When the Music Stops

“I want to be dead with my friends….where the iron sharpens the iron.”-Every Time I Die

I am bearing witness to the end of an era. I have the distinct blessing, or the agonizing misfortune of having front-row seats to the death throes of a creature that has defined a generation. This creature is what my buddies and I refer to as the Global War On Terror (GWOT for short). 13 years, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and two presidents later, those of us who contributed our very being to this endeavor are left thinking, “What now?”

On May 23, 2013, POTUS Obama declared the GWOT “over.” Just like that. Done. Finished. It felt to my brothers and I, that our purpose in life had just disappeared. 

Of course, we knew that there are still things going on in the shadows of foreign policy. Smelly, bearded extremists are still getting shot in the face in far-off lands. But, to the majority of us who had spent our entire adult lives finding, fixing, and finishing, our jobs were apparently over. We had sacrificed marriages, seeing our kids grow up,  watching our parents grow old, witnessed our brothers deaths, and lost limbs for a conflict that we didn’t start, but were damn sure going to finish. We had been involved so long that it became us. Sure, some of us got out and made strides in veteran’s advocacy, tactical efficiency and efficacy, community growth, technological advancements, and improving quality of life for the layperson at home (i.e. the Perfect Push-Up). This writing is not for them. This is talking about the guy that has cut his teeth and dodged bullets since he was 18 years old and now has to try to find a place in this world….a world without the GWOT.

A friend of mine once said, “PTSD is the realization that you will never be this cool again.” He was referring to being on deployment, toting guns, and generally being a hard-ass. He was kind of correct. Once you wash the dirt and grit off and put on a clean shirt, you’re out of place in the civilian world. No one gets your jokes. Everyone wonders why you’re so insensitive to the plights of celebrities and pro-ball players. People view you as a victim, someone that somehow got duped into joining the military and marching off to fight, only to come home with less friends and more nightmares. You go to work at your job thinking that whatever you do today will never matter as much as what you did over there. You will never work as hard in this cubicle, office, ambulance, bank, or courthouse, as you did in the killing fields. You have this little voice in the back of your head whispering, “You will never feel more alive. It doesn’t get any better than those days.” Sadly enough, a lot of veterans are heeding this voice and going home and killing themselves, either with a gun or with heroin and Hennessy. The suicide rate is an epidemic and the VA is a joke. Personally, in my non-solicited and ultimately meaningless opinion, I think this is largely due to the fact that a guy went over and put in work, to come home to a government that doesn’t support him, and a public that doesn’t appreciate him. We live in a society that puts more effort and emphasis on Justin-fucking-Bieber than their neighbor who lost his legs in Ramadi. It doesn’t feel good when the media is more ablaze in memoriam for a celebrity that OD’d on the shitter than Chris Kyle or more recently, Aaron Torian. It stings a little when the Commander in Chief makes more phone calls to his travel agent and “brave” basketball players than to the widows of the fallen. Bottom line: empty thanks and the obvious look of pity don’t do much for a guy that feels lost at home without his brothers or people that REALLY care. But, I digress.

The last troops in Iraq left with little fanfare. Under the guidance of an apologetic administration, they left that country with their ears back and their tails tucked. To the guys at home at the time, they could no longer point at the TV and say, “I was there.” Afghanistan seems to be heading the same direction. One big-ass circle. The Taliban are seizing ground again, poised to take power, and the troops (from MY vantage point) are just hanging out in the FOB’s eating Burger King and biding their time, and why shouldn’t they? Our strategy in this country has been telescoped so far that the enemy knows when we’re going home! Why go out and put foot to ass when the shot-clock is down to the final second? No one is truly invested in the war. Again, my opinion. Hell, a staggering amount of troops here were 9-10 years old on 9/11/2001! It wasn’t even a “real” event to them, but rather an occurrence, handed down to them by parents and teachers and history books. They have no clue why they’re here. The commands don’t seem to give a fuck about more than eye pro and glow belts. Karaoke night is priority numero uno. The ROE’s have been so neutered that they’ve become a detriment to the troops. Everyone is concerned about packing their shit and shipping out.

But, there are those of us that still feel we have more to contribute. There are those of us who aren’t meant for a desk. There are men in this world still willing to go out there, for whatever reason, and skull-fuck the enemies of the USA. But, is there really a place for us any more? 

Some of us went back into the military, but are hitting the roadblocks associated with a large military drawdown. Some of us tried serving our communities, I myself became a paramedic, but grew bored rather quickly. Some of us went the PMC route, which is perfect to an extent. I get to tote guns and hang with the boys and count racks of cash. But, that world is dying down as well. My question is: “where do we go when the world no longer needs us?” What happens when the reason you got out of bed every morning for 12-13 years, isn’t there anymore? Especially when you know that the whole game was mishandled. It’s hard as fuck sitting back and watching the talking heads talk about the “mistakes” and the “futility” and asking “was it worth it?” when you have had to bury more friends than most people know their entire lives. It’s very sobering to think to yourself, “MY war is over.” 

Maybe it’s the way it goes. Maybe, those of us that still have more to give, are destined to sit on porch in a rocking chair or a bar stool at the VFW and talk about the “good ol’ days” with our buddies. My fear is maybe we’re going the way of Gran Tourino. As much of a badass as Clint Eastwood’s character was in that movie, he was still a sad, bitter, old man. Another movie reference is the grocery store scene in “The Hurt Locker” (regardless of the movie, that scene was powerful). 

My other fear is that the world will bury what we’ve done. The history books will refer to our endeavors the way I learned about Vietnam. The story I was told by my teachers was wildly different than the stories my father shared. His wasn’t stories of mistakes, his was a story of brotherhood and sacrifice. Thus is the divide in my generation. My brothers and I tell stories with passion and pride, and my non-serving peers think: what a waste of a life. It may have been a waste, time will tell, but it was a glorious waste. I “wasted” my life seeing the very best of a generation of MEN stand up and go do what was asked of them. I “wasted” my life in third-world shit-holes, knowing my brothers cared more about me than the girl at home. I “wasted” my life watching guys risk and give their lives for one another. I would not ask to “waste” my life any other way. I will also do it as long as I can. My only question, echoed by thousands of GWOT vets is: “what now?”

-Grifter