Unless you plan on dying in uniform, eventually you’re going to get out of the military. When you do leave, you’ll walk out of Admin on your last day carrying several copies of your DD-214; the official record of everything you did (good or bad) in uniform. It will follow you everywhere you go for the rest of your life.
The question is: Does a DD-214 signal the end of a journey, or the beginning? The answer to that depends greatly on why you joined the military in the first place.
If you joined for educational or monetary purposes, then the DD-214 might signify the end–kind of like the divorce papers from a starter marriage: “This stuff is yours, that stuff is mine, we were young and now it’s over. Don’t call me.”
But if you joined because you wanted to serve something greater than yourself, because you understand the honor associated with doing something selfless, and sought tougher challenges than most will ever know, that little piece of paper is just the beginning.
Before you can realize this beginning, though, you have to answer this question: Do I want to be a professional veteran, or a professional who is a veteran? Your answer will determine the trajectory of your post-service life.
It’s easier and more common to be a professional veteran. You slap some stickers on your truck, berate anyone who didn’t make the same sacrifices you did, wrap yourself in the memories of the past and hunker down. The eventual career path you choose doesn’t matter–white collar, blue collar, no collar–you’ll be defined by your past, and thus constricted by it. I’m not saying this is good or bad, just that choosing to define yourself solely by your past is an end, not a beginning.
But if you choose the other path, that of the professional who is a veteran, then you’ve embarked on a new journey entirely. Again, the profession you choose doesn’t matter. What matters is that you move forward into this new phase of your life emboldened and strengthened by the experiences of the past. You’re able to use those experiences to overcome any challenges that come your way in the future.
But gaining this knowledge and strength doesn’t happen if you ignore your past, or if you use it like a club to keep everyone at arm’s reach. This inner strength only comes from descending into the darker experiences you’ve lived through. It’s only after doing the hard work to fully understand how they impacted you that you can emerge stronger on the other side.
Until now, my journey as a writer has been focused very closely on this process. My first book, After Action, is the product of the time I spent re-living, re-experiencing, and finally comprehending what I’d been through in combat. In the years after publishing that book, I realized just how unprepared I was for the challenges of coming home. The thousands of veteran suicides and heartbreaking stories of warriors overcome by variations on the same challenges I’d faced showed me I was not alone. A sense that my writing could help others, coupled with an obligation to share the lessons I’d learned, led me to write my second book, Continuing Actions. These books were not easy to write but the efforts were worth it.
Now I’m taking a bit of my own medicine. I’m at the crossroads of professional veteran v.s. writer who is a veteran, and I’m choosing the latter. For me to become a professional veteran, all I would have to do is start writing military fiction, reliving the same themes and situations that had defined my time in service, and hunker down. The internet would give me plenty of outlets to spew vitriolic, patriotic, “come-and-get-me-you-ISIS-SOB” slogans. Who knows, I might even sell more books that way.
But that’s not what I want to do (I still want to sell books, but not that way).
Instead, I’ve started working on a new book–totally different from anything I’ve written so far. I’m in the early story-boarding phase right now, throwing ideas on the wall to see which still seem like good ideas in the light of day. The main filter I’m using to determine the trajectory of the story is this: “Am I going to have fun writing this or not?” If the answer is no–out it goes. Where it stands right now, though, I can’t wait to start hammering it out.
So, I’m going to be making a shift in my writing. I’ve said what I wanted to say about veterans issues, both on this blog and in my books, and now it’s time for me to change gears. In the coming months my website will begin to reflect this change. I’ll keep all the older material and blog posts, but the site will become more focused on my present–not my past.
I’ve learned a lot by reliving my past. But now it’s time to take those lessons and move forward. I’m not certain where the path leads, yet, but isn’t that the fun of taking a journey? I hope you’ll come along for the ride because one thing’s for certain: it won’t be boring.
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