I haven’t touched an M-16 in years now, and being back in the university for about four years, I’d like to relate what it is I’ve been doing all this time. I can still remember what it was like to put my boots on everyday, the smell of boot polish in the morning, wearing the uniform, the same haircut, the smell of the humid North Carolina air wafting in from Onslow Beach on the Eastern Coast. I spent a lot of time at Camp Lejeune, I still have a lot of memories, some good some bad. One in particular, is a conversation I had with a Staff Sergeant when I was with 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion.
I told him I was getting out of the Marines to go back to college, he said, “You know how many times I’ve heard that Corporal?”
I looked at him like he had just spit on my puppy. I then said very monosyllabic like, “No.” He looked me in the eye and just as I was ready to hear something generally devastating, he said something that surprised me.
He said, “If you do go back, good for you, but if you get out and you don’t go back to college, you’re a dumbass for getting out.” In his own abrasive way he had delivered some sound advice: Don’t mess this up.
He was right of course, and although I received plenty of grief for getting out from other people, if they knew me now they’d know they were wrong to doubt me. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here by any means. I didn’t succeed as a student before I joined the Marines. I failed a bunch of classes in community college, which is basically a cakewalk, and since I couldn’t hack it then, I decided to do something else for a while. To not be able to succeed at a very basic level in community college is a drop kick to anyone’s ego.
Luckily, I’ve been very successful since my second attempt at college life. Education is an attempt to succeed not a guarantee. I read an ancient Sumerian proverb today, which I thought was inspiring, it said, “He who would excel in the school of the scribes must rise with the dawn.” I am prepared to do that. I know what’s at stake. I’m sure that a lot of my failings in community college had little to do with a lack of intellect, but more correctly had to do with a lack of maturity on my part.
Coming back to my hometown and going back to school after being in Iraq hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worth the effort. Why Blog about this? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt this way. I’ve been reading a lot of articles on the web about what to do for soldier’s coming home from both of the wars the U.S. is engaged in, and some of the solutions are great.
The best thing that a community can do is to remember not to let us get lost in the crowd. I go to a small university. I’m lucky that they have been very responsive and supportive to our vet population, but I’m sure in the more heavily populated universities, with larger classrooms, some of us can get lost.
Assimilating back into civilian life is not going to happen on its own. In fact, assimilation may be the wrong term. I hear people calling it a transition and I’m sure that this must be wrong as well. To assimilate assumes veterans have become something other than they were, and that they must be absorbed back into society to conform to what it has become or has always been. To transition means that it’s some process of going from one state to another. Sometimes it feels less like a transition and more like being thrown into a wood-chipper, having bits of yourself torn apart, and scattered across a nation that you’ve always belonged to.
Some of the solutions, and the dialog surrounding veterans issues are great in theory, but in practice they have practical shortcomings. I know that some veterans will be well received while others will not. This is a fact. I have been lucky, but some are not so lucky. Some come home and drink themselves to death, some come home so severely scarred physically or mentally that suicide may seem the only answer. I’m not making this up; I know people who have chosen both of these paths.
Veterans must come home on their own terms, but people need to be awake to what’s at stake for them. The world looks perfectly strange to veterans when we come back to it. It looks both perfect and strange. It looks perfect because business has carried on with out us while we were gone, but it looks strange because we are not sure where we fit within the world anymore. Veterans can find that place, but it will take a series of human, social, and political responses to make it practical. I have largely started this Blog to share what I’ve learned as a returning vet, to make sense of what’s going on around us all, and to share with you this soldier’s education.