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.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Humbling support

Last Friday I put up a FB status. As everyone that is connected to me knows, I'm rapidly approaching my separation from the US Air Force after nearly 10 years of active duty service. The separation process itself was not without some hiccups and bumps. My close friends and family back home anxiously await my arrival. For all of them, the worst part had been the limbo of not knowing exactly what day I would be returning home. I finally, after many months of speculation, nailed down an exact day. So I posted a status that was, admittedly, not entirely profound.

In the, not quite, 72 hours since it was posted it has garnered 60 likes, which, as we know, is the litmus test for social success in today's society. It is amazing, not because of the number of likes or even the words of the status itself. It is amazing because of the people who clicked the button. There are people from elementary school in Glendale, Queens, NY that I haven't seen in over 20 years. People from middle/high school in Parsippany, NJ, some of whom I've been close with ever since and others who I haven't seen since the bleachers on graduation day. Then folks from my adult working life in corporate America weighed in. And, of course, a large contingent from people in my military life - some from this base or my last base or some I spent time in the middle east with and even from the early, early days in Basic Military Training/Boot Camp. What an incredible outpouring of support. As the title states, it's humbling to show up to work every day to do your job and make a difference and not once look for that that pat on the back or even acknowledgement and then have people come out of the woodwork to do it anyway and realize they've been watching and worried and praying/thinking/hoping all along.

In 2012/2013 this country is, quite clearly, not at its peak in so many ways. As Americans, we really don't help matters by constantly exhibiting extreme polarization and, quite frankly, intolerance towards those on the opposite side of the partisan fence. Yet, despite all of that, the unification is the support of the troops, myself included. We are offered a luxury that the Vietnam generation never got; and that is no matter what your stance is on the military, defense spending, the war, tactics/techniques or anything else, you, America, support US. You ALWAYS have our back. You always know that we have yours.

As any military member can attest to, there is an awkward moment for us. It's when we are out and about in town, in uniform, and a civilian stops us and says, "thank you for your service." When someone says, "thank you" for anything your first reaction is to say you're welcome, but we also want to say "no, thank you" in return toward that person who took those 5 seconds from their day and went out of their way to show appreciation. Usually we end up saying something like "you're...thank... I mean you're welcome and also thank you," fumbling most of the way.

This last summer (2012), I flew home for 3 days to say goodbye to a trusted friend and advisor, Colonel George Terry Ward (ret), who has since passed away. On the way back, I ran into an active duty Colonel and we began talking in the airport. While walking and talking, someone said, while trying their best to not interrupt, "Thank you for your service, Sir" and without missing a beat he flashed a warm smile and said "Thank YOU for your support." And in just 5 short words he said everything I've tripped over my lips and tongue trying to say for the last decade.

As I spend the next 54 days enjoying time with my current uniformed brethren while preparing for my next life back home with friends and family and trying to keep my sanity throughout it all, I'm blessed to know I have the support of every type of person that has been in and out of my life for the last 33 years. We do what we do every day for you and your families. And as I transition out, I know that many more will fall in behind me and do the same for me and mine.

So, with no more ado - to those in uniform past, present and future - thanks for your service. To anyone that has emotionally, spiritually, or physically had my back over the years - thanks for your support.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

New rules

As I mentioned, I don't generally believe in resolutions beginning January 1st. However, this year I'm going to make an exception and it's just luck of the draw on the timing. I'm no longer playing "politics: the home game" on social media. I enjoy politics, political discussion and a good debate overall. But that's all been ruined for me.

People have said things to me, on social media, that they would never say to my face in person. The relative anonymity of Facebook gives people a forked tongue that is inappropriate. I will no longer tolerate posting a status that says "in my opinion" and be told it's wrong. You can say "I disagree with your opinion Vig" or "my opinion differs from yours," but people have taken to telling me that my opinion isn't correct. At its very essence, it's a personal thought, feeling, belief or other individual construct that is free from right and wrong and inalienable. But that doesn't hold true on social media does it?

Belligerent and berating behavior is also unacceptable and since others on social media cannot be trusted to mind their manners I will remove the opportunity for them to exhibit these behaviors. I'm obviously not naive enough to think that my posts should be ignored. That's contrary to the purpose of social media. I'm also not naive enough to think that people don't do drugs, but I don't surround myself with them. The analogy just means that I'm not going to walk into the lion's den and pull up a chair anymore.

I also no longer consider the phrase "agree to disagree" to be a valid sentence. The reason is because people constantly say "agree to disagree, but here's my opinion one more time." That defeats the purpose, now doesn't it? If we are agreeing to disagree then we acknowledge that we hold opposing viewpoints and accept and respect the other's opinion, thus ending the cycle of salesmanship. If you continue to sell people on your opinion then you are not agreeing to disagree. You are agreeing to try to convince me to believe your way.

I'm not mad at anyone. I have no beefs. My focus is just not pounding away on a keyboard frantically to defend my position. We all, myself included, can't seem to propose our point and listen to someone else's without feeling the need to prove ourselves. That, consequently, puts the other person in the spot of a defendant, rather than a respondent. We are in no position to make people feel that way, so I'm done with it.

As I redefine my life, my level of transparency and what I'm willing to discuss with people is getting a new definition as well. I have my personal beliefs on topics, most of which I am adamant about. They are, again, person and as such are beyond contestation. I won't be told I'm wrong. What if I said to you "How dare you not like pizza?" You'd tell me to take a flying leap and mind my business. Well, how I feel about politics, religion, business, etc is the same thing.

Will I still probably get on people's case about spelling and grammar? I think so. That's not a personal belief. There are rules there. There is right and wrong. There's nothing philosophical about i before e except after c.

Will I slip up and give into the urge and post a politically charged status from time to time? I'm sure I will. I'm human. Ask anyone that's ever quit anything if they've had a relapse. If they say no they are either someone with the world's strongest willpower or, simply, lying. I've been doing one thing one way for so long that I'm bound to have a knee jerk reaction. I'll make every effort to avoid that and it'll happen less with time. Just don't throw it in my face when I have a human reaction in the meantime.

If and when social media matures to a point that we are not belittled for our opinions and we can simply discuss, I'll jump back in. In the meantime, do not tempt or taunt me into it. And if anyone has the urge to tell me that this new approach is stupid I suggest you bit your lip (or fingers as it were) if you value our friendship to any degree. This is a personal choice to enhance my online experience. You don't have to like it, but if you respect me then you will respect my personal choice. Common decency and human courtesy is not too much to ask, especially now that it's been so clearly defined.