Veteran. Nobody on the outside understands what it means to wear that title or the uniform. If you were there, you know things. You saw things. Far from home, far from family, you did your time. Missing births, deaths, and regular life, you were disconnected, except for a spotty satellite phone or shared Internet. Surviving on institutional food, cooked with U.S. Army flourish, you spent holidays with alcohol-free beer and first-run movies in a MWR tent. You spent countless hours in the gym, on watch, at your post, driving your route, or patrolling your sector. Like an American Atlas, the weight of a nation rested on your shoulders. Veteran. You earned that name.

Death lurked close, always, buried in a foot of sand, or launched from a second-story window, or fired from behind a jungle tree. Your life was too often in the hands of an unreliable ally, but you fought beside him anyway. You did multiple tours, going back again and again. One thing you never doubted was your brother at your side, or the gear that kept you alive: your M-4 rifle, your 203, your spare magazines, grenades, flashlights, water, and a sidearm. Your body armor and Kevlar, not to mention the hundred-pound stone on your back, slowed your movements and bowed your back, but it kept you alive. You fought for your family, for your unit, for your brothers and sisters, and for a public that often did not understand you or what you went through. Veteran.

They can never know the smells. Trash burning. Sandstorms raging. Motor oil mixed with body odor inside an MRAP. The stink of rotting and seared flesh, or soldiers on a fourth week with no proper shower. The smell of MREs and what they do to a man’s insides, of Simple Green on a barracks floor. They can never know the sounds—of bullets cracking, rockets waking you up from a fitful sleep, or radio traffic always in your ear. They can never know the sights—of fanatics blown apart by their own bombs, of the hollowed-out eyes of civilians caught between the guns, or of a resupply aircraft landing on a dirt airfield. Was it really worth it?

They can never feel the disconnect you felt when you came home on R&R or at the end of a tour. How life around you floated by, all the oblivious uninitiated going about their mundane existence, unaware of how close death always lurked. Their eyes are closed, their awareness flawed, and their senses dulled. They fret small, unimportant things, not knowing how quickly life can be snubbed out or blown apart. Your awareness of life around you is always heightened. You see through the fog, and long to shout out a warning that it is all frailty and illusion. Veteran.

They profess admiration, thanks, and respect for you, not knowing exactly what it is they are feeling. They envy you, they fear you, they misunderstand you, if you were there. You worry maybe it has changed you, that you will never regain your normalcy. You worry you are forever changed, and you are. Over time, it will be for the better. You will see life with renewed focus, and value things you never did before: civilization, toilets, paved roads, carefree children, and hours spent wasted doing nothing, fearing nothing. Was it worth it?

You ask that question, and wonder if you made the right choice. Did the weight bear you down? Did it crush you? Did your spouse—jealous of your mistress, this military—leave you? Did your children mourn your absence and resent you for it? Did you come back to a country that did not care? Was it all worth it? These are questions the weight of which only a veteran can truly feel.

Always know that it was worth it. You were needed, and you responded. There is nothing more noble. You will always cherish what you did, if you were there. You will always remember it and keep it inside you. You will always remember those who fought beside you—banded brothers by a unit patch or a combat ribbon. It is a part of you now, tattooed on your soul. Your country will never forget what you did, and historians will document your deeds, writ large, for ages. Remember your country owes you a debt, and will be forever thankful, if you were there. Veteran.

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Pfc. Kirby Rider)