First, let me clarify, this article is not a pity-party for me. It’s really an attempt for me to put down some of my thoughts and feelings about what it is to be a veteran.
As a child, I had a friend whose dad was a Vietnam Veteran. I didn’t fully understand what that fully meant. And I still don’t. Probably never will. This dad would come home from work, sit down in his chair with a beer—in a neoprene sleeve, sip at it and watch television until dinner. He was always nice to me. Quiet, but nice. Anyway, for me, the vision of that man is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think ‘veteran’. The second thought is that of someone who served in the military during wartime. And in probability saw combat.
During Boot camp, while we were performing some type of routine maintenance, the Drill Instructors handed out National Defense Service Medals. One of them seemed more than a little annoyed about having to do it (but Drill Instructors were never happy). At the time I didn’t give it a second thought. D.I.’s (Drill Instructors) did all kinds of things that were not going to be explained. My National Defense medal is connected to my active duty status (boot camp) during the Gulf War (1990-1995) even though I never went over there (however, my unit did before I had enlisted).
Shortly before my contract ended (less than a month), my unit was once again activated, this time due to September 11, 2001. I was left behind. This frustrated me, for more reasons than I can even begin to explain clearly. One of which was that I didn’t get to go with them. Not because I wanted to go and kill. But because my brothers-&-sisters-in-arms went and I was not there to help protect them, but they were protecting me while I was at home. My unit did well for themselves and had few casualties. But that is not the point.
It’s kind of like Lieutenant Dan from the movie Forrest Gump. Lt. Dan had a purpose: To die in battle. It was taken from him. He felt lost, and struggled with finding a new purpose in life. Since I was a little kid, I knew my destiny, it was to help others and keep people safe (thus, joining the Marine Corps and my teenage superhero stunts, which resulted in most of the stories within this blog). At the risk of sounding braggartly, my destiny was to be a hero (not the headline making type, just a quiet guy who ‘did the right thing’ kind of hero). It’s not done for the ‘Thank you’ or for praise, it’s done out of a sense of having a greater purpose. Positively contributing to one’s community.
After my discharge from the Marine’s, I kind of thought of myself as just ‘done’. Mission accomplished, so to speak. I put it out of my mind and didn’t really think about it until someone asked, “So, does that mean you’re a veteran?” To which I responded something like, “I don’t know.”
Over the years I have put much thought into that question. I never saw combat. I served during wartime, but I never went to war. What was I? What am I?
Title 38 of the Code of Federal Regulations defines a veteran as “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable.” Further distinction is added with War Veterans, Protected Veterans, and Combat Veterans.
The thing is, when you are part of a reserve military unit you can get some interesting thoughts on whether or not you actually served in the military, from civilians—and other members of the military (although the latter group is more just in jest). People have asked, “How long did you serve?” At first, I would dodge the answer because saying that I had been part of a reserve unit apparently gave them the right to look down upon me. You could see it in their eyes, “Oh, you only pretended to be in the military. I see.” My unit served honorably, many times (Kwajalein, Saipan, Tinian, Iwo Jima, Gulf War, and during Operation Enduring Freedom—to name a few). During the last year of my active duty reserve status, my unit earned an award as the most combat-ready Marine Reserve unit (we had earned this award multiple times before, including two years in a row). Top-notch stuff. But that means nothing to civilians. Most don’t understand.
Eventually, I started saying, “I served six years.” Which led to a whole new line of confused questions. Because every civilian ‘knows’ a military contract is only four years (they don’t ‘know’). I would say six because reserve contracts are typically six years active and two years inactive. Then, when I explained my reserve status I would get the responses I have already mentioned. It took a long time for me to accept that while I did not see combat, and my last two years of service were on inactive duty status, I did serve for eight years. But what is my status? Veteran, or not?
While the government has a blanket label for what is and is not a veteran, benefits and other such things have very distinct lines. There is a document, the DD-214, which tells me a lot about what I am. My discharge status, how much active duty time I have, and more. This should be the defining factor. It isn’t. At least, not for me. And to make a long story short, it says I’m not a veteran (by one definition).
This all started a few years ago when I finally came to terms with how I defined a veteran—for myself—and finally thought myself worthy (turned out I was wrong—maybe) and reapplied for my driver’s license.
When renewing my driver’s license I could have a ‘veteran’ sticker applied, I just needed verification of my veteran status. Sure, no problem. Yeah, I don’t have enough ‘active duty time’ on record. So, not a veteran. According to the paperwork. And I am still waiting for some of that to go through for clarification’s sake (government red tape is long and plentiful).
So, short question(s) made long, what is a veteran? Would I qualify? Will I ever? I missed my time in battle with my brothers and sisters. However, I have served in ‘active duty’ during times of war. I have a medal that in one definition says I am a veteran, and in another says I’m not. This creates a deep psychic, soul wrenching fracture in me that I struggle to resolve. I feel akin to Lt. Dan. Lost and unsure of who and what I am, as well as my purpose in life.
Once again, this isn’t about ‘poor me’ or about veteran benefits or anything like that. It’s about trying to quantify what my time in the service of my country meant. Because for some service members the label doesn’t matter, for others it helps them know their place in the world.
I wonder, not just for me, but for those who fall into this gap as well. Because of strict definitions there may be those that are also feeling lost about who and what they are. Also, what about those that should receive benefits, but don’t because of improper labeling?
What I do know is this: If you know a veteran, thank them for their service. If you meet a veteran, thank them for their service (especially during these complicated war times). You don’t have to agree with their choice to serve, but freedom isn’t free. Veterans pave the way for regular folks to go about their lives not knowing the horrors of war and combat. As a result of their willingness to serve, many members of the military have deep physical and usually deeper mental scars. So, thank them. Show them the kindness and respect they deserve. Thank a veteran.