Monday is my first Veteran's Day where I'm solely a veteran and not also an active duty member. There's a certain... emptiness... I feel. It's a level of "used to be" I think. It's not altogether pleasant I can tell you. Go ahead guys, go off to war. I'll just hang out and be a free American. I guess 99.2% of America can technically feel that, but it's different when it's something you used to do.
Not everyone is cut out for it. Not everyone's life takes a path that leads them into uniformed service. That's ok. It's not meant to be for everyone. That is why 0.8% of the population ever dons the uniform. I wish everyone could feel what we feel though (those that do it for the right reasons, anyway). I'm sure cops and firefighters know what I mean. Maybe even a doctor getting his or her first lab coat. There is something about threads as a symbol for a fight for something greater. The fraternal bond puts others in the same boat.
I see the looks I get in my veteran hat. I can tell when it's another vet. I can tell when it's someone who, although not a vet, "gets it." I can see that people recognize that I wear USAF t-shirts 5 out of 7 days and 1 of 3 veteran hats I have every time I leave the house not because I want them to know I did it, but because I need to keep it alive for me. I'm not looking for pats on the back. I want to feel like I'm still connected to the action that often got the pats on the back. The effect may be the same, but the cause is very different - inward vs outward pride.
I love being home. I love seeing my family so often. I love not having to pick Linda up from the airport. I love my industry. I love being an entrepreneur. I hate feeling so helpless when this world takes its fucked up turns trying to destroy itself.
I hate that I sidelined myself. Here's where the real self-destructive part comes in. I wouldn't go back full time, Active Duty even given the chance. I've broken the hearts of the people I love long enough. However, I can't look back as if I did my part. It's incomplete. I am sentenced to a lifetime of limbo and I don't know how to make my peace with it. I try daily. There's no magic word. There's no advice. Time may be the answer. It may not be.
I just know that on Monday I'll be so proud of everything I've done and the part I played, but at the exact same moment I'll feel for all those who still do. It's my own little version of a survivor's guilt I guess. Why should they have to endure those hardships as I sit at home with my feet up? I wish it was a zero sum game, but it's not. For all the positive pride and negative abandonment feelings the added cost is the emotional struggle to try to strike a balance and I come out a little more weary than I went in, each time.
I know I'm not indispensable to the Air Force. It'll keep on flying without me. I tried to always add value while I was there. I tried to leave it better than I found it in whatever way I could. It's why I was a teacher and not an instructor at my last assignment. But there are lots and lots like me and far better as well. I made my choice and stand by it, but that doesn't mean that it's always easy. Sure it's been months and months, but I was there for years and years. A home, routine, job and other checkboxes don't heal your heart, do they? This transition is going to take a while.
So, my uniformed brothers and sisters... I may not be combat ready anymore. I'm not up to speed on the training. I'm certainly not fit to fight (blame NJ pizza). I'm not ready to pick up and deploy anymore. I'm not mentally prepared for days without showers, in body armor, ducking mortars. But I've got your back. I don't know how. I don't know when. But I'm confident that when the time is right I'll know it... and I'll be there.
Until then, I'm just a vet. Just a guy in a hat. Just a fading memory. I just wish I was more prepared for how that was going to feel.