The solitary world of a vet

The strain of battle for Dong Xoai is shown on the face of U.S. Army Sgt. Philip Fink, an advisor to the 52nd Vietnamese Ranger battalion, shown June 12, 1965. The unit bore the brunt of recapturing the jungle outpost from the Viet Cong. (AP Photo/Steve Stibbens)

By Ray Starmann

On Veterans’ Day, it is important for those who have never served to take a moment to understand the solitary world of a vet.

Millions of vets are and have been successful in all endeavors. They are doctors, lawyers, business people and a thousand other professions. Not all have PTSD; not all are the troubled, brooding, street corner homeless guy, although they exist and need help desperately.

No matter how successful a vet might be materially, more often than not, vets are often alone, mentally and spiritually each day and for the rest of their lives.

Vets’ stories are all different, but some elements of the common experience exist.

Many vets experienced and saw and heard and did things unimaginable to the average person. They also lived a daily camaraderie that cannot be repeated in the civilian world. In fact, many vets spend the rest of their lives seeking the same esprit de corps that simply is absent from their civilian lives and jobs. They long to spend just 15 minutes back with the best friends they ever had, friends that are scattered to every corner of the earth, and some to the afterlife itself.

Vets are haunted by visions of horror and death, by guilt of somehow surviving and living the good life, when some they knew are gone. They strangely wish sometimes that they were back in those dreadful circumstances, not to experience the dirt and horror and terror and noise and violence again, but to be with the only people a vet really knows, other vets.

Civilians must understand that for a vet nothing is ever the same again. Their senses can be suddenly illuminated by the slightest sound or smell or sight: sights of death all around, a living version of Dante’s Inferno; sounds so loud that they can only be described as Saving Private Ryan in surround sound on steroids; smells vast and horrific; rotting death, burning fuel and equipment, rubber, animals and…people. The smoldering ruins of life all around them.

All vets have these thoughts nearly every day or every day. Some may experience them for fractions of second, or for minutes at a time. They replay over and over again like an endless 24 hour war movie.

Part of the solitary world of the vet is being able to enjoy complete bliss doing absolutely nothing. This is a trait grating to civilians who must constantly search for endless stimuli. Unbeknownst to them, the greatest thrill of all is just being alive. A lot of vets have an Obi-wan Kenobi calmness. After what they went through, how bad can anything really be?

As King said to Chris in Platoon, “Make it outta here, it’s all gravy, every day of the rest of your life – gravy…”

So many, if not all vets walk around each day lost in their own special story. They were once great actors on a giant stage with speaking parts and props. Maybe they were heroes and now they aren’t anymore. Maybe they helped save the world and now they can’t. Maybe they gave orders and now they take them. Maybe they thought that they could accomplish anything and now they know they can’t. Perhaps their lives now are smaller and slower and sometimes in the vet’s mind, just incidental, even though they’re not.

Most civilians are oblivious to the solitary life of the vet. But, it’s there. It’s the same eternal and universal philosophy, whether you fought in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq or Afghanistan. The experiences may have been different, but the emotions are the same.

A problem with the solitary world of the vet is that the vet has a hard time explaining what he or she did to those who didn’t serve. Some vets want to talk, but they have no outlet. Maybe their only outlet is watching a war movie or reading a book about the conflict they were in.

How often do people say, “Grandpa never talks about Korea.” That’s because Grandpa knows no one can understand except other vets. That’s because Grandpa knows most people don’t care.

Part of this taciturn mentality is that vets speak another language, a strange and archaic language of their past. How do you talk to civilians about “fire for effect” or “grid 7310” or “shake and bake” or “frag orders” or “10 days and a wake up” or a thousand and one other terms that are mystifying to the real world?

You can’t.

All of this adds to the solitary world of the vet. Some are better at handling life afterwards than others. Some don’t seem affected at all, but they are. They just hide it. Some never return to normal. But, what is normal to a vet anymore?

So, this Veterans’ Day, if you see a vet sitting by themselves at a restaurant or on a train or shopping at the grocery store alone, take a moment to speak with them. Take them out of their solitary world for a moment. You’ll be happy you did.

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