It’s been quite a few years since I took off the uniform for the last time after nine years of active duty. And I have always had mixed feelings whenever someone refers to me as a “vet.” It may be because labels of any sort tend to rub a bit. They suggest a certain sameness about us and a commonality in shared past experiences; but as I look back, I more often recall being alone and ‘different’ than being part of some warm and welcoming club.
I wonder when people think of vets if the public’s view in any way reflects the individual experiences of those who served? One thing I know to be true is that vets are as diverse as nearly any other random slice of the population: they are fiercely dedicated – yet a few not-so-much; they are brilliant thinkers and problem solvers – though some barely understand; and they are brave, courageous and selflessly compassionate – but with a handful who are ‘weak of character’ sprinkled in. Without question, many deserve to be called heroes, but certainly not all. So while each vet necessarily reflects back on her or his service and remembers the uniqueness of those days, there are some things that are probably true for most of us. For starters, whether we passed or we failed, the military has a way of testing one’s character. It amplifies the positives such as the exhilaration of winning, as well as the negatives that can come with fear and remorse. It leads us to grow and to learn in much more uncomfortable settings than we would have faced otherwise. And wherever and whoever you were when you started, you will be different when you leave. It’s tempting to think of vets as having shared common histories, but few experiences in my life have been lived in such a profoundly solo way. Maybe many of us acquiesce to being labeled ‘veterans’ because it brings us a just little closer to the welcoming comfort of belonging, that our military pasts couldn’t offer.