Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Civilians Don't Know

No civilian has any idea what it really means to be a soldier. And, no, Civilian, you don't know. So don't even begin to argue with me. 

This is something I have come to realize while on my journey as a Marine wife. I was once a generic civilian. The most that I knew about the military was what the media fed me and what I had learned in school. I also knew that I had family in the military - some of them were POWs, some of them were reservists, they were in all branches if service, some of them died, some of them were "career" (a term I learned in the military - it means that they stuck with it until retirement), and some of them hated it so much they couldn't wait to get out. I knew generic things: boot camp/basic training is hard - regardless of the branch you're in, they're trained to fight, they get deployed, they shoot guns and some pilot helicopters or jets or drive trucks or tanks. I also knew that a lot die, and many have been prisoners - to be tortured, sometimes to die, too. But I didn't really get it, not really.

Boot camp begins by breaking down these men and women, these soldier-hopefuls, so that they can be built back up and conditioned. A soldier isn't born; a soldier is created. And there is pain and struggle in this process. There is strength and triumph in the end for most, but in the interim, there is also loneliness and fear. Often, a soldier is on the high of being strong and triumphant, but there is also disappointment and disillusionment, too. I have never heard of a soldier who lived the rosy picture that their recruiter painted for them.

It's an endless sea of early mornings, late nights, and days that seem to go on for weeks. There is sleeping on the ground, in the dirt and the cold, or the heat. There's gunfire and danger - the excitement, but also the fear of never returning home. You get to "see the world", but often that is limited to the portholes in an airplane or from inside of a Humvee, and at the risk of your life. On top of that, there's still the mundane details of daily life: cleaning bills for intricately cared for uniforms, weekly hair cuts, the immaculate cleaning and care of the space you live - compound that with caring for a spouse and children. And did I mention the piles of bureaucratic paperwork, the career ladders to climb, the politics? That's there, too, and sometimes its cruelty runs a race with that of civilian corporations; sometimes the military wins that race.

Soldiers aren't faceless. They have hearts and souls - they have families and friends, hopes and dreams. Yet, many are expected to live as if they have no emotions at all. Often, they have to learn to cope with all their challenges alone. They also "get broken". It is a cruel way of saying that they've become injured or lived through trauma - basically, they cannot operate at "optimal levels" and their worth has been reduced to that of a misfit toy. Sometimes, they are altogether forgotten - until they are dumped back out into a world of civilians, most of whom have never faced the kinds of challenges and horrors that a soldier has faced. They expect sugared words and softened truths, not the harsh realities and blunt, in-your-face honesty they receive from a soldier.

It may sound like I understand, but I can tell you that I still don't. It's because I am still a civilian, despite being as close to a soldier as one can get without actually being one. 
Spouses probably come the closest of all civilians because they live and breathe a lot of the lifestyle, too. They know what it is like to live in military culture, being under the scrutiny of what seems like everyone. They know what it is like to laugh boldly in the face of some of the cruelest stereotypes. Spouses are the ones awake and alone at midnight, lighting candles in their windows or at their church. They are the ones raising children virtually alone for months (sometimes years) at a time, waiting for the return of a person that they love but may hardly recognize - physically or emotionally. They are the ones standing hand in hand in battle, if only in spirit, with their soldiers. No civilian has any idea what it really means to be a soldier's spouse either.

But, even then, despite our best efforts to try to understand, even we spouses really just don't get it. And heaven knows we try to understand - all the classes, all the counseling, all the support. Our men and women in uniform deserve so much credit, too, for their immense effort toward making it understandable, though I doubt it ever will be - not truly.

So to every generic civilian (and perhaps even spouse) who says "Oh, I get it", I'll tell you where to cram it - because you don't know it until you walk in those boots, fight in those boots, bleed in those boots, and sometimes die in those boots!

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