That man in the sand-colored cammies running across desert plains with a rifle in hand and a pack on his back is gone, stored away in an old, dusty seabag that sits on the top-shelf of the rack in my garage. I have no eagle-globe-and-anchors tattooed on my arms, no dog tags around my neck. I go to work at nine and stare at a computer screen most of the day. Besides the few small scars and aches across my body, there’s nothing left to remind me of the days when I was a Marine.There’s part of me that lives a lot like the Marine I was. But I’m coming to learn that’s not the Marine in me, that’s just me.

I still get up at five most mornings, because I want to. I still workout regularly, because I want to. I still iron out my clothes before I wear them, because – again – I want to. I do these things for me.

But the second someone learns I was in the Corps, they’re quick to think that’s why I do these things. They think that’s why I lean Republican, or why I’m so intolerant of people who lack self-discipline. For all my adult life, that title Marine has permeated every part of my identity, and from those looking at me from the outside, it’s explained both the bizarre and seemingly upright parts of my character.

This title “Marine” has had an arc of its own. Before I was in it was a high-compliment for someone to say “I can see that” when I told them of my aspirations to become a devil-dog. The same was true when someone said “that explains it” once they learned I was one. Now, the reaction is mixed. While the prestige of that association has not dulled, it is, like anything from one’s past, a burden to constantly look at. Worse, it strips me of my autonomy and explains me away as if my actions are now a perpetual reaction to the experiences I had while I was in: aftershocks of a seismic four years in uniform.

And now this marine is a veteran, and this has an entirely new set of connotations. It’s as if the word veteran explains away why someone is homeless, or became an alcoholic or even committed suicide. These are the darkest versions of assimilating “vet” with “troubled.” But we do it with everyday things too. You do it to my buddy Phil every time you hear he’s struggling in school, and to me every time you support my writing as if it’s a charitable act.

I live in fear of being explained away too. Those tropes of the homeless, alcoholic, or depressed veterans taunt my darkest hours. When the budget gets tight one month I think is this how it starts? When I want another drink when last weekend I would have stopped I wonder if that’s how the slippery slope of alcoholism begins. When my melancholy hits stronger than it did the night before I wonder how many more times it can dig deeper before I go there. Admittedly, I know I’m far from becoming any of these three things. I just wish if I did become them, society wouldn’t make it so excusable, as if it were my destiny.

Because I can shake away my title Marine and become something else. But for the rest of my life I will be a veteran, and right now, that’s a much harder title to bear than the one I just escaped.

Nate Eckman