I’m a Veteran and Civilians are My Friends

As veterans, we take on inherent responsibilities – responsibilities we may not have asked for and yet there they are. Veterans are often held to a higher standard. We’re often admired by the public, expected to carry ourselves differently, maintain our military bearing even when we’ve taken off the uniform, and we aren’t necessarily supposed to talk about our problems or things that make society uncomfortable. We are all placed in the same group and yet each of us has our own identity.

To me, being a veteran means I speak Military English, a modified version of the English language in which the majority of words are replaced with abbreviations, acronyms, and curse words. It means I keep all of my clocks on military time so I never have to ask “am or pm?” and 0700 and 1900 make way more sense than 7 o’clock showing up twice a day. For me, it also means my biggest regret in life is never deploying to a combat zone.

I periodically I ask myself, ‘If a woman served in the Army but never saw war, was she ever really a soldier at all?’

And finally, being a veteran can sometimes mean resenting those who chose not to serve in uniform. I know that one stings a little. It’s taboo and it shouldn’t be said out loud or written down, but it’s reality for many veterans yet rarely discussed.

I enlisted on November 26, 2001. I was 17 and my parents quite literally signed me over to the government. They threw up their hands and said, “See what you can do with her, we’ve had enough!” Okay, so that part’s exaggerated, but they did sign a waiver for me to enlist at 17. I went to Basic Combat Training (BCT) between my junior and senior years of high school. Looking back on it now, I think that’s where is all started – the divide between me and every civilian I had ever known.

Pam enlisted in the Army at age 17 and spent the summer before her senior year of high school

Pam enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 17 and spent the summer before her senior year of high school completing basic combat training.

While I was in BCT In June 2002, the U.S. hadn’t gone to war yet, but we all knew it was coming. If we forgot, even for a second, our drill sergeants were there to remind us. “This isn’t a game! We are training for war!” So while all of my classmates were enjoying their last summer before senior year, I was throwing hand grenades, setting up claymore mines, and firing M16s all while learning bright red blood makes the green grass grow and the spirit of my bayonet was to kill without mercy.

In the fall of 2002, I suddenly felt like I had nothing in common with any of the kids I had known my entire life. Homecoming was stupid, our football team sucked, and school pride was pointless. And if that weren’t enough, I felt it wasn’t worth my time to try and explain to these people why, to me, the word “sports” no longer described competitive games. In my mind, it was now an acronym I had to remember because it might one day save my life if my weapon jammed.

Slap up on the magazine
Pull back the charging handle
Observe the chamber
Release the charging handle
Tap the forward assist
Squeeze the trigger

Graduation came and went, I moved on with life, only keeping in touch with two or three people from high school on an irregular basis at best. I got out of the Army and attended college. I made a few friends but with only one exception. No one seemed to stick around for long. I was too political, too opinionated, my talk about the military and war was too intimidating.

At one point, I dated a guy who told me his friends were really uncomfortable when I talked about serving in the Army. I found out later, they were cool with it; he was the one who was uncomfortable.

Encounters like these stuck with me, and little by little, I became annoyed with people who hadn’t served because they didn’t get it, or worse yet, they chose not to get it. I got agitated when I brought up current events or foreign policy, and I was met with blank stares. It was obvious people my age didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, nor did they have any ambition to participate in the conversation.

Pam spent several days providing flood relief on Operation: Prairie Dog in Illinois among the veteran and civilian members of TR.

Pam spent several days providing flood relief on Operation: Prairie Dog in Illinois among veteran and civilian members of TR.

My resentment towards the civilian population reached its peak sometime prior to March 2012 when I took a road trip with my best friend from high school. She had been a constant in my life, starting in fifth grade. We always had lots to discuss and my military service wasn’t something that came up often, but during the 10-hour drive from Minneapolis to Mount Rushmore, we dove in.

We talked about my struggles connecting with people who hadn’t served, and she told me about her friends who dreamed of marrying rich. I told her it sounded like her friends were superficial and I couldn’t imagine spending time with them on purpose. I was incredibly hard on people she talked about who didn’t live up to my impossibly high standards. I was brutally honest about my view on the world and the people in it. Day by day, I felt the gap between us widening. My opinions shot out of me like rounds from the chamber of an M16, and as they hit their targets, I felt our friendship fracturing. On the final day of our trip we stopped for lunch and she finally blurted out, “God! When did you get to be so angry?”

And that was it. The one person I thought would always get me no longer understood me. She didn’t know me anymore. I was truly heartbroken, because even though I had poked and poked at that sleeping bear, I never actually expected it to wake up and attack me. It was a friendship 20 years in the making, and while I never actually walked away, I didn’t fight for it because a civilian would never understand.

At the time, I thought she was wrong. I wasn’t angry, I was right! I was justified in my feelings about the rest of the population. She just didn’t get it because she’d never worn a uniform. She’d never said goodbye to her friends and wondered if they would come home alive. She’d never talked to one of those friends on the phone, heard explosions in the background, and listened to them explain, “Don’t worry, it’s only friendly fire.” She’d never experienced getting the news that someone she knew had died overseas. And so I let my best friend fade away just like all the others that came before her.

Six months later, I joined Team Rubicon, and by Veterans Day, I was in New York helping with the response to Superstorm Sandy. After two years with TR, my view on the world and on civilians has drastically changed.

Pam's first operation with TR was in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, where the elements weren't going to stop TR or the USPS from getting their job done.

Pam’s first operation with TR was in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, where the elements weren’t going to stop TR or the USPS from getting their job done.

Team Rubicon is a disaster relief and veteran service organization. Those are the two things we talk about all the time, but there is a huge component of TR that might not get the attention it deserves. Out of the roughly 18,000 people who volunteer with TR, 20 – 25% are civilians. They are people who never put on a uniform but still chose to seek out a veteran organization and get involved.

They are people like Bobbi Snethen who works tirelessly at headquarters to tell our stories via social media and the TR blog, or Kirk Jackson, also at HQ, who takes beautiful, powerful, photos that convey so much more than words alone ever could. They are great friends and volunteers like Lynnette Miller and Kyle Doyon. Lynnette watched the twin towers fall in New York and volunteered for months on end at ground zero alongside first responders dealing with the wreckage. Kyle is the Region 5 Operations Manager who runs his own business, has a wife and two daughters, volunteers with his local search and rescue team, and still has time to take phone calls from anyone in TR who needs advice or someone to listen. The list could go on for days.

There are so many amazing civilians in TR who have proven they do understand veterans’ issues, they can be part of our community, and they don’t need us to stop and explain ourselves. For those reasons, and so much more, I’d like to thank each and every one of them for being part of my TR family.

Best to wrap up a hard day's work with team bonding.

Best to wrap up a hard day’s work with team bonding.

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