The husband of one of CSU’s poetry professors used to serve in the Air Force. He had been stationed at Travis AFB, an airfield I frequently flew missions out of when I was an E-6b Mercury Communications Officer. When I discovered the connection, I tracked him down the next time I saw him, which was at a potluck he and his wife were hosting before the night’s main event, a school sponsored reading by an outside author. I wanted to speak to this fellow veteran, which is a rare find at a creative writing program.
As I was nursing a beer and doing my best to make small talk, her husband walked by with a plateful of food in hand and with the intent in mind to join his wife and daughter in the living room.
“You were in the Air Force?” I asked, after tapping him on the shoulder and before he could turn to look at me.
He stopped walking, turned, and looked at me before responding, “Yeah.”
“Navy,” I said, pointing to myself with one of the fingers that was wrapped around my beer. “I used to fly out to Travis a lot. Heard you worked there.”
“Oh yeah?” he said, a flash of interest in his eyes. “What’d you do out there?”
“Flew on the E-6b Mercury,” I said. “We were on the wrong side of base, as I used to say,” laughing softly to myself. “Big, white jet on far side of the runway. Maybe you saw us?”
“When were you there?” he asked. He still had one foot pointed in the direction of his family, but his manners combined with perhaps a latent interest in his previous life kept him talking to me.
I looked in the space above my head to indicate that I was thinking.
“Oh-eight to 2012,” I said.
“Oh, I was there around 2000,” he said. “Got out 2002.”
“Well, I wasn’t there when you were, but maybe you saw our plane,” I said.
“And you were a pilot?” he asked. He took a bite of a chip that was on his plate.
Chips ingested=interest invested.
“Naval Flight Officer,” I said. “So the guy that helps out the pilot. I was a communications officer.”
“I flew a desk,” he said,” chuckling. “Long time ago, though.” He had eaten his chip. His momentum started to shift.
“Well okay yeah,” I said. “Just, um, I heard you worked at Travis and wanted to say hi.”
“Alright, then,” he said. “Well, nice chatting with you.” He smiled, turned, and walked to the coffee table in the living room where he joined his family and some other students and faculty of the MFA program.
I then found myself alone, surrounded by small groups of conversations my classmates had created with precedent in topics that I wasn’t currently privy to. I walked on the outskirts of a few conversations, hoping to glom onto a topic or a word that I could use as an opening into what the were talking about, but I couldn’t seem to relate to any. I grabbed another beer—my second—pulled out the keychain bottle opener from my jeans pocket, popped the top, took a smooth pull from the bottle, and regrouped around the spread of food, loading up my plate with another round of chips and salsa, two food groups that I could always count on satiating my emotions, if not my appetite. Recharged and ready to take on the world again, I found a spot on the carpet in the living room that was open, and did my best to sit cross-legged, a position that did not complement with my uncoordinated, inflexible body, accrued from years of not stretching and long-distance running.
As I sat in a hunched over, my knees sticking out, I looked out on the other my MFA classmates and faculty that were talking to each other and wondered if they were speaking to each other in the same short hand that I speak to veterans with, a short-hand that would be foreign to me.
They were probably talking about normal things. And normal in a good way. Not every conversation had to be about art or philosophy or even about the military. Sometimes the best conversations were simply about the everyday things that we can all relate to. I can connect to those things, I told myself. When talking to other people, I don’t only seek out to talk about the military–I sometimes tend to talk about movies or myself too much, or least I’m self conscious that I am doing these things too much, and maybe this is normal, too, to think about whether you are conversing with someone in a way that is appropriate while you are conversing with them. A continuing cycle of reflection and interaction.
The transition from military to civilian life has been more complicated than I had thought it would be. It’s not as simple as replacing my uniform for jeans. Not as simple as moving from Japan to Colorado, from a country I had never been to before to a state I had only before briefly visited. Not as simple as going to grad school for creative writing, an ambition I only have recently been able to admit to myself that I want to pursue.
Okay, so maybe those things aren’t so simple. I mean, it’s not a competition, but I think it’s fair to say that after 13 years of being in the Navy “system,” leaving it behind for a life that is without precedent from my peers who are still active duty or the ones who, like me, aren’t anymore, has been stressful in ways that I could not have anticipated. It has been stressful. It has been strange. I’m lucky to be in such a supportive environment, with understanding classmates and professors.
But there is something about talking to another veteran that feels instantly comforting in ways that are instantly recognizable if not easily explainable. As much as I sometimes felt like an outlier during my time in the Navy, I spent 13 years doing it, 13 years spending a lot of time working very, very hard on very specific tasks in a very specific culture with very specific people. No doubt, it changed me, in ways that I only now am starting to gain perspective on. It’s something that my active duty friends may be able to understand a little. It’s something another veteran can definitely understand, with whom the short hand is based on the time that we spent in the military, and the time from which we left. A person with feet in two worlds. An outsider with insider perspective. A civilian, but with an asterisk.
For the two years that I lived in Japan—my last tour in the Navy–I was the only American living and working at the Japanese Naval Academy on an island called Eta Jima. During the end of my time, when I knew I was getting out of the Navy, but still in Japan, I posted on Facebook that, after my time in Japan, it felt like I hadn’t been part of the Navy for quite some time. My American Commanding Officer was stationed in Hawaii. I never met him. And I can count on one hand that amount of times American Naval personnel visited the island. As far as my Japanese co-workers are concerned, I have no complaints, but still never felt like I fit in. And though I could have done more to try to fit in, as a white American, I was always going to be an outsider to them, and they treated me as such. I would always be different. And I found that tiring after a while. It’s nice to have fans; nicer still are peers. Or someone who understands. In Japan, there was always something I wasn’t going to be able to translate, literally, and otherwise, about who I was.
Part of the frustration of being a veteran, and part of the allure of speaking with other veterans, is in relation to the matter of understanding. Although, as a writer, it’s my job to bridge the military-civilian divide, sometimes I don’t want to. Sometimes I just want someone to understand. To know what I know. To speak how I speak. The comfort of the familiar. What I’m realizing, however, is that it’s not just veterans who have the ability to understand in the way that I would like them to. Because what I need is not just a mutual understanding about specific institutional knowledge, but the knowledge and wisdom that comes from such an experience, the kind of experience that allows me to open up with that individual in a way that allows us to find common ground. The kind of experience that both civilians and veterans can relate to.
So while my classmates may have had different experiences than I have had, does not preclude me from being able to have normal conversations with them.
And sometimes I may just need to be alone.
As I sat on the carpet, sipping my beer, one of my fiction professors came up to sit next to me. His path through life has been very different from mine, but he has been through his own trials and triumphs that are no less valid than mine.
“Hey man,” he said, sitting next to me.
“Cheers,” I said, and we clinked beers. “Chip?” I asked, holding out my plate.
“Don’t mind if I do.”