The life altering decision to join the military comes with much that is never heard nor seen by the general public. Much of this commitment is both physically and mentally life altering. For many Veterans’, they carry their memories internally within their head and may on occasion share them with friends, family or in general conversation. Many do not! So, what does it mean to be a Veteran?
Being a Veteran means lying in your bedroom all night in fear as an 18 year old without sleeping knowing that you’re shipping off to Parris Island, South Carolina to start your Marine Corps career in a few hours.
Being a Veteran means having your heart beat well beyond its MHR (maximum heart rate) as that first drill instructor steps on the bus screaming at an octave you’ve never heard before and telling you that you have ten seconds to get off of the bus and line up on the little yellow footprints outside of the bus.
Being a Veteran means jumping into bed at perfectly rigid attention each night on a bed with perfectly folded corners that you could bounce a quarter off of. While lying in the top bunk of that metal grey bunk bed on a 100% wool blanket that is itching the hell out of your back, you and 70 – 85 other guys sing in unison the Marine Corp Hymn followed by Amazing Grace each night as you go to bed.
Being a Veteran means sitting in Korea one day during a 10 day field exercise and waking up to a snowstorm and losing all feeling or movement sensation and/or abilities in both of your feet for 4 – 5 hours from having borderline frostbite.
Being a Veteran means countless live fire exercises for which little to no hearing protection was used or available. It also means sitting on top of a main battle tank on one of these occasions while it fires off its main gun. This and countless years more of the same leads to a life of always having to explain to people that you didn’t quite hear what they just said.
Being a Veteran means finding out in excruciating pain that your lung had spontaneously collapsed while you were going through an age old Navy crossing the equator tradition called (shellback ceremony) which involved you being so physically abused and humiliated that it’s actually funny to look back on now. You finished but spend the next 5 days in the hospital as your lung re-inflates.
Being a Veteran means having surgery to your right knee from a golf ball sized blood clot which you proudly received while practicing hand to hand combat with your platoon one day.
Being a Veteran means countless nights and years of adventure stories of wild drinking and partying all over the pacific which lead to borderline alcoholism as a young adult.
Being a Veteran means seeing your family for one time only for 30 days during your first four years in service due to being stationed in Hawaii and your starting pay at that time was only $510.00 a month.
Being a Veteran means spending two Christmases sitting in a bar in the Philippines and two others sitting on the beach in Hawaii all away from family.
Being a Veteran means making that ultimate decision to leave the service and then going back home to a snail pace environment where you just don’t seem to fit in socially, emotionally, or mentally.
Being a Veteran means bouncing around from job to job for four years and coming close to committing suicide as a last resort if getting back into the service didn’t work out.
Being a Veteran means feeling the absolute pride, joy, exhilaration and emotional gratification of getting back into the service, Army this time, and graduating from Airborne School and being stationed in the famed 82nd Airborne Division.
Being a Veteran means knowing that you’ve broken your foot on the 3rd day of a 30 day long leadership training course at Ft. Bragg, N.C. and refusing to seek medical attention or dropping from the course because you will not embarrass your unit or go through the self humiliation of dropping from the course. You complete the remainder of the course running 3 – 5 miles a day and even parachute jump from helicopter on this same broken foot. One week after graduating from the course your foot is in a cast and you eventually have surgery on the foot two years later.
Being a Veteran means the absolute pride of being selected to the color guard team and having the ultimate honor of carrying the Army flag with all of its battle streamers as part of that color guard team during the 82nd Airborne Division All American Review. Standing directly in front of you is the Division Commander and thousands of spectators and knowing that 14,400 of America’s finest paratroopers are standing directly behind you enables you to withstand the mind boggling pain and suffering that it takes to hold that flag for 4 ½ hours during the ceremony. Sheer willpower and the support of comrades standing next to you help you to prevail in holding an extremely heavy flag with one arm in a stiff breeze one very hot and humid day in the North Carolina sun. After the ceremony, you literally have to have a couple of friends help you pry your fingers from the flag pole as your hand will not open on its own.
Being a Veteran means meeting your future wife, best friend, companion, and mother to your children while on a four 4 day weekend pass. Then abruptly shipping off to the first Gulf War on a dimes notice and proudly supporting your country for what you’ve trained for and prepared for your whole adult life and knowing at the same time that you will now be separated from that same joyous person that you just became acquainted with.
Being a Veteran means driving along in a 5 ton truck the first day of the ground war and looking off to the side at the many small craters all around you and wondering what the small black things are and then realization hits you. You’re driving around and over top of unexploded munitions which came from a Multiple Launch Rocket System attack earlier in the day. Too funny huh!
Being a Veteran means driving along that same day and hearing a screaming incoming 105 Howitzer round coming in and it lands less than 50 – 75 yards from you and luckily doesn’t explode. Whew, that was close.
Being a Veteran means giving up on your lifelong dreams of becoming a Special Forces soldier (Green Beret) in order to commit to your new wife. You then volunteer yourself to be transferred closer to home to The 3rd Infantry “The Old Guard”, the unit responsible for all parades and ceremonies in the DC area and all funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.
Being a Veteran means dressing in authentic colonial uniforms made of 100% heavy wool while wearing a colonial wig and hat and performing countless ceremonies in 95 degree DC weather in August with 100% humidity which typically last for an hour to and 1 and a half and you absolutely cannot move and inch. The burning and blinding pain of sweat in your eyes and bee’s either buzzing your face or crawling on them and knowing you’re forbidden to do anything about it because movement of any kind would be a huge embarrassment to the unit, organization, and/or the Army during these high profile and very public visible ceremonies. Even being in top physical condition running 5 – 8 miles a day, you can lose 3 – 4 pounds during one of these ceremonies.
Being a Veteran means the pride of having your new pregnant wife with you when you re-enlist with an American flag at the ready at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with the Washington Monument and the Capital in the background.
Being a Veteran means that you take part in well over a 100 funerals in your 3 years in The Old Guard many at Arlington National Cemetery. Additionally, out of these funerals, you present the flag to the next of kin roughly 60 times or so during very somber yet emotional military funerals in the surrounding DC area.
Being a Veteran means the unbelievable joy at becoming a father and knowing that your priorities in life are changing. Again, you make a sacrifice for the family which hurts your career mobility and enables you to stay closer to home. The recruiting career begins.
Being a Veteran means years and years of ungodly mental and emotional stress which is forced upon you to meet the quota’s which the Army Recruiting Command needs to sustain itself.
Being a Veteran means during one three year stretch of time during your recruiting career you work from 8:00AM – 9:30/10:30PM each day M-F and Saturday from 9:00AM – 6:00PM. Don’t forget to add in the 45 minutes for the drive to work and home each day on top of these hours.
Being a Veteran means 35 NCO (Non Commissioned Officers) recruiters being called into work for a company formation in uniform at 11:30PM one night, on a Sunday night, so that your company commander can try to impose his will upon you as in the words of the commander “the company needs two more enlistments the following day (which in this case would start in about 30 minutes) to make mission for the month and my OER (officer evaluation report) is due at the end of this month and I need for you all to make mission in order for me to get a great performance rating”. It’s unbelievable, the sheer stupidity, ignorance and mentality of some people.
Being a Veteran means the pain that comes from knowing as a father, that because I’m not around due to Army working hours, my wife has had to teach my two boys how to ride bikes, throw baseballs, etc. These are unbelievable painful thoughts that one lives with and can never get back.
Being a Veteran means driving back from the military entrance processing station on five or six occasions with a young woman crying hysterically next to you because she’s about to be dropped at home and has to explain to her parents that the reason she couldn’t join the military is because she just found out she’s pregnant.
Being a Veteran means in the course of making your cold phone calls to high seniors from acquired school lists, you on five or six different occasions call a house asking for a kid in your standard high enthusiastic recruiter voice only to hear dead silence at the other end of the phone. After the mother or father realizes who you are and why you’re calling, they inform you that their son or daughter had been killed in a car accident a few months earlier and you didn’t know about it. The unbelievable guilt associated with knowing what you just did to this family when they may have begun to have a normalized life and out of the blue someone calls asking for their deceased kid messes you up mentally and emotionally for weeks.
Being a Veteran means a breath of fresh air when you get selected to transfer into health care recruiting and are chosen to run the entire New England Health Care Recruiting Team.
Being a Veteran means signing for Army housing in Massachusetts with a clause in the agreement which states the house is full of lead paint because it’s so old.
Being a Veteran means walking around on major college/university campuses and having Gay/Lesbian advocacy rights groups harass, verbally abuse and occasionally threaten you over a DoD policy for which you had nothing to do with.
Being a Veteran means planning your retirement and moving your wife and two kids home a year in advance to locate and settle into your home community only to find out later that the Army has stop loss you. You end up spending two years separated from your wife and kids as a geographical bachelor because of this only getting to fly and/or drive home once maybe twice a month during this two year stretch.
Being a Veteran means agreeing to stay beyond twenty years in order to get transferred back home and becoming the Recruiter Trainer for your battalion.
Being a Veteran means while you were stationed in Boston as a geo-bachelor, your adjoining roommate, a Marine Corp Master Sergeant, who also is getting ready to retire and has moved his family home and is currently assigned as the casualty assistance liaison in the Boston area for USMC combat deaths. Each time a death notice comes in; he begins to crack a little more from the stress of delivering the death notices in person to grief stricken families. You get a case of beer and sit around all night drinking with him each time while he talks and occasional cries and you support him because this is a grieving comrade in arms.
Being a Veteran means coming home from work one day to a note under my door that my USMC buddy had to rush back home because his wife and kids were involved in a head on auto collision. When he finally came back weeks later, he tells you the car that veered across the lane and almost wiped out his family was a car load of illegal immigrants who disappeared the next day never to be seen from again and he now has to deal with multiple expensive bills because of no car insurance etc. for the other car.
Being a Veteran means finally getting to that all important retirement date and having saved vacation days for years to have a three month transition time and you start applying for civilian/federal jobs only to find out that your skill set and/or background or the fact that you’re a veteran is preventing you from even landing any interviews.
Being a Veteran means the gratefulness you feel towards the person who gave you a chance to showcase your talents and was the first person who hired you as a nurse recruiter because he knew the value and skill set you would bring to the job. Thanks TG!
Being a Veteran means the satisfaction you felt after quickly earning the respect of all the nurse managers within your hospital as you were quickly embraced as an equal amongst them from your hard work and dedication.
Being a Veteran means that as an employee of the Veteran’s Healthcare Administration, you now get the chance to pay it forward (hard work, dedication to duty, integrity to the mission, and the ability to relate to veteran’s as you’ve walked a mile in their shoe’s) to all of the past, present, and future Veteran’s who have similar stories locked deep within their heads.
So, “What does being a Veteran mean”? It means extreme sacrifice by yourself and your family. It also means all of the above to include the equally all important sacrifices that your wife and kids have endured along the way sharing in your pain and anguish. It means that families sacrifice as much if not more along this journey and many times are shunned in the communities for which we live and work. It means families never get the recognition for their support and many times don’t receive the same assistance that the veteran receives. It means that you still to this day get major goose bumps on opening day at football home openers when the military fly by takes place and the national anthem is sung. It means you take it seriously when you fly your American flag outside of your house on the 4th of July and Memorial Day. It means even though your body is riddled with multiple problems, aches, and pains, you would do it all over again a heartbeat. Why, because you deeply love this country of ours and you’re damn proud of it; our past, present, and future military members and all of the sacrifices that have been made by them and their families for us to live in this great country and share in the freedoms for which we’re privileged enough to have and for which Veteran’s make these ultimate sacrifices.
That’s what it means to be a Veteran.
Steven Vandervort currently works for the VHA in Maryland as a HR Specialist – Classification. He enlisted into the U.S.M.C. and served from June of 1981 – June of 1985 as an infantryman. Vandervort enlisted into the Army in May of 1989 again as an infantryman (82nd Airborne Division). He retired as an Army Healthcare Recruiter Trainer in October of 2007. Vandervort worked as a nurse recruiter for over two years prior to beginning my career with the VHA in December of 2009.