I have been thinking of how to pen this for awhile now, and even after alot of thinking and about 12 re-writes, I still don't know if I got it right. Now that I am no longer in the military, for the first time in my life I get to reflect on a few things that I am certain have struck any number of other warriors when they find themselves in this place.
This place being, on the outside looking in....
I was cruising through the cable channels not long ago and happened upon Kill Bill Vol. 2. and the the following interaction took place:
Budd: They say the number one killer of old people is retirement. People got 'em a job to do, they tend to live a little longer so they can do it. I've always figured warriors and their enemies share the same relationship. So, now you ain't gonna hafta face your enemy on the battlefield no more, which "R" are you filled with: Relief or Regret?
Elle Driver: A little bit of both.
Budd: Bullshit. I'm sure you do feel a little bit of both. But I know damn well you feel one more than you feel the other. The question was, which one?
Elle Driver: Regret.
And I thought about what my answer would be....
Elle and I have the same answer in common...
After 9/11, my relief comes from never having to come home and break the news to my family, employer and everyone I know that I will once again be leaving them and pressing the "PAUSE" button on my life. Relief from having not to once again pack up my things, put my affairs in order, and start the long journey to the war.
Relief from not having to fight sleep deprivation, cold, hunger and disease while lying in an ambush position on top of mountain or in a dark neighborhood at an unknown and anonymous grid-square carrying bone-crushing and muscle-tearing loads of necessary equipment. Relief from enduring 15 hour running gun battles for what can be weeks on end. Relief during the silent moments of patrols and downtime from having to confront the mortality of myself and my friends, and then brush it aside and mount up for what may be the last thing we ever do on this earth. Relief at no more 9-Line medevacs, IEDs, VBIEDs, RPGs or MREs.
Relief from having to try to conduct a marriage, celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and holidays over the phone or the internet from the other side of the planet. Relief at not having to spend your workdays away from your family. Relief from not having to smell like a dirty sweat-sock for weeks on end, cold showers, hot, cramped vehicles and not having to endure "enduring." Relief knowing that your life will now include optional PT, food you actually want to eat, a duty to only do what you want to do and the knowledge that you have in no small measure earned a life of ease.
But I think that most of the warriors, young or old, feel regret.
Regret that your life will be easy. Regret that you will not share that secret handshake before climbing aboard that helicopter or starting that Hummer before heading out of the wire. Regret that there will be no more QRF, no more suiting up for patrol or stacking up at the door, not knowing, but also knowing exactly what lies behind that door. Regret at not being able to do the rituals of head-space and timing, PCC's, PCI's, radio checks, SITREPS or sand table walkthroughs.
Regret that the most dangerous thing you might do all day is drive in traffic. Regret that there will no more running to the sound of gunfire. Regret because all those things I just mentioned bring an order and a rhythm to what makes serving what it is. No more battles, no more enemies, no more duty, no more discomfort.
The military is like no other job in the entire world. You make friends that you will never make anywhere else. I think this is because there is no other job in the world where you have another employee that you would fall on a grenade for or charge into gunfire to save. I think it is also because there is no other job, at least in regards to the US Military, where you are asked to save the world. I watch my friends deploy now and I wave goodbye to them, and now that I know that I won't be joining them, part of me is relieved that I don't have to do it anymore, while part of me is regretting that I don't get to do it anymore....
When I was young, I never understood the VFW guys and the need for the VFW hall and I always wondered what they were as we drove by them in the car. When I joined the military, I didn't get why the unit reunion announcements in the back to the Army Times were published for units that were long ago disbanded, because I was thinking "who would go to those things?" until I retired.
The salve for this for me now is that I watch my son stack up on the door of his room as he prepares to put an end to the monsters in the closet and I listen to him give orders to his friends and tell them what corner to clear with their Nerf blasters. My wife listens from the kitchen and tells me "like father, like son."
Now that I am retired and I am watching new warriors take it from here, the relief I feel makes so much more sense now, and so does the regret....