… suddenly feeling a strong resentment for the people around me in every day life.

 

It started when I separated and started attending university.   Being a 25 year old vet in a 18-22 year old’s world was… a very strange experience.  Imagine, if you can, being transported from now, to 6 years ago, and being faced with yourself.  What would you tell yourself?  Probably something that starts with “Here’s the list of things in your life that are complete bullshit and you should stop caring about”.

That was everyone around me.  Everyone was me.  It took me a while to find anything in common my cohort that didn’t want to make me start lecturing them.  hated how insufferable was, and that was just my internal dialogue.

Didn’t these kids know how close to war we are at every moment of every day?  Don’t they know the suffering people are going through?  If I have to listen to one more person complain about having to pull an all-nighter on an assignment given 2 weeks ago, I might just…

Why the hell am I thinking this way?  It’s not like I ever fought in a war.  It’s not as if I ever step foot on a ship.  It’s not like I had any injuries or traumatic experiences that would warrant such apparent disdain for vanity and vapidness.

 

As a person very close to me put it quite aptly one day:

“I’m sure your time in Hawai’i must have been So Difficult“.

For many reasons I won’t get into, that statement is shallow and a very big mis-characterization of my experience.  I know this, my service-mates know this, I think he knows it.  However, not having been there, it’s not at all an unreasonable opinion to have developed.  I don’t hold it against him, but he hit a nerve that struck deep then and now.

 

During my last 2 years in the Navy, I knew I was not going to re-enlist.  I used that time to prepare myself to get out.  I also spent quite a few nights awake, losing sleep, over the thought of all the people I failed in the process of getting that punchline of “never stepping foot on a commissioned vessel”.   The thought that had I just volunteered harder, maybe one fewer person may have been maimed or died.

This came along with all the thoughts of having to rationalize serving for a war fighting machine.  Why did I join?  Am I a good person?  Are my actions moral?  What is morality?  All the existential crisis questions you’d expect out of a 20-something who has finally learned the meaning of mortality, but has yet to come to appreciate it.

This questioning would build over the years.  My first veterans day was a difficult one – something I did not expect.  For the first time in my life, as I stood in front of the Veteran’s memorial on campus, during the ceremony, I wept in public.  Safely in the back of crowd, where no one could see, I was overcome with the thought of all the men and women who would never stand where I stood because they never came home.  I was overcome by the thought of all the people I knew who were forever changed for the worse by the physical and mental toll the service took on us.

Then the anger came.  For what exactly did they make that sacrifice for?  The torrent of political rhetoric swirled in my head. The anger was palpable standing in the rain that day, looking out over the small crowd of vets who seemed similarly lost in thought.   For what?  A free hamburger at Fridays?  A small coffee at Starbucks?  Some lip service at a football game?  For what?

 

Thankfully I had, and have, a person in my life who always leads me back to love.  She helped me temper that anger, something I rarely if ever show, by showing me how caring humans can truly be.  Not just because she always listened no matter how silly i felt the topic was, but because her entire world is built around helping people.

I married her this year.  I was very excited to share this event with everyone in my life.  It was the happiest day of my life (so far :] ).  When the day finally came, however, it was not without moments of sadness.

My best friend from childhood was unable to attend my wedding due to his injuries acquired during his service in the Marines.   He apologized for it.  Of course I was sad he was unable to attend, but I was much more deeply saddened that one of my oldest friends thought he needed to apologize for it.  We’ll always pick up right where we left off, no matter the time or distance between visits.

But that phrase… rings loudly in my head when I think about him apologizing.

 

My time serving in Hawai’i must have been so difficult.

 

All of this may sound like minutia, things we all go through.  But it became a recurring theme for me to check out during conversations as thoughts of all the awful things surrounding my friends and colleagues rushed in to displace whatever happy moment I was having.  I spent many nights at the bar with my best man, watching him talk to the denizens, while I sat there quietly pondering these questions.

Why am I the lucky one who gets to walk away from the military with barely a scratch?  Why did I get to ride a motorcycle without crashing and losing my leg?  How can I possibly relate to any of the friends of mine who have PTSD?

I met a Marine at that bar who serves for Boston Police now.  He told me his greatest regret was never getting to show his valor in combat, despite having been trained for it.  I asked him, over and over, how he could regret that, knowing everything he does about the horrors of war and violence.  I know now, 2 years since the last time I had that conversation with him.

It’s amazing that I can utter the sentence, knowing full well how absurd it is.

I feel ashamed that I could even suggest what I’m experiencing is a form of survivors guilt.

After all, my time serving in Hawai’i must have been so difficult.

 

To my brothers and sisters, I wish you the happiest of holidays.

To the ones who aren’t here, I’m thinking of you on this quiet Christmas Eve morning.

2 Comments

  1. If anyone can relate to your feelings and experiences… I do..

    13 years… 8 months.. 14 days.. 23 hours.. 59 seconds..

    I can barely remember my kids birthdays.. That number is seared in there.

    I graduated boot camp 1 week after Sept 11th. Four shore duty stations riding a desk.

    I just broke three years out this year, the amount of emotions I have felt since then cannot even be expressed. The reality of not having to PCS was both exciting and heartbreaking. I’m stuck where I am for the first time since I left home. Trying to *be* a civilian and talk to people has not been an idea I have gotten comfortable with. I just don’t talk about my service. At times I feel like I don’t have anything to say. The “volunteered harder” statement never hit harder than for me. Especially since my cousin, who is essentially my brother, did serve as well, went to Sandyland twice, has PTSD and multiple injuries.

    The comparisons both said and unsaid wear on me greatly. There are time I don’t even go home because its a recurring subject that comes up. Ironically when I separated I came home to be closer to family. Never have I felt farther away from them. Instead I have found solace in being alone. I have found comfort in some of my Navy friends and family in many respects. But at the end of the day, your still staring at yourself if the mirror and left with your own thoughts as you try to sleep.

    I was diagnosed with clinical depression before I was handed my pink slip and sent home. I was in hard therapy for a year trying to rationalize what about the uniform was driving my crazy. We are taught to be warfighters to wage a war we fight from a desk from the relative safety of a cave or basement. Left to shuffle the politics, the bullshit extra duty, training, etc. But it’s “shore duty” so its OK..

    I don’t know. I don’t have any answers, the more I think about it, the more I want to write about it, the more it comes off as feeling like complaining and the more it grates on my frustration.

    You articulated many of my thoughts and experiences much better than I could. For that.. Thank you.. If anything, hopefully it’s somewhat comforting to know your not alone in your thoughts. For what it’s worth.. It helps me.

    • Took me 4 years, 4 months, 23 days to articulate this. Took 3 years before someone said “Your time in Hawai’i must have been so difficult”. It’s like being attacked from both sides: Shipmates think your life is easy-street, civilians think you’re on vacation, the people next to you know but don’t say anything because they’ve been conditioned to think the same way you do. It’s hard to come around to realize the toxicity of an organization that was, for all intents and purposes, your family. Not just in the bravado and “I’ve got it worse” Olympics, but because mental health is poorly understood and largely ignored.

      You’re sitting in front of a computer? Life’s fine, quit bitching. If life was fine, I wouldn’t know so many people who’ve attempted suicide.

      It’s the quiet times that are the most difficult. When life picks up and pushes you around, voluntelling you to go here and there – do this and that – that’s easy.

      Writing helps, even if you never post it anywhere.

      Cheers man.


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