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, susansleggs.com