This author has been out of federal government and military service for a while now — officially about six years — and as my service in that capacity recedes into the background, I have noted two things happening in my life. First, I am accumulating a new set of experiences as a city firefighter and EMT, with all that those jobs entail. New challenges and new “enemies” — fire and heroin epidemics, for example — are supplanting old enemies like al Qaida in my limited brain space.
I spend much more time these days thinking about structure fires than I do about the hierarchy of leadership within al Qaida and other terrorist groups. No, I have not completely stopped thinking about those terrorism issues, but I am no longer an expert in them. I no longer have the benefit of receiving newly acquired intelligence on a daily basis, nor do I spend my waking hours engrossed in the subject like I once did.
Secondly, experiences from my military and CIA days have recently begun to recede back into that space in my mind reserved for things that happened “back in the day.” As that service moves further and further into the past, the associated memories have also begun to change and evolve, as I suspect they have for all veterans who have moved out of the military and national security world.
As an example of this phenomenon, take a look at this recently produced video from former Army Ranger Mat Best. You will note a similar evolution occurring within him, as well it seems (although I hesitate to speak for anyone else’s experience). The symbolism of Best turning away from the “military” version of himself depicted in the video — as he runs away from the uniformed figure into the desert landscape — is hard to miss.
It seems natural, furthermore, that at some point this change in perspective will affect all veterans, even those who write, speak, or produce videos professionally concerning their military and national security experiences. Again, see this author as an example.
This is all a long and too-wordy way of saying that life moves on, and our perspective changes. Our experiences gain new meaning, and we adopt an altered outlook as we become more mature. All of those changes, though, are still based upon the foundations of those growing-older memories and experiences. This is not to say that we will stop thinking about — or writing or speaking about — those experiences, but rather, that they will begin to take on new meaning within our individual and collective consciousness.
So, with that lengthy preamble in place, this author humbly submits a revised list of signs that one might have served in the “Long War” against Islamic terrorism in any of the myriad theaters in which that war has played out since 9/11. My original list can be found here on SOFREP.
1. As a veteran, you have begun to more astutely differentiate between the various Islamic terrorist groups facing America. There are the “old guys” — Hezbollah and al Qaida, for example — who have almost become “quaint” in their familiarity. Then there are the newer players — like ISIS — who are still viewed as the immediate threat, but who themselves have also even begun to seem less existentially dangerous as time has passed. Finally, there are the new groups you fear might pop up in the future, or the random individuals who are radicalized and carrying out attacks on their own. They still scare you for what they might do to civilians in your own country.
2. You look back fondly at that time period when America was fighting only al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Before Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and all the rest, we had a more singular focus in the war on terrorism. To see it as the “more simple” phase of the Long War marks you as one who has been around for a while.
3. You have begun to ponder how the millions of Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) veterans will affect American society, politics, and culture over the coming decades. The war and the veterans who have fought it have already had a significant impact on American society, but it will likely grow as time goes on. Studies will go deeper, books become more nuanced, interviews will be more revealing and forthcoming, and the veterans themselves will move further into government service, and in larger numbers. Our culture and politics cannot help but be affected.
4. You worry more and more that your own children might be fighting these same enemies in less than a decade’s time. That thought concerns you greatly and has begun to change how you think about these conflicts and their long-term impact on America.
5. You wonder how the vast knowledge and experience acquired over the last 16 years of war will shape the American military in the decades to come. Since the start of sustained combat operations, there have been new developments in combat medicine, weapons, body and vehicle armor, tactics, and more. Will the American military hold onto and institutionalize these hard-earned lessons, or will they fall to the wayside over time?
6. You have begun to think more deeply about how you will one day in the future explain your service and your time “over there” to your children and grandchildren. Perhaps one day, you will even explain it differently to yourself. Maybe you have already begun to do so.
7. You wonder if any book, movie, article, television show, stage play, or essay will ever really truly and fully capture what you and the country has gone through since 9/11/2001. Some have already brilliantly captured pieces and parts of it, to be sure. More will surely follow.
8. You have begun to understand the ephemeral and fleeting nature of those experiences you had in the military, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), or wherever. They will always stay with you, without a shadow of a doubt, but they will never again be repeated in real life. They are like snapshots in time that you can relive thousands of times in your mind, but that will never again be “present tense,” concrete, or immediate. They are just memories now, albeit sometimes powerful and poignant ones.
9. You have begun to come to terms with the fact that you might not ever again be lucky enough to experience a more meaningful or exhilarating “job” in your life, now that you have settled back into the “real” (and yet so often seemingly fake) world. The new world you have been thrust back into is filled with unaware civilians, the banality of weekend supermarket trips, and viewing sporting events ridiculously and falsely couched in the same life-and-death terms as actual war.
If you are as lucky as this author, you will find a new career or calling that adequately fills that void. If not, you will be forced to live with that hole for the rest of your life, or until something meaningful fills it.
10. Finally, you have begun the process of not only coming to terms with your service, but with being a civilian whose service is in the past and who must now make a place for yourself in the present and future. This makes you all at once nostalgic, excited, and wary, as you try to figure out your place in the world, and how much of your experiences you should thrust on those around you.
It helps to have friends who are also veterans, and with whom you can share those common experiences. You value those others around you who know what you have been through. Maybe you all meet up once a month for drinks or golf. Maybe you hang out everyday. Maybe you work together. Whatever it is, you are thankful that others can help you navigate this new world, and reminisce with you about the old one.