I’m part of a small percentage of Americans. Our drill sergeant told us less than half of a percent of the population is a military veteran. Even fewer are combat veterans. As I write this, I’m trying to figure out what that means. Why does that matter? What have I gained? What have I lost?
I was 21 when I joined the Army, shortly after we invaded Iraq. I spent the next seven years in Army aviation. I was ground support, spent most of my time on a radio, telling my scout pilots where the bad guys were, where infantry needed support. I was also the first one to get the 9-line medevac, a call over the radio from a soldier telling me his injured buddy needed airlifted out of the fight. The medevac pilots and their crew would be in the air in matter of minutes. I choose to remember my time in Afghanistan and Iraq based on those numbers, how fast I could get help to the infantryman, how many people’s lives we saved getting them to safety. When I think about the number of deaths, on all sides, it becomes more difficult.
I have a certain pride associated with war. I was good at my job. I was constantly assigned to train new soldiers. I learned how to lead, how to teach. I learned how to tactfully deal with leadership. Lieutenants can be the most bullish, wrongheaded people, and are often extremely sensitive. I learned to support and guide my young officers, and watched them develop into the powerful leaders I was honored to serve under.
Problem-solving became something I was adept in. When a major tells you to get something done, you have two options. Get it done, or suffer the wrath. My lieutenant and I would brainstorm on how to complete a mission. How could we transport water to a remote fuel point way up in the mountains, and have aircraft responding to enemy fighters, and make sure we picked up some big shot politician who wanted to take a tour of the battlefield?
I learned to keep going. It’s instilled in your first day of basic training, and it’s never something that diminishes. Keep going, through sleep deprivation, through the cold, through the heat. When you’re working eighty hours a week, and every few nights you’re awakened in the middle of the night from enemy mortar attacks, perseverance takes on a new meaning. Soldier on.
July 13, 2008, I was getting off a night shift, and on my way to chapel to play guitar for the service when a medevac bird blocked the runway I had to cross, then another, then another. There weren’t enough medical personal to carry the dead and wounded off the helicopters, so some of us went to help. I went straight to the command center and spent the next twenty hours on the radio. I don’t remember being tired. It wasn’t an option.
The military gave me those skills, those experiences that shaped my character, but it also took something away. That day will haunt my dreams. There weren’t enough body bags for all the dead, soldiers I’d eaten with in the chow hall, prayed with in chapel. One was wrapped in a waterproof poncho, his arm slung off the side of the stretcher.
The military gave me friends, and then took them away. I love my pilots, the bravest, most incredible men and woman I’ve ever known. I was on leave when Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael Slebodnik was killed by a sniper. I used to spend time playing music with him. He taught me how to play the blues. I’ll always regret that I wasn’t there that day.
He was the first of many friends that the war has taken, some by the enemy, some by their own hand, some still here, but not truly here anymore.
So, what does being a veteran mean to me? It means I’m changed. I met my wife through the military. My education is paid for by the VA. It also means I’ve given up things. Years of my life while my friends were gone to college, starting their families, I was driving down IED infested roads in Iraq, or sitting in a command center in Afghanistan.
More than the losses, more than the benefits of education and experience, being a veteran puts me in the tiny percent, a group of people who volunteered to put themselves between home and the enemy. I’d never trade that, the opportunity to serve with the bravest, most skilled, most impressive men and woman who walk the earth. When I see a fellow student around campus wearing a camouflage boonie hat, or who sticks his books into a worn assault pack, I know we are brothers without ever speaking. We are American Soldiers.