I seem to learn more and more about myself every day since I left the military. Today I came across a guy who happened to be an Iraq veteran. Meeting another vet was like giving water to a thirsty man. I really haven't encountered any other vets since coming to Portland. Instantly there was a bond at what I haven't experienced in a while. Finally, someone who understood. Finally, someone who I didn't have to explain myself to. Our conversation became a game of how many war stories we could share we before we had to go our ways. I can tell he felt the same relief that I did having encountered another vet.
This just goes to show the power of the military bond. I left the military of my own choice. However I left a large chunk of my heart and soul in Iraq. I really wanted the Iraqis to learn and take control of their country. I really wanted the violence to stop. I had committed 100% of my being to doing whatever was in my power to make that happen. Like a Band-Aid ripped off a wound, it's not a clean separation. There's a little bit of Iraq still left in me. I can only hope there's a little bit of me left in Iraq.
Oddly enough, tonight I came home after the experience and turned on the TV. There was a TV show about a bunch of vets honoring a recently fallen 101 Airborne troop who had died in Iraq. The imagery and the playing of taps instantly brought me to tears and I cried like a child. That proverbial Band-Aid covers a wound that will always stay fresh. A wound that I never want to heal. I left the military. The military will never leave me. Iraq affected me profoundly and I'm grateful for the experience.
Well said, Nate.
Sometimes I forget how much Afghanistan affected me. No, that’s a lie. Sometimes I deny it. Nobody really wants to be tethered to – let alone defined by – a singular experience. Even an Olympic champion probably doesn’t want to be known just as an Olympic champion. Every champion has a face and a name and a personality, and a multitude of experiences that come before and after that crowning event.
But it’s impossible – and erroneous – to try to separate the two. That moment in the arena, in the pool, on the track, was the culmination of months and years of blood, sweat and tears, intense focus and commitment, passion and perseverance. And it made an impact; sent reverberations from the champion’s life to the world in the pages of history books. You can take the champion off the podium, but his footprints remain.
You can take the girl out of Afghanistan, but you can’t take Afghanistan out of the girl.
I learned so much from my military experience. I discover new lessons every day. Granted, some of the lessons suck: Life isn’t fair, idealism isn’t realistic, people have the capacity for tremendous cruelty, no one looks good in tapered light gray sweatpants. But in the real world, the bad comes with the good; and someday, hopefully, eventually, they even out. Or maybe, if you work at it, they even leave you in the positive. That’s what I’m shooting for when I pour my wine glass a little more than half-full.
Like Nate, I truly hope I left a piece of myself in Afghanistan. I’ll never know for sure. And I think it’s the not knowing that makes the separation so hard for me. An Olympic champion has the history books; concrete written proof that he left his mark on the world. In a warzone, nothing is quite so concrete. You have the statistics: number of missions completed, bad guys killed, schools built. But what does that mean? Even the concrete walls around the schools my team helped build could be whittled away with the picking of a fingernail.
Nothing is concrete, except the memories.
So where does that leave us? Inexorably tied to a place and a time we’ll never be again; perhaps sometimes even wistful for it because whether we like it or not, it does, at least to some extent, define us.
I guess I’ll think of myself as a puzzle. Afghanistan and the military are big pieces that don’t necessarily fit snugly with everything else. Do I need to bend and reshape them? Or mold everything else around that chunk? Or do I need to forge new pieces to fill the gaps? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll always be a bit skewed and misshapen. And maybe, in the end, I’m better for it.
At least I won’t be wearing tapered light gray sweatpants.