So I visited the VA medical center the other day, it was early morning; I was in the basement blood draw waiting room. Even at this early hour the room was full, most of the vets there that day were older, but there was quite a few younger vets present as well. This seems to be a growing change in this scene, the vets are getting younger and this can cause some distress among those waiting in the same room, I have to mention that it is my belief that most vets are pretty careful; they are respectful of each other’s service whether they are a retired Marine or an Army reservist.
That being said, there still seems to be an underlying belief by some that anyone who’d served in a conflict other than theirs, didn’t have it as bad. “When you walk for a week through swamps in bug infested jungle in the same grundies while dysentery creeps through your ranks, then come talk to me about having it rough” the older vet in the corner would grumble to the two younger vets talking next to him about their tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. The corners of the older vet’s mouth were turned down, his face shaded in a week’s growth, he wore gray sweat pants tucked into his snow boots and had on an old Carhart jacket. His arms were crossed, he was guarded, waiting like everyone else; he had the stare, and looked like many older vets in the room. The two he spoke to chuckled a bit without looking at him, then continued their conversation albeit a little quieter. The older of these two looked to be in his fifties, the other was late in his twenties. The older one talked about being stuck in the desert in Iraq without bottled water, half of their equipment; water buffalos and transport trucks having gone missing on the docks before their company arrived to claim it and having to use old Fargo school buses to transport POWs back to camps in Saudi Arabia. He spoke about how they’d have to drive for hours on end and share the task with only one other soldier to guard the bus packed with Iraqi soldiers that didn’t really like the idea of going anywhere with these guys, constantly trying to rock the bus in order to turn it over in hopes of escaping. He talked about them always being undermanned and undersupplied.
The younger of the two wore jeans with elaborate patterns on the back pockets, his pants hung low on his hips as he sauntered in and found a seat. He talked about being caught in cross fire between two tribes in the mountains of Afghanistan. He spoke about daily bombardments at sundown around his small encampment far from any civilized area. He talked about the batteries in his MP3 player dying soon after being in country and not having his cel phone “in like forever”. These two soldiers traded jabs back and forth for a while, they’d laugh and then one would mention there not being cel phones back in 1990 and 91, and the other would say well at least in Iraq back then not everybody was shooting at them like they were in Afghanistan. They both had good points and they both were adamant about conveying their individual hardship. Then suddenly another soldier sitting across the room stated “well at least we are all safe now sitting here today” as a nurse called out his name to have his blood drawn and the room filled with laughter.
One of the things I have always liked about the VA is that when I am standing there inside that building I know that the vast majority of people around me understand to a degree what I have been through, that when it all comes down to the end result, we all share some of the same experiences, even if they are in different parts of the world, or in the snow, or the mountains or somewhere in the desert far from our friends and family. We all know what it’s like to spend Christmas in a fox hole or a personnel carrier with eight other soldiers that haven’t showered in weeks. We all know what it’s like to listen to gunfire at night and wish we could hold our loved ones hands; feel their soft skin in the desperate grip of ours. We all know the pain, and the anguish, the long sleepless nights staring off into the darkness watching shadows for any sign of movement. I know that when I leave the VA, when I go back out there into the world again, that I can look into the eyes of those around me and know they don’t get it, they don’t understand the sacrifices I have made, why I stand there in front of the cereal aisle looking lost because I can’t figure out how to decide between Captain fucking Crunch and Count Chocolate, that such a simple task is difficult for me to make, when I have spent every waking hour on deployment making decisions’ that determine whether or not I will come home on my feet or in a bag.
I sat there in that waiting room looking around at the faces of men and women, who’ve all lived those experiences, some seem to be getting by, others appear to be having a more difficult time with it. We can’t do it alone; we couldn’t do it alone when we were in the thick of it so why should we think we have to do it alone now. We need to learn to reach out and lean on each other a bit, find comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone, that there are others out there that need our help that need someone to lean on.
When the nurse came back out and called the name of the soldier with the fancy pants, he got up slowly, and as he stumbled to the blood draw room I noticed one of his pant legs had gotten caught on and was exposing his prosthetic. The older vet in the corner looked at him and his face relaxed just a little. Our experiences are our own and they are relative in their severity. Often times those experiences find their way back home with us, they hitch rides on our perspectives and poke at us when we try and re-acclimate into society. Whether it’s a loss of a battle buddy, or a leg, or a loved one long after returning home, because the relationship just isn’t the same as it was before you left; we all share those hurts, those emotional distresses. We can compare scars all day long, but it’s the ones we can’t see that we need to address, that we need to know we share with our brothers and sisters, reach out and say thank you next time, shake hands with the vet next to you and look into his or her eyes and know, know that you are not alone.