Wednesday, March 20, 2013

As You Were

As some of my peeps know, I’m writing a book about my Army days. I started writing this 15 years ago, just a year after my discharge, but so many different circumstances prevented me from finishing it. This year I decided to pick it back up and finish the damn thing. I’m very close to a very rough first draft, and I’m confident I’ll actually have a completed manuscript by the end of this year. What happens to it after that matters to me far less than the knowledge that such a huge part of my life will have been documented all in one place.

I kept a diary for that year, and I have letters that I had written home throughout my enlistment. This initial process has been just typing it all out chronologically and outlining specific things that were important to me at the time.

When I began this story, I was 20 years old and had been discharged less than a year prior to sitting down to write it all down. The tone back then was very much one of disgust and bitterness towards an institution that I felt had ruined my life. Back then, I was still raging against a machine that I held responsible for what I thought would be a lifetime of unending physical and emotional pain. I spent a great deal of time writing about boyfriend drama and the inconveniences of being forced to salute officers I didn’t like. I thought this story was to be an expose of what really goes on behind the scenes of the military and to discourage young women from joining.

Only now, at 35, am I able to look through the eyes of my 18 year old self and truly see that that wasn’t the real story. As maturity and life circumstances have changed my perception of the world, I’ve come to realize that I was an entitled, self-obsessed child playing at being a soldier. I’ve joked to other former soldiers that they were in the “real Army,” and I was in the “pretend Army,” and that is absolutely true. I fashioned a reality for myself then that didn’t fit with what the Army line was. I shined my boots and ironed my uniform, but the whole time I thought all of it was beneath me. I used to brag that I had never saluted an officer and gladly took the pushups thinking that I was rebelling against conformity. Which would have been a radical statement had I not volunteered for the whole damn thing.

I put myself in unsafe situations, treated those I loved quite brutally, and spent a great deal of time feeling sorry for myself because of things that had happened to me. Things that I took zero responsibility for, placing all blame on others so that I could continue to wallow in the precious self-loathing that made me feel special. It’s only now that I can see just how truly emotionally explosive and damaged I was at that time.

In Basic Training, I was assigned to watch over a girl who had tried to kill herself in front of us, and I wrote in my diary about how pathetic she was and how nervous she made me. Months later, when I was so overwhelmed and depressed that I tried to do the same thing,  it was too late to be the compassionate person she had needed in those moments.  There is an actual moment, while watching some of the hospital patients in the psych ward on base playing basketball, that I realized they were no different than I was, and that moment paralyzed me with fear that I would be found out. I learned to contain my crazy and step outside of myself long enough to survive.

And that ended up being the real story. Not a story about how horrible the military is for women. Not a story about all the injustices that were done to me by the powers that be who wanted to destroy all of my individuality.  Through time and distance, I have discovered that the true story behind all of this is in what happens when an immature, depressed, and fragile child is given a rifle and taught how to kill another human being. Who is told it is her responsibility to keep her country safe from “the enemy” but has such little knowledge of the world outside her small town that being dropped in a foreign country to carry out that action would have been laughable.

Finally being honest about the person that I was and how that shaped my perception of the experiences I went through has really helped me reconcile many of the traumas that I associated with that time. This story may end up being one of healing and growth.

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