One afternoon, hours before my night shift was to begin and six hours before the 2010 operation in Marjah, Afghanistan, Bear, my team leader, pulled me out of my rack.
“Pack your shit for two weeks. Our interpreter is missing so we need you.”
My gear was sorted in piles on the floor by the time I realized where I was and what was going on. This was a skill learned in boot camp; the ability to respond to a wake-up call with boots tied before I had even consciously woken up.
This was the last thing I expected mere weeks before returning home, but I could do this. An experienced cryptologic linguist and Marine (“every Marine a rifleman”), I had years of training moving my hands. And the adrenaline of perhaps seeing real combat, having my story, filled me.
But something else also woke along with my calculated preparation: fear.
Did I do my homework? The homework that nagged me from the moment I signed the contract for Active Duty enlistment. Was I really prepared for the possibility of death? Regardless, there wasn’t a choice to be made. I kept getting ready.
Slowly, I started adding up the inconsistencies in my training and what was being asked. I had years of experience translating from a desk, but it had been years since I had the basics of combat and foot patrols. What kind of overnight gear was I supposed to have? How much room did I need to leave for MREs?
Was I ready for the possibility that I’d fuck up?
Questions mounted and minutes clicked by. Soon I was shuffling piles around and trying to find something else I knew I could do while waiting to dump my questions on Bear. Finally, he showed up.
Before I could ask anything, he blurted, “We found the terp. I’ll see you in two weeks,” and he was off.
I went back to bed. I had steak for breakfast before my shift that night, and meatloaf when Bear came back, two weeks later. That night he told me about relentless firefights and casualties, while he put more ketchup on his meatloaf. I gave him space, and then we found something to bullshit about.
That’s one of the more dramatic events of my enlistment, and I’ve never really told it before. Probably because it’s not much of a story. Besides, Bear’s version would be more to the point: combat, war, loss. I see news headlines about heroes and the psychological result, day in and day out. Reporters and readers and new acquaintances are curious about the role and consequences of war.
Yet this uncomfortable space between self, training and call of duty is probably nearer to the heart of my story.
I’m willing to bet Bear’s story isn’t all combat and aftermath either. Those themes in isolation are objectifying. Anytime I see a narrative like this in the news or hear a related question, it reminds me of one of the many actual parts of the veteran narrative: civilians don’t get the big picture.
As a veteran, people tend to ask for the newsworthy measurements of the end state. Did you deploy? Did you see combat? They want a sense of the cost of my duty, perhaps as a way of quantifying their sympathy or gratitude. Was it hard? They’re curious. Did you ever shoot your rifle? Maybe they want help with the big picture. What’s it like to go to war? Yes, these are relevant. Especially for veterans who have gone through hell, it’s vital to name and process those war experiences. But so is the rest of it.
For once, I want to talk about the rest.
We usually run out of time before I can talk about my military friends, or the memories I cherish. After years of storytelling, I worry I’m forgetting the real details for what civilians want to hear. The powerful support and growth that could only come from military camaraderie. The profound experience of not doing anything, waiting, wondering what will happen next while a lot of time passes in your day and life on Active Duty.
I indulge in their perspective, because any well-intended conversation is better than none. But there could be another conversation where veterans staked out and held the ground of their true experiences, whether talking about combat, discipline or foreign policy. In the dirt of those sometimes uninteresting details are the rocks of common ground between and across the civilian-veteran divide.
It’s been painfully evident how necessary this foundation is for talking about the grittier details of war and its aftermath.
War and the military are not the same
Veterans’ war and combat experience vary widely. On the other hand, all veterans have had a heavy dose of military training and lifestyle. What’s more, the hardships and joys of military duty are not the same for everyone. I’m sure you’d rather I not define your work by the disasters and chaos that you’re trained to handle, or measure your experience in those terms. Asking about combat, war, and consequences is doing just that. So if you want to get beyond the basics, let the veteran tell their story from the beginning, and let them define it.
It starts with the contract. All veterans’ stories begin the same, but what it means to the veteran is important. Military service is defined by a unique duty: to be willing to risk your life to defend the country.
Right before I signed the contract, I was just like you, thinking about what that might mean. I remember sitting at the table wondering whether my name was the answer on a test; if there was more to the question I hadn’t studied.
Karl Marlantes (Vietnam veteran and author) defines a warrior as a two step process. The first is choosing to take a side. Almost instantly after I had made the decision to enlist I felt different. I would ask myself throughout my enlistment, what would happen? I had deliberately put my life and well-being on the line for something else. What did I put my life on the line for?
Right after I signed the contract, my high school grades took a nose-dive. Did they really matter anymore? I would stay up until three in the morning doing crunches and wall sits while listening to Guns n Roses, or lay in bed in the dark thinking about what parts of my identity I hoped would survive boot camp. Also, while listening to Guns n Roses.
Training. Whereas the choice to be a warrior merely means signing up and showing up, the second part of Marlantes’s warrior requires some action. It requires being prepared to defend, violently if necessary.
The military invests a lot of its resources in preparing the new recruit for duty. We all receive basic training, which entails some form of combat training. Whereas some will go on to receive specialized combat training, most will receive specialized training in roles that support combat personnel. At most of my stations, I was issued Bose headphones instead of a rifle. (In Afghanistan I got both.)
Job descriptions and skill sets are highly specific. They’re so specific, it creates a problem for most veterans trying to transfer into the civilian workforce. There are not as many downed helicopters to repair, or communication lines to set up in the suburbs, as there are in military. Yet this very real cultural problem is the source of rich, unique experience and insight. What was it like to have those responsibilities?
Culture. Each veteran feels differently about the risks and demands of duty, but we also shared this concern as a community. Me and my friends bonded over immediate, and very long term uncertainties. At any time, new orders, or crazy officers could show up and immediately scramble our work, training, sleep or deployment schedule. One of the major turning points of my enlistment was the administrative choice to pull me from an Iraq deployment weeks before departure (and months into pre-deployment training).
Freedom was a privilege earned, and belief in consistency was a sin. As months turned to years, we shared in how uncertainty wore us down; as years added up, we shared in how we got used to it.
The war narrative
We also received a strong dose of theoretical, and literary exposure to war. In boot camp we attended lectures given on historical battles and heroes (with drill instructors in the aisles happy to keep us awake). We got promotion points for reading military literature. All of us are steeped in war narratives. The problem is, they’re of one variety: the one with a combat hero (Chesty Puller) or unit (Iwo Jima). Karl Marlantes’s recent book, What it is Like to Go to War is no exception.
This is precisely where veterans and civilians get derailed. Because in practice we’re mentally prepared for war, it’s easy for veterans to talk from a broad position. It’s even easier if we’re asked. It’s even easier if we want to. It sheds light on the motivation behind my Afghanistan blog posts, and so much more on the emptiness I felt in the years following that writing. For too long, my actual experiences have been tangled up in the war narrative.
I have often found myself describing others’ narrative of war and I wonder how many veterans share this experience. I’m an interpreter of someone else’s experience, some blend of my understanding and a stranger’s narrative of their experiences. Ask me about Marlantes’s book, but be sure to find out what parts are from my direct experience, and what parts are speculation.
And we can talk about the serious topics, but be mindful of what you’re asking about and who you’re asking. PTSD, war crimes, military culture, the good, the bad, the ugly. I lived in the military, and it was my family. If I didn’t experience it directly, I was close to people who did. Even if I can be objective, we’re talking about my people.
The veteran’s service is a price for the gain of the nation. Some civilians are grateful. Some feel guilty. Some are angry. The same is true of veterans.
Perhaps the most prized secret of a veteran is that they have the complex feelings about all of it, too. I’m deeply happy, grateful, sad and angry about my service and the military. Whereas the military is physically removed from society in order to perform its duty, I believe it must be connected with the broader society in defining that duty, and that takes conversations.
Like everywhere, issues of cultural subdivision exist even within the military. Marines are unique from the other services, Marine grunts from the rest of Marines, elite forces from grunts, and so on. Even my tiny lot of Marine linguists have an identity that doesn’t generalize to the analyst Marines in some ways.
One of the final days in Afghanistan my company formed up for a send-off speech by a high-level commander. In the middle of his talk validating the unique mission objectives we’d prided ourselves on accomplishing, he lowered his tone.
“At the end of the day, you and I are just like our friends in the Army or Navy or Air Force. We’re all here doing a difficult job for our country.”
He paused long enough for us to get uneasy. Long enough for us to remember that we were trying to be different, and wanted to be recognized for our difference.
“What sets Marines apart is the choice to be one.”
That hit home, but at the time it felt like a secret. Choices are all that differentiate us; the rest of our character is the same. Which means you could probably imagine it, and we should probably talk about it.
This time I’ll try to give you the unedited version.