Saturday, January 26, 2013

The intangible expense

You've heard me ramble on ad nauseum about all the things you leave behind when you join the military and the emotional toll it takes on you to be away from all you know and love. You find comfort and solace in your new life and great sense of purpose as you become part of something bigger than yourself; something bigger than a paycheck. It's easier for some than others because we all come from different backgrounds. Some people's roots go deeper than others, some are trying to get away from home and others just enjoy the adventure of unplanned meandering around the planet. Almost all of us, stake our claim in one area that we call home and it becomes the aggregation point for everyone to see and touch us once or twice a year (sometimes even less), and get the satisfaction not provided by an email or even a phone call.

The military gives us a lot of things - structure, steady pay, education, medical coverage, a career more than a job, training, belonging, the ability to really make a difference and the list goes on all dependent on your needs in life and what moves you. But those things don't come free. We pay a hefty emotional price and sometimes a physical toll and sometimes an actual financial price (my military pay is only about 50% of what my experience is worth in a major metropolitan area). For many people, we perform some life choice accounting functions and look at the ins and outs, cost-benefit analysis, pros and cons or whatever you want to call it. There is always something missing from the list of specs on the window sticker.

When you choose to relocate for work in the civilian world, typically your compensation goes up. Why would anyone move to make less money in that scenario? With that you have more cash to visit if you want to (generally speaking). Also, you get your days off whatever they may be and you are free to go anywhere you want. As long as you are at work the next time you're due to be, nobody cares where you are in your downtime. And getting time off usually isn't that tricks. A little notice, no pending projects, the time in your vacation day coffer and you're all set.

In the military that's not only the case. There have been times when I simply couldn't get back due to mission requirements. Sometimes it was just scheduling conflicts, other times I was traveling for the military, and other times the last minute nature of the event calling me home did little more than get a chuckle from my bosses. And life happens, sometimes in small, but meaningful ways that you just don't think about ahead of time. When is the last time you bought a car and made it a point to see if the cup-holders were conveniently located? I NEVER do and at a rate of just about every other car, they have been someplace so stupid that it's a pain in the ass to use them. Small enough to slip through the cracks on the front side, but big enough to impact your life on the back side.

I've missed births of the children of some of my closest friends in the world. Friends' lives go on and babies are born every day. The clock doesn't stop when you leave the state. My cousin has 2 children, neither of whom have any idea of who I am. I've missed weddings of people I've known since the opposite sex still had cooties. One understood and the other hasn't spoken to me in almost 6 years. Those are both joyous occasions that are persistent (hopefully). I was able to meet Jim's son later when he was about 9 months old. I met Brian's daughter Sophia when she was about 6 months old. I met Alan's son Zach when he was just a month old, but it was only for about 2 hours. Because I'm headed home, I'll get to catch up. If I wasn't, I'd be the random friend that showed up in these kid's lives once a year. These are the children of people I couldn't live without in one way or another. I feel like I'm supposed to be there and I want to so badly. But we make do while we're gone.

Then there's the other thing you never think about ahead of time. People die. And they certainly don't wait until it's convenient for you to get home to say goodbye or even be there immediately after the fact. And when you're gone they don't really die to you. you get the news that they're gone, but you've already been gone and they've been out of the daily operations of your life. So, it sucks to say, but you don't feel the loss. They die on paper. The permanence of them being gone is hard to reconcile. You leave one day thinking "I'll see you on my next visit" and then it just doesn't happen. You can miss a few birthdays of a friend or child, but there will be more. Funerals are a single-serving event. There's no time to go back and make better use of your time together. There's no opportunity to get in those last words. Those parts are not different based on your zip code, but, chances are, if you have been collocated with that person, you've made good use of your time (or a willful choice to not to).

I guess the difference is that it's much easier to get the rug pulled out from under you when you're in the military or just gone in general. When you're in the military, you often can't adjust when it happens though. I went through it 7 years ago today. My favorite "old man" left us - that was just a nickname I called him while playing ball once and then everyone else picked up on it, but it was a term of endearment. This guy went from being a parental figure to a mentor to a friend over all the years I knew him. I've known his entire family for over 20 years. His son, who is in my generation, introduced me to my great love, Linda. He dies, suddenly in 2006, just 2 days before I was supposed to bug out form my base in SC on a military trip that couldn't be canceled.

That was the first time I had that "oh shit moment" and I've, unfortunately had it twice since then. The 2nd was my grandmother. I was in Arizona on military travel. Got back half a day early and left the next morning (at some great expense) and she passed away while I was laid over in Charlotte. And then again in 2012 when one of my greatest friends, Jim, lost his dad who was another close, personal friend and military confidant (he was a retired Colonel in the U.S. Air Force). I basically snuck home for about 40 hours and got 14 minutes with him just to remind him how I felt and say goodbye and to render his final salute.

And almost every day in between, I've crossed my fingers hoped that everyone else stayed safe. The closer I get to returning home, the more frantic I feel about it. Almost there. Less than 6 weeks. Everyone needs to stay home, in a bubble, with the doors locked. I am NOT going to be gone a decade just to have something horrible happen with just 40-something days to go.

That's just never on the bill of sale as something you just purchased with your signature on an enlistment form. It's not measurable. But it'll happen. There's never a good time for it, but it always seems to happen at the worst times. I'm glad that's one expense I'll never get another bill for.

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