Bridging the gap. A term veterans hear often, and yet we still continue to struggle to understand what it means to serve and what it means to be a civilian. I got out of the Marines in 2014, and after indulging in a lifestyle less than honorable — including working at strip clubs, cutting class and hanging out with less than upstanding citizens — I finally decided that enough was enough, and moved back to Queens, New York. Once I was sober I realized that civilian life was not what it was cracked up to be.
The first six months post-end of active service was nothing but a honeymoon. Pretty girls, lots of booze, and no responsibilities other than paying my rent… but money wasn’t an issue. I missed the Marines, but like most I drowned myself in my pathetic self pity with drinking and partying. I never noticed the divide between myself and others because I was too inebriated to care. However, upon returning to New York I re-joined my local Fire Department and started classes at a SUNY (state university) Community College. I thought joining the Fire Department would be great and at first it was — the first two-three months were amazing — but eventually I noticed something.
The department I remember grew soft. Though it was volunteer, there was no accountability, no chain of command, nothing. These men would preach brotherhood and then talk about each other behind their backs. Inept leadership let this cancer grow, and grow to the point that it was disgusting. I remember thinking to myself, “This Fire Department feels like day-care.” I was slowing realizing it would never be the same. I felt different and I knew I was different. I knew I was better. After less than two years I resigned, in part due to the fact that I discovered a “brother” was trying to sleep with a very recent ex-girlfriend of mine.
My recent time in the Fire Department reaffirmed my belief in this quote: “Everyone wants to be a gangsta until it’s time to do gangsta sh*t.” These men were soft, they trained soft, and they were one bad break from a disaster. Yet, they threw around the words, “combat ready.” I laughed. Combat ready? Hell no. I wouldn’t take these guys as admin clerks. Granted, there were some hard men in the department. Old school: Vietnam and Korean vets. I remember meeting them when I was 17 before I left. I was in awe. Warriors, going to combat then coming back to their communities and putting out fires and responding to emergencies. But at this point those men were either gone or inactive. Now, I was the combat vet with a bunch of frat boys and guys “who were gonna join.” Not a great environment for someone trying to figure out how to be a civilian. The situation led me to drink, to want to go back in, longing for that warrior spirit.
School was the real kicker. My professors preached pacifism and how war is bad; something I agree with. However, they also misrepresented what happens over there, teaching impressionable students that the fighting warriors are also bad. I’ve heard the most ludicrous statements come from students who preach acceptance and kindness. College strengthened the divide for me. It made me hate going to school, especially since every passing day brought a new activist group to campus. I saw people standing on flags, holding anti-American signs, and calling for the deaths of service members.
You can’t help but wonder, “This is what we fought for? Four of my friends are dead, this is what they gave their lives for? So some hipster can practice his right to protest, then trash the rest of the constitution?” Granted there were a lot people who supported me and other student vets, but ultimately our voices were drowned out by those screaming that we were a part of the problem. Hell, during the free-college movement we were told we were welfare-queens due to our use of the G.I. Bill. College, at that point, was a very undesirable place for me… filled with safe spaces, and censored speech.
For me now, the divide is wider than ever. There are a lot of organizations out there and a lot of civilians who are by our sides, but there is also a sense of false bravado in the rest of the population. Veterans are glorified as killers, and crazy. Recent events in Baton Rouge and Dallas do nothing but play into the stereotype. I was even arrested and my face plastered on local TV to look like a domestic terrorist.
I think the majority of society wants the gap to remain; I think fragile men and women want to fear us. I’m oddly ok with that, because there are plenty of civilians who love us and want to help. I’ve met many people who are helping vets, and who believe in us, that make the sacrifices of my friends feel worthwhile.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to bridge the gap. Hollywood, the media, and the fragile generation can keep their opinions of us and of war. Instead maybe we should just strengthen our veteran island? Because honestly I don’t want to revert to becoming a full-civilian. Why, so I can be addicted to social media, so I can be a hypocrite? No, not me.