I really didn’t know what it meant to be a veteran until I started to suffer the consequences of being one. The dictionary describes the word veteran as coming from the Latin word veteranus, which means of long experience. Merriam-Webster describes a veteran as an old soldier of long service or a former member of the armed forces. I am both now!
When I was in grade school, I was very aware of the holidays associated with the Second World War. I was lucky enough to have a half dozen or so World War Two veterans in my life during my teens and twenties. I know why theirs was the Greatest Generation. They came back heroes. But they didn’t act like or feel entitled. I knew a few Korean War Veterans as well. It was a short war, but still, over five million Americans fought. Most Americans were indifferent to them. Life was good here, the economy was good. Everyone was distracted, living life. Then there’s Vietnam, I know quite a few Vietnam Veterans. They did not come back, heroes. There were no holidays for them.
I feel so grateful that our country’s mood toward Afghanistan and Iraqi veterans shifted from that of the Vietnam era. The general population might not have believed in the conflicts, but they stood by the veterans. I felt undeserving of the attention. The Patriot Guard lined the ramp of our home airfield with their Harleys and huge American flags. It was always an amazing feeling to walk off the airplane to be greeted by the Patriot Guard. I think of what the Vietnam veterans went through when they came home. I was old enough to remember watching the news, shots of them returning from Vietnam. They weren’t greeted by the Patriot Guard. They were greeted by protesters, throwing eggs and hurling insults. Most of the veterans were drafted, they didn’t have the choice that I did.
So now I’m a veteran! The word has a very different meaning for me now. In some ways, I feel empty and hollow. I don’t feel joy as a veteran. I feel a bond to those I’ve served with, a connection to the crews I was a part of while deployed and here at home. I’ve spent several months at a time with five other people, living in plywood shacks held together by black mold that have all been bulldozed down in parts of the world I have no desire to return to. We have all paid a price. I didn’t lose anyone close to me from enemy fire. I’ve lost a few to alcohol, drugs, and other self-inflicted wounds. I still have nightmares, I wake from mine. Some of my friends will never wake up. I’m still trying to figure out what it really is to be a veteran.