What it Means to Be a Veteran Nowadays

Jeremy Warneke, Craft of War Writing Instructor

Jeremy Warneke, Craft of War Writing Instructor

I’m starring in a movie, and I’m doing nothing but running. I run really hard and long. High and low. I stop to spit out a lung before I completely exhaust myself, but no, I don’t do that. I don’t stop for a single second because I’m in a race and I need to keep running.

As I’m running, I meet some well-known or interesting people along the way. I shoot the shit with a former U.S. President. I have a drink with a former band member of Nirvana. Billie Jean King introduces me to her girlfriend...and Home Alone actor Daniel Stern asks me about my father.

 
Ishtar Gate replica, Babylon, Iraq. Courtesy of Jeremy Warneke.

Ishtar Gate replica, Babylon, Iraq. Courtesy of Jeremy Warneke.

I run from London to Rome. The ruins of Babylon to Buckingham Palace. I spend one Fourth of July on the balcony of a beach house in the Hamptons, watching a different firework celebration almost everywhere I turn…Three years later, while vacationing in Hong Kong, I spend the Fourth accepting an invite to perform at the Kennedy Center.

I run and run. So much so that you might as well say it: “Run, Forrest! Run!”

 
Nicaragua. Courtesy of Jeremy Warneke.

Nicaragua. Courtesy of Jeremy Warneke.

In Nicaragua—my first real experience with the Third World—the shoe shine boy shines my boots with his bare, black-polish-stained hands, putting those unwashed hands in his mouth afterwards.

In Germany, I sleep in a set of barracks that were built in 1938 and still have a hidden yet perceptible swastika etched in stone above the archway entrance.

In Kuwait, I ride on a jet ski for the first time in ocean water so salty that your eyes burn when you hit the water.

I’ve been to more places than I can remember, met more people than I should mention, and done and seen more things than probably most Americans. All because I’m a twenty-first century military veteran. Even for a veteran, my experiences are atypical, but if I were not a veteran, I would not come close to experiencing all that had been stated above. Vacationing in Hong Kong, for example, was something done on my own accord, with a friend, but I didn’t have the balls to take a trip like that before the military.

Life, my life, is a bit surreal. Maybe even a bit cursed because I’m still running, chasing after some new experience or running away from some of the older ones. Either way, I won’t deny my current privileged status. It’s cool to be a veteran nowadays. Previous generations did not get this lucky. As an uncle of mine once said about his era, Vietnam, “You didn’t dare walk off of a plane with your uniform on.” Could you imagine that to be the case anywhere in the United States today?

A question some of us younger vets now have is: When will it, the movie, be over? I mean, when do people like me quit getting special treatment? I’m not saying special treatment is wrong. It’s just a little weird, especially since many of our nation’s veterans (those who had come before, those who had served in Korea or Vietnam for example) still don’t get the respect, honors or assistance they deserve.

I feel it’s coming. I feel the closing credits are near. It’s just a matter of time. Then again, maybe I’m just spooking myself, stoking the animalistic flight mode in me, keeping my increasingly old and sorry ass running.

 

Jeremy Warneke is a public servant in the Bronx, New York, where he lives with his family. In 2016, with the support of the Bronx Council on the Arts, the New York Public Library…and Voices From War, he created “The Craft of War Writing,” which provides free, high-level reading and writing instruction for veterans, as well as the general public, based upon the themes of conflict and war.