I really didn’t know what it meant to be a veteran until I started to suffer the consequences of being one. The dictionary describes the word veteran coming from the Latin word veteranus, which means of long experience. Merriam-Webster describes a veteran as an old soldier of long service or a former member of the armed forces. I am both now!
When I was in grade school I was very aware of the holidays associated with the Second World War. I was lucky enough to have a half dozen or so World War Two veterans in my life during my teens and twenties. I know why their’s was the Greatest Generation. They came back hero’s. I knew a few Korean War Veterans as well. It was a short war, but still over five million Americans fought. Most Americans were indifferent to them. Life was good here, the economy was good. Everyone was distracted living life. Then there’s Vietnam, I know quite a few Vietnam Veterans. They did not come back heroes. There are no holidays for them.
I feel so grateful that our countries mood toward Afghanistan and Iraqi veterans shifted from that of the Vietnam era veterans. The general population might not have believed in our current conflicts but they stood by the veterans. I felt undeserving of the attention. The Patriot Guard lining the ramp of our home airfield with their bikes and huge American flags. It was always an amazing feeling to walk off the airplane to be greeted by by the Patriot Guard. I think of what the Vietnam veterans went through when they came home. I was old enough to remember watching the news, shots of the them returning from Vietnam. They weren’t greeted by the Patriot Guard. They were greeted by the waiting protesters, throwing eggs and hurling insults. Most of the veterans were drafted, they didn’t have the choice that I did.
So now I’m a veteran! The word has a very different meaning for me now. In some ways I feel empty and hollow. I don’t feel joy as a veteran. I feel a bond to those I’ve served with, a connection to the crews I was a part of while deployed and here at home. I’ve spent several months at a time with five other men, living in plywood shacks that have all been bulldozed down, in parts of the world I have no desire to return to. We have all paid a price. I didn’t lose anyone close to me from enemy fire. I’ve lost more than a few to alcohol and drugs. I still have nightmares, I wake from mine. Some of my friends will never wake. I’m still trying to figure out what it is to be a veteran.