When I deployed to Iraq (both times) I stood in a foreign land with persons unknown whom I had never met and for all intents and purposes would never, ever – ever – see again. And I knew this and accepted it willingly. I was bonded to my fellow countrymen in servitude; bonded in the flag on our shoulder; bonded by the uniform we wore; and bonded in combat, fighting for the guy to our left and right. And we were set apart even from the other coalition forces with this unique American bond. Polarized by the ‘American-ness’ we shared, and all of our commonalities as countrymen and brothers in arms. We were a club – we were the legionaries.
And when I returned home to the land I loved and to the people I knew, who knew apple pie and baseball and all of that other bullshit, I wanted to let my guard down because I was sort of among my own. Sort of. Many of those here never served and had absolutely no idea what I or my men or others deployed had gone through. But they were still of our own blood – our own linage – cut from that American cloth. Catholic, Christian, Jew or Muslim – they were American. Yet I was apart from them.
And when I eventually left the active component and my brief three years in the Guard, I was completely immersed around them. But I still felt a sense of pride for having been a Veteran. Disconnected from the flow of the mainstream, but still in the waters; recognizing a guy in a military t-shirt or Tactical Tailor ball cap and saying “hey man, who’d you serve with?” and he would answer. And for a moment, we were bonded as if we’d fought together too – bonded like two electrons joining some molecule somewhere in a reaction that makes something good out of otherwise boring atoms and particles – even if it exists for the briefest of moments. Recognized.
Tonight I went to the armed forces week gala at work (I work for the gov’t) and there, as there was last year, there were many servicemen and women in attendance and spouses and some fellow veterans, and civilians. This event is the one time a year I pull out and dust off my mini-medals and throw them on the tux, give them a good rubbing with the Never-Dull, tie a bow tie and go mingle. This is where I can thrive, right? Where I can feel whole again and part of something.
Yet when I walk through the crowd of uniformed personnel, making greetings and saying hello, I am met with brief glances – stares – eyed up here and there. And as junior and senior enlisted and officer alike catch sight of me, they shoot daggers. I go marginalized, if even noticed. As extroverted and social as I am, conversation turns to other people and of other matters. And again, I am alone in the void – looking for that covalent bond that I know must be there (after all – we serve and served, we experienced, some more than others, but all signed the dotted line in front of that same flag).
Yet no connection is made. And in any other scenario and every other situation in which I might talk my way into a conversation and tread water, here I am drowning. Even people I know who aren’t dear friends and coworkers seem a bit more stand-offish. Why? Why, I am screaming inside – I am one of you, don’t you see that? But no. I am marginalized. I am different, for some reason, and I am brushed aide and ignored and imagined not there.
Never how I would treat a fellow Veteran and comrade. I’d never not acknowledge someones existence. A shake of the hand. I firm grip and an eye to their eye in unwritten ‘hey man, I know’ and we’d share that. I don’t know – maybe I am becoming a giant pussy in my old age. Maybe I have been to far removed from the shit to really be relevant. Maybe I am a dinosaur – a ghost. Maybe I am not even here; maybe I died all those years ago when that IED hit, and in reality this life has all been some horrible dream as my body turned off, and I rattle, as the life drains from me.
I felt alone. I felt outside. I feel abandoned by my own. And I am left feeling I should be ashamed of being a Veteran; a Veteran among other servicemen and Veterans. And in my heart there is some place far, far away covered in dust and sand – where it is hot and shitty and backwards – and it is populated by the dead and the memories of those still alive the way I once knew them. And in that twisted fucked-up place where I was still someone, and important – and human – that is where I can connect with people and feel appreciated and wanted, and feel relaxed.
And feel at home. Home.
Just an imaginary place in my mind, anymore.