Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

3 Emotions of a Veteran, Updated

Thesis: My experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq bring about three emotions that can be best described as inadequacy, betrayal, and confusion.

War does crazy things to a person’s mind; a least it did to mine.  Even though I am not a combat vet, my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan created strong, lasting emotions.  I have had a few years to reflect on my war experience and I keep circling around three: inadequacy, betrayal, and confusion.

Inadequacy*

I entered the Air Force in 1998 at the US Air Force Academy.  I was seventeen at the time, and war was not in the top billion things on my mind.  During the fall of my senior year, 9-11 happened and all the sudden war was on all of our minds.  But I still did not understand the consequences of my decision in military services.

I was a contracting officer in the Air Force.  I was a REMF.  While deployed, I rarely went outside the wire.  I had hot food every night. At one point, I had my own trailer to sleep in.  In a lot of ways, being deployed was a lot like doing my regular job, just a lot more hours, in a different country and a different color uniform.  That is a long way of saying this:  My sacrifice (if you can call it that) was much less than a lot of other vets; I feel like I did not do my fair share.  Or in other words, I feel inadequate.

I recently read Brandon Friedman’s war memoir.   He participated in an 11 hour march at 9,500 feet of altitude during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan.  After he was finished that, he invaded Iraq in a soft skin Humvee with only one plate of body armor.  His experience isn’t totally unique; thousands of Soldiers and Marines did similar stuff.  But not me. I spent my war-time in an air-conditioned office flipping through Myspace profiles.

I never feel completely comfortable hanging out with guys like Brandon.  They are actual war vets, and I’m something less.

Betrayal

Nancy Sherman, in her book The Untold War, discusses something that I’ve felt in regards to my service.  “…none want their willingness to serve exploited for a cause that is unworthy or for a war grounded in unjustified fear or waged for a pretext.  When they believe that has happened, the betrayal felt is profound.” (page 41)

I am like a lot of those that serve in the military.  I love my country and was willing to serve in defense of it, even if I didn’t fully understand the consequences of service.  So when the Iraq war kicked off, I was an avid supporter.  The Bush Administration did a great sales job–I was enthusiastic about the effort and desperate to participate in spreading freedom and democracy in Iraq.  I actually thought that it was both a good idea and completely possible.  Well, “What a load of shit.”

It took me longer than Brandon to realize that I had been had.  Eventually I realized that my willingness to serve had been exploited and my confidence in the trustworthiness of our leadership destroyed.  How dare they send loyal, brave men and women off on such a misbegotten adventure.  It is as Sherman wrote, “…a rupture of the deepest kind of trust and care.” (page 41)  I still can’t believe I was so recklessly used by a group of court jesters and fools.  The wound still aches; it is raw and it colors my (cynical) perception of the motives of those who continue to advocate for war.

Confusion

Every vet, upon returning from these wars, has realized that there is a war over there, but there is no war over here.  I was no different. I returned to a country at peace.  Besides the yellow ribbon on the backs of minivans, there is little awareness that the United States has been at war for almost a decade.

For me, it was and continues to be, confusing.  It is as if I want to shake the shit out of every political leader, soccer mom, and NASCAR dad and say, “Don’t you realize that almost every day for the last ten years an American soldier, often not even old enough to buy a beer, has died in Iraq or Afghanistan?  Don’t you give a fuck that you are willfully ignorant of the ongoing atrocity of needless death and destruction?”  This, of course, is not appropriate behavior in polite society.  Ironically, the group of people who sent us into these wars is the same group of people who did everything they could to avoid serving in the Vietnam War.  For this cohort, war has been and always will be something for others to do.

It is confusing, bracing even, to return to a country that so easily voted for war (or was scared into it), but bears little burden of it. There are many reasons for this sorry state of affairs, but I bring this up not to identify them, but simply to describe the phenomenon.

This point remains, for me, the most problematic.  We have ten years of evidence that these wars are doing almost nothing for us.  So why do people want us to keep fighting, dying, and spending?

 

* Update

1.) When I edited this essay I deleted some text that I think now I should have left in.  In this post I was attempting to tie these emotions to the crazy things that participating in a war does to your mind.  In short, I know that it is irrational to feel like a less accomplished human because no one ever fired a weapon at me in war-time.  But war is fucked, man.  I’m six full years removed from Iraq and I still work to understand it all.

2.) After getting some feedback and thinking about it some more, I think the inadequacy section is fairly self-indulgent.  There is always a reason to feel inadequate–someone will always have a nicer car, better job, bigger house, bigger paycheck, or lower handicap.  It applies to veterans too.  Even the bravest, most war tested veteran looks up to someone and thinks, “I wish I could be as brave as him/her.”  I get the feeling that I should just get on with it. I did what was asked, just like every other vet.

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Written by keithboyea

July 17, 2011 at 11:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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5 Responses

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  1. Good post. I’m not sure I feel comfortable with how you are splitting hairs on defining what a combat veteran is, though. I’m supposing your definition of a combat veteran is a grunt who fought in the classic sense. Infantry stuff. But you deployed to the combat zone. You were there and got the special pay.

    There’s an issue in the veteran community in defining what a veteran is. If you served in the military, you are a veteran, whether you served in war or not. You are saying you’re a veteran, but not a combat veteran (because you didn’t serve in ‘combat’ like an infantryman).

    It all gets very confusing. There are lots of people out there who don’t call themselves veterans just because only old, white men are veterans. So it couldn’t be something for a young woman, or whatever.

    Don

    July 17, 2011 at 12:07 pm

  2. Don,

    I think I’ve read some stuff you’ve written on this, and I agree with your comment. It is tough territory; every experience is different. I’m still coming to terms with all of it, as I’m sure you are.

    Keith

    keithboyea

    July 17, 2011 at 12:12 pm

  3. Yep. I’m glad you’re writing about it though, because lots of people are feeling the same things you are. Getting it out there is good.

    Don

    July 17, 2011 at 12:40 pm

  4. The conundrum of who is a veteran and who isn’t has been going on for decades. I think there will always be some sort of grey area amongst people who served. The US Census used to ask if anyone in the household was a veteran, they found that woman who served during WWII were continually checking no to that question despite having been nurses or drivers or serving in whatever capacity during WWII. When they changed the language a couple of censi ago to has anyone in this household served in the US Armed forces at any time all of those women checked yes. They did not consider themselves veterans because they had not fired a weapon or done anything “war like” but I think we as spectators would say that a Nurse during WWII was just as important if not more important then an infantry man.

    So despite not feeling like a “full vet” we as passive observers consider you one and thank you for your service.

    clearbluewater33

    July 17, 2011 at 1:04 pm

  5. Keith, I can totally relate. I hate being called a “Veteran” especially since I never left the confines of the US during my several years of service.

    John

    July 19, 2011 at 1:02 pm


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