You felt it the first time you came home on mid tour leave. You were still young enough and still close enough to your friends from school and life, before your “integration.” Everyone was happy you were back. You were genuinely happy to be back. You were also chomping at the bit to drink and burry your face in between somebody’s legs (girl, boy, it’s judgment free here.) The freedom was bitter sweet as you pulled out a bummed cigarette and sat with your thoughts. It’s all just a brief pause until you’re back into a third world country with a bunch of dudes who’ve showed you their dick more times than you care to admit. These are dudes you’ve only known for 6 months, but who manage to shake their way into your life, occupying memories that will resonate for the remainder of your brief time between birth and death. You take another drag. A car drives by…it’s tires run against a wet road and you hear it…you hear the familiar sound of an RPG suspended mid-flight in the half second before it smashes into the ground. Your throat tightens and you make a stupid face. You make a stupid fucking face and something inaudible comes out of your mouth. Silence. Your heart rate climbs as you prepare to be on the receiving side of violence. The eruption of chaos, distance, direction, “make sense of the situation”…rates of fires screamed…”The FUCK are you not prone?” Still silence.
You exhale, the smoke burns at the back of your throat. Your alcohol-soaked brain starts to put it all back together. There’s no explosion, nothing has happened; it’s just tires and wet road. You’re still just standing in your friend’s backyard, a bit weathered by your experience. The music’s quiet in the background. Your pre-military homies are standing next to you, quiet and drinking. Their demeanor changes in reaction to your own. They’re all happy you’re back. They’re all nestled comfortably in the scope of their experiences, no fault of their own. You laugh it all off, because that’s the only thing you can do. It’s a defense mechanism. You use it heavily, every time it all goes to shit…when life begins to bleed into the absurd. When you look at your reality in some dusty, ancient country, juxtaposed with the whitewashed veneer of mistaken, forced patriotism, and hollow platitudes involving freedom. Humor was there when your buddy caught the “Hadj,” and shit his pants in the middle of some two minute TIC. Humor was there when the finality of death pierced you and you heard the final words before laying a friend in the ground: “On behalf of the President of the United States, [the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, the United States Navy or the United States Air Force] and a grateful nation…”. Humor…it was your catharsis. It lightened the burden of our task, and allowed us to say, “fuck it,” to the distance we would carry it. Humor would be there after you busted down some dude’s door and found him balls deep in his wife before you ran him to ground. Mission debriefs awash with exhaustion, easily digress from their established AAR pipeline. What happened? “Dude was balls deep in his chick.” What was supposed to happen? “Hope he got his nut.” “Homie got his climax.” “I felt threatened.” “Best tits I’ve seen on rotation.” We talk about these moments like a wine-mom small talks as she orders a Venti Caramel Mocca Frappacino before heading to yoga.
This is where the alienation of our experience arrives. A palpable gap emerges between one individual’s experience, as it forcibly makes its way into the scope of another individual’s. We are seen as wild and strange. Cognitive and emotional dissonance begins to resonate and any empathetic connection breaks down. Experiences fail to make contact and eventually boil down to: “I’m sorry you had to go through all of that…” That’s the part that is most misunderstood. Generally most who went through these experiences volunteered for the gig, and some actively sought it out. The motivations varied whether led by platitudes, spite, or something savage and deep within our minds. Once touched we look at the worst times in our lives with reverence, and even a longing to return to them. Movies and Popular culture have attempted to span the gap or explain this experience. The discussion still remains if it has further widened the gap, or confused it for something else altogether.
Nevertheless, there it is…the alienation of mismatched experience. You anticipate laughter, but instead get a shuttered response and averted eyes. Your actions or rhetoric don’t come off as the cliché 40-year-old vet screeching about: “You don’t know what I’ve been through, you weren’t there!” That’s just misplaced anger trying to cover up pain. Here we are simply talking about one individual attempting to expand an experience to another individual, but the signal is miles away and broken. Post-traumatic growth doesn’t always come from an understanding between two or more parties. You try to be open and humble about your experiences, but you find nothing but dead air. Even the people who walked the experiences with you interpret it a different way, and you find the same alienation in your story. When you decide to be open, and find an audience willing to hear about your experiences, you’ll see their demeanor change. They can see you as something broken and fragile, prone to bouts of violence, untamed and touched by the savage. You expound from a place of neutrality and humility, but find that just because someone hears, it doesn’t mean they understand…this has, and will always be fine. Give your thoughts tangibility, and lend credence to the way you reacted to them. What happened was real and the way you reacted and continue to react is real. It can all be easily misunderstood, but it is no less real. We are the culmination of our experiences melded with, and often times magnified by, our actions. It is our actions that we alone have the ability to influence. Those actions make us who we are. We are doomed to create ourselves. We are imprisoned with the task of making ourselves daily, but we have been privileged with hardship and a focal point that the endeavor creates. The time you spent in the service should be the least successful time in your life.
You’re only as good as your last OP.
Harden the fuck up and ruck the fuck up.