The complaints are common, and often repeated:
“Nobody understands what we go through!”
“When will the civilian bother to learn about the plight of the American soldier?”
“People just don’t know how war and PTS(D) affect servicemen and their families!”
Aside from the flood of self-pity that usually comes along with these statements, they are fairly legitimate concerns. If the American public, and Congress, in particular, doesn’t understand the fact that war is closer to being Satan’s flaming cornhole than it is to the awesomeness of “Call of Duty,” they might be more careful about where and when they send “The Troops” to war. As with most struggles in life, being well-informed will save us from a world of grief later on.
Why don’t they understand? Why is it that after years of continuous warfare, the public doesn’t have a solid concept of what goes on over there?
Is it because they are soft, weak people who are only interested in their iPhones and Facebook?
Is it because, other than the immediate families of military members, no one has had to sacrifice anything in their luxuriant lifestyles for the war?
Is it because such a small percentage of the population will serve in the military?
Is it because it has left them largely unaffected, not even causing an increase in taxes?
In many cases, yes.
It’s also our fault as veterans. Cowards shift the blame completely away from themselves, but real men are honest with their shortcomings and fix their end of the problem. Here is a conversation that typically takes place in two or more parts (and often on Facebook),
Veteran – “The public just doesn’t get us, man!”
Joe Civilian – “So tell us about the war, and what you went through.”
Veteran – “…I can’t/don’t want to talk about it. You wouldn’t understand.”
When I attended a Combat Medic course in 2014, I met quite a few soldiers who had never been to combat. It wasn’t because of any deployment-dodging efforts on their part, and they were still very effective as medics. I was simply one who had been “over there,” seen people shot, blown up, and killed. Although I may have told too many stories, I tried to illustrate some of the realities that our infantry goes through so that my fellow medics might better understand the men who would, in all likelihood, be their patients someday.
What blows my mind to this day is the number of them who had fathers, uncles, and/or grandfathers serve in various wars, but never heard them talk about it. Granted, they all probably had very good reasons, and the veterans of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam all went through significantly more hell than my generation. I would never propose to tell those men what to do, but if my son or daughter wanted to join the military in a time of war, I would want them fully informed of the realities of combat before they signed the papers.
USMC happens to stand for “U Signed My Contract”
Why don’t combat veterans talk about their experiences, even with their own families? In my experience, I’ve heard four consistent reasons;
1. Operational Security (OPSEC) – If you were a cool guy in the military, you did cool guy stuff (wearing a cool guy beard and cool guy Oakleys) that had some level of a classified nature. You probably signed a non-disclosure statement saying that you would never talk about what you did, and if your job was really cool, you did that in regard to your training as well. If you did reveal those details of those missions, an ungodly firestorm would ensure. Investigations would occur, people would get fired, and more importantly, lives would be put at risk. Decades after the Viet Nam War, veterans of MACV-SOG are just now coming out with stories of what they did. Those men have been keeping secrets for national security for close to fifty years, and their stories are incredible! I get it. It’s classified. Keep your brothers out of unnecessary harm, and don’t talk about that op in Rhodesia where you and some CIA spooks overthrew a hostile government.
2. Emotional Trauma – There are some who have seen so much death and destruction that they are mentally damaged by it. You probably know those guys who went to school with you as vibrant, healthy young men who are now so physically and mentally shattered by combat experiences that you don’t even recognize them. I’ve met one or two such men, and although they talked to me of their experiences, it seemed to cause them physical pain to do so. I believe that the medical terminology for this is “legitimately f@#%ed up by combat.” Most of my generation has not had to deal with this, but veterans of previous wars are much more familiar with it. Those veterans who talk to me were very emotionally scarred, but they still talked about it. That’s bravery, and a dedication to healing, but understandable if those guys just don’t feel like picking at that particular scab.
3. That Guy – Most of us are familiar with “That Guy.” He’s the dude who talks about experiences he never had, or brags about dumb, minuscule things he thinks are really important. It’s not the stolen valor guy, it’s the exaggerated valor guy. He exists in all circles of society, and the veteran population is no exception. You’ll see him wearing an “I Was a Soldier” t-shirt and camouflage pants, bragging about being in Delta Squadron of SEAL Team Six Ranger Assassin Platoon. Or talking about how he shot a .50 cal once in a training exercise, and he, therefore, knows everything about “Spec Ops,” foreign policy, and war in general. He’s usually fat for some reason, and so completely full of crap that his eyes are brown.
The hatred for “That Guy” in the veteran community runs so deep that most would rather take a vow of silence than be him. Men go the exact opposite direction and never speak a word.
Why? Because in our culture, the guys who talk the most have done the least. Usually you would never know the guys who have done the really cool stuff, because they don’t try to draw attention to themselves. Some of us have been “That Guy” to some degree one time or another. I know I have, and when I realized what I was doing, I immediately punched myself in the balls out of self-loathing.
4. It Creates a Mystique That is Cool – This is created by the same motives as “That Guy,” but with an opposite methodology;
Joe Civilian – “So you were in the military. Did you go to Iraq?”
Veteran – “Yup.”
Joe Civilian – “What did you do over there?”
Veteran – “If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.”
“I can’t talk about it,” while staring at Joe Civilian to watch his reaction, knowing that he sat in a FOB fixing air conditioners and could talk about his job all day long without violating OPSEC.
If a guy goes to a combat zone, and can’t talk about it, he must have done cool stuff, right?