I spent twelve years in the U.S. Army, five on active duty and seven with the Texas Army National Guard. Of the seven years, two were active duty: half a year supporting the Texas airport security mission after the attacks in 2002, and eighteen months training up for and deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
When people learn that, they usually thank me for my service. I respond, It was my honor.
And it certainly was. But I have to be honest–I’ve never felt like a veteran.
I look at the men and women who returned from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, the Gulf War, and I think those are real veterans. They lived real war.
I look at the men and women who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan post-traumatic, missing limbs, smiling and living what look like normal lives with their prostheses, and I think those are real veterans. They’re the ones who saw what that war was really like.
I look at myself in the mirror and I see a father, a husband, a writer. An overweight, middle-aged guy who loves his family and works hard to make sure they’re taken care of.
I don’t see a veteran.
I deployed to Iraq an infantry rifle company commander in January 2005. In my year in country, I got shot at twice–once when some chucklehead lobbed two mortar rounds over the wall of Camp Echo and once when a convoy I was riding in was ambushed on the road to Baghdad. Nobody was hit in either incident, and even the ambush was over in about fifteen seconds.
Two months into my tour, I rotated out of company command and into a staff position. It wasn’t a relief for cause–but I was fired, just the same. Fired for indecisive leadership. Fired because I wasn’t fit to command an infantry rifle company in combat.
I don’t know whether my battalion commander found it a difficult decision or not. Honestly, it was the right call. I’m grateful to him for making it before I got somebody killed.
But it’s something I’ve been carrying around for almost ten years now. A secret shame I’ve been holding close since then. Until now, I could count the number of people who knew the real story on one hand.
I like to think I went on to redeem myself. I took a liaison job with a multinational division in whose area my brigade conducted operations. Before I took the job, one of our outposts exchanged fire with a Bulgarian patrol, killing one soldier. After I took the job, we had no more incidents.
And as soon as we returned, I submitted my resignation and shut the Army out of my life.
I never really fit in the Army, never felt like part of the culture. I like to think I did my best while I was in, but I rarely felt like my best was particularly worthy of the soldiers I had the honor of leading.
It was an honor, to be sure. I met the best people I’ve ever known–and a few of the worst–in the Army. In some ways, I miss it. You don’t wonder whether your work is worthwhile when it might save somebody’s life.
And maybe now, I can finally feel proud of my service. Because I served. I stayed longer than many of my contemporaries, I served with honor, and I went to war when my country called.
That makes me a real veteran. And it was my honor.