It’s the eve of Veteran’s Day, and as I reflect on my time in the service, as I always do, I’ve come to realize something: though I may have left the military six years ago, it never left me. You see, the thing is, when you enlist- you already expect and accept a few truths. You know that boot camp is going to suck. You know that you are going to have to wear uniforms and conform to a whole new set of rules that don’t exist anywhere but in the military. You know that you are going to be away from family, and you know you are going to travel to some exciting and some not so exciting places.
But what you don’t know and what no one ever tells you, is that no matter how long you serve you will never be a “civilian” again. You will never look at the world with innocent eyes after you’ve been to war. When you’ve seen people run past you to try to commit suicide by jumping off of an Aircraft Carrier mid-deployment because we’ve been indefinitely extended. Or, when you’ve seen bloated, severely burned bodies float past you off the shores of Indonesia during a humanitarian relief mission. You cannot erase that. You will forever be haunted by memories of tears streaming down your face after morning reveille is called, and the Commanding Officer speaks over the 21MC to tell everyone “we are officially at war”. When your heart sinks and you wonder when you will be home again, if you will be home again.
Days, weeks, and months of gas mask drills, trying to get that thick rubber band around your head as it clings to your hair, pulling, ripping, all in under eight seconds or “your dead”; always preparing for the worst, and never knowing if it will happen. When watching the after-burn of an F-14 Tomcat take off during Night Ops is the most relaxing thing you will do all day. Or, quietly staring at the burning oil wells in the Persian Gulf late at night when everyone is asleep, and you should be too because you’ve got watch in four hours. Still, you just need to spend some time staring out into the dark expanse of the ocean to remind yourself that life does exist outside of your floating home, because “Ground Hog Day” becomes your reality, and not just a funny movie with Bill Murray.
These are the things you cannot forget; they do not go away when your uniform comes off. In fact, it may even be these very moments that pushed you to want to get out in the first place. You tell yourself there is more, there has to be more than just this. But it’s already done; you’ve already been changed. There is no going back. Because there is something else that happens that they don’t tell you about when you enlist.
When it’s over, no one is going to tell you that you will miss it.
But you will.
And you do.
Because as time passes, the bad moments, the stuff you didn’t like about the military, well they become memories, and though you will never forget them, they become less important than the things you do miss. The honor you felt in uniform. The feeling of knowing that you were a part of something that was bigger than yourself. The people and the friends that become family. The ones in which you shared these common experiences with, and with whom you have a connection unlike any other. You will miss them. You will look back and realize it was all worth it.
It’s a struggle for me, sometimes, even after being out for six years. In my head, I really am not a civilian, I just can’t for the life of me see things the way my seventeen year-old self once did. Maybe that is the true sacrifice of a Veteran? We can’t go back. We can come home, but we can’t go back to seeing the world the way we once did. We have seen what most will only see in the comfort of their home on the evening news, and we can’t un-see it.
I can’t even say that I want to.
I will always be a Sailor. My heart will always long to be a part of something greater than myself, and I am proud of that. I will always feel at home on the ocean, when the best sleep I’ve ever had, was when the swaying of the ship took me there.