My current crew at our four-unit fire station is comprised of 10 individuals, ranging from the rank of two-year firefighter up to a Battalion Chief who has been In the department for 20 years. The ten of us staff a ladder truck, an engine, an air/rehab van, and a battalion rig. Of those ten individuals, four are military veterans: two are Air Force, one is a former Army Ranger, and there is me, the former Navy SEAL. I consider myself lucky to serve in an occupation (a calling, really) that draws in others who have also served in the U.S. military.
I consider myself lucky because I like working with, and being around, fellow veterans. It’s not that I don’t like being around non-vets — Hell, a lot of my closest friends, not to mention my wife, are not veterans — but there is something that does my soul good when I get to be around others who have that same deadpan and wry sense of humor, that existential nonchalance, and that simultaneous respect for authority coupled with a healthy suspicion of everyone above their rank in life.
In my experience, there is often an instant connection that kicks in when one veteran encounters another “in the wild.” It is like recognizing a fellow American traveler when you’re in some far-off land; or the connection established when iron meets a magnet. This is primarily due to the fact that the two, no matter what their branch, era or years of service, or job in the military, share a number of life-changing experiences. And I don’t just mean serving in a war zone, although that also plays a big part when it is the case between two vets.
The most fundamental shared experience is that fatalistic sense of being a cog in the military machine that all service members possess. To a man and woman, being in the military imbues each with an inescapable sense of their own ultimate cosmic unimportance. I don’t mean unimportance in a negative sense, either. Quite the opposite. Each and every person who serves in the military is trained from day one to accept, understand, and even embrace that they are but one small molecule in the larger complex fighting organism known as the U.S. military.
There is nothing that can compare to coming to terms with one’s own lack of universal significance. It is as if a shroud is lifted, revealing to each individual that while they might indeed be an individual, they are also a part of a larger and more significant entity. Such a revelation cannot help but change a person, making them both more self-aware, less self-centered, and instilling in them a certain type of gallows humor that will remain for the rest of their lives.
That outlook, that frame of reference, is evident in the eyes of every veteran, if you know what to look for. It’s a knowing look — a certain way of staring and observing — and it is often conveyed through a “shit-eating grin” when circumstances become particularly strenuous, difficult, or even dire. It is as if their eyes are saying, “Yep, this is where I expected to be at some point, so let’s get to work and get through it.”
This certain casual and resigned attitude towards life and its many tribulations starts primarily during basic training (and is heightened through experience in a war zone). I use that term in the loosest sense, to include all the service boot camps, Ranger School, BUD/S, SF selection, and so on. In other words, I am including any training course that beats you down, then builds you back up again, as all basic training programs do in militaries around the world.
That experience stays with you forever. The two-minute showers. The five-minute meals. The yelling by instructors. The feeling of being a worthless and idiotic recruit. The feeling of wanting to get through it and join the unit. The desire to be deemed worthy of being a member of the team. Once you have made it through such an ordeal, from the “easiest” to the toughest (none are fun, or even that easy, compared to regular life), you come away a changed person. Your eyes are opened in a way that allows you to recognize many of life’s absurdities, its hypocrisies, and its pleasures.
Years on from one’s service, when you have moved on and found a new career, that sense of your small place in the universe remains. It doesn’t leave you, and when you come across another veteran out in the “real world,” it is usually manifested through storytelling about your service. Those stories are not usually about combat or “serious” matters. They are usually about the absurd times, the times when you were an idiot or made a fool of yourself. Those times when the military machine took particular glee in beating you down. Those are the stories that link you together, then ones that make you laugh together. Those are the stories that convey between two veterans, “you, me, same, same.”
While neither of you necessarily desires to ever go back to that time in your life, given that you’ve moved on and found your niche, nor would you ever likely trade the experiences for anything. They are what bind us together, those who have served. They were formative, and life-changing. They are what makes you a veteran. This Veterans Day, sit down with another vet and tell some of those stories. Share a laugh and a beer. Enjoy the day because you’ve earned it.
Read more from Sandboxx News:
- 7 Veterans Day facts everyone should know
- Veterans day salute to service: Stories of American heroes from every military branch
- Max Martini’s crazy new zombie flick puts veterans front and center
- 6 nonprofit organizations that serve our military veterans
- Why veterans are uniquely equipped to be great entrepreneurs
Feature image: U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Steele C. G. Britton