Veteran Re-Integration: A Normal Job
By Michael Baumgarten, Havok Journal
What causes you to see the world as you do? When you go to work what is it inside you that furnishes a sense of satisfaction? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to lose that? To experience profound purpose, to live in glory amongst events wrought of the most wretched sorrow. Each tragedy a triumph which can stain the soul yet grants the initiated with profound insight. In June of 1965, Ed White spoke at the end of the first American spacewalk during the Gemini 4 missions, he said simply, “I’m coming back in…and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” This too can be a soldier’s lament.
It seems that few occupations can drastically change your world view in this way. Ed walked along the abyss of the world’s end and was forever changed. What earth bound vista could ever satisfy those eyes? Removed from this celestial landscape a profound sadness took hold as elation gave way to the realization that it was over. Now we imagine Ed returning from his walk and upon returning decides his time as an Astronaut is up, and he chooses to leave. He has faced death enough for any one man, was away from loved ones and friends enough for several lifetimes. He wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, a horded treasure but one that comes with a price.
Like a jigsaw puzzle dumped on a dining room table that feeling of piece of the puzzle that fits into the larger picture of post military life for veterans. I will attempt as best I can to share with you my memories, and to transmit experiences through my humble words. Yet they can only do so much justice and I am at best, a poor writer so please bear with me, dear reader. I will tell you why as much as I can. I will share with you why the thought of a nine to five grind causes me to real back in aversion. To live life in a cubicle with halogen lights, recycled air, and water cooler gossip as my working comforts; is an empty meal that never provides satisfaction. I do not attack those who occupy this space; this is simply how I see the world. Perhaps reader you too are a veteran and like me find little comfort in the norms of your newly acquired civilian life. Once the veil is lifted it cannot be replaced.
My spacewalk didn’t come until later in life. One must learn to crawl first. My experience will stand as a caricature of other experiences. Of the wide eyed private to the striped sleeves of an NCO. Not at all the same, just similar shades of the same basic color. So we start where I began, not so long ago. The paths of the enlisted diverge sharply from their peers, and in short time that descriptor can no longer be applied. If it is, it takes on new meaning as peer is now fellow soldier and no longer viewed as classmate. Life during those young adult years is a wide eyed and exploratory one; experiences may vary. From eighteen to twenty two I went on my first five deployments to combat where you esteemed reader were probably in college or pursuing a career. This is just to give perspective and to allow reflection, this is not a criticism. We now stand side by side at the beginning of this journey; it will not be a long one. Let us walk through space together.
I stepped off an airplane in a state I had never been before. What Southern California teen wants to visit the deep south? Setting off on a journey standing truly alone for the first time, but I would meet others like myself sooner than I thought. I knew where I was going, no false pretenses to hide behind. So I stepped off the plane in Atlanta and breathed deep of the new air, thicker and older than the smoggy aether of southern California. The humidity of this strange land smacks me in the face with the same oppression as the drill sergeant screaming, breaching my personal space that I am clearly no longer entitled to. I smile inside as I blink from the hot air and spit cascading onto my face like broadsides from an old man of war. I smile inside because I am right where I want to be. I made good my escape from the tract homes and safety of suburbia. I fear living and dying five miles from home more than I fear anything before me. At eighteen I feel more alive than I ever have. Then again, what does an eighteen year old know about life anyway?
The sun sets and rises many times over. I am older now. I sit inside a room full of big screen TV’s. I am not alone. Others sit around me in various states of uniformed attire. They seem like normal men, sitting at their desks typing away at reports or emails; it could be that corporate job if not for the crosshairs following people on TV screens. Our air is full of the dust that blows constantly in this country. Our lights are basic bulbs but during the day we pop the window flaps open on the tent to let the sun in. One of us answers a phone and simply says “roger that sir” after a few minutes of listening to whomever was on the other end. We change the channels on the TV and watch a different set of people. This is our target for tonight. You call it the night shift at your job, the time when your toilets get cleaned and your trash is taken out. For us, this is the rhythm by which we live. Day is sleep, an escape from harsh sun and the eyes of the enemy. We are nocturnal predators.
Daylight fades, our workday has just begun. That little tent with the TV’s has become a buzz of activity. Older, experienced men talk loudly over each other as younger ones stand on the periphery trying to snag information from the air like a toad nabbing a fly mid-flight. All are focused, single minded but tasked separately. A plan is being heated and hammered in this forge of martial elements. We do this every night. Every mission is a test in creativity and tactical nuance. Every building a problem to be solved, labyrinths with lurking minotaurs. A hundred scenarios flash through our minds at fiber optic speed. Our imaginations see dead ends, traps, and faulty positions. Our eyes see breach points and entry ways. Fields of fire come to life in our minds eye as the battlefield comes to life. We daydream violence. We all think like this. “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion” – “Pieter De Vries” – Dune, 1984
I stand on the tarmac of a runway. I breathe deep as jet fuel and exhaust mix a noxious perfume. I know this smell and what it means. The whine of the Blackhawk indicates that it’s time to go. I want you to stand here and see what I see, feel what I feel. Adrenaline starts its metered release as darkness envelopes the world around me. Multitudes of stars sit in celestial judgement as we load our bird, old dead light seeking its way to our green electronic eyes. Our ride sits baying in its own mechanical way blacked out but for a simple call sign taped to the side. This is a bird of prey, she has claws. You may shudder at air travel, yet here you may ride with us free of your anxiety, through dangerous paths. I get the signal to approach this dark machine with all its malicious intent. I am first to the door, the chalk leader.
Others greater than I have stood in this spot and I will not let them down, I will not let my men down. We are armored and deadly. We hunt at night and see in the dark. Our movements honed by repetition. My hands know where to find every magazine, every lethal instrument of my trade. I do not need my eyes to see, senses trained and reaching as the first men did when things hunted them in the primal gloom of our origins. We are proud of the uniforms we wear; our cubicle is the door of the Blackhawk. Our eyes are up, absorbing the world we see through our night vision. We are not hunched over a keyboard as the world passes us by. My team leader sits next to me and so does my best SAW gunner, my sword and my shield. We will be the first to step off into whatever awaits us. With one look I know these men will not let each other down, our lives are in our comrades hands.
The earth skitters under us as we speed onward. Like children on a swing set we lift our feet into the wind and feel the night air rush by. We smile into the night; the ancient land we travel over is indifferent to us, the joy we feel is indescribable. Walk with me reader, into the empty space. All are silent as we close on the target. I wonder if they know we are coming. As they lay down in the silent stillness, they wonder the things we all do. The things that keep us up, that stand in defiance of sleep, that make rest a far off impossibility. We live now without distraction, minds set forth with terrible purpose. In the midst of all this we sit and enjoy the ride. We shed the electronic coil of devices, of those at home, free of distraction and overwhelmingly alive with calamitous intent. How can anything after this compare?
The crew chief passes the one minute call, some wake from the nap they take in full kit; knights in camouflaged armor. Why is this so relaxing to them? What kind of man sleeps surrounded by death? Who finds comfort draped in the tools of destruction? We are those men. Those that sit in the door look out towards the target wondering if the enemy hears us coming. Surprise will help keep us safe, we will be landing on the X, on the enemy’s doorstep. We like it this way, a blinding fast assault covered by the shock of explosive breaches and concussive blasts of blinding white light. You get turned on by the smell of freshly opened printer paper and crisp ink from printed documents; a new phone and a fresh coffee. We smell the stench of burnt primer and RDX gas, and think, what power we have; our madness is honed and tempered. Our breachers are masters of manipulating chemical compounds; they work terrible dark magic with explosives, bending and pushing metal at will. They perform their black art with maniacal satisfaction, what good will your gates and ramparts do to stop such men?
We return from this night, as the sun rises and kisses our dust covered and weary faces. The kind of exuberant fatigue one has after making love, adrenaline spent. How can I ever have a job where my eyes only hunt numbers on a spread sheet? We knocked on the gates of Valhalla and as soon as struck we were exiled. How do we return when we must live outside its walls; refugees in our own homeland who must now struggle to assimilate? We slap our young ones on the back for a job well done and chide others for mistakes made and lessons learned. You will never know a love like this, to stand shoulder to shoulder with strange brothers of this misfit family.
I look behind me and see the hoplites of old, the armored cataphract, the disciplined legion, the painted warrior. This is the lineage that casts its shadow as I live in fear of its disappointment. I look to the now, to the present and see the men who humble me as I am unworthy of them. They lift me up, and I lead them, they allow it. If I were unfit they would let me know, these men cannot be tamed. The leaders made here will be counted on by our countrymen to share what they have learned; time is the only barrier and a willingness to listen the key.
We walk away of our own will hoping for a new life closer to what we left behind. We seek to work for meaning, to have our life’s work matter and to be surrounded by the best. We look down at the hands we wash in our new jobs restroom and wish they were still caked with earth and sweat, even blood. We are intimate with death and see life with the eyes of someone who has seen the last light leave our friends corporeal forms. Their last breath a funeral dirge played in lonely rhythms on their voyage home. Our longboats fly instead of sale, carried on currents of air and thrust instead of wild sea. The metal coffins draped in the bloody stripes of our flag, a reminder that they are not alone in their sacrifice. The sanguine ribbons are simple homage to this immortal fraternity. One of us will guard them in lonesome travel home standing watch over the sarcophagi of these American warrior kings.
You perhaps now see why those like me are truly never happy in the occupational trappings others seem to be so satisfied with? How can I make you understand more? Our experiences are so different; we are made of different metal, but could be melted down and forged for similar purpose. We volunteered to serve with unknown consequence, never heeding the warnings of the concerned parent or loved one. We served in a selfless capacity; that we should expect nothing in return, and must not give in to harsh judgements of those who did not stand with us. We are not all meant to hold watch along the wall. There is a great divide that expands with every day between citizen and soldier. I can only do the best I can to help you see what I saw and to understand the feelings and thoughts of a group that I probably have no business speaking for.
I fumble through these memories, nostalgia being a familiar trap for overly pleasant thought. I know that I am grateful for every job and opportunity that has come my way in my new life. Yet I am still on a journey to find that thing to fill the hollow soul, a rock to seal a mausoleum I have built within populated with the ghosts of my past. To quiet those wretched specters who always demand more of me. To find an occupation that gives purpose enough to silence their need for meaningful benediction.
Dear reader if you are still here, I hope you have taken something from this verbose assemblage. We walked in the weightlessness of a vacuum, in combat and in training; we stepped boldly into the unknown abyss. Instead of being pulled helplessly and willingly into its embrace we returned from whence we came anointed in our deeds. I hope we understand each other a little better reader, I hope you drink deeply of the breaking day, and find your chance to walk along the abyss.