Home is Where the Tribe is
First off, Happy Veteran’s Day to all my fellow service members reading this, and thank you for doing your job. I shy away from “thank you for your service,” as the phrase invokes a lot of weird feelings. Sincerely though, those before me, those with me, and those after me, thank you for continuing to do the job.
I know a lot of those who served don’t know what to say when a stranger thanks them, I’ve found an enthusiastic “thank you for your support,” does the trick. That’s the thing, it’s hard to be gracious for something you don’t really think is a big deal. It’s like someone thanking you for for getting an oil change…well…it had to be done, so, ok, anyways, you’re welcome???!!
This will be my last Veteran’s Day while still serving. It is the first one I have had off in a long time. During the week I had grand plans for the whole day, I was going to map out my trek through different restaurants and businesses. Hey, look, if the VA isn’t going to give me what I need, I’m gonna’ take damn good advantage of whatever I can. I was gonna’ get free breakfast, free lunch, maybe get a free oil change, or a discounted Target trip, my free coffee, then free dinner.
I woke up, it was past noon. I had watched Medal of Honor on Netflix the previous night and my eyes were puffy and swollen. I had been up until about 5am. The series was as powerful as it gets in teaching about those who sometimes gave the ultimate sacrifice, some who did make it home, to leave lives just as important as those defining heroic moments.
Once I pried myself from bed, I plopped onto the couch and watched a Netflix show I’ve watched a handful of times already about vampires and werewolves. It was quiet, and no one else was home. I walked from room to room, not really with any purpose. I scrolled through social media, enjoying the various photos from friends showing their time in the service. These friends were service members I had known during various days in the Army. Many of the photos were of their own stories, and with people and units I didn’t know or belong to. There was something so familiar about them though.
In the same way that staged family photos are often stiff and awkward, the photos I saw were in exact contrast, they people at ease, people with genuine smiles, often snapped mid gregarious laugh, they were of people full of life.
The background could be of nothing but dust, a living space with plywood for walls, but the people in those photos had a joy that can never be reproduced in any other time or place. They almost always have at least three or four people in them. I saw my friends surrounded by their friends and battle buddies they depended on.
Finally, mid afternoon, I decided to go get my free cup of coffee from Starbuck’s (the one located inside my local grocery store), ya’ know, so I could drink it while I grocery shopped. I considered going to IHOP or one of the other places that offered a free meal. Then that whole thing of there being other people there kind of squashed that whole thing.
I didn’t want to go alone.
When you’re with people you love, that you don’t have to, when you’re not bound by blood, anything is possible. I never thought I’d be that person that constantly said, “When I was deployed…” blah blah blah it’s so cliched. But I have become that person.
In Afghanistan, I was mostly never ten feet away from someone that I could count on. I merely had to walk around the corner, or to the next room, and there would be someone. I always knew they would show up, and that I would too. On my third deployment, I was in Afghanistan, and my whole unit got a stomach bug from “tainted produce,” being served in the DEFAC (cafeteria). We were all shitting our pants, literally, but we still showed up. Granted, if you disappeared for an hour to change your pants, no one gave you shit for it. (See what I did there). That’s the thing, it was funny at the time.
I never played so much monopoly in my life. Hey don’t judge me, downtime was just that, downtime and we reveled in it. I had two other females I went everywhere with. I got used to looking to my left and right to talk to them. On Wednesday nights, it was wing night, so we’d go get a to-go plate, and go back to your tin can and watch Harry Potter and Star Wars marathons (it was an Air Force base after all). I didn’t feel judged when I cried over Dobby dying, what with his teeny tiny shoes. I mean, my friends laughed at me, but I didn’t care.
Now, there are days I still go to talk to them, and they’re not there. Some days I feel like I’m missing a limb, that if I just had them back, things would be better, and I could fully function, I wouldn’t freak out in the grocery store when I couldn’t find the jelly because they’d help me find it. Misery loves company, and they made the misery bearable.
Every time I came home I had a sense of happiness, but also fear, fear I wouldn’t find my place back in the world.
At home, I get along with my co-workers, but that’s all they are, my co-workers. Sometimes I think I’m telling a hilarious story and they just look at me like I’m a freak. I remember laughing so hard with my military friends that it made me fart at times. I don’t laugh like that anymore.
My first deployment, we all gathered in a sort of “town square.” There was a basketball court surrounded by little shops, and places to get food. I was lucky to have this. We would gather, on a week night, at picnic tables in the square to play cards. We learned of each other’s lives, their children, their wives, our pasts that lead us to that point. Hell, we didn’t even need beer to have a good time. It was pure human connection.
I have felt guilty for struggling as much as I have. I didn’t have it near as bad as others, I was lucky. I had running water (at most of the places I was stationed anyways, and I only had to poop in a bag like twice). Tonight, I was arguing with myself for feeling the way I have. “Why the shit are you on antidepressants, you ungrateful girl? You made it out unscathed. Yeah, there were some things you saw that you shouldn’t have had to, but who hasn’t?”
Nevermind I have experienced lung problems that I slightly suspect is due to the burn pits/sandstorms.
My second deployment was the best mission, but least connected I was with a unit. I just didn’t click anyone, and the year manifested in a mediocre experience that was tolerable, but nothing to write home about.
Then I came across a video that put some things into perspective. Alone in my room, I browsed videos posted for Veteran’s Day. I came across one that made so much sense. It talked about the fact that even though troops are not experiencing nearly the high levels of stressful combat situations of the days of WWI and WWII, something has changed for the worse. It has changed so much so that roughly 22 service members a day kill themselves. There are more cases of PTSD than in the past, despite less lethal situations and trauma while deployed.
The video states that it has to do with our tribe we come home to. In the past, service members came home to a community united, farming communities that depended on each other for that year’s crops, small towns where everyone knew each other. There was a strong support system. It’s not so anymore. We are more “technologically” connected than ever, but more disconnected intimately than ever. The video postures that maybe it’s not the Veterans, but society that is to blame for those falling on the home front, instead of at the front-lines.
That does explain how when I was deployed I could sit, by myself, in a room full of ten suspected insurgents, ten burly and surly men, and feel nothing but calm determination, but come home, and panic at the thought of attending a party filled with people I kinda’ know.
While deployed I had a tribe to back me up. I had a routine, a mission, a plan, a purpose. Now, I live in a nation so divided. Political parties have ripped out communities apart. I fought for freedom, and came home to a country that is slowly but surely crawling into dangerous territories of nationalism, and still clinging to racism.
I don’t know what the answer is. I do know there are other ways to support our troops besides saying thank you. So, if you consider yourself a patriot and want to do a real thing, take a few minutes and watch this video. I don’t think I’m asking too much.