I’m a veteran. Many, if not most, of my friends are veterans as well. My social media feeds are full of veterans–some I know in real life, some who are friends of friends. In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris, you can’t swing a dead cat around my Facebook feed without hitting a dozen posts from veterans proclaiming their readiness to gut every ISIS bastard they can find and fill their chest cavities with bacon.
Images of Lady Liberty rucking up and yomping across the ocean toward a smoldering Eiffel Tower compete with those of a bald eagle sharpening its talons for “most shared” status. Memes of Hollywood badasses uttering defiant challenges to “Come over here and try that shit” clutter the comment sections of news reports. This is social media masturbation at its best.
It may feel good in the moment, but it will soon be followed by a slightly embarrassed scramble for a kleenex. Like strangling your balls, engaging in this sort of reactionary activity online is not necessarily a bad thing. It only becomes a bad thing when it becomes a substitution for something real and substantive.
That’s why the reactions I’m seeing bother me.
As veterans, we have lived through experiences that have served as rites of passage since the first humans banded together into societies. The experiences of war, the willingness of one person to give their life in defense of something greater than themselves, have served as a dividing line between the excesses of youth and the wisdom of maturity for thousands of years. We who have chosen to serve have accepted the challenges that, if survived, stand to transform us into the type of mature leaders our nation needs. But this transformation doesn’t happen simply as a byproduct of survival–it requires real work, real suffering, and real effort for us to gain the wisdom of our experiences.
Gaining this knowledge has always been part of the warrior’s journey. But, for some reason, it is not a challenge we, as modern warriors, have ever been told exists–let alone that executing it is as much our duty as killing the enemy in combat. This leads many of us to wander aimlessly after leaving the service, stuck in a middle ground between war and peace and unable to move forward in life. Our mission has changed, but we refuse to acknowledge it.
We should be processing our experiences, going back through the painful and stressful events of our service and gleaning something of value from them so that we can pass that information to others. Our duty now, after we’ve served, is to do what we can to make those who come after us better prepared than we were.
This mission isn’t sexy. It isn’t like the movies where a helo lands near a secluded cabin and a high ranking officer begs the retired badass veteran to come back in for one last mission–one that nobody but the bearded warrior can take on. Chuck Norris’ characters, and their “one of a kind” missions are fantasy, yet proclaiming our willingness to accept those missions seems to be the loudest, most publicly acceptable way for veterans to make their voices heard.
But if those missions exist at all, there are hundreds of thousands of well-trained, eager members of the armed forces ready to take them on. And there always will be. Those young men and women don’t need us, as the veterans who’ve gone before, jerking-off over fantasy missions that have nothing to do with the reality of modern conflict. They don’t need us to stoke the rage of the masses or encourage those with no concept of what it truly means to serve to commit our forces to battle.
They need us to be wise, to extract knowledge from the challenges we’ve faced, and to stand ready to share that knowledge with them when they need it. There is no doubt that more battles are coming. There is no doubt that more young men and women will choose to shoulder the burdens of peace and pledge their lives to protect others. They’ll do this, and they’ll be very well prepared for the challenges of combat–just like we were. And, just like we were, they’ll likely be unprepared for the challenges of coming home.
Learning how to move forward after the crucible of service is now our mission. Post all the memes you like, shout your challenges to the devils of the world and fill the social media feeds with every Hollywood one-liner you can think of. But when you’re done, grab your kleenex and get back to the real work of figuring out how to come home from war.
That’s what America needs from her veterans.
For specifics for how to fully come home from war, see Continuing Actions: A Warrior’s Guide to Coming Home.