Photo by: Adam Bettcher
You frequently hear Veterans talk about missing combat, their disdain for civilians, or their strong desire to go back into the service. These seemingly dissimilar statements share one core feeling and emotion that almost all service members face after leaving the military. Ask any one of them why they feel this way and you will most likely get a multitude of answers such as “the rush of combat, there is nothing like it” or “civilians are just so naive, they don’t know what the world is really like”. Although these may be true statements, I believe that there is a core reason why these men say this. Camaraderie, the brotherhood. Many of us joined the military at an incredibly young and impressionable age. Most came in before the age of 20 and spent the most defining time of their lives in the service during a time of war. There is a polarizing difference between friends and brothers that most people who never served can't understand. Sure, you hear about former prison inmates discuss their “brothers”, the dudes who watched their back while taking a shower in Chino. But Veterans have a different definition, one that goes far deeper and leaves a feeling that takes them well into their old age.
At age 18 I volunteered for the Infantry and was soon after sent to Ramadi, Iraq in 2006. This was the most volatile time of the Iraq war, and I found myself, arguably, in the most contested city of that campaign. This tour showed me that there was a deeper purpose to me fighting under the American flag. A purpose not of which I had thought I would ever see. The politics no longer mattered, the old men sitting on their pedestal in Washington moving us around like pawn pieces were obsolete. I had one purpose now, and that purpose was to make sure that my brothers, the ones whom I had come to love and care for, more so than the family I left behind, made it home safe to their families. It was an unspoken promise, an agreement that we came to the day the first bullet cracked over our heads. We all knew that this was real and that the enemy was playing for keeps. We lost friends and shared tears at their memorial services, but the tears and grief were brief. Our mourning would have to wait for another day.
We came back from that tour to Iraq and I found myself spending every waking moment with those that were my brothers, the same men that I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, would have taken a bullet for me in the streets of Ramadi. As you can imagine, we consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol and cried together in the confines of our barracks rooms. We questioned why we lived and our best friends didn’t. We didn’t have the answers to these questions and soon gave up the search for one. This bond, this brotherhood still exists today. I still text, call and visit with these same guys that I cried with, fought with, and trusted with my life. It’s been 9 years now since that tour to Iraq, and nothing has changed between us.
All of the men that I held so closely during that tour have left the military and entered into the civilian world. I stayed in long after they did but the phone calls were frequent when this happened. The disdain for civilians and their lack of understanding of what we went through was bothersome for my friends. Entering college at the age of 24 was a frustrating experience for them, they hated the students that felt like they had a grasp on what the world was like, and that they had all the answers. This dissension was real, and it was evident. There was no longer a social structure for these combat veterans to confide in. Their closest brother was hundreds of miles away and living his own life, going through the same struggles. They felt alienated, isolated from the rest of society that they were now required to seamlessly coincide with. There was no preparation for this, there is no military program that can help a veteran prepare for the sudden loss of their entire social structure. Their brotherhood is gone.
These guys are now thrown head first into a society that they can’t trust, talk to, or associate with on the same level. It’s just a fact of life that your co-workers can’t possibly understand why you are the way you are. Why you’re so angry at the slightest complaint from a customer; why you feel your boss, whom is the newly appointed 22 year old shift manager is a complete idiot. The VA looks at your forms and gives you a disability rating for PTSD. This isn’t PTSD per se, but it’s a lack of preparedness for the loss of an entire life you once knew. Of course they don’t say anything. A struggling vet, with a shit paying job is just awarded a monthly payment. They take it.
It’s at about this time in their lives that you start seeing their posts’ on Face Book become more bitter towards people, more angry at everyone that never wore a uniform. Their profile picture is 7 years old, a younger, more fit version of themselves taken somewhere in the middle east. These guys start drinking heavily, hoping to “get away” from the world they now live in. The lonely one. Failing to reach out to their boys, ignorant to the fact that they need help, they start abusing the miracle drugs the VA is prescribing and creating a poisonous cocktail of prescription meds and whiskey, eventually finding themselves unemployed due to a variety of possible circumstances. I have seen this downward spiral take hold and have thankfully talked a few brothers off the ledge of malicious thought and depression. I was incredibly fortunate to see the signs early enough and I made a phone call in the middle of the night, hoping that they would pick up. Talks of “the good ole’ days” and words of encouragement have helped more than a handful of honorable men I call friends. But sometimes we’re not so lucky. 22 times a day we’re unlucky.
I’ve been separated from the military for a few years now, and unlike almost every guy I served with, my transitional period required a different process of transitioning into this new life I was to now live and prosper in. I moved to San Diego, as far away from the Army and any person I wore a uniform with. I didn’t want to be around the military, I hated hearing war stories from some gloating soldier that felt like he had a sweet run in Afghanistan. I didn’t want to talk about what I did, what my background was or if I had ever shot a man. I found myself lying to people if I got cornered in a conversation where my military service was on the verge of being discovered. I didn’t do this because I was ashamed of what I did for 8 years, I was incredibly proud of my career. I was just avoiding the inevitable ignorant questions. But who can blame them? Who can blame their curiosity for wanting to know what the war that their country has been in for the past 14 years has been like? I didn’t hate civilians, I envied them. I envied their success, and sometimes, I envied their ignorance. I envied their ability to fall asleep like a baby without having a night cap. I just wanted to fit in, and I knew that my success outside of the Army relied upon it. In my opinion, the suicide crisis that the veteran community is facing isn’t an issue necessarily of PTSD, sure, that of course is included; but the issue is a decimated bond that service members face when they leave the military. There is no brotherhood to be had outside of the military with your new found “civilian” friends. You can’t and shouldn’t expect your co-worker to take a bullet for you, they live in a world where “flight” sounds far more appealing than “fight”. But that is what makes us so great, that is why the society that we call ignorant, needs us so badly. We are the ones they can count on to take that bullet, to fight that threat, and to save their child from a burning car on the interstate. Be the people your country can count on again, men like Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Chris Mintz. There is a purpose for us yet gentleman, we still have a mission, even outside of the military. You’re needed now, just as much as you’ve ever been. Go be great again.