5 Things They Don't Tell You When You Leave the Army

#2. Your Body Goes to Hell Fast

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When you're serving, being in good shape isn't really a choice. You exercise every morning, go on regular multi-day training missions, and also occasionally fight the odd war. There are regular fitness tests and body fat measurements, and to help you pass all this, they have great personal trainers who yell and chase you and teach you fun workout tricks like "running until you literally vomit." You can call them "Sergeant."

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Or "Sarge," if you really hate being able to feel your extremities.

But even if you were a physical fitness guru in the military, going back to civilian life is the paradigm equivalent of shifting gears while going 75 on the interstate. Whether you stayed in shape because it was part of the routine or culture, to pass a physical fitness test, or just because you didn't feel like being punished, those reasons no longer exist. And surprise, surprise, the motivation of living a long and healthy life often loses out to the competing motivations of "Cheetos, beer, and Netflix."

I'd say, of the guys I served with, about 90 percent of us got fat (nationwide, studies show that about 73 percent of veterans are overweight and 33 percent obese -- despite having spent several years having fitness habits jammed down our throats). You'll catch up on Facebook and be like "What the hell happened to you?" then you look down at your own belly and go "Oh."

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"My abs! The fat stole them from me!"

Also, drinking is a big part of military culture. When you're actively fighting or preparing for a war, you can drink at every available opportunity and never put on a pound. But when you aren't burning 4,000 calories a day warfighting, that beer gut expands fast. So add that to the high divorce rates and paranoia over exploding garbage on your list of "why this combat veteran seems to be in a foul mood today."

But above all ...

#1. Somewhere, Sometime, You're Going to Miss the Action

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At the end of my eight years (six active and two inactive reserve), they had me come in to do a final exit interview. Before I walked in there, I was like, "No, I'm done, I don't want to wake up at 5 a.m. anymore, fuck this Army nonsense." I tried to memorize that line so the recruiter's mind-voodoo wouldn't suck me back in. He showed me videos of all the best parts of serving, carefully edited to remove the ditch-shitting and days of sleep exhaustion, and very nearly got me to sign back up right there. But my desire for creature comforts won out, and I resisted.

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"Sure, you'll be away from your family and live in miserable conditions, but you get a gun!"

Once I was out, there were plenty of times when I didn't miss the military. That first month or so for most guys is 100 percent vegging out, eating snacks, and not listening to a single fucking order. You're really glad to be out at 4:30 a.m. when someone isn't knocking on your door telling you to get up for a piss test.

There will be times, though, when you're guaranteed to miss it. It's true that war is 10 percent action and 90 percent boredom (or, these days, Xbox), but that 10 percent action is impossible to equal in any other job or lifestyle, short of going out and starting your own A-Team.

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Which actually pays surprisingly well.

During a deployment to Iraq, my platoon was split into four squad Humvees and pulling security on different points of a highway. Somewhere around noon, my driver had to take a shit, so he did what he had to: He grabbed a roll of toilet paper, headed down into a ditch behind a bush, and said "Be right back." A couple of minutes in, we heard the distinct whistling and bangs of mortar rounds dropping in a couple of kilometers down the road. It was in the direction of our lieutenant's location, so I turned to yell at my driver to pinch it off, but he was already running up the side of the ditch, buttoning up his fly with one hand, toilet paper streaming in the other.

We flew down the road and were parked next to the lieutenant's vehicle before he even called us. A little over 1,000 meters away was a pickup truck-mounted mortar tube attempting to walk rounds into our spot -- explosions landing closer and closer to where we were sitting. The only weapon in our arsenal that stood a chance at that distance was the MK 19 on the lieutenant's vehicle, a fully automatic grenade launcher that can fire a round a second and could have laid waste to the whole area. But of course it chose this particular moment to jam.

US Army
"You had ONE job!"

The MK 19's gunner was cursing up a storm, attempting to unjam his weapon while cars piled up on both sides of the road. One large truck hauling hay was apparently not paying attention and stopped right in the middle of the crossfire. The driver jumped out, hands in the air, screaming "Don't shoot, please don't shoot" or something to that effect. The driver of the lieutenant's vehicle kept screaming "I'm not, just get the fuck out of the way." That failed to illicit any compliance from the man, so the driver tackled him and dragged him away. Meanwhile, the mortar rounds were dropping closer and closer, now about 70 feet away. Finally, the gunner got the MK 19 operational and let it loose with a scream of victory.

This whole situation lasted just a minute or two, from shitting in a ditch, to rapid explosions and slapstick comedy, to the rush of having made it out alive and neutralizing the threat. It was dangerous, sure, but it was also exciting, and hilarious, and a moment I'll never, ever forget. How often do you get moments like that on your commute to work?

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If you live in LA, more often than you might think.


Related Reading: We've made a bit of a habit of talking to people with unique life experiences. Click here and you'll learn what it's like being an atheist in a country where that can get you killed. We also spoke with someone raised in a Christian fundamentalist cult and even a bunch of Ukrainian revolutionaries. If you have a story to share with Cracked, message us here.

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