On December 1st, 2003, I formally became a veteran of the United States Army.
I spent four years of my life removed from everything that made me who I was - the friends I had made all throughout high school, my family, even the hobbies I had that filled my free time (idly writing about sports and watching football and even writing poetry and short fiction). I eventually departed the military in that fall of '03 and, to the surprise of no one (except perhaps me initially), returned right back to a world from which I could not have been more distant.
I learned a lot in the military; I learned how to be disciplined, how to adjust to anything and how to be a leader when the situation required it. I also learned a lot about what I didn't want to do with my life, in part from learning about what a lot of my fellow soldiers left behind to enter the military.
That also came from learning that the line of work I went into wasn't going to help me much in the real world, so I was going to have to do something with myself once I departed. Turns out that "operating a tank that shoots rockets and can blow stuff up" doesn't really translate to any sort of civilian job pursuit, after all.
If that wasn't bad enough, I lost myself as a sports fan. That's mostly due to having spent a year in South Korea; when your sports viewing options are "Premier League soccer" or "staying up until weird hours to watch the one or two MLB/NHL/NBA/NFL games the Armed Forces Network airs each week," your priorities as a sports fan change. Even with the ability to check things out online, I quickly became a casual fan of pretty much everything.
Not that there is anything wrong with the Premier League. I became a fan then and continue to be at least a casual fan now. But Major League Baseball and collegiate football are my bread and butter, and I had to rediscover that, almost redefine myself and my fandom once I was back stateside and had "normal" options again.
But it turns out that wasn't the only part of myself that I was going to have to redefine.
What I didn't learn in the military was just how much I would feel like the world's largest square peg trying to fit into the world's smallest round hole when I returned home. It was bound to happen, given that over the course of that four years everyone and everything that I had called familiar had continued to go about their lives on whatever their "normal" trajectory was at the time. I, in the meantime, was hammered and molded and could not have been more different when I left than when I came back.
I often describe that point in time as having jumped off a carousel. Everything was moving along smoothly in its regular up-and-down, round-and-round rhythm, and even the moving parts were cozy because they weren't exactly going anywhere. I jumped off to learn about myself, then returned to that carousel and had to figure out how to jump back on it, despite the fact that it never stopped spinning.
Suffice to say, it took a while to figure out - and even then, I walked around the platform of the ride only to realize that none of the figurines on the ride were the same ones I left. They all had changed just enough that I didn't recognize them as familiar, and I had no clue how to interact with any of them.
It took time to realize that it was me and my perspective of my environment that had changed, not anything else. I had lots of stories to share, but I didn't feel like it because nobody could really understand anything I was talking about. I had attempted and failed at reconnecting with friends I had drifted away from, in part because there was just so much time lost and distance created that it seemed insurmountable.
Those who had known me didn't really know me anymore, and those who would come to know me couldn't really know me either because they couldn't relate. My military experience was a substantial part of who I had become, and I was suddenly an interloper who couldn't share himself fully with anyone.
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November 11, 2012 was the first time I celebrated Veteran's Day.
Why did it take so long? Lots of reasons. Mostly I was frustrated that nobody "got it," I was ashamed of all of the things I thought I should have done better when I served, and I also had long since stopped bothering to celebrate anything, let alone something as "trivial" as Veteran's Day.
By that time, I was well into both graduate school and my relationship with the woman who is now my wife. I had gotten back the parts of my identity I could salvage (Pittsburgh sports fan for better or worse, lover of sports writing), and also learned how to understand what resulted while I added more to it to complete the picture.
By then I had told many of my stories to folks of all walks of life, and had even made friends with a few local military people. My Army life was a much smaller part of who I was, and I had a much better understanding of what it meant to me individually.
Instead of frustration at all of the things I didn't accomplish or could have done better, I had pride in all of the things I did accomplish. Instead of frustration that nobody understood me or cared to understand me, I learned to appreciate that understanding anyone, especially a veteran, is a complex process that is only worsened by frustration at (or by) the learner.
With all of that time and knowledge behind me, I have a much stronger understanding of being a veteran, connecting with those who aren't, and celebrating a day of recognition that I have earned (along with thousands of others, most of whom made much greater sacrifices than I have). So I'm taking a minute to share with you how to make it a good Veteran's Day for those who are being celebrated.
Number One - Be genuine in your thanks, even if you are being generic. Do not say (or post on your Facebook, or on Twitter) "Happy Veteran's Day!" to anybody. This is not Halloween or Valentine's Day, and you should not cheapen things by celebrating and acknowledging the day as much as you are the people that day is meant to honor. Think about the efforts put forth by those being honored, and try to return the favor by putting some effort into your attempt to honor them.
Number Two - If you want to go a step beyond that, reach out to a veteran you know. You don't have to get crazy with it either; you don't need to make some epic attempt to try and relate to them or to understand what they've been through or anything like that. You just need to listen. It doesn't matter if they want to talk about their military service or not, they'll appreciate the fact that someone wants to hear what they have to say.
Number Three - If they do choose to share service-related stories, it's o.k. if you do nothing more than sit there and absorb, as long as you are genuinely listening and they can see your attention is held. One of the hardest parts of serving was that those stories that felt unshareable felt so heavy; all it really took was a large volume of sharing to distribute that weight. Maybe you can be the person who gives them one more repetition of storytelling that can get them a little further from "I've never told that to anyone" and a little closer to "that thing that happened one time."
Number Four - Last but not least, let everyone else know that this is how it is done. Give those veterans even a few minutes of your time, and give them every single undivided second of those minutes. I promise you will have made their day, whether you get where they are coming from or not.
In closing, I send out a heart felt note of gratitude to everyone who served alongside me, before me and after me in the name of defending the freedoms we have as Americans. Know that at least one person out there will never forget what you gave up so that others could have more.
If you have lost someone who served, I hope you take today to think of them and their unselfish service fondly. If you know someone who is currently serving, find a way to say thank you so that you can brighten the life of someone else for even one day.