5 Things They Don't Tell You When You Leave the Army
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 ...
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
You Have to Learn How Not to Terrify Other People
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.
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.
Your Body Goes to Hell Fast
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."
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."
"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 ...
Somewhere, Sometime, You're Going to Miss the Action
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.
"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.
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.
"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?
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.