A while back, the Army sent me home for two weeks of rest and recuperation. At the airport in the States, we marched down the concourse to applause, and the USO folks were there to welcome us back with a “thank you” and a handshake. I’ll accept all the adulation I can get. I mean, it beats the hell out of being spit on, but I felt a twinge of guilt.
My role in Operation Enduring Freedom has been sedentary and intellectually enriching. I’ve put away one Economist magazine a week, an Atlantic and a Mountain Gazette every month and still have had time to watch five seasons of “Weeds” and read a lot of novel-length books. Add to that a daily reading of the AP wire and writing a little bit here and there and you’ve got a guy serving his country as an editor or an English teacher, not as a slayer of men.
So, when my time for a plane ride home and a vacation came up, I had to suppress a desire to raise my hand and point out that there had to be someone more deserving of a trip home. Someone who had put his own life on the line four or five times a week while ending lives with his rifle. But, hey, who am I to question the Army and its methods? If it believes I need a two-week vacation, by god, I’ll just have to take it.
At home, anyone who discovered my membership in the United States Armed Forces thanked me for my service. The lady at the checkout at the grocery store. My new chiropractor. The minor-league hockey club gave me a nice discount on tickets. Some soldiers get a little torqued at all of the appreciation people express. They get peeved because those offering the thanks don’t know what they are grateful for. I imagine some folks offering their thanks to a young soldier get a bit of a rude surprise when their gratitude goes unappreciated.
When I get thanked, I maintain my humility and give a humble “You bet. It’s an honor to serve.” It makes the thankers feel good, while not giving up anything that might be used against me or the rest of the soldiers in the Army soaking up the myriad benefits of military service. Often, I feel like I ought to be the one giving thanks.
“Thanks for paying your taxes,” I might say. “Thanks for your selfless contributions to the United States military and for making this vacation possible. The eyestrain is starting to get to me, and I’ve needed to get back to reload the Kindle on a more reliable internet connection. I had no idea that I would exhaust my supply of words before the deployment was even half over.”
Of course, a hard military day comes along every so often. Installing gear and getting a computer and phone network up and running requires a significant amount of effort and time, but, once it’s up, work days are filled with sending out
reports, performing light maintenance and killing time using one’s chosen method. YouTube is popular, if a bit slow. Video games absorb many a soldier’s time. My primary weapon against time is electronic print. I’ve had far more harrowing days editing a daily newspaper — both in magnitude and in multitude — than I’ve suffered here in the middle of a war.
Soldiers somewhere in Afghanistan are working hard and making big sacrifices to further American interests, but I don’t really know where. You’d think the odd report or rumor of actual military action would come along, but we don’t hear much of anything. And there must be soldiers who are feeling proud of their accomplishments and who have a sense that they are a part of a worthwhile campaign, but they must be fairly modest as well, because that’s not a sentiment I have heard expressed yet. There’s no motion or movement or action here. There’s no push to take a strategic piece of land or break through an enemy’s fortifications. There’s no progress.
When my tour is over, the military map of Afghanistan will be the same as it was when I arrived, which causes my guilt and my desire to shield stateside civilians from the truth of my wartime experience. They’ve been sold a myth about the heroic American soldier. Supposedly, I’m over here toiling away battling terrorists. It’s better to allow the illusion, and that’s why I accept their gratitude. Thanking me makes them feel good. Why ruin their warm, fuzzy feeling?
I once exposed a myth to a fly fisherman and have regretted it ever since, and so I allow the military’s myth to persist. I keep my opinions concerning the Euro crisis and my belief that “Deliverance” was a damn good book to myself.
Ex-High Country dweller Sgt. Mike is just finishing up “The Shipping News” and will be tackling his next book, Joseph Campbell’s “Myths to Live By,” once he gets through his double-issue, year-end Economist. Dateline: Afghanistan appears monthly in MG.