Military Identity

Written by SueSpitulnik

August 18, 2020

The World War II vet tells of his experiences like they happened yesterday, or maybe last month. The reality, he is 95 and he is reliving days that took place 70 years ago. He explains their daily routine, as soldiers, was so structured that the feelings and memories have never gone away. He is a gentle, caring, slow-moving, refined gentleman, but his stories are of a young, cut-up, often getting reprimanded. I can’t picture the young man, but I can tell you about some of his shenanigans because I’ve known the man for five years. Most likely, I will never grasp the severity of his statement, “On the European front, we were just trying to stay alive and we did what we had to do to make it home.”


The Vietnam Era C-130 pilot explains, those who wore flight suits were a team. If one person failed to do something correctly, the whole team could die in a fiery crash, taking the load of cargo or humans with them. The military flight suit, with name, insignia, and rank was our brand and it was burned into our souls through training and repetition how to act while wearing it. Sometimes taking off or landing on the airstrips we had to use turned into an exercise of cheating death because of weather, location, or gunfire. One doesn’t forget those experiences. After his enlistment was finished he worked for 38 years at Xerox helping to design and bring to life the first digital printers, yet when he is asked what he did for a living he will tell you he was a pilot. That’s the identity he is proud of, that never left him, and has shaped him as a man.


The female Lt. Colonel RN admits she said no when the Air force asked if she was going to reenlist again after serving 23 years. Her dreams had become instant playbacks of twisted bloody bodies and she knew she couldn’t bear another deployment to a war zone. She now stares at her military uniform in the closet wondering who she is without it? No one knows how many young lives she saved or at least tried to. She has no intention of telling her co-workers that during her last military assignment in Afghanistan it was her job to make sure the correct body parts were reverently placed in the body bag with the same name label. When she had worn her uniform people could see her rank, her ribbons that proved accomplishments, and her name. She was a necessary cog in a big wheel. She knew her job, and she did it well. Now in her civilian job, she feels insignificant, invisible, fearful, and uncertain of how to establish her identity as a civilian. She knows it’s time to heal herself but she isn’t sure how to do that.


The above three examples of military identity come from veterans who are close friends of mine. They gave me permission to summarize their identities in my own words. When I asked them to explain why some vets walk around wearing parts of their old uniforms or other clothing identifying them as a veteran the answer was because it shows who their brotherhood is. It gives the vet a sense of still belonging in the big wheel and allows others to strike up the common conversation of, which branch, where and when did you serve. The question of what did you do is shied away from, especially during wartime. No one wants to admit what they had to do on the front lines. Sometimes the uniform stays visible because the body has left the armed forces but the psyche has not.


Families are directly affected by their member’s identity on many different levels. Some because of accomplishments, reprimands, security clearances, ongoing health and/or emotional problems, and even death benefits. I went to a quilting retreat a few years ago and overheard our guest teacher being asked if she had been able to travel without her security detail. My ears perked up. She answered, as she drove out of D.C. her tail car turned back. What? Turns out she was married to one of the members of the White House Chiefs of Staff and a security detail was part of her life. I’m not sure I’d enjoy that. I recently learned that my desire to move often may be called “self-deploying” because as a military wife I moved almost yearly, if not to another base, to another residence because of my husband’s advancement in rank or because of another child being born. The military life is a transient one. I’m one of the people that enjoyed it.

Have you been the person with a military identity or an identity from any other job that had a major impact on your life? Did you find it took a while to grow away from it once you were no longer involved in that job? Were you able to take the attributes and apply them elsewhere, or did you miss the routine you were used to and still long for the familiar? Please share any thoughts in the comments section.


Sue Spitulnik is an ex-Air Force wife who stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly you can do so at her blog,

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  1. denmaniacs4

    My sojourn in Canada’s peacetime army decades ago was non-eventful. And ever so brief. Only as an imaginative writer would I come even close to fully appreciating the experiences of the soldiers you describe. They have my respect…

    • SueSpitulnik

      I will pass on your comment to my friends. Through them I have come to know more about active duty and why some have more trouble adjusting to civilian life than others.

  2. floridaborne

    My 3rd husband was a chief warrant officer stationed near San Francisco. We were fortunate to live on base (it was expensive to live in California even then). There were women married to people who went out on subs for months at a time. They were like a sorority.

    It was like being inside a Laugh-in skit.

    • SueSpitulnik

      Good description. The families on base do stick together. It’s a substitute for being close to their real families.

  3. Norah

    Thanks for sharing these stories, Susan. They are quite eye-opening. My father fought in WWII as did others of my uncles who were old enough. Many of them were unable to talk about their experiences when they came home and were more-or-less expected to take up their lives where they left off. Many found it difficult as others were unable to understand the horrors they had seen. It took my Dad decades to talk about it. After he retired, he wrote quite a few stories about his experiences. It is good to have that record although I’m sure it still omits many of the most horrific events.

    • SueSpitulnik

      That’s true Norah. Our group tends to write of what is safe to share, not of the blood and gore. They might write about it in private. I don’t ask.

      • Norah

        It’s important to respect their privacy. They will share what they feel they can or need to, in their own time.

  4. Ann Edall Robson

    Thank you for the these stories of enlightenment, Sue. The words you have shared come from the people who have seen more of life than most people will ever imagine. It’s understandable why they identify with this part of their life so strongly.
    Our dad was a WWII veteran. We got to hear a few snippets of his time as a soldier, the good times.

    • SueSpitulnik

      One of our group members worked in the morgue tent in Vietnam. The poem he included in our anthology is very heavy. I didn’t include that here for obvious reasons. I cry inside for him every time I get to hug him.

  5. Jules

    Thanks Susan… May all who serve be able to get the respect and honor they deserve.

    I’ve had family in the Army and Navy… Those in peace time service talk more… those in harsher war zones talk less.

    Currently two possible 20 year folks…(when they’ll have to make their next choices) for the Army (young people in their mid thirties), but with the bad body ailments and disenchantment of equal and fairness within is wearing them both down. They are lucky enough that they will get certain benefits for the years they serve, which will not be quite the same for the newer enlistees.

    • SueSpitulnik

      You bring up a good point Jules. Our military is changing, but the “Good ol’ boy” attitude is still prevalent in certain job areas.

  6. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    I have never liked talking education with non-educators, kind of like a vet keeping quiet about the life when among civilians perhaps, and now don’t need to talk about it at all with anyone. I didn’t re-enlist. Despite the profound impact my grandfather’s service had on his young family, I only heard him talk about WWII once; he was visiting me and I had some older friends to dinner, one an ex Coastie and one who had her father’s WWII stories to share. To those strangers he told some of his stories because they had a military connection.

    • SueSpitulnik

      When we have a new person attend our writing group we greet them with, “this is a safe place to write about your military experience because you are among the brotherhood.” That works as a welcome ice-breaker.

  7. Paula Puolakka

    I’m a bit of an outsider, hailing from Finland, but the descriptions reminded me of those Finns with a strong military heritage. Only a few weeks ago, I had the chance to hear the thoughts of a few individuals whose family histories are tied to the former fighters of Jägerbataillon Nr. 27.

    In Finland, since this is a small country, everyday life is full of traces of old family frays. Many of the things happening are not based on the memories of the individuals who are connected to the disputes: they are based on the memories of those men and women who the individuals have never even met.

    It’s not always a good thing if the relatives (of those who have passed away) are deeply focused on the emotional and mental issues – traumas – that are not theirs. Unfortunately, that’s why we in modern Finland are facing a dilemma: the relatives of the former Reds (a part of the Civil War) are trying to dig up dirt concerning the (old) Whites and to get the modern scholars to rewrite history, “to correct the old wrong-doings of the coniferous battlefield and tundra.”

    This is against all the core guidelines and the mutually sealed contracts that were once made so that Finland could become a strong nation. The emotional and mental truce has been shattered. The people of the past – even if experiencing bitterness – somehow managed to ignore their egos, in public: they even buried some of the deceased Reds and Whites near each other to symbolize peace and common ground. That was supposed to stop the hostilities between us Finns, but actually, the war never ended.

    PTSD is a tricky thing: it affects the whole family and future generations if given the freedom to corrupt the minds of those around the main subject.

    When I was still at the uni and working on my Master’s thesis, I read two (American) studies based on the experiences of the victims of the Holocaust. It was the same as reading the survival stories of, for example, those men who had fought in WWI since PTSD worked the same way for the victims of the Holocaust as it had worked for the soldiers of WWI (and obviously for the soldiers of WWII.) Still, in 2020, it does not matter what war we’re talking about and if the soldiers are, for example, Finnish, German, or Japanese. Like Death, PTSD doesn’t discriminate.

    John Lennon once sang that war is over if you want it. But the reality is, people are greedy for drama and egocentric showdowns. Bob Dylan once sang that this world is ruled by violence. To me, this violence is the invisible kind of terrorization in society, which is cultivated by the various small sects. The sect members are holding all kinds of grudges, which are not even based on their real-life experiences: they are based on the experiences of their leaders (or family members) X and Y who have been dead for 50, 200, or 600 years.

    The stories of the individuals with the (loose) ties to the deceased members of Jägerbataillon Nr. 27 were full of respect towards the German and the Austrian heritage and Finland, in general. Their world and interests seem to revolve around the symbolic aspects of war. Also, they want to study, write and talk about the Finnish military traditions and history, which, of course, is a nice thing for an old history student and a poetic historian/philosopher. Usually, in Finland, people have zero interest in anything that happened a week ago and isn’t 100% about their day at the gym, latest fashion, etc. And then, if they suddenly wake up to talk about “politics,” it’s pure nonsense based on the ideas the so-called Communist artists (the descendants of the Reds) or the pseudo-scholars (working for the so-called Communists) are pushing through as the new truth with the little help from their friends in the mass media.

    From the viewpoint of the modern soldiers and military enthusiasts and from the viewpoint of those men and women who lost their lives for this country, it’s a shame that the officers are not given as much room in the media as the artists with the Red and the Communist heritage and mindset are given.

    The Finnish officers have almost zero visibility in the mass media, and sometimes it seems, no room and voice in the entertainment business. This, of course, is a problem since the topics of the mainstream magazines, books, movies, songs, and television shows play a major role, who the so-called average men and women with no understanding of history or philosophy are going to vote.

    To me, the idea of modern democracy is a scam. It’s a battlefield of its own, although no one’s holding a gun while making an argument. In Finland, at least, and to me, it seems that those with some sense, deep understanding of the realities of life and death, and who have been taught to respect the authority figures and to have some basic rules and guidelines to live a somewhat bearable life are almost like underdogs. But they are not underdogs: life would be better for everyone if those individuals had more visibility and control over social matters.

    It’s almost ironic that those who have been taught to protect their country and who are 24/7 surrounded by weapons and heavy machinery are collectively stripped of true power and leadership status. In media, they are being constantly slandered and told that they are not true men and women since, in 2020, the so-called true men and women are fighting to defend the different sects of pure hocus pocus so that history could be rewritten so that we could make this world a highly-technological hologram kingdom ruled by, for example, a hologram Jesus who is sitting next to his (or is it her in this new kingdom) hologram companion prophet M, a hologram social and health minister Bob Marley and maybe a few anime creatures, which you cannot pet since, obviously, they are not real. In this kingdom, only the hologram M is allowed to hold a knife, but the sharpest thing the others can be seen with is a half-chewed peppermint candy cane.

    If and when the underdog vision becomes the inner reality of those individuals with some sense and true physical power, it’s the ultimate example of another media’s brainwashing event gone right and another successful round of invisible warfare and peace-time PTSD.

    I wish you the best day of your life.


    P.S. I apologize for the typos and other errors, but remember, if Mr. Wittgenstein (the master of logic and language) made mistakes (I once saw his rough drafts in English,) then I’m allowed to be (somewhat) imperfect. Right? *heart*

    • Charli Mills

      Hi Paula,

      You are from Finland! When you first began writing at Carrot Ranch, I thought you were a Finn from the Keweenaw. Then you wrote a moving flash about the Finnish soldiers on long skis and I began to wonder if you were actually from Finland. I’m delighted to have your insights because I get glimpses of your culture in America where many of the Red Finns settled on the Keweenaw. Over in Minnesota, I lived among White Finns. And I have never fully understood the differences beyond wartime influences. Regardless, Finns have given us the cooperative food system in the Upper Midwest and I count many from your culture as good friends.

      Wow. What insights you share with us, sparked from Susan’s post on veteran identities. I think military service is an experience shared around the world, but you go deeper into the troubles of holding onto ego-centric grudges, generational PTSD, and the choice to manipulate history for contemporary political gain. Your historical and philosophical observations might be rooted in Finland, yet there is a universal attribute to what you describe.

      The movie, Braveheart, opens to the narrator saying, “…history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” There is a dominant side to history, but I think we are also witnessing a shift in dominance, thus a shift to rewrite history. At Carrot Ranch, I appreciate all the different perspectives each writer brings to the prompt weekly. It’s literary art with a smattering of anthropology. We have different experiences and ideologies and values, yet we can come together and find common ground. This trend to upend history and silence voices (don’t we ever learn that silencing is the root of the trouble?) rather than expand our understanding and include voices concerns me. I believe in the power of voice but not at the cost of silencing others, even voices we do not agree with.

      You further explain the longevity of grudges after war and how they can resurface. Even here in America, Finnish descendants still hold onto those Red and White identities.

      Thank you for such a thorough discussion.


      • Paula Puolakka

        Dear Charli,
        thank you so much for the thorough and kind response.

        Since you know my views concerning the usage of technology, you also understand the conflict I’m having when I’m using the author and writing platforms on the internet. The reality in Finland, however, is that we lack the down-to-earth writing and author groups that are free from the Communist propaganda and the individuals who are claiming to be Anarchists when they are only a bunch of pot-smoking and LSD dropping individuals with too much time on their hands and to whom, being an anarchist is the same as hitting some poor lady or stabbing a fellow teenager. Only a month ago, I managed to stop two youngsters from hurting somebody: they were lurking in the shadows, but as I confronted them and asked them what they are going to achieve with this kind of stupidity and if Mr. Kaczynski would be proud of this kind of foolery, they ran away.

        From this perspective, it’s heart-warming to read the stories on your site since, for example, Susan tells about the (history and military) meetings she has had with good folk.

        The reality is that everything we’re doing on the internet through the latest devices is being monitored. On 8/17, TreadBikely published a story of mine in which I stated (among many other things) how the internet is used to violate the rights of the other individuals. It was first created (or what the public lie of the creation of the internet is) so that the scholars could share their studies with their fellows. Yet, this is not the reality. The internet is full of the so-called mini dictators who are not supporting the freedom of speech, but they have their biased agendas if this or that piece should be published or not. Many of the online magazines are openly stating that they are open to everyone and everything, but in reality, they are only open to the leftist, anti-Hebrew/Jewish, anti-white, and anti-heterosexual writers and views.

        Censorship has not vanished: it has only changed its form, and today, even the most uneducated person can suddenly become the dictator of his or her little kingdom on the internet. The most horrific thing is that the masses are following these so-called kings and queens instead of going to school and reading a few books from the old-school mathematicians or the philosophers of down-to-earth warfare. After this, they could try and apply these thoughts to make those close to them feel good and secured, but no…

        Fortunately, there are those Finns who are not writers or poets and who are delighted to mingle with me, time to time, and of course, I sometimes channel their energy, so that through me they could have a voice. To me, the job of a writer and a poet is not to promote my ego even though the common attitude is that people are only writing and talking to promote their egos.

        Genesis 1:1-12 is (always) the root of my work. When I’m having G-d’s priorities on my mind, there is only a little room for anything else, anything irrelevant.

        To reflect Susan’s story with my family history and military heritage, I could drop the words “cavalry” and “horseman,” but those do not apply to every man. Also, most of the men from my father’s side had a steady core attitude. My grandfather was the best. He didn’t radiate any negative or PTSD type of energy. He enjoyed spending time in his workshop/garage, and he didn’t talk unless he truly had something to say.

        My father told me that when he was a kid, my grandfather used to promote strict discipline, but not brutal violence. For example, if the boys didn’t sit down politely at the table and stay quiet while their mother (my grandmother) served them food (she had spent a long time preparing since no modern-day quick meals,) my grandfather would take a spoon and snap them on the forehead with it.

        I recall, when my grandfather and grandmother were still alive and living in Ii, my grandfather loved to keep his space and stuff in the order he had been taught to keep in the military. Yet, every time we visited them, he would break the rules (behind my grandmother’s back,) reveal a box filled with his childhood toys and give us kids a chance to play and make a mess. (Knowing his standards, it was a mess.)

        He also had these big sacks of peanuts in the corner of his shop (he used to feed the animals that were living in the forest behind the house,) and although he did not usually allow anyone to enter his shop, he would allow me to enter his space and observe him working and also permitted me to eat some peanuts.

        There is an old Vedic proverb which states that those who are truly strong are capable of unexpected tenderness. When I think about my grandfather’s (bloody) experiences and how he had lost some of his relatives and friends because of the turmoil Finland had been in before the mid 20th century, it truly tells me a lot about his character that he was able to act the way he did.

        Thank you for your time.
        Have a beautiful day.

        P.S. Yesterday, a radio station in Mississippi fulfilled my small request and played “What’d I Say” performed by Jerry Lee Lewis and also informed me that they are going to play a song from Mr. Lewis once every hour (on that day.) I only requested the song so I could thank Mr. Lewis for his work and then, something so nice happened. So, it was a beautiful day. Sometimes small things truly matter, and the internet can also be used as a tool to cheer people up.


      • Charli Mills

        Hi Paula,

        I returned from a restorative time outdoors and got to watch a Finnish family frolic in the waves that rose with the high winds yesterday. It’s remarkable to see children to young and small fearless in those dangerous waves but a testament to how committed our local Finnish population is to passing down sisu. I enjoyed seeing this family play, knowing how hard they also work to put up for our hard and long winters. While camping, I told my friend about your response and what a small world the internet often creates, me, an American living among Finn-Americans, and you a scholar and story catcher in Finland. I would think our Finlandia University would love to have discourse with you.

        You have given me so much to process from military identities around the world, historic and current affairs of Finland, and the process of creation. America is a hot mess of politics and clashing values and consequences for Black slavery, Indigenous genocide, and misogyny these days, but one thing we all agree upon from minorities to dominant culture is freedom of speech. I think we are making a ripe mess of it and some fail to understand that personal freedoms end where it harms or infringes upon another. But we are a nation forged in its ideal. Many who serve and have died or been injured have served to promote those freedoms. Many under the bootheel of how this country was formed are exercising their freedom of speech. As a writer, I value voice, believing that is what makes each of us unique in our storytelling.

        Yet, you also expressed something I feel at the heart of my own writing and that’s channeling the energy of others to give voice to the voiceless. This can be a powerful legacy of writers and poets. It builds awareness and empathy. I can read your stories and consider how they intersect with mine. We find common ground.

        Maybe one day you could come to the Keweenaw and share and collect more stories! May your days be filled with more Jerry Lee Lewis music moments!


  8. Charli Mills

    Sue, as you showed in your opening profiles, there are sisters who are brothers, too. Nonetheless, the Brotherhood is strong as is the sorority of spouses (though we also have men among our sisterhood, too). I’ve also noticed that some who are “in” still feel isolated, such as those whose MOS included morgue duty. How to describe such a job? As a nation, we expect our dead accounted for and home with dignity, and body parts, but do we appreciate the living who must attend to the dead? I think your second account brilliantly shows what it is like to have had such a task. We have a Vietnam-era vet with morgue duty and he often hangs back from everyone else. Lots of civilian idiots will try to claim elite status because it sounds like a cool pick-up line or way to impress strangers at a bar without realizing they give themselves away not even knowing basic military service lingo. My husband used to joke that there are 2,400 Navy Seals and he’s met all 10,000 of them. But he gets hostile when someone wears a Ranger badge or has a bumper sticker as a hot-shot emblem. Only once did someone try to tell him that they were a Ranger and the grilling my husband gave the man left him unlikely to ever make the claim again. Thank you for this creative way to express the many military identities that exist among veterans. You serve your nation well as a Warrior Sister — someone who understands the load and helps to carry the burden.

    • SueSpitulnik

      Thanks Charli. In my group’s book there is a poem written by a Vietnam morgue worker. I will ask him if I may share it. It’s heavy but real. It’s an honor to be a Warrior Sister.

  9. H.R.R. Gorman

    The story about the lady assigning body parts to the correct bags – that shook me. Very intense.

  10. Paula Puolakka

    Hello again.

    H.R.R. Gorman’s comment made me think.

    I’m not sure if it’s a modern-day phenomenon for outsiders to be emotionally activated even when reading only a few words of somebody’s nasty experiences, but as I was just a few days ago reading about the cruelties of the Japanese during WWII and writing an essay for a Finnish-Japanese Association (let’s see if censorship strikes again…) concerning the way how malaria, etc. struck prisoners of war were treated (or how they were not treated!) I could not help, but to think: What the reactions of us free individuals would be in 2020, if we were forced to see and read about the daily experiences of the masses of prisoners, if, for example, the WWII POW camps were here today?

    I mean, there is hell, and then there’s Hell.

    Referring to my earlier comments: in the past, those who had to fight for the main cause – independence or to respond to a declaration of war by the neighboring country – were able to live their lives after the war, thinking, “It had to be done. There was no other way.” Many of those individuals had problems, but it was different since they had been forced to secure their land/space and the future of their children and grandchildren. Manual labor was the best way to deal with their hidden problems, not therapy (as we understand the concept of therapy in 2020.) There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the men, and they knew it.

    For many of the modern-day soldiers, the reason to fight is not to gain independence for themselves and their children. It’s not a question of “it’s either you or me.” They don’t need to join the fight, but in a way, they are made to feel that they have to join the fight which has nothing to do with the conflicts inside the borders of their own country but has something to do with the vaguely described issues happening on the other side of the globe (for example.) Usually, the conflicts have something or a lot to do with oil, gas, minerals, or whatever benefits only the big companies which are tied to the political or religious leaders of their own country.

    Many times, the modern (ex-)soldiers cannot say: “It had to be done. There was no other way.” All they have left is the God-forsaken feeling of emptiness, and they are experiencing all sorts of hellish doubts and suffering from PTSD, which has to be restrained with medication. Those soldiers who were lucky enough to return home to their wives and kids have to deal with the fact that their friends weren’t as lucky. (What was the deal anyway?)

    To feel truly bad:

    Drea, Bradsher, Hanyok, Lide, Petersen & Yang. Researching Japanese War Crimes Records. The National Archives and Records Administration for the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group: Washington, D.C. 2006.

    Prisoners of the War of the Japanese 1939-1945. Forces War Records.

    ”Mentality of the Japanese.” An interview on Professor Akira Iriye.

    Gordon, Ernest. Miracle on the River Kwai. Collins. 1968.

    It’s unbelievable how the SS generals and officers were and are still considered to be the most brutal and satanic individuals on this planet, but everyone who goes through those sources (for example) gets the idea that the German generals, officers, and soldiers were gentlemen compared to the Japanese in WWII. I once read how the attitude of the Japanese soldiers had made the German generals sick to their stomachs. And let’s not talk about Stalin, his fellows, his camps and, for example, the way how the soviets/ruskis executed whole families without any particular reason and left the individuals alive and bleeding in the cold wintery night after the massacre. The murder sprees were jokes to those guys. The attitude is kind of understandable since the Communists do not believe in God.

    For the modern-day ruskis living in Finland, btw, the Hollywood fed anarchistic tales with the leftist propaganda attached to the Joker and Harley Quinn are the hottest thing ever. I’m not sure why that fictional and childish trash is globally fed to people. In practice, this brainwashing has made some of the ruski guys abandon their wives and kids, move to Finland, and they are acting like they are the kings of the world when they are only the little Alekseis or Sergeis living in the rental apartments of some Finnish cities with the population equivalent to, for example, Whitehouse, TX. They are not officially working (playing poker online is not a job, it’s gambling) since they are “too smart” (like the Joker… sigh…) and they are enjoying the benefits of the country their grand-grandfathers and/or grandfathers once tried to destroy. So, for them, it only seems to be a good thing that Finland is not a part of Russia although, the guys are acting like they are the little lords of us Finns.

    Thank you for your time.



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