It’s Friday night and I am in the library. While my fraternity brothers and friends are playing pong and drinking, I toil away at creating a website for a fundraiser to help the mother of a fallen brother in arms. I don’t have a problem with the pong or even the prioritization, it’s just a different perspective on life. This term as my friends worry about how much is in the social fund and who has the best story from last week about the basement scene, I will stand in front of meetings and ask them to take 30 seconds to share the website on Facebook. I will walk the halls of the library talking to everyone I know, asking for their help to spread the word about our fundraiser. I will spend countless hours contacting businesses, alumni, strangers I have never met. This isn’t an extra curricular, it’s a mission.
If there is a lasting message I took away from my time in the Marine Corps, it is “there’s no such thing as a former marine, just a salty one.” My time spent as an infrantry rifleman in the Marine Corps will forever live with me as the greatest and worst of times in my life. I served two deployments in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011-2012 that have left images ingrained in my mind. There are faces that will never be forgotten, of brothers who never made it home. Of wives and mothers that will never see their husbands and sons again. Those tear stained images sit right along side the countless practical jokes and pranks pulled on one another. A wry smile, a pool of blood in the sand, a pile of rocks just begging to be thrown by a bored marine waiting for duty to end, a sister crying uncontrollably at her brother’s memorial service, a threatening note written in Pashtun which I can only make out 3 of the words to, the fear of a man I will question for the next 4 hours about bomb making materials found in his home, or the sight of my friend being launched from the back of an Light Armored Vehicle just struck by an Improvised Explosive Device as the sound of bullets slice through the air as they pass my vehicle. Our experience as Veterans is different as we return to the home front.
It is not a condemnation or hatred of my fellow students that has me frustrated on this Friday night. It is my own failure to reconcile a complicated web of experiences and decisions that I have made in my life. I do not condemn the games of pong or the late night hours, I remember being twenty years old and having my first under-aged drink. I remember my first attempt at college and the party-every-night lifestyle and hook up culture that existed even then. I just have a different perspective now. I see life through the lens of my veteran experience. Again I would say that there is nothing inherently wrong with the priorities of my fellow students, it is just a difference in what we currently value as our top priority.
There is a general culture of personal responsibility within the Marine Corps and the other branches of the armed forces. I mentioned above that it is my own failure to reconcile my experiences with my current surroundings. I wholeheartedly believe that it is no one else’s fault that I feel out of place in society. It is not the fault of the nineteen year old student that he or she does not understand why I am overly quiet in class, or why I don't jump at the chance to join him or her in the basement of my fraternity. It is not their responsibility to make me feel better or to try to include me in more events. I am responsible for how I interact with those around me on the Dartmouth campus.
Some of you may see a group of slightly older students sitting at a table together at lunch, or notice a group of guys working out consistently at 630 in the morning at Alumni Gym or out running. You may hear outlandishly distasteful jokes and a ruckus from the corner of the room. This is our comfort zone. Our fellow service members have seen similar sights, have had similar experiences, and know the same awkwardness that we feel in situations here at home. The transition back to civilian life is not always easy. For some it is not possible at all, as you occasionally see on the news. But this does not mean that we all have PTSD. It doesn’t mean that we are all freaks that shouldn't be approached. It means that we, like you, have very unique and differing experiences from the rest of the people that you are surrounded by here at Dartmouth. It means that we may choose not to associate with you at times, and at others, you wont be able to get rid of us. Our transition is complicated and will continue to be for years to come.
The simplest way you will spot a veteran on campus, is to look for the slightly older, sometimes more reserved, typically shorter haired, men (as we have yet to have a female veteran join the ranks at Dartmouth College). We may hold the door, or greet you on the street without knowing you by just saying good morning as we pass. We may be sitting in deep thought with a devious looking grin on our face, momentarily distracted from our studies. We may be the one yelling at someone for doing something all too common here at home, that for us is an egregious action that would not be tolerated in our community of service members. Whatever the case, for better or worse, we tend to stand out. This is not a problem, just something to keep in mind.
The transition back to the civilian world is different for each of us. The home front presents its own very unique set of challenges that we sometimes have no idea how to face. It is something that we will continue to deal with for years to come. Most of us are friendly enough, we are open to discuss our experiences with you. We even hold outreach events on and off campus. If you have questions feel free to ask, but understand that we may be approaching your question from completely different realities. I encourage all of you to speak with the veterans around you. Engage them and interact with them, it just may enlighten your perspective on a few topics, and maybe it will help bring us one step closer to re-integration into the civilian world. Our transition is essential to our success. Do not be afraid to become a part of that.