Welp… here we are. Four months later.
When I first got back home from a deployment to the sandbox affectionately known as Afghanistan, I was raw and still stuck in a disciplined military mind set based on trying not to get killed. At that point, most of my efforts were spent trying to get acclimated to life back in the states because such a heightened sense of awareness is emotionally draining.
I honestly didn’t have the energy or time to think of “Where do I go from here?” so much as I just followed orders to go to Fort X or Camp Y and do whatever I was ordered to do at the time. I will be the first to admit that I was tired both mentally and physically after my playtime in the sandbox, so the “go there, do this” life was a relatively nice way to relax. I didn’t have to think creatively, just actionably, if I may start making up words. When touching base with the rest of my guys who got home, they expressed the same sentiment. Those first few months are supposed to be like a half way house for military to civilian life. Problem is, even today, free from all commitments, I still feel stuck in that half way house.
Back in March, I got word that my injuries were more than what my position in the Army would allow. I was offered two choices: take a desk job or get out of the Army. Now, I’m horrible at sitting behind desks. When I do have to sit behind one for any extended period of time, I actually go out and buy one of those yoga balls so I can keep moving around while typing away at reports or creating PowerPoint projects. I guess if I really wanted to be the action superhero that all the commercials make everyone out to be in the Army or Marines, I should have chosen to go into Infantry and lead the foot patrols instead of just hitching along with them from time to time, giving intelligence to the foot patrols’ leadership. Alas, I feel I’m a thinking man and a problem solver (I’m sure a few ex’s would argue harshly against that statement), and still feel that Military Intelligence is the best route for me.
Given all that, I declined the desk job. Subsequently, I was told I would be going through a Records Review Board, the preemptive steps to a Medical Examination Board and a discharge process that followed. I finally had my “railroad tracks” (take a peek at any captain’s rank insignia and it should become apparent why they’re called that), be it only for a few months and they were leading me straight towards an exit from the military.
As part of the discharge process, I was shuttled off to various medical facilities, and as anyone who has been through the armed services would attest to, there are no weirder medical exams than the ones you get from the military. You quickly get shuffled through things like blood work, having to piss in a cup, and a quick questionnaire of “Do you smoke marijuana?” and other morals based inquires. Then they make you sit in line for an hour to see if you can do the duck walk (Google is your best friend if you’ve never had to duck walk before). And no, right now, at this point I cannot do the duck walk. Maybe I could, but it’d feel like rubbing sand paper between my spine and hip. However, I do have an acceptable cholesterol level. For the third time, I was told by the military that my back and hip issues meant I was no longer Army material. No shocker there; I’m sure any one of the previous four or five doctors I’ve seen for these issues could have told them. They did, of course, but the military wants an infinite amount of confirmation to make most decisions.
I was then transferred into a group called Community Based Warrior Transition Unit, which used to be called the Community Based Health Care Organization a few years ago. The point of the unit was a lot more self-explanatory under its former name. It’s basically a unit that a Service Member reports to, most often by phone, just to let the Army know they are still alive, and for help coordinating medical appointments at local, non-military hospitals. The biggest kicker of this program is that you’re allowed to go back to your home and try and get settled back in to a ‘normal’ life. One could just call it a place the Army puts National Guard guys and gals who were injured while deployed until we are just well enough to get kicked out without them getting called negligent. I won’t lie, it was nice to be allowed back home full-time in Boston. It finally felt like it was the actual beginning of my integration into civilian life.
Jump forward to Memorial Day when I was asked to report to my old unit just outside the city for a local parade. They gave me the distinction of being driven around in a HUMMVV by a young cadet, less for my accomplishments and more because of the previously mentioned medical issues. I began to think of where I was about seven years ago, sitting in the position of this young cadet, a third year student at Northeastern University and felt the bite of jealousy. Her whole career was ready for her to devour. As for the parade itself: it felt a bit like being the mayor of the parade, only to be out-shined by the two and a half ton truck that was also brought along with Soldiers throwing out candy. Everyone loves candy. No one loves a busted up captain. Okay, they might, but not when compared to candy.
I was happy to do what I could, even if I was just a body that day. A lot of people wanted to come up to us and say thanks, yet I think the Soldiers and Officers there that day felt a little weird getting those handshakes. Memorial Day isn’t for us; we’re just there representing those who have perished due to combat or time that fought for this country in the past. I’ll get my second Veteran’s Day coming up in November, and I’m more than content with that holiday.
I just hope those same people went to cemeteries or set up memorials like the one in Boston Common and stuck in a few American flags in honor of the fallen. I don’t know this for sure, but I feel like a lot of people are a bit stuck in the present, thinking that the only wars were in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I wonder if they realize that we’re down to the last confirmed survivor from World War I; a young woman of 110 named Florence Green in England. There are a lot of wars we need to keep honoring the “last full measure of devotion.”
We desperately need to hold onto the memory of these wonderful people who have served many years before I was even born, giving our country everything they could, and some who ended up giving it all. I regret not taking the time to go and speak with these elderly veterans when I was younger and being able to learn their stories in person. Now, all that’s left are VHS tapes, DVDs, and movie files on a server. Critical in their own right, but much shallower than the joy, pride, and sorrow in the eyes of hearing a technical sergeant recanting the time that he fell into a fox hole, and came to as a German tank rolled right over him. How he got a battlefield commission, but was shot in the shoulder by a sniper and sent back to the US, never getting his butter bar. I digress.
At the end of the parade, I returned back to my office in our armory to take care of some administrative paperwork, when my company commander and first sergeant walked in. They handed me a letter stating that I was, in a certain form, medically retired and honorably discharged. No big meeting with colonels and generals. No grueling testimony to affirm my injuries were sustained while serving. Just a thanks for playing.
A Civilian in Officer's Clothes
Yes, for technicalities sake, I could get medically examined and try to get back in eighteen months from now, but I was, at that point, a civilian in Officer’s clothes. No more Soldiers to train and supervise. No more evaluations to write, or reports to proofread and make recommendations based of off. No more PT tests, or yelling “Air Assault” when my left foot hit the ground, or “Airborne!” when I saw someone from the 82nd I knew. No more calling someone a “dirty leg.” No more making sure my beret was squared away (more on that horrible piece of headwear later), or shaving every day – painfully, I might add. No more Cadet Parent, Second Lieutenant Parent, First Lieutenant Parent, or, for however short lived it was, no more Captain Parent. I was just, Mr. Parent. Just another dude for the first time in forever.
I will say, from having seen fellow Soldiers and Officers go through various stages of the medical discharge process, this was by far the fastest discharge I’ve ever been witness to in my career. These things would usually drag out for months and months. You can go to any number of military forums and find stories of these medical cases getting bungled, dragged out, and misdiagnosed. I was expecting at least another year of service or more. I’d tell people I was hoping for “the end of the summer” because it would kind of keep them off my back about asking questions on why it took so long. I never imagined that this would be the quickest decision the Army would make regarding my career. A little over two months is break neck speed in this world when it comes to administrative decisions. I digress, again.
Now, I don’t care how strong a man you are, when you’ve spent the last eight years working out, training in ROTC, Officer Leadership and Captain’s Career courses, traveling to South Korea, Germany, and Afghanistan, losing friends, and seeing those you’ve trained get their sergeant stripes or their butter bars (the second lieutenant rank is a brass bar, making it look like a stick of butter), and you get that letter saying that this day was your last, that there were no more missions, no future, you just feel your heart get ripped right out.
Three months later, I’m still letting the news settle in. I’ve got Rubbermaid tubs worth of gear and tools to return (there’s actually an email sitting over on my phone giving me my last bit of reprimand asking why I haven’t turned it in yet), and half a closet worth of dress uniforms and clean uniforms.
The other day, I was folding some of these uniforms to get packed away and I recalled that for as short as my time in the Army was, I served long enough to see three different uniform changes. First, I went from the old Vietnam-era, woodland camouflaged Battle Dress Uniform (BDUs), to the “blends sort of well into everything, which means it really blends into nothing” Army Combat Uniform (ACUs).
A subsection to the ACUs was the god-awful decision to start having everyone wear those black berets. Aside from the less than stellar appearance it gave everyone, they were a pain in the ass to maintain. When you got them, you had to wet the beret to get it to shrink to your head and shave off the excess felt with a razor. Once you had them trimmed up, you needed two hands to put them on your head properly and were hot as hell in a humid Georgia summer. If there is one thing I’m happy to be rid of these days is that bloody beret. Of course, not a week went by from my discharge did the Army get rid of the beret for the majority of situations. They might as well have slipped the change in regulations with my discharge letter sandwich between two big middle fingers.
Second, was the change from the old green Class-A uniforms to the Dress Blues. The greens were a bit iconic, and have been around in some form for forever. For some reason, the best recollection of the greens is the Iran Contra hearing testimonies by the Army. I will say that the Dress Blues sure do bring a touch of class and represent the days when officers wore shoulder boards to display their rank, and we got to wear those big, pompous hats that are taller than even the Marines caps. You can get them in various threads to help deal with those hot and humid days, the number of pins and awards you get to spread around really stick out, and just make you look like a giant pile of testosterone. A sharp looking pile of testosterone.
Those two uniform changes occurred just as I was graduating from college and leaving ROTC. I was sparkling a new officer in a sparking new uniform. Both were awkward at the start, but eventually grew to be more and more acceptable. Okay, the ACUs never became more acceptable, they were awkward the entire time we had them.
The final uniform update did help rectify the shortfalls of the ACUs. It happened when the Army switched from the ACUs to the new Multi-Cam uniforms you’ll see on anyone deployed to Afghanistan these days. They actually are reasonable, do provide some camouflage, and unlike the ACUs, make you look less like a pixilated joke from Modern Warfare. These changes were oddly appropriate as it occurred just as I was going through the discharge process. Just like the ACUs, my lifespan in the Army had run it’s course and I was on my way out.
So now, all of these uniforms have to get shelved away or donated to the Salvation Army. Maybe I’ll keep my Dress Blues out. They were expensive as all hell and I got to wear them all of four times; my commissioning, a unit Christmas party, a deployment ceremony, and finally at our award ceremony when we returned home. I’m told now that I’ve been technically “retired”… I get to wear those to appropriate military functions. Might as well get some value out of them.
So, while I was packing away and handing back the past eight years of my Army life, a weight fell on my chest; a feeling of such loneliness. I’ve read stories about the transition from military to civilian life being hard. Hell, I’d been helping to raise support and awareness for the organizations that were assisting veterans these past few months. I suppose it just is a whole different understanding when it is finally happening to you.
In the last article, I mentioned my problem connecting with people since I’ve returned home. I think I’ve probably only gotten worse in that area in the past four months. I understand this is not a unique situation I’m encountering; many have been through this when going through the military to civilian transition, and most have gotten through it. But, the struggle is there, all around me these days. It’s hard to see your military friends because you feel guilty that you can’t stand with them in formation or the battlefield anymore. You want to grab a uniform and run up there with them on a plane leaving for mobilization somewhere in Louisiana, Nevada, or Texas, then your knees or your back starts screaming at you to remind you why you’re out.
Your civilian friends feel distant in both the physical and psychological sense. It’s hard not to want to come back home and hope nothing has changed; that people stayed the same and lived in the same places as before. You slowly come to terms with how unrealistic that wish is over time. Life around you doesn’t stop moving forward just because you went off to play soldier. Regardless of what is unrealistic or not, you still hope that some, if not most, of your life stayed in place. But it hasn’t, and so you only feel more and more distant from your friends.
I miss my friendships as they were back before I first started shining boots and doing push-ups, and at times I want to scream and get mad about things, but I remember that these were my choices to leave and not theirs. I’ve had to slowly come to grips with letting go of those expectations. In some cases, that can lead to just different levels of relationships with these friends. In others, it’s been too hard not to remember how things were, so I’ve had to just painfully start the process of just moving on from them. Honestly, it feels worse than breaking up with a girlfriend because you never expected to have to go through the stages of breaking up with a friend. You saw them three times a week for the first month you were home, then you maybe once every other week, then once a month. Now? Maybe once a quarter. Slowly, the relationship ends up just falling apart before your eyes. You wonder if anyone did anything wrong, and you know no one did. It’s just… civilian life. No, that’s wrong; it’s just life. No one has to be anywhere or do anything. Things move on. People move on.
And finally, I’ve never had that large or close of a family, so I can’t really attest to the feelings one goes through with them. I can only assume that they are the extreme examples of the relationships I’ve mentioned before. I’ve actually done better at reaching out to the family I do have, but the physical distance is still a challenge for us getting together.
As I said, none of this is unique to me, or even just a handful of Soldiers and Officers. This is happening all the time, and probably gets tucked into the PTSD ball of wax. It’s a depression, and it’s a tough thing to fight through. So when you see someone in uniform, be it friend or stranger, I hope you go up them and say hello, add in a bit of encouragement, and give thanks. Buy them a beer, talk about the Bruins, Phillies, or gardening. Anything really, the human contact is the most important thing for us when coming home.
Ripples in the Pond
Now, I’m a big fan of NBC’s The West Wing, and love to quote President Bartlet’s working catch phrase, “What’s next?” So when I was finally out of my career as an Army officer, I asked myself that question. What’s next? When the structure you lived by for years is gone, you’re now left feeling as lost as you have in the past. You go to your civilian job and tell them you’ll be coming back soon, while gritting your teeth because you remember these coworkers were never as honorable or selfless as the men and women you just served with in the military. You try and catch up with friends at home and you’re either stuck thinking they have no clue what you’re going through, or they’re too intimidated to ask or help.
To this point, at least for myself, I don’t have an answer yet. I guess that’s the key word, "yet." In the Army, it’s been hammered into me to not be afraid to dive right in and if you fuck up, fuck up loud. So I figure once I’m reinstated with my civilian job, I’ll dive right in and the ripples in the pond be damned. There will surely be some old and new employees who will hate my style of management now that I’ve returned. And I’m sure my bosses will hate my blunt commentary on everyone’s performance, including theirs, but that’s just how I’ll have to go in there, loud and in charge. It’s the way I have to do it because, at this time, I don’t know any other way to act.
If that means I don’t fit in anymore in the corporate world, so be it. I’ll just have to call up some of the people who have given me business cards over the past few months and try somewhere else. Who knows, maybe I end back up in Afghanistan again in some cushy hotel room working for a government contractor. Or maybe I’ll move to Pennsylvania or California in the next year and start law school when I have the time. Who needs cranky corporations?
As for my friends and family, I’ll just have to go the same way. I need to learn to let the bad relationships go, embrace those who I am comfortable with, and charge forward. Will any of this be easy? Probably not. But this is the battle I have in front of me now, and should be treated just like any other mission I was given in the past eight years.
There is no ‘What’s next?’… just what’s now.