The contract that I signed when I joined the Army reflected that I would serve no more than the four years that I signed up for. I put in a little overtime during that stretch (in those days you had to treat the military contract like a + 1 wedding invite; the + 1 in my case reflects the extra year of overseas duty after I got stop-lossed). I looked forward to finally being a civilian again. I had no real plan after leaving – all I knew was that I wanted to complete my education and take on the mantle of husband and father that was newly bestowed upon me. After looking for employment for eight months I found a job as a legal assistant within the federal government. I stayed in this position for close to five years; finishing my degree and settling into the civilian life. After I finished my degree the government job held little allure to me and I decided to enter the nonprofit sector. I hoped to settle into a long-term position and build upon my newfound passion for helping people. Unfortunately, that has not happened. Ever since I left my stable government job four years ago, I have held six different jobs, averaging less than a year in each position.
Does this sound familiar to the rest of you? When I talk to many of my military buddies they tell similar stories. After serving with honor within the stable confines of military service they find themselves drifting, chasing an elusive, nameless thing that seems obtainable but proves otherwise. What is this thing that we are chasing? Is directly linked to our service? Does it correlate with our war time experience? What are we looking for and if it can’t be named do we have any chance of recognizing it when we have it? I have a few theories but I’m not sure if they are accurate. Every so often someone will ask me if I miss serving. My response rarely varies. I usually give a wry chuckle, say “not really,” but concede, “I miss the comraderies.” Recently I have felt bad about saying this because I feel like I’m basically spitting in the face of all my civilian coworkers. I’ve had some doosies over the last few years but for the most part, I have had the honor of working with some extremely bright and caring individuals.
But it doesn’t feel the same, you know? The times I shared with my military brothers and sisters seems clearer, more there, than times I’ve had since. To use a sloppy analogy, times with my battle buddies seem like they are in HD and since then my memories are strictly standard definition and a little out of focus; the equivalent of the old television we used bang with our fists angrily when the tin foil rabbit ears failed to clear the screen. I am fairly confident that age has something to do with this – things naturally seem brighter when you’re younger – but I’m not convinced that’s the whole story. There just seemed to be more at stake when I served and that brings me to my next point: do I feel a lack of mission in the civilian jobs I’ve held since I left the military?
Again, I feel like this may be part of the problem but I’m not sure how large of a role it plays. I think the nonprofit sector is the closet one can get to the military regarding dedicating yourself to a worthy cause or mission. I have helped other veterans gain their footing in the civilian world; helped low-income individuals obtain healthcare; and helped New York City public school children obtain scholarships to attend college. Yet I still feel something missing professionally. The mission just seemed so much more strong and vivid in the military, but maybe that’s because on the civilian side it must come from within and is not drilled into you day after day. Both the military and nonprofit sector share the belief that the mission comes before the individual but there is an authenticity in the military that just seems to be missing on the civilian side.
Or maybe it’s simply a personality thing. You must be a little out there to join the military, let’s face it, so maybe veterans are predisposed to experience wanderlust. Maybe it’s not a military issue at all but a personality issue that we share that’s innate in us – something in our makeup that made us join the military in the first place.
What can we do to combat this wanderlust? Should we do anything to help those who are afflicted with this? It took me years to realize what I really want to pursue in life (creative writing) and maybe those years of soul searching were necessary to lead me (back) to what I want to pursue. Granted, it is frustrating searching for the professional meaning of one’s life, especially when other people get involved. People seem to think that if you don’t stay at the same job for 70 years you’re not serious about life and are destined to be totally aimless. But I find that you can’t let other people influence your decisions. Your path is your own. J.R.R Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings once wrote, “Not all who wander are lost.” Eventually, you find yourself again.