During the three years I lived in the UK as a child, my family took a trip to Blarney Castle. I do mean one trip; one time and one time only. It just so happened that I was on crutches that entire summer with a broken leg. At ten years old, I stood (leaned) alone at the bottom of the tower which housed the Blarney Stone while my parents and sister climbed to the top to kiss the stone and receive the legendary “gift of gab.” Perhaps the (probably) non-existent karma in the universe cancelled out the superstition of my Celtic ancestors that particular day. While the individuals in my family struggle to put together a sentence without placing a foot in their own mouths, I consider myself a fairly solid communicator. That said, there is a phrase which is damn near guaranteed to leave me searching for an appropriate response. I received it several times in response to my post directly previous to this one.
“Thank you for your service.”
Most of the time I have absolutely no clue what to say when someone says this to me. The digital realm leaves me with a much-needed buffer as there is no one standing directly in front of me, looking me in the eye as I search for the words. I mostly panic inside during real life encounters, wishing for the other individual to steer the conversation to more comfortable waters. I hope the other person doesn’t see the tears welling up. Sometimes they are in sadness. Other times they are relief. Occasionally, it is anger. I know the vast majority of the time these words of thanks are coming from a compassionate place within the person to whom I am speaking. They just don’t know what else to say, so that is what comes out. I have to ask; am I the only one who has difficulty with this phrase? What the hell do you say back to that? These genuine moments are the ones which make the words catch in my throat. “You’re welcome,” is a customary response to an expression of thanks. Somehow it seems completely inappropriate to me. It implies that what I did was for the sole benefit of the other person in the exchange, and that is simply not true.
There are times, however, when it is not coming from a genuine place. I don’t appreciate these words when they are accompanied with offers for zero percent financing on living room sets or one dollar long neck beers. I don’t appreciate them when they are used to belittle anyone else for any reason. I don’t appreciate them when they come from the mouths of any politicians for any reason at any time. And I don’t appreciate them when they come with gods attached who were not there when my friends were dying in the so-called holy land.
I don’t necessarily broadcast my military record to the extent that others sometimes do. For instance, I don’t wear a hat or vest announcing my status as is popular with the Vietnam generation and before. I don’t see anything wrong with showing pride in one’s service and sacrifice. I understand why they do this and support them. I just personally don’t choose to do that. That being said, my license plate on my car does say I am an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. I’m conflicted about this display and sometimes uncomfortable about what message I may inadvertently be sending to others.
Combat veteran status is a nice hammer to have in your toolbox for the occasional armchair patriot. On the Fourth of July I noticed a slew of messages on Twitter complaining about atheist or secular humanist floats appearing in Independence Day parades. My opening retort would be a comment on how equality is apparently a thorn in the side of these individuals. The floats take nothing away from any other message and in fact adds another voice to the chorus of freedom which is allegedly the point of the holiday in the first place. One particularly irate Christian decided to share the following; “My grandfather fought for your freedom. You’re welcome, you faggot.” I told her that I thank her grandfather for his service and that his sacrifices belonged to him, and not to her. I informed her of my personal combat record. Patriotic holidays are an excuse for many individuals to fraudulently claim the accomplishments of others as their own. They are also laden with emotional triggers for those of us who have more of our story intertwined with the alleged spirit of these days of remembrance.
Triggers are mechanisms which might seem otherwise innocuous but can cause a person to experience emotional distress ranging from mere sadness to anger to full flashbacks. These triggers can manifest themselves in unexpected ways. There are the more obvious ones like sudden loud noises similar to fireworks, or gunfire. Occasionally it is enough to simply see people in uniform to cause me to have a breakdown. On a recent flight to the Pacific Northwest I was watching movies on my iPad. Star Trek passed a couple of enjoyable hours rather nicely. It was while watching Cloverfield, a “found footage” film centering around a monster the size of a skyscraper rampaging through New York City, when a scene where the main characters find themselves in the middle of a firefight struck just the right chord with me. Instant tears streaming down my face on a crowded plane. I hid my reaction well with the lid of my ball cap and no one seemed to notice. I have seen Cloverfield perhaps four or five times without incident. There was just some magic combination of events and setting which set me off that time. I have watched it yet again since and did not have the same reaction. There is no way to tell beforehand what is going to elicit what type of response.
Some memories from the desert make me smile or even legitimately laugh out loud. We had been in Iraq for a few hours when the first mortars started impacting near our temporary housing area. These were trailers separated from one another by walls of sandbags approximately four feet high. To this day I have never heard a noise quite like the sound of mortars impacting on concrete. It is sharp and thunderous at the same time. The explosions were falling closer and closer; an indication that there was an engineer working with the mortar crew to direct the fire towards us. A blast knocked in the door to my trailer and in the momentary quiet immediately following I heard boots kicking up earth as a body ran from right to left across my field of vision. I stuck my head out of my doorway and saw that the owner of the boots was Staff Sergeant C. Aside from his footwear, all he was wearing was a pair of sunglasses. “Where the fuck are you going?” I shouted at him. A frantic voice from the naked man reached me as he disappeared around the corner,
“I don’t know!”
I turned twenty-five in Iraq. To commemorate my birthday, the two youngest members of my crew surprised me with a chocolate cupcake decorated with twenty-five toothpicks. Where they found it is a mystery to me to this day. The younger of the two had a talent for locating desserts in the desert. It was not uncommon for him to mount our vehicle after a rescue and immediately start snacking. When I would ask him what he was eating he would tell me “cheesecake” without missing a beat as if this was a completely normal. The cupcake incident is one of the few times I can recall becoming genuinely emotional in Iraq. I was deeply moved by the gesture. War has a way of aging a person in a manner irrespective of the passage of time. I knew no matter if I lived a hundred more years I could never be as old as I was at that moment. It was the last birthday I can remember caring about. All the others after have seemed hollow.
Music has been the one great and true love of my life. During childhood I would make up songs during the long road trips which came with being a military brat. I was born in New Mexico, and by the time I started junior high school I had also lived in Germany, Nebraska twice, England, and Illinois. In the years I spent in Europe I fell in love with The Clash, Michael Jackson, and Queen. These formed the foundation for my taste in passionate, dark, and diverse sounds. I picked up instruments through my adolescence and eventually starting performing in bands as an instrumentalist and vocalist. This is the one part of my life that is always there. It never disappoints me. It never lies to me. It never falls out of love with me.
Music became my coping mechanism on deployments. Riding into action, I would routinely plug my mp3 player into whatever sound system was available. Sometimes I arrived on scene to The Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack. Other times I felt the melodic death metal of In Flames or At The Gates were more apropos. More than once I made my presence known as I sang along to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. After returning from Iraq, the music which had carried me through so many horrendous experiences became triggers for emotional pain. I would heard a song that I had loved deeply and be brought to tears. This emotional outpouring would be in no way cathartic. It was pure pain. I began to avoid music altogether.
My life became very quiet and my world became very small.