I think that for most of us we leave the military wanting desperately to escape. At some point, the majesty and nobility and glamour runs out. The pride has been spent sometime between the incompetent staff-non commissioned officer who yelled at you that last time for something stupid, or CIF giving you a hard time because there is dust on your gear, or S-1 messed up your leave, or you have just done the math and you have only woken up next to your wife 22 of the last 48 months and even more time waking up within arms reach of a rifle. For me, my last year was horrible. I had everything in that year, with some of the worst of it in the last three months.
When it was all over, Jennie and I packed up the truck and left California heading for Oklahoma. Among a sundry of other problems I had lost all love for the military and was now ready to greet the civilian life with open, while completely disenfranchised, arms.
A few months go by and then we try and start our new lives. You get a little fat and you try not to yell at random strangers for wearing flip-flops at the store or walking while holding their phones and then you realize, “Wait… they can do that. I can do that too!” So you just spend a while going full on hippy. You let it all go. Grow your hair, beard and just slum it like the civies for a while. Of course at some point, that wears off too, and you feel disgusted with yourself and find some medium that you are happy with. For me, I don’t work out that much, but I still always keep my high reg haircut.
After this is either college or work. For me, it was college. I would like to share this with you so that you can kind of grasp how we feel.
You have to understand. You are four years older than almost anyone around you. That doesn’t mean much when you’re 30 and they are 26, but it means a lot when you are 22 and they are 18. It especially means a lot to you when have been a Sergeant in charge of a mid sized team of military professionals in combat operations and that other person is just a high school graduate with a newly found sense of unqualified empowerment because he is now an “adult”, which he probably only discovered because his parents told him to get a job and move out of the house. You now question the meaning and subtlities of the word “equality” when your new peers continue to believe their opinions have as much intrinsic value as yours on the now questionable premise of equality. You feel an intense obligation to excel and show up on time. You are appalled by the people who are still mentally in high school who can’t stop acting like children. Worse is that they are all stupid. Perhaps stupid is a strong word… but yeah, I am going to go with it. Stupid.
It isn’t that they are actually intellectually deficient, but they don’t have any sort of world view based on anything more than peace, love, rainbows, hugs and unicorns and the other humanitarian world views propogated by those who have never truly suffered real indignity or desperation. Their opinions lack any sort of wisdom or experience. They have never experienced something like living in a country where there are people quite literally planning your death. How could you blame them?
Also, because of our experiences, people find it very difficult to communicate with us, due perhaps to our brazen animosity and extreme arrogance. In college we also experience a good amount of push back. You need to understand that most young people understand nothing about the wars other than “the evil Bush administration” and “all the stupid soldiers are idiots for being brainwashed into going”. Someone actually said that in a class one day. The professor was kind and asked “What does anyone else think about that?” and he didn’t even interrupt a massive two minute rant where I tore that kid a new one in front of the rest of the class.
That will last for a few years as they mellow out and try to adjust to acting the way that everyone else does. The training and lifestyle they live is hard to get rid of and will always be a part of them. Then there is the job search.
Now what I think was interesting was that as I was looking for a job I faced two different serious issues:
I faced some people who saw my military experience as a problem. I might be too aggressive to work with customers, I have never had a real job, I might have PTSD. Really? These are real discriminations I faced with no actual basis to support them.Then the others thought I would be a real hard charger, a real go getter. In the worst case, obedient, you know the good little soldier who never questions and will march happily to your every whim. I had a boss like that for a minute. You shouldn’t treat employees like they are just stupid little troops in your service, especially not actual vets, and especially not ones who graduated with honors in business management.
Eventually though I did find work that fit. People still are surprised if you have any intelligence in you at all, in spite of the degree hanging behind your desk, because they will still only hire your military experience. Now I am in a place where my organizational ability and leadership are coming into play, and for many this is exactly the type of role they try and fill. We do have a type of responsibility factor that doesn’t appear except in about 60% of the civilians I deal with and it doesn’t really frighten us to get in someone’s face when they don’t cut it. Of course that isn’t all we do, we did get out after all.
Then there is a point that you get to and you realize that you don’t hate the military anymore. You are just proud. Maybe it is when the people you work with hear you were a Marine and are like “Whoa! Um…Well… OK.” Maybe it is after you get a few handshakes from the old Marines (who had it harder than you, just ask them). Maybe it is in knowing that you are different in a good way than many of the others around you. You have these powerful, sometimes very difficult experiences, that have built in you a character that others respect.
I looked back at my time in and realized eventually that there were parts I really missed. The Marine Corps has a saying that it is a perfect organization made of imperfect people. I definitely didn’t miss some of the people, but there was something important about what we were doing. We also recite this one often.
“Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference. The Marines don’t have that problem.”
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN, 1985
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to go back. I love waking up next to Jennie every morning. I don’t like the panic that comes with not knowing where your weapon is, because you forgot the deployment is over. I don’t want to worry anymore if that car is going to explode, or if someone I know is going to be hurt or killed. But I definitely have learned to appreciate and love what I was a part of. From time to time I still bad mouth the little things, but now the Corps is like family. I can say whatever I want about it, but you don’t get to. You haven’t earned the right to disrespect her. You don’t question or assume or anything. You don’t muddle my heritage or dishonor the sacrifice of my friends. You respect what we stood for.
And once you reach that point you realize…
You are never going to be able to transition from military to civilian life.
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