I joined the Navy before I left high school. I believe it's the only reason I was allowed to graduate.
In the Persian Gulf War, our ship delivered food to Kurdish refugees in Turkey. During the First Liberian Civil War, we brought Marines to protect our embassy in Monrovia.
The only time I saw our .50 caliber guns mounted, we were in the bay of a friendly Mediterranean country. Three days later, a mailboat went to shore. A few hours later we packed up the guns, went to shore, and got drunk. I never learned why we were there.
After three tense days of battle readiness, and with weeks of unspent pay and a ready supply of Ouzo, a Marine went through a window in a bar fight. A signalman came back to the pier with a new leather hat, boots, and a bullwhip, cracking the whip and rebel-yelling at the top of his lungs. A few sailors went down and carried him on board. While I was on watch on the quarterdeck, we heard a splashing sound and turned to see a disheveled chief petty officer pissing off the second deck directly onto the accom ladder- the stairs used to board the ship and, while in port, the most ceremonious place on board. None of us knew what to do because he outranked everyone on watch. Before we could take action, a couple of chiefs stepped out and dragged him back into their quarters.
We had never even gone to war. We had only been faced with the prospect of it for a few days. Running around the Mediterranean trying to help people deal with the effects of war, we had no idea how to deal with it ourselves.
Maybe things have changed since I was in the Navy. We were taught how to do our jobs. How to clean a m1911a .45 in the dark. How to put on a gas mask. How to fight fires. No one taught us how to deal with the aftermath in our minds. The women lost to too many days deployed. Not knowing your own children. The visions of friends killed by accidents in routine maintenance. Wishing they were killed by bullets instead.
When we were anchored off the coast of Turkey bringing food to refugees, I saw the bloated body of a Holstein cow floating in the water. The weather was still. The headless, limbless body hung around all day, bobbing slowly in the royal blue water.
I understood war in that moment as a natural disaster. That's still the way I process it. War happens. There is no positive outcome for the human race, no reasonable God to attribute it to, and no reliable forecast for when it will end. You might as well shake your fist at a hurricane. The best you can hope for is a short one. The most you can do is help other people deal with it. If you survive, you clean up and move on.
Think of veterans today as survivors. I was 19. On my ship, there were a few hundred more my my age and a handful of men to lead us. Now that I'm their age, I can't imagine the weight of their charge. We were just boys. Brave, strong, willing boys.
Survivors aren't always easy to get along with. Please remember that thick skin is scar tissue. We still want love, respect, and a good time. We want to know that what we did was important. Mostly we tried to help people. I never met a bloodthirsty soldier. Maybe they're out there. I just never met one.
All the guys I served with were straight out of high school like me. For many of us, it was the best of our limited options. We imagined that we were men. We survived. We became veterans.