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04 January 2009

When do you put away the desert cammies?

There is a scene in Jarhead, where a cracked-up Vietnam vet gets on the bus that's part of the Desert Storm victory parade. You've seen the movie, you know the scene-- the entire busload of Marines is quiet, as if they're not sure how to respond, as the cracked up 'Nam vet speaks.

I feel a little lost these days. After Desert Storm, having been in the Desert was a good thing. People bought you beer when they heard you'd been in the Desert. You could (somewhat proudly) stand and be counted as a Gulf War vet, because it was a legitimate and recognized category of life. Of course, that faded somewhat over time, as we all ETS'ed and went on with the rest of our lives, and the world moved forward. We all knew, each of us, that we'd be back in Iraq someday. But as time passed, the likelihood of it being us became more and more distant. (My DD-214 has a line that reads "SUBJECT TO ANNUAL RECALL AND/OR SCREENING", by the way.)

Then, 9/11 happened-- the Global War on Terror happened, we invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq. Toby Keith, Daryll Worley, 3 Doors Down, and others recorded some great songs about settling the score and going off to war.
It's still not over yet. People have enlisted, served full terms, and discharged since then. Some people have been back several times. The missions have changed. It's an evolution-- change always happens-- but I'm lost in the changes.

I know that many people, regardless of how much combat they actually saw, just want to come home and get on with the rest of their lives. When you're over there (wherever there is), it's all about getting home and doing X (whatever X is). Go to school, go to Mickey D's, get married, have kids, buy a Harley, get drunk, grow a beard, get piercings... everyone makes a list. When you get home, you start checking things off of the list. You move on with the rest of your life. Which is perfectly good.

What I'm wondering about though-- getting back to the cracked-up 'Nam vet on the bus-- is what happens when things don't work out as well as you planned them on the list you made while you were deployed. In my case, I didn't finish school, began to suffer from depression, came close to committing suicide, lost several jobs, got divorced, and have had to claw myself up from a pretty low place in life-- and I still haven't finished school, or psychotherapy.

I still have a set of desert cammies in my closet. I carry a cammie backpack to school. I carry a knife (a small 3" blade) or a Leatherman just about all the time. I'm also a amateur radio operator, and I volunteer to work with a group of folks in town that train to provide emergency communications to the county if there's ever a disaster that knocks out communications. I wonder if I have enough of what I need to survive for seventy two hours on my own. Going back and remembering things I learned in basic training and beyond has literally saved my life.

At the same time, I'm trying to overcome social anxiety. I've learned about a lot of ways to do that, and made some pretty significant changes in my life. The military (let's just say tactical) side is something I mostly hide from other people. You don't see people (or at least I don't) being blatantly patriotic most of the time lately. I wonder if the wars we're fighting are things people (veterans and non-military folk alike) are keeping out of sight and out of mind.

I guess what I'm ultimately wondering is, how much of the military is safe and sane to keep in your life? Is there a certain point where it becomes a liability, a demon, driving you slowly insane even while it gives you a framework to support your life?

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