By: Peter Sessum
The military experience can be difficult to put into words for civilians to understand. Not that they lack the mental capacity but it is hard to put it in terms that they can relate to. Military life is often too foreign to those that have never served. Some people bring in their own prejudices that impair true understanding.
Every vet has heard someone say, “I just couldn’t stand to have people tell me what to do all the time.” Or have talked to someone that fixates on combat when on a deployment a lot of life happens between missions. So to aid in better understanding we are going to use something from popular culture that many civilians can relate to: Harry Potter.
If you have not read the books or see the movies I am going to guess that you never will. But in case it is on your list, here is the required spoiler alert.
Imagine you are in the Harry Potterverse, when you received your letter to Hogwarts you entered a world that you had heard about but never fully immersed in. You arrived at the school excited to learn and prove yourself. Like other first years you were considered to not know anything and to be pretty much useless. You were expected to keep your mouth shut, follow the rules and learn from the prefects. That is like being a private, which are famously known for not knowing anything and needing the guidance of their sergeants. Literally: Shut up and do as you are told.
Being sorted into a house is like selecting an MOS or joining one of the different services. Everyone is told that their service or MOS is the best and while there is some friendly rivalry the “one team one fight” mentality is what counts. Just like there is a friendly rivalry between houses but underneath it all you are all wizards and that it the thing that binds them all together. Your first year was pretty uneventful but you hear stories about a basilisk from last year that was attacking students and the school was almost closed.
Your second year was during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. It is amazing and bigger than anything you have imagined before. There were dragons! Then it all becomes real when one of the students die. You didn’t know him all that well but it still hits close to home. Suddenly magic stopped being something you play with and was a very real danger. There is a major threat that is back and the Ministry of Magic doesn’t think it is real. One of the most powerful, and evil, wizards of all time used a competition for students to stage his comeback and murdered a classmate.
The Ministry of Magic represents the government or chain of command. Many service members or people in the intelligence community struggle with knowing of a threat and not being listened to. I myself have experienced trying to talk to officers who wouldn’t listen just because I was enlisted even though I was a subject matter expert. The frustration is painful. The worst is when you can see how people are going to die because of the current course of action.
The next year things got worse. The ministry still didn’t believe there was a real threat despite what you saw were clear warnings. The headmaster was removed and the entire school changes. You were one of the first to sign up with the group of students that could see where things were heading and you wanted to make sure you were prepared. It wasn’t easy but you knew what you were doing was right.
The loss of Dumbledore is like losing a good commander or platoon sergeant, usually through a change of station. But leadership really sets the tone for a unit jut as Dumbledore being replaced changed the fictional school. Just like a good unit, the school fell apart and the wrong people were in charge. When a serious threat is finally recognized is like when the ministry finally recognizes that Voldemort is back.
The battle for Hogwarts is on. You were ready, it is what you trained for but it is far worse than you had imagined. Then, almost as suddenly as it started, it stopped. You tended to your wounded and mourn your dead.
But it wasn’t over, the war, it was far from over. You hadn’t had a chance to recover from the last battle before you were at it again. At the end of it all you were happy to be alive. While you were prepared for the magic side, nothing prepared you for the emotional side of magical duels much less an all-out war.
Battle of Hogwarts, for the purpose of this, is a deployment. The pause in the battle could be the downtime between missions or the time between deployments that is never long enough. I know people that have done turnarounds of less than 90 days to different theaters.
Like some soldiers, the students were not prepared for the fight. You can teach anyone how to shoot, but there are aspects of a deployment that are hard to train for. And you can’t unteach those skills. If you were one of those kids at Hogwarts, you wouldn’t dream about levitating feathers, you would dream about the battle. The friends you lost and the lives you took. You can still see the face of a death eater you killed. There are a couple that were moving and are just a blur and one you are not sure if it was your spell or the kid from another house, the ones lost in the fog of war, but there might be that one death eater who was looking right at you. You will always remember his face as you flicked your wand and the look of fear as he realized he couldn’t defend against it. You know it was him or you but the dreams don’t.
Returning from deployment is like returning to Hogwarts the year after Voldemort is defeated. The First years (privates) were all excited to be there and many would say how they wish they had been a year older and could have been there for the battle at Hogwarts. After a while you stopped correcting them that they really wouldn’t want to have been there. You quickly got sick of reminding them how useless first years are and that they most likely would have been like many of the other first years that died that night.
Graduation is like the enlistment ending. For a vet it is too often going home and trying to figure out what is next. There was a huge feeling of “now what?” You fought the forces of Voldemort and now are you going to be a security guard at Gringott’s? Should you get a job working a cubicle at the ministry? You are well qualified to help hunt down the remaining death eaters but you know the deadly side of magic and do you want to go through that again, after all, the dreams stopped a year ago and do you want more sleepless nights? People don’t understand what you mean when you say you miss it.
“How can you miss it,” they ask, “the battle for Hogwarts was horrible, what kind of person would miss that?”
What no one understands is that you don’t miss the battle, you don’t miss losing your friends and you for sure don’t miss the taking of the life even from someone you consider to be evil. You miss what came after. The joy of finding a friend alive after it was all done. Mourning together when you see a mutual friend didn’t make it. The best feeling was reconnecting at the start of a new school year after living among the muggles for the summer. You miss being around the only people that will understand you because you share a bond that can’t be broken. And now you live apart and you won’t have that bond again.
It can be difficult for veterans to go to college. Not for the workload, but being around a bunch of faux intellectuals that will spout off all kinds of stupidity thinking that because they watched Jon Stewart or John Oliver they are up to speed on a topic that you are far too familiar with.
Image you are that young wizard, and after a few years you hear people sympathizing with the forces of Voldemort. Instead of being someone so feared that no one says his name, they act as if he was misunderstood and somehow you, a person that looked at his face, is not qualified to debate his intentions. The death eaters, murderers to you, have become a group of people fighting for what they thought were right. How did murderers become sympathetic?
The worst part is trying to find a connection with people around you. Think of being a wizard and going back home to talk the kid from across the street. Your best friend until you were 11, is now a complete stranger. He got in a fight after school once, you had to defend your school against monsters. He has arachnophobia but you had to fight off spiders 10 feet tall. The only thing you have in common is that you both like pizza. Something that wasn’t even served at school.
Even though they are well meaning, it can still be difficult to talk to someone will never really understand about something that you might not even be able to fully talk about. If civilians are muggles, how would a wizard that fought against the forces of Voldemort relate to them?
The veteran experience is a very individual one. It is be difficult to have been part of something incredible and dynamic and then losing your connection to it. What that means is different for everyone. Some feel they were part of something bigger than themselves and now are working in a situation where everyone is in it for themselves. Some feel they did something that mattered and now face just punching a clock and not doing anything important for the rest of their life. Some just feel detached from the country that they love so much and defended for so long. It sucks to feel like a foreigner in your own country.
That is what it feels like to be a vet. This is painting with a pretty wide brush but it helped to put it in a context many civilians could understand. This isn’t about making civilians feel bad or comparing experiences. Part of what the Dogtag Chronicles is about is to help civilians better understand the military experience. This isn’t a competition, the fact that your life has been quiet is good. It means we did our job. I am not going to look down on someone for thinking that missing the bus or a barista getting their order wrong will ruin their entire day, all I ask is not to look down in vets because all your worst days are still better than some of our good days.