13 years ago last week, I woke up about three seconds before five o’clock in the morning in complete confusion. Instead of seeing the four walls of my childhood bedroom, adorned with my Chicago Bulls pennant and Michael Jordan poster, I was lying in a bunk in a large, grey room. Where the hell am I? I got my answer moments later when an empty metal trashcan was tossed onto the floor and an irate Drill Instructor started yelling.
Then I remembered. I had just enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, and this was the first day of a 13-week long boot camp.
Looking back now, many of my memories of boot camp are funny. What a hilarious situation to look in on, a bunch of bald teenage boys in ill-fitted camouflage utilities running around while grown men in pressed and perfect uniforms and funny hats are screaming at them. I remember the honor of receiving my Eagle, Globe, and Anchor, the emblem of the Marine Corps and a physical acknowledgement of having earned the title Marine, and I recall the awkwardness of being thanked for my service by some civilians before I’d even left San Diego (I haven’t even done anything yet, was my first thought).
But for the most part, boot camp is a hilariously absurd affair.
My memories of that time stand in stark contrast to my experiences in war.
I won’t pretend to be some kind of war hero. I was shot at plenty but only once in my life did I find myself in sustained, prolonged combat with the enemy. A full hour of being pinned down in an open field, surrounded on three sides as bullets flew overhead and grenades rolled dangerously close to our positions. By the grace of God, we all survived the ordeal but with several close calls. Far from the glorious affair I imagined combat would be, the real deal was gritty, bloody, and damn terrifying.
I watched Netflix’s All Quiet on the Western Front last week, and I remember living a lot of the feelings that Paul, the protagonist, experiences. From the jubilant, naive patriotism as he enlists to the wide-eyed fear as bullets start coming his way. Unlike Paul, I was fortunate enough to return home one day and carry on with my life as a war veteran.
I learned that civilians tend to have a certain image of people like me, warfighters who no longer fight wars. Society has largely chosen to portray us as ticking time-bombs. Angry, unstable, alcoholic maniacs who are one bad day away from committing murder, suicide, or both. And sure, in some cases this is sadly accurate.
But there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people like me: we did our part, then reintegrated ourselves into society. We’re different, but you won’t know it unless we choose to let you into that part of our lives. Some of us are still proud of our time in the military, even if it leaves us conflicted about America’s vast umbrella of foreign policy. In that regard, you could say we’re walking contradictions.
Whatever the case, that’s the kind of veteran I want to see on TV more often. Enough of the violent drunk with the dog tags hanging out of his shirt, and enough of the ‘noble’ homeless veteran, downtrodden and broken. The vast majority of us become normal, productive citizens who just so happen to have a different resume than most.
I’m not sure if there’s an overarching theme or point to today’s post. Passing by the anniversary of my boot camp date and watching a powerful anti-war film at the same time left me in a bit of an emotional maelstrom and I wanted to put digital pen to digital paper. If you read this far and would like something to take away from this post, know that war veterans for the most part just want to blend in with you. We have families, we work steady, unglamorous jobs, and we only pour a drink on the rare occasion that we want one. Just treat us like you do anyone else.
But please, don’t thank a brand-new Marine for his service. It really is awkward.
2 thoughts on “When Warfighters Come Home”
So many profound things here, but the part I’m fixating on is, how did you wake up right before they dropped the trash can? Do you think you somehow subconsciously knew they were getting ready to do it? 😀
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I have no idea to be honest. Just one of those things that just… happens haha. I seem to have a knack for waking up moments before my alarm, but that didn’t start until I was an adult so maybe that event permanently triggered my body haha!
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