By: Peter Sessum
Serving in the military is one of those few jobs that brand you for life. No matter what you do, you will always be a veteran. It is one of the few professions that stays with you long after you leave it. In the civilian world your current job is what you do, but once someone identifies you as being former military that is who you are, you will always be a vet first in their eyes.
Veteran is a title some wear with pride while others try to hide, but like it or not, the civilian world will often not let us forget our former lives and treat us negatively and positively at the same time. There is this duality in how we are perceived when it comes to our experiences and how we fit into civilian society.
Post 9/11 reactions
This is one of the biggest dualities vets face. I don’t know a single vet that hasn’t been held accountable for the invasion of Iraq and yet I also don’t personally know a single person that was involved in any part of that decision making process. This is is especially experienced in college. The brother of a literature professor was deployed with the Marines the quarter I took her class and I paid for it almost every day. Even though I was Army, I embodied the organization that had put him in harm’s way like it was my fault he chose to join or I had any hand in deploying him.
College can be tough for identified vets because there are no shortage of young intellectuals that are happy to regurgitate something a professor said or something they heard on the Daily Show. Don’t tell them about The New York Times article that went into great detail about Iraq’s actual chemical weapons program because they will lose their minds.
On the flip side, there are people that appreciate that we defend the nation so much that it makes some vets uncomfortable. The genuine support is appreciated but most vets could do without the lip service. Every company and corporation says they support vets but none of them are going to hire a person just for being a veteran, the vet has to be the most qualified person. So in other words, there is no benefit to veteran status in getting a job. The only time there is a benefit is if the job requires the person to carry a weapon.
A particular set of skills
The best recorded shot I ever took was in basic training. I say recorded because they put a large dot on the target where the bullet hit. At a distance of 300 meters I hit center mass so that means at the distance of three football fields that round would have hit a man in the heart. I tell that to civilians and it seems impressive.
I have qualified expert with every weapon and weapon system I have ever put into action. In my lifetime I have easily fired tens of thousands of rounds at paper or steel targets. All of that sounds cool unless you are a vet.
The same story that would impress a civilian is laughed at by veterans. A center mass shot at 300 meters? That is pretty much expected for Infantry. A question I could get asked is “only 300 meters?” Snipers are mocking me as they read this right now. I know people that fire in a year the number of rounds that I have fired in my life and there are some out there that shoot that in a month. There are people laughing while they read this because shooting small arms is cute to them but it can’t compare to hellfire missiles. In military circles my training, skills and experience are no big deal. I consider myself pretty middle of the road, maybe slightly above average because most military jobs are support roles and I spent my time tactical. As a vet I am nothing special but I am the most dangerous person some civilians have ever met.
The idea that all vets are dangerous is almost comical to those who have served, and not just because an overwhelming majority of the jobs in the military are noncombat related. A student in one of my classes liked to think that all soldiers were these robots waiting to be ordered to kill. We would kill anyone at any time if ordered to do so.
“Soldiers are trained to target children,” he said in class with no supporting evidence.
I stood up, took over the class and talked about Rules of Engagement (ROE), the law of land warfare and answering any questions for about 20 minutes. ROE is the difference between self-defense and murder and the military does prosecute murder. An unlawful order by an officer does not overrule ROE or the Geneva Conventions and following such an order is a war crime. Another vet in the class clearly didn’t agree with the student’s beliefs but didn’t want to self identify so he let me fight alone. This guy did what all people like that do when faced with the truth of their own losing argument, he went personal.
He said that because I had been to Afghanistan I had Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and that was why I was getting mad. This is how I know that the people that think vets are dangerous know that we are not. He pushed me and walked away unscathed. Simple ROE, I was not physically threatened so I didn’t physically react. But like many others I think he wanted me to. Either he gets to take free potshots at me or I prove his point.
When civilians do that they are not standing up to someone strong, they are being the bully. I am sure he told all his friends about how he stood up to a big bad vet, but the truth is he was the one that needed to be defended against. Antagonizing a vet in public is like throwing rocks at a Pitbull. In their heads the people are stopping a vicious animal that could easily rip their throat out but when the dog is behind a fence, chained up and asleep the rock throwing isn’t that heroic and is actually very cruel.
Because of our “breed” we can be attacked without provocation. We are dangerous so any attack on us is justified. We also can’t express any passion or emotion or will be seen as someone about to snap and go crazy. On more than one occasion I have been treated like I was going to hurt people just because I raised my voice. Sometimes it is I am black, sometimes it is because I am a vet. Both are scary to civilians in this area. Of course they feel bad about thinking that about a black man, but thinking a vet is dangerous is treated like it is prudent thinking.
We are these dangerous animals that can snap at any moment, but if things do go bad, you can guess who they want with them. There are plenty of examples when a vet has been the person to respond in a time of crisis. Most recently, on a train in France and a college campus in Oregon vets tried to stop someone with murderous intent. The duality of being both crazy people with PTS and heroes in waiting never ceases to amaze me.
Airman Spencer Stone was on vacation with friends in France when Ayoub El Khazzani boarded a train with an Ak-47, a 9mm pistol and some gas. Stone was the first to rush the attacker with his friends close behind. Fortunately for him, the rifle jammed and he was able to tackle the gunman without getting shot because with the restrictive avenues of a train car his actions would lead to certain death. This plan relies on pure luck, which he had, or having enough momentum that your dead body falls on the attacker and your friends are able to disarm him.
When shots were fired at Umpqua Community College a teacher said that someone needed to warn the people in the library. Note that he didn’t go himself, he said someone else should. Chris Mintz, a veteran, rose to the challenge. After warning the people in the library, he ran outside and told a young woman arriving on campus that she needed to stay away, he then went back in to confront the gunman.
He could have gotten away, no one would have blamed him for escaping when he had the chance but he didn’t, he went back to confront the gunman getting shot seven times in the process. On the news a couple of days later they celebrated a couple of police detectives who were first to arrive on the scene. They were heralded as heroes because they approached the situation without vests but Mintz confronted the man without a gun. Hit seven times and he still survived? Mintz is hardcore.
When other people fun away, we run toward the danger. Not only do we do it, but civilians expect us to. Why didn’t the teacher at UCC run and warn other students? Because he is a civilian and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he was safely outside when Mintz was getting shot.
I don’t understand how people can reconcile in their heads that they want vets far away from them so as to not be murdered but want the vet right next to them to protect them from murderers. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that there are students in Mintz’s class that thought he was ready to snap at a moment’s notice prior to shots being fired.
The soldier family man
One of the most difficult dualities is the one at home. It can be difficult to be the person your family needs and the person you need to be overseas. You can’t be the guy that picks up your kid at school in a firefight and you can’t be the guy that has to drop the hammer on a bad guy when picking up your kid from school.
It isn’t easy being a person that has seen the worst in people and what they can do and still be positive with a young mind you are tasked with molding into a productive member of society. Few people exist in the same reality as the one veterans have experienced and it is a struggle to determine how much of that to share with family and friends. Case in point, I had a friend tell me that my world was too real and she was not sure we could be friends anymore and our conversation barely scratched the surface. Some people really don’t want to know what the world can be like outside our borders.
Maybe one of the most difficult aspects is balancing the idea of being the strong veteran and the broken human in front of the family. When a man is seen as an invincible hero to his children he might find it difficult to be vulnerable and needing help. Getting help is what is best for the family and the vet.
Being a veteran means walking a tightrope of expectations and dealing with a number of perceptions from civilians. Some appreciate our service while others see us as the embodiment of a government or foreign policy they hate. There are people that see us as protectors and some that see us as the oppressors. Depending on our personal actions we fall somewhere in the middle of the different perceptions. Some of us are the best people you have ever met and some are the worst but as a whole, military service members and veterans are some pretty decent people with good values and that is why I tend to surround myself with them. They fit another duality of veterans, and something General Mattis said about Marines, no better friend – no worse enemy.