We’ve come to another Memorial Day.
This is one of the military holidays; like many veterans still alive, I struggle with them most. This is *the day*…the day we saw fit to say thank you. Not to the veterans who have some home from their service…no no, that’s Veteran’s Day. No, today we say thank you, to those who never returned from their service.
Thank you to the brave men and women; or more accurately, the memories of those brave men and women, that made the ultimate sacrifice. To the soldiers that have died on the field of battle, or in the pursuit of freedom.
Freedoms most Americans use to spend today being thankful…for a day off of work, drinking beer, watching sports, and BBQing in the nice weather. Not to mention, knowing very little about what today really means.
I fancy myself a fairly patriotic person. I may not agree with most of what our government is about a lot of the time, but that has never affected the way I view the men and women who wear “The Uniform.” I spent some time in the military myself. This probably adds to my patriotism a bit.
I don’t talk about my time in the military very much, or even discuss it with people who aren’t very close to me. To me, it’s kind of like that scene in Saving Private Ryan where Matt Damon’s character asks Tom Hank’s character to tell him about the memories he has of his wife pruning the rose bushes in their garden (to help provide some thoughts of home), to which Hanks replies, “No, those are mine.”
I don’t discuss it with too many people not for the reasons you may be thinking. It’s not because anything really bad happened, or I may be ashamed of my time, or that I am haunted by something from my past. It’s quite the opposite.
I hold memories of those four years spent in the Army, very dear to my heart, as well as the people that shared them with me. I hold them so dear that I almost feel like sharing them with too many people; especially those who may not understand the military way of life, might somehow sully the very things I love so much. Then again, maybe they do need to be shared. Maybe that’s the only way people will truly understand or appreciate.
I also struggle with talking about my time in service out of a sense of guilt. That guilt comes from not being with my brothers and sisters during this almost 10 years of war. I’m sure some of you are a bit confused by that statement. I was Honorably Discharged (almost sounds like a prison release, lol) from the United States Army on September 7, 2001. Take a look at that date again. My release date from the military, and subsequently the date I was supposed to start my long awaited civilian life; a normal life, back in the real world, began 4 days before the most horrific attack on U.S. soil, September 11, 2001; the day the Twin Towers fell. My sense of normal never existed again.
I sat and watched every minute of coverage (as did most Americans) for 3 days straight. I don’t think I slept one minute for those 72 hours. I also stared at the phone for a long time. Waiting for that phone call; “Cruse, bring your butt back to base. You’ve been called back.” But the call never came. Over the next year or so I saw story after story, and one news article after the next, about soldiers being called back after being out for years, but the phone still never rang for me.
Soldiers with disabilities ratings (like me) were being called back to active duty and sent overseas; many of them never returned. I fit every criteria needed to be called back to active duty; I was young, I was from a combat-arms job, my disabilities weren’t debilitating, and thus would not prevent me from serving during time of war. And the big one; I had only recently ETS’d (Expiration Term of Service…aka you get to go home). But still, the call never came.
My guilt only compounded when I started hearing stories of soldiers I knew and served with that had fallen in battle. I fell into a deep depression that lasted for several years. Because of that depression I did things (which I will not go into) and said things out of anger that I wish everyday I could take back. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t called back. Why was I so special not to have to go to war with the rest of my friends?
I use the word friends to describe the men and women I served with, yet I know that it is not a fitting description. They are my family. Many of them, hell, most of them I have not seen in 10 years and only get to communicate with them over Facebook, but I know if I ever do get to see them again it will be like no time has gone by. I love those guys with all my heart.
It’s a bond no one who has not served can ever describe or understand…..and NO, people who think playing on sports team can somehow relate; you cannot. I hate when those A-Holes on ESPN say that these athletes are warriors, and are going to war on the field.
Some of you reading who know me personally are probably a little shocked at the amount of info I am sharing at this moment, seeing how I’m not the most sharing person in the world. A lot of these emotions got stirred up a couple of weeks ago when I was sitting on the couch while my wife was watching one of her DVR’d shows.
My wife loves to watch this show called Brothers and Sisters. The premise of the show is about a family who argues all the freaking time, and that’s about it. One of the “semi-normal” characters on the show is named Justin; he’s the youngest of all the kids. Justin is a recovering addict of pain pills and alcohol. And, seeing as I described him as one of the “semi-normal ones;” that should tell you all you need to know about the characters on the show.
He is also a former soldier who was wounded and nearly killed on his first tour in Iraq, thus the pain pills. At the end of the first season Justin is called back for that second tour. Currently the show just ended its fourth season. Justin is currently going to med school, which he is not enjoying, and still searching for his place in life. As the season was coming to a close Justin learned that one of his best friends was killed while in Afghanistan. Justin starts to feel the itch to go back into the Army and go back to serve with his brothers and sisters in arms; feeling like he should be there, with them. Much of this comes from the same sense of guilt I struggled with.
His wife can’t understand why he would feel this way. Why he can’t just be thankful he’s alive, and continue on in his medical studies. Justin tries to explain the bond between soldiers. He attempts the impossible; to explain the inexpiable. This leads to a huge fight, where she pushes him away and tells him he’s crazy for feeling this way.
That part upset me.
Justin eventually sees that going back is not the answer, and putting himself in harm’s way is no way to honor his fallen friend’s memory. But he said something at the end of the episode that I felt finally helped me put words what I have been feeling for all these years.
When his wife challenges him and says, “Why would you want to go back to fighting,” he explains, “I’ve been constantly fighting. I fight everyday to find a place where I fit in since leaving the military,” and that “being with my brothers (in arms) was the best feeling in the world because I knew that was where I belonged. And I finally felt like I belonged to something.”
Though the show drives me nuts, this moment actually gave me pause because I knew that this was the exact thing I had been fighting these years as well. Though I served in a time of peace, I still felt that draw to be with my brothers when it was time to actually do our job. To do what it was we had been training all that time for.
I have friends who are still serving over in Iraq and Afghanistan and I worry about them everyday. I pray for their safe return more than anyone knows.
It’s funny, I can remember spending so much time while in the Army bitching and complaining about being away from home, and how I couldn’t wait to get out, and blah blah blah. But once I got out and got home, I thought everyone was so different. In actuality it was me that was different. I looked at the world through different glasses. I saw people in a different light. I was changed forever, and I longed, and sometimes still do, to be back with the people I had spent that time with. To be with the people I felt were the only ones who understood me.
I am glad to say that I have come to grips with my feelings of guilt, and thankfully no longer dwell in my depression surrounding my guilt. I know that I was brought home for a reason. Though I still yearn to be with my brothers,; side by side, I know that it was not meant to be for me. It was not my path.
And what does this have to do with Memorial Day, you might be wondering. Well, that’s a fair question. Simply put; many of my friends…my brothers…my family…they never came home. And they never will.
Sure, my heart still breaks thinking that I somehow could have made a difference in that, but I also know that’s not at all true. That’s the yearning of my heart wanting to be there; fulfilling the promises we all made to each other, about always having each other’s back, supporting each other through and through.
It’s called survivors guilt.
And, that’s probable why I have spent the entirety of this post talking more like it’s Veteran’s Day, instead of Memorial Day. Because I still struggle with the memories. The memories that include those lost to me now. Profile pictures on Facebooks accounts I still come across now and again. Accounts I know, there is no one on the other side to interact with.
This Memorial Day, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for serving. Thank you to those who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice. But most of all, thank you to all those who served with me, were my friends, and helped me become the man I am today. You know who you are, and whether you are still serving, joined the ranks of citizen-soldiers like me, or are no longer with us; I salute every single one of you every day.