The conversation had started similarly to every other Tinder date: questions about work, weekend plans, past travel destinations, and favorite movies. The answers were boilerplate, but she had nice eyes and she lived close to my apartment, so I forged ahead. Questions turned to how we’d ended up where we were, and inevitably my time in the Army came up. I try not to lead with discussions of my service, but those four years always find their way into the conversation.
“Did you deploy?”
“Yup, twice. Once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.”
“Really? My cousin’s friend deployed too, and he did some really crazy shit over there. Did you see some stuff too?”
“Very cool. We got really lucky and things were quiet.”
“Oh, then you’re not a combat veteran.”
It wasn’t so much of an observation as an accusation, and it was a gut punch. I nodded along as she regaled me with stories of her cousin’s friend’s exploits overseas, but somewhere between the part where he parachuted into Baghdad and when he personally wrestled Saddam to the ground, I’d already started signaling the bartender with my eyes to bring the check.
Unbeknownst to her, she pulled out a cork, and a torrent of shame, guilt, and frustration came rocketing to the surface. I spent the walk home in a daze caught between attempting to figure out why someone would need to minimize my service and my own thoughts of inadequacy and embarrassment.
I had known that I wanted to be a soldier since I was 14 years old. The only other job I’d wanted up to that point was an astronaut, but I had quickly realized that I’d never be good enough at math to get into space. Growing up, I’d read extensively about hard men doing hard things in hard places, and I knew that I wanted to join their ranks—to be tested and transformed from the meek Jewish kid from the Boston suburbs into a warrior through the crucible of combat. Sept. 11, the Iraq invasion, and the multitude of stories emerging from dusty battlefields only served to strengthen my resolve through college, enlistment, basic training, and combat medic school. But life rarely takes the path you were expecting.
* * *
I could see Sergeant Garcia was getting antsy, his legs involuntarily bouncing as he sat in the gunner’s sling, incrementally rotating the turret from right to left. He’d been getting more and more fidgety as the missions dragged on, and it was only partially because of the fifth energy drink he’d just downed. This was Garcia’s third tour, and he wasn’t used to this length of time without shooting at something.
I was a medic with a route clearance patrol; our entire purpose was to look for trouble. Our sister platoons had regularly found it, whether in the form of a suicide vehicle attempting to ram the convoy, bucking orders and chasing down would-be bombers into an abandoned farm house, or triggering an IED consisting of six 155mm artillery shells strapped together and buried under the road. As the senior medic in the engineer company, it was my job to debrief my medics after every mission, including the ones I wasn’t on. Hearing stories of wiping a bomber’s face off the side of a truck and pulling unconscious guys out of an overturned RG33, I couldn’t help but wonder when it would be my turn.
I heard Garcia yell something and quickly rotate the turret to the right side of the truck. I turned and peered out the thick window. An RKG-3 anti-tank grenade exploded in the street with a muffled bang and a shower of sparks. I wondered out loud if someone had thrown a firework at us, but my platoon sergeant in the front seat, normally a man of few words, angrily cut me off. “They’re throwing grenades at us, Doc!” My adrenaline surged as I realized what the explosion really was: It was finally my test. Garcia let out an audible growl as he shifted the turret further right, scanning the building the grenade had come from for some sign of the throwers, ready to unleash a hail of .50 caliber rounds. But they had disappeared into a building full of civilians, and so we pushed on down the street, rattled and angry, but all in one piece. That was it; the closest I would come to combat disappeared. We continued to look for a fight for another two months, but besides the nightly rocket attacks, we never found it; it was as if we were under a perpetual “white cloud” of good fortune.
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When we got back, they gave everyone in our truck the Combat Action Badge for being the closest vehicle to the explosion, but it felt hollow. But six months later, I got my second chance to prove myself as I headed to Afghanistan with a 12-man team to advise the Afghan army. We’d been training for months on requesting artillery fire, close quarters combat, and defending a base from an overwhelming insurgent assault—all things medics don’t regularly train on—in anticipation for the hell we’d heard the other advising teams were going through. A new threat was emerging in Afghanistan that directly threatened advisers: the now infamous “green-on-blue” attack. This was when a member of the Afghan security forces would attack their American or NATO partners, most often because of societal incongruity between the parties that Afghan culture required to be settled in blood. Despite these threats and our team’s nickname, “Hellraisers,” little hell was raised and we carried on with our advising duties for eight and a half months with little sense of danger. We accomplished a lot of good work with our Afghan partners, but again, I returned home feeling untested and unaccomplished.
Soon after returning from Afghanistan, I completed my contract and left the military behind, sticking me into the opposing worlds of my former civilian life and the veterans’ community. I found it difficult to truly connect with either. On one side, my civilian friends couldn’t understand why anyone would want to experience combat in the first place. On the other side, I could swap war stories with my fellow veterans, but there would always come a point where conversation would turn to firefights and close calls, and I’d start looking for an exit. In time, the shame changed to frustration, and from frustration to anger. I had a baseline level of anger seething beneath the surface, and it often exploded at the drop of a hat. I realized that I needed to seek some sort of therapy before my anger issues truly impeded my life, so I reluctantly turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help.
To me, trips to the VA hospital were always trying, and not for the reasons most people associate with it. The VA is a place that has always brought my sense of incongruity into sharp clarity, where the living casualties of war are on full display: the Korean War veteran shuffling past me in the hallway with a patch over the eye that he’d lost to a Chinese mortar round, the Vietnam veteran pushing himself into the elevator in a wheelchair because he’d lost his feet to Agent Orange, the homeless Iraq veteran sitting in the waiting room because his psychological trauma prevented him from holding down a job. I’d been receiving health care through the VA for routine needs and for my service-connected issues (like my back and my hearing loss), but I’d kept my visits to a minimum to avoid the inevitable feelings of shame. The thought of visiting on a weekly basis was abhorrent, but I needed the help and the VA was a much more affordable option than going through my HMO.
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I remember waiting for my first appointment, trying to rehearse what I’d tell the therapist. Yes, I was relieved I hadn’t lost a limb or been exposed to potentially crippling psychological trauma—but could I admit that pain and suffering would have been preferred to the feelings of frustration and shame I carried with me? Deep down, I knew that serving overseas under that “white cloud” had been the best-case scenario, but I was trapped by a belief that service meant facing death.
Over time, therapy has allowed me to accept that I didn’t need a test for my service to mean something. I know, deep down, that I put just as much on the line as my fellow servicemembers who saw combat. This has helped me to accept how lucky I really was to have avoided the horrors of war and to let go of those things over which I have no control. But even now, part of me still longs to hear the crack of rounds whizzing overhead or see them impacting in the dirt around me. Some days are better than others. In the meantime, it might help to find a different dating app.