We here at the Rhino Den don’t have enough hours in the day to keep you both informed and entertained so occasionally we have to go “outside the wire” to bring you good stuff. The following is one such case.
By RU Contributor Mad Medic
Q: How is the Army like sex?
A: The closer to discharge you get, the better you feel.
April 29th 2009. Oh man I thought I could walk on water. My last day in the Army. I’d already turned in my clearing papers, signed out from my unit, and took one last chance to look around the post. I made one last visit to the PX before I drove out the gate, got on I-70, and began the long trek back to my home town of San Diego. I drove for at least five hours before I even thought of taking my uniform off, but as everything was packed up, that wouldn’t work. I still had my beret in the passenger seat of my car, as if I might get out on post. The freedom was going to my head quickly and seeing that no one was out and about in western Kansas, I took the opportunity to find a deserted road and see what my Mustang could really do. I chickened out at 130mph, but DAMN what a ride!
I drove all day, from roughly noon when I left Fort Riley until around 2100 (whoops… 9 PM) when I finally got a hotel room for the night. It wasn’t until I got into the hotel room that I took off my uniform. For approximately 3 more hours I was still, technically a soldier. I didn’t pop my boots right away. I didn’t rip off my top, and throw it into a ball on the bed as I used to do in the barracks. I just sat there for a long while, delaying as long as I could the moment when I took my uniform off for the last time. I finally got around to it, and I don’t think I ever took more care taking a uniform off. I laid it out on my hotel bed and just stared at it. No longer would I wear the craptastic beret or worry about the crotch ripping out of my ACUs. I wouldn’t have to worry about oil getting all over my tan boots on motor-pool Monday. I wouldn’t have to deal with Physician Assistants who think they’re god, or Officers who remind you of their rank at every opportunity. No more NCOs that think if I’m not trying to go to Ranger School or Airborne or SFAS then I’m not worthy to trim their short hairs. None of that.
But I also wouldn’t ever have anyone call me Doc again. People wouldn’t stop and look at me with admiration when I walked down the street. I wouldn’t have my brothers and sisters that I could depend on for anything. I even started to miss that PFC with a serious under-bite and a massive case of cranial-anal insertion; the one who pissed me off nearly to the point of violence. Was I actually going to miss that son of a bitch? No way. And then it hit me. My views on serving were always going to be ambiguous. I had loved being a line dog, until I lost guys, then it tore me to pieces. I had hated being in the WTB, and losing a woman I had already started making plans to marry, but it got my life back on track, and reminded me that I was still alive.
All these things flashed through my mind as I removed my black, pin on, Combat Medical Badge. I laughed a bit when I thought about the time I lost my damnits (the backings to pins which you always lose and yell DAMNIT) and the thing stuck into my chest. I remembered when LTC Walker pinned it on me in the 225th FSB Battalion conference room because there was a Hawaiian rainstorm outside. I opened up the left shoulder pocket and pulled off my lucky “Smart Ass” tab that I picked up at Camp Buering. In my own little display of rebellion I had worn it literally every day I wore ACUs, though underneath where it wouldn’t be seen. I pulled off the 1st Infantry Division patch, smiling how I swore to myself after MG Batiste had screwed me out of an award on my first tour that I would never fall under them again. I removed the U.S. Army, and the nametape that said Bailey, and stuck them together, then moved to the Specialist rank. I still remembered Charlie Battery 2/11 FA giving me “blood rank” at FOB Dibbis. Back when we wore DCUs, the whole battery had lined up to shake my hand then pound the two metal disks into my clavicles. The worst had been the PA who had made like he was going to slam me, and smiled when I flinched then lowered his hand to rub them in. I realized that if I told that story again people wouldn’t get the pride, and even joy I felt when I used my Gerber to pull the rank out of my skin. I removed the Electric Strawberry and smiled at the fond memories, of the pride I felt having been a part of the first combat formation to go to war from the 25th Infantry Division since Vietnam. I reminisced about the drive from Camp Virginia to Kirkuk. How I had missed the Super Bowl, and how I had once dreamed of being a Ranger, and how my Platoon Sergeant smoked the dog shit out of me every time I couldn’t recite the Ranger Creed.
Lastly I removed the flag. I had had this one flag that I had rotated from uniform to uniform. It was dirty and frayed, and somehow that had more character to it. I don’t think people, perhaps not even my own family except my dad could understand the pride I felt wearing that flag every day. If there was some nobility in sacrifice, I had been prominently displaying my willingness to step up and display that trait. And now it was all over. The missions would go on. The guys would go out, but without me. My war was over.
I stared at that uniform until midnight. It was official at that moment that one of the most important parts of my life was gone just like that. The euphoria was gone and I had to face the future. Sitting in my skivvies I slowly folded my uniform, reverently as if saying goodbye to a friend. In a way I was. The Army is a family. It has to be or no one would stay in. I would be alone, I would have to forge my own destiny, without people easily able to recognize my merit, or understand my worth. The great things I had once done would never be understood by anyone that had never been there, I was more alone now than ever I felt in Iraq. Where else could a 19 year old nobody have done half the things I had done. Who but the movers and shakers could understand what it is like to physically shape history with my own hands and actions? It was a long time before I got to sleep.
The next day I picked up my dad in Denver, we saw the sights in Avon Colorado, then moved on to Vegas. Buddy, let me tell you, I had no problem dropping a good portion of my separation check there. I hadn’t been this free to go hog wild in years. Way back when, if I could have chosen my homecoming, it would have been in Vegas. I smoked a cigar that cost $50 bucks, and almost cried when it was done (it was that good), had Whiskey that was old enough to drink itself, a steak so tender you could cut it with a fork and so succulent that I didn’t know who was drooling more me or the steak, and a former Raiders cheerleader doing her best to make me spend a little more of my hard earned cash. I must’ve been in Valhalla. I got a kick out of my dad having actual intelligent conversations with some of the strippers, him being both officer and gentleman. To top the night off I won $200 bucks at the Bellagio then spent that all on booze. I don’t have a clue how I got back to my hotel room but I had a shit eating grin the whole night. Somehow though I don’t think people would understand why.
I was all smiles when I finally got home and thank God my parents had a plan to keep me busy because to be honest had I been allowed to languish over the summer I would have thought about what I had lost. I would have thought about the future, and I would have wondered how I could possibly live a life worthy of the sacrifices of those around me.
Civilians do not understand the isolation that Veterans feel. How can they? What possible comparison can they make in their life to what it’s like to do even a peacetime hitch in the Army, let alone go to war? I have nine medals and ribbons for 6 years. Even explaining an ARCOM or an AAM is grating, or why I take so much pride in a piece of ribbon and brass. They can’t understand why I laugh at how the Army Service Ribbon is compared to the Gay Pride Awareness ribbon. To them it’s just a bunch of pretty colors. To me it is quite literally blood sweat and tears. Nor can I easily explain what the Combat Medic Badge is, let alone how much that little badge means to me. Long after I am gone, I will still be a part of 225th Brigade Support Battalion’s history, being one of the first in that unit to receive a combat badge of any kind. Long after I have gone to senility I will still have been recorded on the rolls, of 2-16 Infantry in the hellish time that was the “Surge.” With all that in mind, is it any wonder so many civilians just don’t “get” me?