My father and I don’t talk much about my time in the war. I’ve told him a little about my frustrations with the experience and about my contradictory feelings of pride and humbleness. During dinner one evening, when we were discussing my difficulties with juggling my civilian job and National Guard responsibilities, my father finished chewing his food and placed his fork down on the table.
“When I look at a guy who has to report to drill every month, as a manager and as a hirer, I have to think about that,” he said. “I know he’s gonna be asking for a lot of days off, and that isn’t easy to give. Some guys come back from the war with all sorts of issues, which is understandable, but I have to deal with that. Honestly, I think about it twice before I hire them.”
My mom snapped at him for being insensitive. I sensed an argument brewing, so I intervened.
“No, mom. It’s O.K.” I said. “He’s just being honest.”
Whatever a veteran’s experience — that of an Air Force postal clerk on a F.O.B. outside of Kabul, a Navy engineer developing construction plans for local security forces, a Marine fighting through Fallujah, or an Army grunt living atop a ridgeline with a number for a name — we all share the unsharable. When we leave active duty, or our reserve or National Guard units release us from federal orders, we return to our families and our homes. And we are alone. Our families and our friends did not come with us, and they cannot follow us back when we think and re-think of our time away as part of the military machine and culture.
We keep in touch with comrades from the deployment, but they are not always around. Some are lucky enough to discover new friends — veterans from other units or branches or deployments who, though they may not have served alongside us, served with us, and speak the common language of slang, memories and symbols.
Usually though, we have to walk the paths of memory and experience alone. Some people are scared to ask questions, because they don’t want to sound insensitive or uninformed.
I’ve decided that it’s better to remain cryptic and silent in most situations, because being honest with people is like a magician revealing the secret to his tricks — you lose any semblance of honor or professionalism that the other person may have projected onto you, and you are left feeling pretty foolish about putting on the little show in the first place.
When I came back from Afghanistan in 2008, I set about trying to reconnect with my family and friends. When I saw my civilian peers advancing in their careers or personal lives, I felt as if I had been left behind — that the year I spent serving my country was a waste, because I could have stayed home to improve my education or résumé.
Very quickly I discovered that my anxiety about getting blown up in unfamiliar places with alien-sounding names like Baraki Barak or Kharwar (yes, those are real names) was replaced with anxiety about not getting into school, finding a job, or meeting new (or reconnecting with old) friends in once-familiar places like Buffalo or Rochester.
When I interviewed to get into the University of Rochester’s graduate program for teaching, my second interview was with a younger professor who had instructed and advised hopeful social studies teachers for several years.
With my shaved head and crisp “… sir” tacked on to the end of every sentence, I no doubt came across as ridiculous to the young jeans-wearing academic with a Che Guevara poster on his office wall and plastic toy soldiers next to his Howard Zinn histories.
“So, why did you get out of the Army?” he asked, again and again. I kept giving nonanswers like, “I wasn’t totally happy,” or “It was time to move on,” but he wouldn’t let it go. I did not feel like talking with a complete stranger about some of my more difficult experiences. I felt like he had a political diatribe lined up for lunch in the staff lounge about our interview. I figured he wanted something cutting to tell his friends, and I didn’t want to give it to him.
Finally, feeling nervous and with a sheen of sweat beading along my forehead, I looked him square in the eye and gave him an honest answer.
“I didn’t feel like we were fighting to win.”
When I received an acceptance letter to the school, I was pleasantly surprised. I became one of only two veterans attending the entire school of education.
After I finished the program, I interviewed for several teaching jobs. The questions about my military experience could be uncomfortable, and prospective employers didn’t always understand how serving in the infantry could relate to teaching. One principal even joked that if I had dodged grenades, I could handle a few kids.
A false smile through gritted teeth was the best that I could offer in response.
When I landed a long-term substitute job, things were beginning to look up. The principal, after seeing me sub for several different grade levels, committed to hiring me as a teacher’s aide for the rest of the school year.
Because I was not working as a full, independent teacher, most of my day was spent assisting another teacher. When I had conflicts with her, however small, I didn’t want to come across as an angry, self-righteous, or “crazy” veteran. So I kept my mouth shut.
When I informed the principal that I intended to re-enlist and deploy to Afghanistan at the beginning of the next school year, I thought that he would appreciate my honesty.
A few days before coming home from my three-week National Guard pre-mobilization training session, I received a call from him.
“I wanted to let you know that the woman who’s been subbing for you has really worked out, and I have decided to keep her on for the rest of the year. We all think it would be best for the kids because she’s going to be around next year, and you’re not. You can still come in every day, of course, but we’re going to move you around from room to room where we need you …”
His voice faded away as I withdrew into myself. I was exhausted. I hadn’t showered in days, and my uniform was caked with dirt and sweat. Three weeks was all it took to replace me. Was I that bad at my job, or was I that much of a burden on the school?
When I finished training, I went to the school to meet with the principal. I told him that no thank you, I wouldn’t be available to sub for the rest of the year. I had developed a relationship with the kids and did not want to have to start all over again. We talked politely and with respect, but it took every ounce of self-control not to burn that bridge.
The veteran unemployment level is currently four percentage points higher than the national average. Although most people are not paying attention to the wars, their legacies are filtering back into our communities, one veteran at a time. Most of these men and women are just glad to be home and are ready to work. Some have many problems, some have just a few. What we all share is the desire to be respected and appreciated for our service — whether completed or ongoing in a reserve capacity — and to be seen as a benefit to the employer, or an opportunity by the employer to directly support a military that is all too often cleaved from the civilian world it fights to protect.
Back at the dinner table, my father looked off into the autumn hills before speaking again. I followed his gaze but didn’t see the colorful foliage. I saw jagged peaks and swirling sand.
“The reality is that training and weekends off costs us money and time, and I gotta track down someone to fill in, or I get calls from his unit telling me that I can’t put him to work some days. It’s a hardship.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” my mom said. “They are serving their country.”
“No, I didn’t say that it was right,” he answered.
Both of my parents stared hard into their dinner plates.
“Everybody wants to support the troops until they have to share in the hardship and sacrifice,” I said. “Then all of a sudden that bumper sticker or that flag pin doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
Jonathan Raab is a spokesman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who is currently preparing for his second deployment to Afghanistan with the New York Army National Guard. He is a certified Social Studies and Special Education teacher, and will be looking for a job when he comes home.
You can follow his blog at www.withabibleinmyruck.blogspot.com.