The Air Force always felt like a dysfunctional family. We had the “crazy uncles,” the “black sheep,” the “lost causes,” nurturers and disciplinarians. We bickered and picked on each other, sometimes out of affection. A few of my relatives drove me nuts, but most of them I loved. They understood me like no one else could; we shared blood that ran red, white and blue.
But there were too many mouths to feed; no one ever got enough. And I was starving. So I left. I became “the one that moved away.” I had to forge my own path, get away from the pressures and expectations embedded in the family structure.
I’m glad I left. I have room to breathe now, and I’m not clamoring for leftovers around the dinner table. For the first time in a long time I’m satisfied. But I’m also lonely. I don’t like being an orphan, but I know I can’t go back.
This weekend I found a wonderful compromise. I attended a family reunion. Well, to be precise, I met a bunch of estranged distant relatives I never knew I had at a Women’s Veterans Retreat. It was a hodgepodge group: different ages, backgrounds and services, but all veterans. I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me.
But it was like coming home.
It was the same, familiar dysfunctional family without the dysfunction. It was the military without the barricades of rank and bureaucracy. And there was PLENTY to eat.
Like my Air Force family, veterans have an instant bond that you can only get from shared experiences. We’ve all “been there, done that.” They’re relationships forged on the battlefield, even if it’s different battlefields at different times.
Unlike active duty, a veteran bond is raw. We need each other. We need each other to rip off the Band-Aids hastily patched over wounds from abusive relationships so they can be cleaned and properly treated. We need each other to examine the scars that remain; to compare scars and realize that we all have them. Each has a story. We need to tell our stories. We need to give advice, to get advice. To just listen. We need to laugh and vent and curse and hug and cry, stay up too late, eat too much and dance foolishly around a campfire. Things normal families do.
But we are not a normal family. Normal families don’t understand us. That’s why we need each other.
To my new family: Thank you. You are strong and beautiful, and I love you all in an irrational way that seems impossible since I’ve only just met you. I look forward to getting to know you all better – and healing together.
To the people who made the reunion possible (Project New Hope, There and Back Again and MA Women’s Veterans Network): Thank you for all that you do. You guys are awesome, and mighty good cooks!
To other orphans: Come join us. We’re ready to welcome you home.
And to my old family: I still love you guys (well, most of you). But you can clean out my room now.