Confessions Of A Peacetime Veteran

I’m a Navy veteran and today is Veteran’s Day.

I don’t mention this to fish for “Thank you for your service” comments. I don’t actually want them. No offense, mind you, but you might understand why in a bit.

No, I say this because it’s a day that actually makes me very uncomfortable.

You see, while I’m a veteran, I served during peacetime. I served at a time when the Twin Towers still stood tall but after the specter of the Soviets had gone away.

We’d already kicked the crap out of Iraq before I signed on the dotted line, though my National Service Medal stems from Desert Storm. I served during our missions in Somalia–in particular, Blackhawk Down–and operations in Bosnia, but I wasn’t there for any of it.

And honestly, Veteran’s Day makes me feel very odd.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my service. I mean, I wasn’t exactly the ideal sailor. When I left the Navy in 1996, they weren’t exactly sorry to see me go. There were reasons for that, a lot of them, mostly on me but also at least slightly an artifact of a time when our military was being drawn down post-Cold War.

But I did my time and was honorably discharged. I’m proud of that.

Beyond that simple fact, though, I don’t feel like I actually did anything. I spent my entire enlistment in Virginia, besides boot camp and “A” school at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, North Chicago, Illinois. I never deployed anywhere despite my willingness (even eagerness) to do so.

I did my time, got out, and left not a single thing worth remembering during my time.

So when people say, “Thank you for your service,” I politely thank them for their support, but deep inside, I feel very uncomfortable.

I probably shouldn’t. I mean, I did serve. I did it honorably.

But I live in a world that’s been at war for 17 years. We’ve had people who enlisted right after 9/11 who are counting down toward retirement right about now. We’ve had a whole generation of veterans who fought some of the nastiest fighting we’ve seen anywhere in our lifetime,  a war where conventional forces are trying to take on terrorists who have no qualms about killing civilians if they can take out just one American.

It’s ugly.

Thanks to technology, not nearly as many of our men and women have been killed as they could have been, but we see plenty of veterans missing limbs. They’ll lost things like their lower legs, get a prosthesis, and then go the hell back to war.

Navy SEAL turned new congressman Dan Crenshaw lost his eyesight in combat, got it remaining eye surgically fixed and then went back just because he didn’t want the enemy to think they got the best of him.

We have a generation there now that is extraordinary. They enlisted knowing damn good and well we were at war. They enlisted without any threat of a draft hanging over their head. They volunteered because they felt the need to. Nothing more, nothing less.

When they get out, they have a sick sense of humor, one that’s dark and disturbing to many. Their jokes are often perverse and offensive, not because they’re insensitive but because…well, they’re insensitive, but also because they know that life’s too short to have hangups over stupid stuff.

They’re really extraordinary, and I can’t help but feel like I have no place in their ranks.

They’re grunts and jarheads, flyboys and squids, and about all I feel justified in doing is using those terms (you have to earn the right to use those by serving yourself). Other than that, I don’t belong in their company.

When 9/11 happened, I was sitting at home, watching the towers fall. I was still technically a newlywed and I had a two-month-old son. He was two months old that very day, actually.

Initially, my thoughts were, “We’re going to war and I’m sitting here?” I wanted back in. Badly.

But I also had responsibilities. The decision wasn’t mine and mine alone and I knew where my wife would stand on the issue.

Don’t get me wrong, she loves our military. Her grandfather was a submariner during Vietnam. Her great-grandfather was in the Army during World War II. She has a deep respect for military service.

The thing is, she has also lost people she loves. Her mother and baby half-sister are missing persons (seriously). She wouldn’t side with me enlisting, especially with a small baby in our lives.

Granted, I don’t think the Navy wanted me back, but still…

Regardless, I did explore returning to service a time or two. I was more than willing. I felt obligated.

I didn’t, though. Why doesn’t matter. Just know that I didn’t and I kind of hate it.

I see this current generation of veteran and I can’t help but regret it. You see, I can’t help but feel like I don’t have any business being grouped with this group of men and women. I risked nothing, really. I mean, I was willing, but I never had to.

They did.

They enlisted knowing damn good and well they would probably have to risk their lives. They enlisted in a military at war. They went in often because we were at war.

Simply put, I’m not in their league.

It’s funny, because I never blinked about being a veteran before that. My father was in Vietnam, and I never felt unworthy of standing by his side as a veteran.

Why?

Damned if I know.

And, for what it’s worth, not a single member of this current generation has taken a crap on my service. These hangups are my own, not the product of my own mind, a version of impostor syndrome rearing its head.

Yet because of it, I’m very uncomfortable being thanked for my service.

Instead, thank those who served despite the risks. Thank those who lost, be it lost limbs, lost friends, or lost innocence. Thank them.

Because I sure as hell do.

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