As I said before, you’d think that military veterans wouldn’t really care that much about people impersonating them. I mean, these guys were professional warriors and the closest thing to modern day superheroes that our world has to offer… and they know it. Why would they care so much about someone pretending to be them? I know that a lot of veterans are angry that I would even ask that question, but it’s OK, put away the knife-hands gentlemen. I’m about to explain.
As a regular person, you might not know why the Marine pictured above is crying. You’d probably guess he is going to a funeral or about to leave home for the first time to go off to war. That’s because your view of him is based on stereotypes, along with just a few lies and you would be wrong. This young recruit is about to take part in a culminating event of recruit training, the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor Ceremony. The EGA is the emblem of the United States Marine Corps and only Marines are entitled to wear it. For the last three months, this recruit has been in Marine Corps Boot Camp, but he was not a Marine. He, like all the other recruits with him, weren’t considered Marines until after they completed training. They were called “recruit” and suffered the hardships, trials, and indignities which come with the moniker. Once they finished Boot Camp, more properly, once they had received their EGA, only then will they have “earned the title” of United States Marine.
It’s a particularly religious moment for our odd little cult of warriors. For many, receiving the EGA, and by extension the honor of being Marine, is the proudest moment of their lives. It is the moment, for so many of them, which truly gave their lives meaning. Many of my friends who joined the Marines had no direction, no purpose, and no dreams for the future. They didn’t have a sense of agency, the belief that their decisions mattered. They were just riding the waves. They were far more likely to end up in prison as they were to be looked upon with honor by their community. The Marine Corps, for many of my friends, gave them that sense of being part of something that mattered. If I were to attempt a guess, I’d say that the young man pictured above is crying because, for the first time, he is part of a community of people who matter, one which is honorable, and respected because of what they mean to the world and the citizens which they are drawn from.
That said, while all members of the military may not take it as far as the fanaticism demonstrated by Marines, they all share a common bond, which is signified by their uniform. The uniform, as I made clear earlier, is an artifact which is more than an article of clothing. To many, it is the symbol that links them to a time of greater meaning in their lives. It showcases honorable ideals and virtues they are proud to see when they look upon others who wear it today. What’s more? Every device, every ribbon, every medal, every shooting badge, like the uniform itself, is earned as a product of recruit training, important missions, special schools, and years of honorable service.
What’s more important is what it symbolizes long after service. For many veterans, upon leaving the military, there is a period of mild, or even severe depression. This can even manifest in a longing to return not just to the military, but to war itself. Sebastian Junger, an embedded journalist with an Army unit in Afghanistan and creator of the documentary Restrepo, has had much to say on the question of why would a veteran miss something like war.
About a year later I invited Brendan [one of the soldiers Junger knew in Afghanistan] to a dinner party, and a woman asked him if he missed anything at all about life at the outpost. It was a good question: the platoon had endured a year without Internet, running water or hot food and had been in more combat than almost any platoon in the United States military. By any measure it was hell, but Brendan didn’t hesitate: “Ma’am,” he said, “I miss almost all of it.”
Civilians are often confused, if not appalled, by that answer. The idea that a psychologically healthy person could miss war seems an affront to the idea that war is evil. Combat is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but a fully human reaction is far more complex than that. If we civilians don’t understand that complexity, we won’t do a very good job of bringing these people home and making a place for them in our society.
Junger has his beliefs, but as someone who also experienced a lot of the same feelings, I think there is more. As I said before, depression following leaving the military is a very real phenomena that unfortunately embraces the lives of far too many of us. This phenomena, in my opinion, is often misdiagnosed by society at large as PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It isn’t that. Most of us never saw combat, though that isn’t the only thing that can cause PTSD. Regardless of whether or not we saw combat, death, or destruction on the scales people often assume we did, most of us don’t show any of the normal symptoms of PTSD at all. We are just depressed. The failure of society to recognize the distinction in this has caused great suffering for veterans and hasn’t eased the strain on us at all.
Why so many of us are depressed during the period in our lives we had been looking forward to for years is perplexing. One would think the ease of lifestyle would help make us happy. One would be wrong. Perhaps it is the loss of community we feel, as Junger notes in a TEDx talk on the subject; or the sadness for our participation in acts our society doesn’t wholly understand or approve of, a theory held by former Army Ranger and Professor of Psychology of West Point, Lt. Col Dave Grossman. A third, by a professor of Ethics at the United States Naval Academy, Shannon French, postulates that returning veterans aren’t getting the cool down time WWII vets would have had while spending months in close quarters with their fellow survivors on a small ship before finally arriving home after the war. They would spend this time speaking with other members who knew well what they were enduring and going through, an important element lacking in most modern counseling programs for veterans. There is an axiom that pain shared is pain divided. The fact that sixteen hour international flights had yet to be realized for the average soldier was, in effect, a form of forced mass therapy that is overlooked today.
I personally think that there is something simpler than that. Imagine that you will never be awesome again in your life. I know it sounds stupid, but imagine that the coolest thing you will ever do, the thing which the most people will praise and admire you for, you’ve already done. Ronald Reagan put it succinctly with his quote that “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But, the Marines don’t have that problem.” But, what happens after you are a man in the uniformed services? Imagine a soldier who comes to this realization, whether explicitly or subconsciously, “I will never be half the person I was in Iraq.”
It’s a depressing aspect and one that is hard to communicate. I guess you could consider it like having a midlife crisis at twenty-two. It comes with a loss of agency: you no longer feel like your decisions will ever matter again. You’re now just another nobody. I think the best person I have ever heard describe this was a stockbroker friend of mine who used to be a professional athlete. He was injured early in his prime and never was able to compete again. The two of us talked about this sensation of “loss of awesome” when he talked about going from being a pro-athlete to doling out cups of coffee and the depressing state of mind that held. He even told another story about a fellow stockbroker who hit a massive pay-day – $75 million; more than the vast majority of us could even fathom. His colleague though, didn’t seem as ecstatic as my friend thought he should have been. My friend left all his coworkers celebrating and asked the now multicentimillionaire why he wasn’t that happy about the team’s achievement. He said to my friend,
“I am happy. It’s just that there are other things. I am on my third wife and I have six kids, all who I don’t know and who hate me.”
Sympathizing, he asked, “Why don’t you just retire?”
After a pause, the old stockbroker said, “Because if leave here, I’m nothing.”
I think this the loss that warriors feel. One does not just go back to being normal after being a warrior. A part of you is forever changed, for better or worse and there is no returning to the person who isn’t still, in part, a warrior. But what is a warrior without a war? To many of them, they are just has-beens. What the uniform, to these individuals, signifies is a time when their lives had value. It symbolizes a time when their choices mattered. For the lucky ones who find meaningful purpose after the military, it is still something that signifies a time in their lives they were very passionate about, a defining time, and one which has elements they will always miss. Maybe it is just nostalgia, because after time fades the emotional wounds that military service often inflicts, you’re left with a great sense of pride no matter what the circumstances. Seeing the uniform abused, as is done by many, is an abuse on the warrior personally. It is an abuse on a large part of his self – that identity he had so emotionally vested into those garments and medallions. The uniform is a metaphor for so many other things that military services represents to the veteran. Many are indescribable, and seeing it worn by someone who hasn’t earned the title, hasn’t suffered the indignities and hardships, is a slap in the face to many who have.
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