…most states (which we usually see) are preserved by war; but, after they have acquired a supreme power over those around them, are ruined; for during peace, like a sword, they lose their brightness: the fault of which lies in the legislator, who never taught them how to be at rest.
— Aristotle, A Treatise on Government
The boot on my tire and bright orange sticker plastered to the windshield of my truck alert the coeds passing by I’ve screwed up. Normally, I might be the person who’s outraged. But hey, I didn’t just park illegally; I cheated the system too.
Upon contacting the university parking services, the student employed meter maid who arrives informs me the campus police are on their way.
The cute, pixie-faced meter maid tries to make small talk while we wait. “Your parking permit is the right color, the numbers are all wrong though.”
I sigh. “That’s because I painted it the correct color to park here.”
No sense in lying. They’ll figure it out as soon as the police arrive. The girl stops talking and stares at the ground along with me.
When the cop arrives, it’s a scene straight out of movie. Short buzz cut, tight shirt stretched over a muscular frame, and when he exits the squad car he pulls his pants up as if to say “well now…just what do we have here?”
I unlock the door to my truck and he removes the parking permit, scratching at the paint until it flakes off.
He grins impishly. “You just think the rules don’t apply to you, do you now, boy?”
“No, I do,” I say with a complacent tone. “I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t.”
“Don’t get smart with me!” His scream reaches a crescendo on the word “me” that causes the meter maid to look at the ground again.
I decide to shut my mouth while he walks to the tail of my vehicle to jot down the license plate number.
“Oh hell boy,” he lets out a low whistle while the young girl forced to watch all this can’t help but turn her attention to the awkward scenario unfolding. “You even got your daddy’s Purple Heart award on this here license plate. He’s gonna be ‘shamed.”
“That’s mine, sir.”
“What’s yours, boy?”
“That’s my Purple Heart.” I say emphasizing the “my.”
The officer drops his mirrored glasses to inspect me. Maybe it’s the crew cut or the bug-out bag I use as a backpack that makes him believe me.
“How old are you, son?” He’s since dropped the “boy” and now moved to “son.” I guess he thinks it sounds less belittling.
He whistles again and the meter maid stares at me with curiosity. “When did you get home?”
“A month ago.” I say curtly, then I launch into my explanation.
“Look, the university let me miss the first two weeks of school because I was still processing out and returning from Afghanistan. The parking permit I need to park near class they told me I couldn’t have because it’s sold out. Sold out two months before classes started, in fact. I was fighting the Taliban during that time period and didn’t even think I’d be in college. I asked if they’d make an exception. They said no. So I bought a permit for another lot and just painted the damn thing. Technically, I paid. Legally and ethically? Yeah, I screwed up.”
This sends the officer on a rant for several minutes about virtue and ethics, law enforcement, us being on the same team, how I should be ashamed degrading my military record by cheating, and a lot of other unsolicited advice.
But all I can think of is how much I hate his smug face. How it would look better under my boot. How much I hate this university and the unsuspecting coeds running around without a care in the world. And then I dive deeper into my pit of self-loathing because I know I hate myself. I used to fit in fine at school. Now I don’t. “God,” I think. “Things were simpler when I was overseas. There were people to rely on. Friends who had your back. Especially when you blew it big.” Now it’s just me and my big dumb truck with the boot lock on it.
Maybe the officer stops because he can tell I’m some place else in my mind. Maybe it’s the cold stare I shoot him that says, “It’ll be best if you stop talking you donut eating, non-combat mother fucker.” Whatever it is, he writes me a fine, unlocks the boot, and tells me to come talk to him if I want my permit back.
I drive away in silence before I pull over and start beating my steering wheel in front of the Eskimo Joe’s, the town’s iconic college bar. People stare. Oh hey, didn’t see you there. Just randomly beating my steering wheel. Order me the cheese fries, yeah?
Part of me hates the angry young man I’ve become. The other part likes him because he kept me alive. Perhaps he’ll keep me alive now in this foreign land?
Overseas, I remember counting down the days until I could use indoor plumbing and not shit in a bucket, take a warm shower, or not worry about getting blown up while I slept. Now that I was home, I wanted to be anywhere but home. So I would smile and pretend. Even go to the campus parties. Tell jokes and laugh. On the surface, I looked okay most of the time (unless I was drinking).
Internally though, I was alone in a room setting everything on fire and screaming; laughing as things became ash.
What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I be at rest now that I was at home?
Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
These days, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is lobbed at veterans like grenades in a knife fight. Men and women come home from deployments angry, bitter, and depressed or they leave the military and it’s the same story. PTSD becomes the name of the game, when in reality, it’s not. That would imply a large percentage of our soldiers are experiencing traumatic events in combat. While I experienced combat, the event with campus police wasn’t a PTSD moment by any means. To put things in perspective regarding why it’s not PTSD, there are two facts we need to review:
- Only 7.3 percent of living Americans have served in the military.
- Roughly ten percent of those have seen combat.
While the burden of repeated deployments has been placed on the backs of the 0.45% of Americans who have served in in the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, an upward of fifty percent of veterans have applied for PTSD disability.
Why are forty percent of our veterans claiming a disorder they shouldn’t have?
In reality, I think a lot of what veterans are facing is a transition disorder where we’re happy that we’re back home, but have no idea how to integrate back into society.
Imagine this scenario for a moment.
You get out of the military after serving for several years. You go to Starbucks and the lady in front of you screams at her barista for getting her order wrong. In the military you sometimes ate old packets of dry coffee just to stay awake. Starbucks is a treat. So is air conditioning and heat. What’s this lady’s deal? You go to college and your roommate struggles with bouts of depression because he got bad grades this semester. The pressure to perform is too much, so he takes meds for anxiety. You’ve spent the last four years having Drill Sergeants and cadre remind you what a turd you are, but that maybe one day you can become a polished turd. Sometimes they make you exercise until you puke even when you did nothing wrong. It was someone else’s fault. What the hell is your roommates deal? You start a job at a tech startup. Instead of working together as a team, everyone is looking out for their personal interests and wondering how they can get ahead. In the military, everyone had your back, and you earned rank based on merit. What the hell is wrong with your coworkers?
Coming back to these scenarios is hard to process. It’s culture shock. You feel like a refugee in a strange land where you speak the language but no longer understand the customs. Not only that, but your perspective differs from those around you, and perspective dictates everything.
When veterans transition to civilian life, they face the same problems as everyone else. The person who lives alone in a one bedroom apartment in New York City with little-to-no friends and just endured a horrific break up is facing the same scenario as a veteran who’s home from a deployment and searching for a job in a city he doesn’t know, with friends he doesn’t have, and a girlfriend who just broke his heart. We’re not special snowflakes and the military would never let us get away with that thinking, anyway. Yet, when we get out or come home from war, it’s like we want to wear a giant sign that says, “Be nice to me. I’m a veteran.”
We’re proud that we served, but I think most of us feel like we’ve capped out and have nothing to offer. This is reinforced which is part of the problem. We’re trained for action, never for rest, and are ruined when we feel our experiences can’t help others.
A friend of mine who attends the University of Texas in Austin had to write a paper on why “we should feel empathy for terrorists” in one of his sociology classes (Not a joke. I’m serious). When he explained that he fought terrorists in Afghanistan and could provide a different perspective and would like to write on that, his professors informed him he could no longer bring up his opinion or what he experienced or saw overseas. They instead assigned him a different paper to write after pulling him into their office and threatening him with administrative action.
Before my grandfather died, he wrote his life story. After returning home from World War II as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, he attended college in Michigan. He wrote:
”Professors and younger students found college quite a bit different with so many older and more experienced World War II veterans challenging the faculty and administration. In many ways, it was a benefit.”
My grandfather explained how his experience as a veteran not only helped in his college experience, but also when he got a job. After World War II, people were hungry for veterans to return to work, start families, and have things return to the way they were before the war. They wanted the leadership, experience, and life lessons they learned on the battlefield to be applied in daily life to create a better society. While these veterans received honor from a grateful nation, our nation did a good job reintegrating them back into society. Veterans were essential for the success and longevity of the United States.
In modern times, we coddle the veteran or can dismiss their experience based on polarizing political views. We remind them—you are a warrior and that is where your experience lies so stick to that. This message reminds us we’ll always be at war and thus we never learn how to be at rest. On the other end of the spectrum, we have a tendency to glamorize a veteran’s valor and sacrifice, which subconsciously tells them “You’re a special class of citizen now and we don’t need your contributions to society. You’re the warrior remember?”
In the long run, this can be detrimental to a veteran’s mental health especially as men and women who thrive on task, purpose, and objectives.
What flipped the switch for me was my friends and coworkers who refused to coddle me. Sure, they honored my service, but what helped me reintegrate was they way they wanted to learn from what I experienced. They valued my expertise on certain subjects or scenarios and also had the gall to remind me when I was being an entitled little bitch. Many of them held opposite political and moral viewpoints than each other, but valued what I had to say even if they disagreed.
If we can begin to see the value veterans bring to the larger picture and teach them how to be at rest, they begin to have more in common with the farmer and business exec than just the men and women they served with.
When we begin to do that, we get to see a bit more compassion and humanity for one another, even when we’ve had different life experiences.
And that’s something we all need.
*Author’s Note: The subject of veteran mental health is vast and complex. Other issues like PTSD and Moral Injury affect many returning home and is a topic I’ve covered elsewhere that you can read here.