Leaving the military can be a scary thing, even if it's by choice and you have future plans. I bet John Rambo had plans, and just look how things turned out for him, damn it. Well, I was in the Army for six years as a combat engineer. I served in Iraq as a sergeant for a little over 10 months and took part in more than 200 combat patrols. Before that, I did a nine-month stint in Kosovo. While the military tries its best to show you things like how to write a resume or claim GI Bill benefits, there are some parts of everyday post-combat life they fail to mention. Like the fact that ...
#5. Everything Looks Like a Bomb
Let's say that your neighbor's house got blown up by a mail bomb, one that was delivered in a plain brown box. A few days later, you see an identical box in your mailbox. How would you react? Is it another bomb? Or is it just Amazon delivering your copy of the 2001 Owen Wilson hit Behind Enemy Lines on Blu-ray? A week later, you see an identical box leaned against your neighbor's door. A day after that, you see one on the seat of your wife's car. How long until you stop having that involuntary twitch every time you see a box?
Well, in Iraq, the insurgents' bombs were hidden in the trash. To this day, I can't walk past garbage without reflexively thinking it's going to explode.
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"Oh, he's got the robot out again. Must be trash day."
So, yes, after a tour or two or 12, you eventually leave the military and return to the nice relaxing world where no one is trying to kill you, but your brain isn't about to take your word for it. It would be one thing if we were just talking about instinctively ducking whenever you hear a car backfire, but after you've been nearly blown up by a roadside bomb disguised as trash? From that point forward, any sight of garbage will rile you up more than a Native American in a public service announcement.
So, you wind up crossing the road to avoid it, sometimes more than once in a day, because holy balls, we have some filthy-ass cities in this country. Sure, you know that there's absolutely no way you're some kind of secret target, but avoiding it is often preferable to clenching your ass cheeks together while you walk briskly by. And that's just garbage bags. Insurgents can hide bombs in any-damn-thing. We even saw a donkey with a couple of explosive rounds strapped to it. So for once the animals at the petting zoo may make you feel as uncomfortable as you make them feel.
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"Except after this you guys get to go home, right? Like, to a place where people aren't molesting you all the time?"
That's the point -- their whole strategy was making the bombs not look like bombs, so it takes a long time to train yourself not to get anxious around any abandoned object.
#4. War Movies Are Ruined Forever
You tech-savvy people out there: Remember the first time you saw a movie about computers or hackers and realized everything they were saying was ridiculous bullshit ("The browser cache has been short circuited! Amplify the GPU!")? Well, now imagine that every action movie is like that, only instead of made-up jargon, you see people doing things you know would get them fucking killed in real life.
Like fucking Liam Neeson's daughter.
Yes, I know Hollywood takes a certain poetic license when it comes to portraying ... well, everything. But it's different when you see somebody up on screen doing something you've been trained to yell at people for (and we'll talk more about the yelling later). Movies will depict things like soldiers talking while in formation or officers with beards, or they'll depict guns you know to be giant pains in the ass as all-powerful weaponry. Little stuff like that will sometimes make a movie or TV show unwatchable ("unwatchable" mainly because your remote has somehow magically lodged itself in the screen).
This is not the worst part, though. No, that comes when you watch war movies with some of your friends who never served and you ruin the experience for them without even trying. Say we've settled in to watch my Behind Enemy Lines Blu-ray. Oh, look, Owen Wilson is fleeing Serbian militants by running down the killing zone of a daisy-chained minefield: when one mine goes off, they all go.
My civilian friends get a rush of adrenaline as they vicariously live out the thrill of getting chased by explosions, while I want to stand up and yell, "Are you trying to get yourself killed, you fucker?!?" Because those mines are actually a type of Bouncing Betty, which means they should be shooting up into the air before exploding to properly ensure organ damage to anything within 50 meters.
20th Century Fox
And no, he's not going to get harmlessly knocked over by a concussion wave, as he does at the start of the scene -- his body is going to get shredded by shrapnel. I want to stop the movie and point out that the detonation time between triggering and explosion is a second, so unless Owen Wilson is adept at hitting the light switch and running to his bed before the lights actually go out, he's 100 percent screwed. And hey, look at that -- he's even running down the middle, which puts him in the kill zone of two mines at a time. Hell, you watch that scene and kind of wonder why people worry about mines at all -- it seems like you're fine unless you sit down right on top of that shit.
The Hurt Locker is another movie that resonates as "good" in the civilian pool while veterans cringe at the inaccuracies. If you're watching it with friends, your choices come down to screaming that no soldier would ever run by himself through Baghdad for ANY reason or begrudgingly holding it in so you won't find yourself going alone when Saving Private Ryan 2: Tokyo Drift comes out. So you sit back and hold it in, waiting for the rare gem of a movie that perfectly blends the humor and seriousness of the military with good tactics and camaraderie. You know, like Battle Los Angeles.
#3. You Have to Learn How Not to Terrify Other People
USMC via Wikipedia
You've seen movie drill sergeants like Full Metal Jacket's R. Lee Ermey, right? Here, try this: Spend a couple of years talking like him in a situation where you're required to. Then see how hard it is to stop.
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When you can spout one-liners that easily, who would ever want to stop?
That's called "command voice." The U.S. Army study guide (yes, we have those) defines a command voice as "a tone, cadence, and snap that demand willing, correct, and immediate response," and if you've ever had to give orders under fire, you've figured out the tone that will make people listen. The problem is, this voice gets so deeply ingrained that it can pop out without you really meaning it to. One second the dog isn't listening to you, and before you know it, out comes The Voice, and now you have to explain to your scared 2-year-old in the closet that you're not mad at him.
Also, a veteran's training on how to handle immediate threats doesn't always pay off in, say, an argument over what to eat for dinner. In the military, you learn to make a decision, make it quick, and act in full force. If it's wrong, you can readjust the plan later. This works great for keeping yourself alive on the battlefield, but treating every personal confrontation at home like it's a full-blown battle often leaves feathers ruffled. If nothing else, it can make you seem overdramatic. Combine this one with the whole Command Voice thing and you'll start to understand why the odds of your marriage ending in divorce vastly increase if you've come home from war.
"Honey, you know if you don't clean your room, Mommy's going to make you do another 20-mile hump."
Cursing is another big change. Soldiers curse as often as they breathe, but that's not acceptable unless your civilian job is "Quentin Tarantino." I have a young child, and even after being out of the military for six years, I still have to filter my "damns" to "darns" and "shits" to "shoots." You'd think it would be out of my system by now, but whenever I get behind the wheel or into an argument, Sergeant Obscenity dusts off his trusty F-bombs for battle.