Soldier to Civilian

What is a Veteran? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines one “as former member of the Armed Forces, or an old soldier of long service, even a person of long experience usually in some occupation or skill (such as politics or the arts).” While this could be applied to most, today it is about a solider (current or prior) who has been to war. Today’s veterans do not always have a physical disability; there are the psychological ones, which go unnoticed. This makes it hard to transition from soldier to civilian.

I recently read “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemmingway. While reading it, I could not help but have a smile. I was not smiling because Krebs was having a hard time, nor was it because I thought he deserved it. I smiled because I could relate to Krebs, his situation, his life at that point; because I too am a Veteran.

Throughout this short story, Krebs did not go into much detail about his time at war or his time in the service. Most of the memories he used had something to do with women. The conversations about the war had run thin by the time he returned home. So, he did not bother to talk about them. The only exception being when he met with another Veteran. But, that was a short-lived conversation.

A lot of Veterans are having the same problem as Krebs. With a wide variety of different disabilities, from injuries or loss of limbs to the unseen Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or a combination of these, it is not always easy to move forward. The Department of Veterans Affairs states “About 11 – ​20 out of every 100 Veterans (or between 11 – 20%) who served in OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] or OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] have PTSD in a given year” (PTSD: National Center for PTSD). I am not saying any of these are any less important or severe than the next, nor will I pretend to think I know what anyone who had lost a limb would be going through. I have not had such an injury, but I can speak from my own experiences.

When one is a soldier, everything is day to day. The person trains, lives, makes brothers and sisters. The everyday life of a soldier is constant - always moving with purpose until the day it stops. Throughout the years of one’s service he or she will do and see things that most could not imagine if it were not in a film. Even outside of war, accidents and tragedies happen. The soldier will change, mold, and shape into someone else. He or she will arguably become the person he or she was supposed to be. “It helped me look at the world from outside of the box. I realized life was not just black and white, and no matter what, there was always a solution to any problem” (Cummins). This, however, will cost more than one thinks. While reading this, think about it from the eyes of someone who was from a small town in the back woods, someone who was living the big city life, and everywhere in-between.

Think about those who had to hide who they were just to be a solider. The amount of pressure put onto them to serve. Humans are creatures of habits, we will eventually slip. Every one of these men and women hiding probably thinks about that all day and night. Maybe they are ever vigilant in keeping themselves in check. Women were not allowed into the service until 1948 (U.S. Army). It was not until 2010 that the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was repealed allowing openly gay service members. And finally, in 2013 same sex marriages were officially viewed as a marriage. These are the men and women who have fought every adversary for our freedom. These soldiers have banded together regardless of the “rules of society” to become something most civilians could not understand (U.S. Naval Institute).

War changes everything. It can change our views on life, religion, politics, even our taste in music. I, much like others, thought “it cannot be that bad,” “let’s go and kill these terrorists.” Much like a moped, it is fun to think about, but when it comes time to take a ride, it is not something one wants to discuss. When the soldier deploys, he or she may have made at least a couple of brothers or sisters “battle buddies” or “battle” for short – ones he or she would lay down his or her life for if needed. Then all the sudden, while the soldier is waiting for the convoy to arrive, he or she receives word it was hit by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), or some other form of attack happened. The “battle” did not make it. The soldier beats him or herself up trying to process and grieve, but war will not allow it. Just like with Krebs when soldiers try to grieve, they are revisited by the past, which keeps them moving down the spiral (Hemmingway).

The miles and miles of death and destruction one causes, or witnesses, or sees in the aftermath stays with the soldier. Those near misses, the bodies, men, women, and children, at first will seem like nothing. But they will start to haunt him or her when he or she gets back and is no longer affected by that “rush” from war. One day he or she could wake up thinking about “that one time” where if it had been another few minutes or an hour, he or she would have been lost to the world. If the soldier did not have one of those times, one of his or her “battles” had. Be it a car bomb sending multiple shards of glass, shredding the cot he or she was to be sleeping in, within an hour of when he had left for another base. Or hurrying to help other soldiers in need causing him to be reckless, shooting his own man in the leg. Then, the soldier comes home. Home, where there is no war, where, it seems, no one cares.

In this day, there are still those who support the military, and those who do not. With the American Legion or American Veterans (AMVETS) at the helm, there are still welcoming parties, but not like they were during Krebs’ days. In Krebs’ day, there were big outlandish parties where everyone would welcome the soldiers home. It seems these days, there are excuses one way or another. Be it for security reasons, the fact there are more soldiers now, or it could be with the increase of media/social media, people have become more distant from one another.

My return from the war was small, maybe enough people to fill a high school gymnasium. It was at Pope Airforce Base. The welcoming home party consisted of the family members of the soldiers. I did not bother telling my family or friends I was returning. To me, the only ones that I cared to know, were also walking off the plane. So, I watched, I watched the families that rejoiced that their loved ones were home, I watched the soldiers when they realized their loved ones could not be bothered to make it, and I watched the ones who were taken away in police custody. “When I returned, I had problems in public. It was hard to be somewhere with so many people and not have a weapon. It was also difficult driving properly. I had to keep reminding myself there was a speed limit, and IED’s were not everywhere” (Cummins).

See the thing is, when those soldiers were at war, some of those loved ones were less than faithful. These would range from “one lonely mistake” to “I took everything” or it being broadcast by a bed sheet over the balcony of how “unfaithful” they were. Some ended up in jail, some gave up, some tried to work it out, some disappeared; each one of them, fighting a never ending battle inside.

So now we are home for good. No more service, no more war. Things slow down, purpose is harder to find. Adjusting is difficult. Suddenly, it hits a person like a brick wall. Everything has changed. Everyone looks at him or her differently, treats him or her differently, and silently judges. The shock an observer gives when one asks about a building or monument that is no longer there. It has been changed for years, normal to them, but new to the soldier. The soldier meet with old friends. They are older, possibly have good careers, maybe a spouse and some kids. Or they are still the life of the party, but now it seems the decisions they make are not as fun as one remembers. The things one remembers loving to do, no longer keep a person’s interest. He or she finds it difficult talking, focusing, and caring for those who could not fit the returnee into their life even though he or she put in all of the effort. This all leads to the same decision Krebs had to make. Stay in the same town with an unknown future, or leave, in hopes of finding a better horizon, a fresh start. A decision, one which should be so easy to make, eludes the veteran. This decision affects every soldier differently. No one inherently wants to disappoint his or her loved ones.

Until one makes the decision, he or she puts on a mask, a different persona, even if he or she knows it is fake. He or she checks out from reality, not to be rude, but either because something triggered a memory, or simply to get away from a lectured conversation he or she did not want nor care to hear. Day to day, the veteran does what he or she needs to do to get by. But, the person notices with each day, he or she becomes increasingly more irritated with the world.

Everything seems to bother him or her. Hearing civilians talk about the war, or talk about how it is in the military because they saw a movie, those who lie about being in the service. But worst of all the civilians who think the veteran’s disabilities are made up because they cannot “see” them.

Like Krebs, a lot of Veterans do not have a good support system. They are always being told what they need to or what they are going to do. This leads some soldiers to turn to drugs further escaping reality, or, sadly enough, becoming one of the 22 Veterans a day who commit suicide. That last one, it is tougher than losing a “battle” in war. The Military Times noted that “In 2014, more than 7,400 veterans took their own lives, accounting for 18 percent of all suicides in America. Veterans make up less than 9 percent of the U.S. population.” And, “About 70 percent of veterans who took their own lives were not regular users of VA services” (Military Times). These 22 suicide victims are not always aware of their own problems, or they do not see them as a problem until it is too late.

Thankfully, there are services outside of the VA that can help veterans. If you are not aware, there is a movement called “Mission 22,” which is comprised of veterans helping other veterans. I believe only another veteran could relate to the struggle one goes through. “I have helped other vets by being there and talking with them. To me it seems like not all the doctors at the VA care. Some of them think doping the soldiers up on different medication is the answer. I believe sometimes all that is needed is a listening ear or a structured conversation” (Cummins).

It is always easy to be the Monday morning quarterback when one is not in the hot seat. It seems that civilians are not aware how hard it is internally for soldiers when they return from a war environment. While the civilians are doing the same things they have always done, the soldier has not. Time never stands still. If they spent less time trying to change the soldier and more time understanding the impact, there may not be those who end their lives.

Patrick Cummins is the 1st place winner for Non-Fiction in the 2018 Art & Literary Contest. He is a former soldier, police officer, and now student at Lake-Sumter State College

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