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What Does It Mean to Be a Veteran Today?

To Honor Veteran's Day, we asked my friend Major Matt Rhees to share what it means to him to be a veteran.  You can go here to read a little about Matt.
Thank you Matt for your sacrifice and continuing service so we might remain a free country.

I was asked to write about what it means to be a veteran today and how best to support our returning veterans from overseas. The first is a hard question for me to answer. I still consider a veteran to be an old dude wearing one of those tall old man caps who served in World War Two, or Korea, or Vietnam. I’m not old enough to be a veteran: in my mind, I’m still a foul-mouthed 20 year old punk who loves serving his country and putting on the uniform every day. I’ve never done what I do for a special day of recognition, I do it because I ‘m not afraid to do what many others are not able to do. I do it so that others don’t have to do what I do.

I’ll attempt to convey what I think and what my peers and I talk about when we get together. That is hard for me to do, because it is not my nature to gripe about things. Putting my thoughts on paper for all to read seems to me to be whining. Do not for one second take this to be the case…

Making Sacrifices

I’ve made many sacrifices to serve in our great country’s Army: I’ve missed birthdays and anniversaries, the weddings of siblings, the funeral of a grandparent, and countless other events because of my service to my country. I’ve never lost any sleep over it, even though it is not always easy. Pretty much every other service member I know to some degree has made the same sacrifices.

As a rational thinker, it boggles my mind that most people have no clue what goes on in the life of a soldier, or their families. They are very rah-rah and supportive, until it is time to step up; then their schedules just don’t work out to help. This is understandable to some extent; my being gone does not affect your day to day life like it does my family. But to offer and agree to support, and then bail, is a significant emotional event for a deployed soldiers family. My immediate family has become very self-contained and self-sufficient because of this; there are very few people we trust to be there when the chips are on the table. That includes family and Church friends.

Put it in Perspective

I deployed to Iraq as a Company Commander to Iraq in 2005. Perspective changes when you get away from the creature comforts we take for granted here at home. Perspective changes when you hear bullets whizzing over your head; perspective changes when you see people in the 21st century who still live in a mud hut and take a crap outside; Perspective changes when you stink even after a shower, or when you go to the funeral of a guy who was killed by an IED, or don’t get to call home for two weeks because the operational tempo is so high that you don’t want to wait in line two hours to use the phone because sleep is more important.

While deployed, I saw the best and worst of mankind. I met many people in Iraq who were happy that we overthrew Saddam Hussein and were very supportive of the US Army, and I dealt with captured insurgents who did not deserve to live because of the atrocities they committed.

My perspective changed drastically, and even though I know most folks have not had the same experiences, it amazes me the piddly, day to day things that put people in a tizzy. I gotta say that OU losing to Texas A&M ticks me off, but really? It’s a football game. That loss totally ruined the night of many people I know. Are you really going to let that ruin your day? I’m not getting shot at, I don’t have soldiers getting shot at, and I can pop open an ice cold, adult carbonated beverage tonight as I sit down with my wife and kids to watch an episode of “Deal or no Deal” after dinner.

Again, I realize that my experiences are vastly different from most people; even though I have been home for four years, the number of self-centered, oblivious people becomes harder and harder and harder to accept, not easier.

Readjusting to Civilian Life

I was in a place where stupidity and not paying attention to detail got people killed, so I have very little patience for stupidity and carelessness. I was “amped up” for well over a year on adrenaline and caffeine, so it took a long time to get into a sleep pattern that was longer than a two hour catnap. It took a long time to not grab for my pistol when I heard a car backfire or any other loud, unexpected noise. Put all of this together and I have a vast spectrum of feelings on what it means to be a veteran.

I read an article the other day about this being the first war the American military has fought this long without a draft. The short of it is that there is now a de-facto “warrior class” of citizens who have nothing in common with anyone outside of the military. I see that in my own life. I am more comfortable around a group of soldiers, even if I just met them, than anyone else.

The news doesn’t cover what is going on in Iraq anymore unless there is a mass casualty car bomb. Even Afghanistan doesn’t lead off the nightly news on most nights anymore. We have an all-volunteer military and the average American does not have to make a sacrifice for the war effort, so the American public, frankly, is oblivious to what is going on overseas. I don’t say this with any animosity, only to point out that what it means to me to be a veteran is affected by this fact.

I’m sure that any veteran of our previous wars can identify with what I’ve written. I wish my grandfathers were still alive so I could talk more with them about their experiences. I know I understand them and their “issues” a lot better than anyone else in my family.

Support with Understanding, Not Sympathy

So, what is the best way to support returning troops? There is not a one size fits all answer, although I can say definitively not to ask them “how many rag heads did you kill?” I was asked this quite a bit, and it wasn’t just the rednecks I know that asked.

Don’t push them to talk; if they want to talk to you about it, they will. Every soldier is different, and depending on the type of unit they were in and mission they conducted determines a lot of things. But I think what I have said today can apply to most. When you meet a returning soldier who is a little standoffish, short-fuzed, or distant, think about what I’ve written today. It may put their demeanor into context, and your understanding (but not sympathy) is the best support there is.

I am very proud to serve my country and I will continue to do so. I can say with absolute certainty that the bad guys are not here because they are overseas going after our military. If putting my life in harm’s way over there keeps my family and friends safe here at home, then I will go as many times as I am asked.

Thanks for your support, and thanks for being worth fighting for!

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