Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Guess what? I’m not crazy, I’m not using anti-depressants, and I’m not homeless — I just happen to be a vet of Second Fallujah

There’s a memorable line here: "I was able to graduate college not despite being a combat veteran, but exactly because I am one." By Edgar Rodriguez Best Defense guest columnist Every year, Veterans’ Day stirs up mixed feelings for me. On one hand, I am proud that our country takes a day out to honor ...

/AFP/Getty Images
/AFP/Getty Images
/AFP/Getty Images

There's a memorable line here: "I was able to graduate college not despite being a combat veteran, but exactly because I am one."

By Edgar Rodriguez
Best Defense guest columnist

Every year, Veterans' Day stirs up mixed feelings for me. On one hand, I am proud that our country takes a day out to honor those that have served in uniform. On the other hand, I am dismayed that too often praise for veterans feels empty and insincere. It is insincere because most Americans only have a vague idea of the struggles that veterans go through. This lack of understanding is particularly true in regards to combat veterans, a group that I am a part of. I fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 as a Navy Corpsman attached to a Marine Corps unit. (Corpsman is Navy terminology for medic.)

There’s a memorable line here: "I was able to graduate college not despite being a combat veteran, but exactly because I am one."

By Edgar Rodriguez
Best Defense guest columnist

Every year, Veterans’ Day stirs up mixed feelings for me. On one hand, I am proud that our country takes a day out to honor those that have served in uniform. On the other hand, I am dismayed that too often praise for veterans feels empty and insincere. It is insincere because most Americans only have a vague idea of the struggles that veterans go through. This lack of understanding is particularly true in regards to combat veterans, a group that I am a part of. I fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 as a Navy Corpsman attached to a Marine Corps unit. (Corpsman is Navy terminology for medic.)

In meeting people I often find that they cling to two stereotypes about combat veterans. One is of a broken-down drunk and the other is of the post-military Rambo-like figure that is inches away from losing control because he cannot readjust to American society. Often, they are surprised that I do not fit into these stereotypes making comments like "You don’t look like a combat vet." Sometimes, people also ask strange questions ranging from the highly inappropriate "Have you ever killed anyone?" to the downright idiotic "What did you guys do on the weekends over there?" (Military personnel typically work everyday when deployed to combat zones).

But most of all, I have found that people are often genuinely perplexed that I have been able to be successful after leaving the military "despite" being a combat veteran. It is almost as if I am obligated to be doomed because of my combat service. I first encountered this attitude during the final months of my enlistment. After informing my Chief of my decision to leave the military he did everything he could to convince me it would be a mistake. He even went as far as making me see our Command Master Chief and speaking with him about my decision.

In my meeting with the Master Chief, he spoke of sailors that he knew that had gotten out with intentions of becoming successful but had their hopes dashed because they did not know how to function outside of the military, emphasizing that as a combat veteran I would be especially prone to failure. After sharing these sad stories with me he then went about offering me pretty much anything I could have wanted as long as I reenlisted, at the end saying, "Don’t throw your career away Rodriguez. You could be a Master Chief!" I thanked the Master Chief for meeting with me, but I told him that I still intended to leave the military, leaving him noticeably disappointed. While I know that the Master Chief only had the best of intentions, I found it unusual and disheartening that he thought I could accomplish amazing things in uniform but at the same time accomplish nothing worthwhile out of uniform.

As disheartening as the meeting with the Master Chief was, I would later be grateful for it. The meeting prepared me for the array of uncomfortable situations I encountered after leaving the military. Once, during a doctor’s appointment, the physician was surprised that I was a combat veteran and at the same time had no prescriptions for Zoloft or Prozac, saying, "Are you sure you were there?" Last year, during a research program at the University of Maryland, I attended a group lunch with two professors that I was working with. At one point one of them told me that if I had any issues that I should talk to his assistant. I told him that the program administrators handled all the administrative issues. To which he replied, "No, I mean if you have any veteran issues. Like if you go crazy or something."

In speaking with fellow veterans I have found that these sort of situations are not unique. These misunderstandings occur because the gap between veterans and nonveterans has grown to the extent that most Americans view veterans as an abstract idea instead of fellow citizens. Currently, veterans are 2.6 percent more likely to be unemployed than nonveterans and every day an average of 18 veterans commits suicide. I don’t believe that a society that truly understands and does right by its veterans would have these sort of issues.

Society’s lack of understanding makes the trauma of combat worse for veterans. As a combat veteran, I understand this intimately. Before Fallujah, I had intended to make the military a career. After Fallujah, I decided to leave. I left because while I was always proud to be a Corpsman, after Fallujah, I found that I had stopped enjoying it. Like many veterans, I signed up for the GI Bill upon entering the military, although I doubted I would ever use it. However, unsatisfied with the options left for me after the military I decided to use it and give college a shot. It didn’t look like I had much of a chance of succeeding. There weren’t any college graduates in my family and I myself barely graduated high school.

I started off at my hometown community college and while I did well, I found it academically unchallenging. I wanted something better so I transferred to another community college eventually transferring to the University of Florida. At the University of Florida I accomplished my goal of getting a degree, graduating with high honors with majors in Political Science and Linguistics. And I am proud to say that I was able to graduate college not despite being a combat veteran, but exactly because I am one. Combat is one of the most intense experiences a person can go though and it changes a person forever. But while combat is an intense and negative experience, it does not have to be destructive, it can it be constructive. If anything good can be taken from war, then that must surely be it.

In the past, when speaking to people about the struggles veterans face, I would sometimes say, "People are all about supporting the troops, so long as they don’t actually have to care." And while that statement may seem mean and cynical, I thought it held a great deal of truth. I still do.

In my opinion, what veterans need are not acts of empty gratitude, holidays, or memorials. What veterans need more then anything is to know that they still have a stake in their own country after they’ve served. It is something simple, but it is also something profoundly important.

Edgar Rodriguez is a Iraq War veteran and a University of Florida graduate. He fought in the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 while attached to the ground combat element of the 31st Expeditionary Unit. He lives and works in Washington, D.C. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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