They say that out of all the senses, smell is the most linked to memory. The smell of Grandma’s cooking when you step barefoot on her hard wooden floor, the smell of freshly washed sheets as you lay your head on your pillow, or even the smell of the lubricant that makes a rifle operate smoothly and effectively. You think that those memories are just foggy remnants in your mind, but then you walk in that old house, smell the same laundry detergent, or get a whiff of CLP at a range years later — the memories come flooding back. What once was a murky, distant fragment becomes real again.
The same could be said about feeling the cold.
One of the greatest portrayals of war on the screen was the HBO series “Band of Brothers.” Each episode is bookended by interviews with actual veterans of the soldiers that were on the ground in WWII. Arguably the most compelling episodes of that show are the Bastogne episodes, and in one such interview one of the men says, “Even today, on a real cold night, we go to bed and my wife will tell you that the first thing I’ll say is that I’m glad I’m not in Bastogne.”
I don’t pretend to have fought in a war that was in any way comparable to WWII, and the misery of Bastogne undoubtedly outweighs the misery of any experiences I can possibly imagine. With that said, the cold front that has been sweeping the nation has hit Florida as well, with an unusual, drastic drop in temperature. I was recently in upstate New York, and though it was far colder there, I was expecting it and that seems to have tempered the effects to a certain degree. Cold as hell? Roger that, no problem — big coat, heavy pants and a beanie and we’re good to go. Florida? Not so low, but unexpected, which caught me off guard.
And like a familiar smell, it reminds me of those times when things were really cold. When I was in the mountains of Afghanistan on missions that were, at the lowest, -35 degrees with windchill. When I would blink, feeling the resistance as my eyelashes were (even for just a moment) frozen shut. When my night vision would stop working and I was shaking so hard I felt like I was having a seizure. I remembered both times when I got frostbite, albeit minor cases.
And when those memories come flooding back, I realize that I am no longer there. Not only am I in the sunny state of Florida, I am generally out of the elements when I want to be — I can always go inside, bundle up and crank the heat. I am no longer a Ranger; no longer a soldier. I often hear the phrase “there is no such thing as an ex-Marine — once a Marine, always a Marine.” I understand and agree with the sentiment of the phrase — that a part of you is always a Marine. A part of me will always be a Ranger. But when people have asked me, “Can I call you an ex-Ranger? Should I say former Ranger?” I honestly don’t really care. I did that thing and now I don’t, and whatever label you want to give it really doesn’t matter to me. I am certainly not a Ranger anymore, not in a practical sense, and being a practical man that’s all I really care about. I am certainly no longer there, in the freezing cold rain tightly gripping my rifle, or in the murky swamps trying to keep my ruck from getting wet and almost doubling in weight. I’m certainly not in Afghanistan fighting for my life anymore.
But as I realize that I am no longer there, I realize that there are many who still are. They are out in the elements, out in the cold. They have no ambiguity in defining themselves like I do with prefixes such as “ex” or “former.” They are wading through snow or freezing cold water, firing their rifles or clearing a malfunction on their machine guns. They do these things overseas risking their lives or at home training to do the same.
And as I sit comfortably in my apartment, in my house of safety and warmth, I’m thankful for what they do. Though I’m no longer in a position to give at the level that they do, I do my best to contribute in whatever ways I can to the same country they give so much to protect.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.