I originally wrote and posted this May 28 2016, but I wanted to bring it here because it is something I will always stand by.
I don't know how to start this. Part of me wanted to write this like a letter. Something more separate from myself, I suppose. That feels false…I should write something beautiful and with conviction! I suppose that would be more true, but those things are all lost to perception. One never can control exactly how something said will be perceived and interpreted by another. I am sure I lost some people just with the photo I posted along with this. I can't call myself a writer, but a photographer with something to say, perhaps to go along with a photo is okay with me.
I hate Memorial Day. I wish it was a day that didn't exist. ‘National Cookout Day’ sounds better…That’s what most people think it is anyway, so why not. The only problem with that is it DOES exist, and for myself and many people like me it is one of the hardest days of the year.
I am a disabled American Veteran. Before you ask, No, I was not wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq. I was injured during training. I hate having to say that as well. It is something that will always disgust me. I got hurt and my 14 week training turned into 11 months of purgatory that I could not escape from.
I was a combat engineer, and I was fucking good at my job, Being a soldier was all I had ever wanted to be, period. I didn't want to be anything else. But unfortunately midway through my training, my right heel fractured and it caused me to be unable to train. From there was rehabilitation and reintegration into training (which I completed), but due to my injury I was never able to run right. I couldn't pass my PT test and I was finally discharged. It was 11 months I will never forget for as long as I live.
Better men than I can tell you what it’s like to be a soldier. But, what I can tell you is it is a world unlike any other, and unless you have experienced it first hand you will never fully understand it. When you are in you know what you do, you know where you stand and you pretty much know where those around you stand. You make connections deeper than any other to the people around you, because at the end of the day, they are the only ones you have.
One of the hardest parts for me since I got out was the not knowing. I saw the end of two full training cycles in two different companies, I had made a lot of friends, and we all knew exactly where we were going. It was 2006 and Iraq was in full swing. Most the guys I knew from my first company were Texas bound, attaching with the 1st Cavalry, third or fourth infantry divisions. After they left basic I went to a rehabilitation company and that was the last I ever heard from any of them. The guys in my second company were much of the same except for a large batch that were being stationed with the unit on Ft. Leonard Wood. They left for Iraq two weeks after the end of training. I was discharged shortly after and my only update was from my friend Kim, who had called me after I got home. He was still stateside, but had heard that a group of guys from our company had gotten killed, including a few of our friends, their first week in Iraq. An IED had taken out the truck they were on during a patrol. It was shocking news, and it was also the last update I received about what happened to anyone I knew who was still in.
Then, there was the guilt. Maybe it’s because I’m a Catholic, or from the midwest. I don't know, but it came all the same. Guilt for not being there, guilt for failing, guilt for not being able to do my job, to stay in the fight, to be there with my friends. I got left behind and I was mad and guilty for not doing the one thing I had joined up to do; to be deployed and go fight. What compounded all of this guilt and anger and depression was that I felt that I wasn't acknowledged.
Soon after I got out in 2006, I was told that I should go to the VA. Here’s the thing…the VA has a bad rap, one that it has well earned over its history. And I as a newly released veteran had a wealth of skepticism and distrust for the organization even before my first dealings with them. I put that aside and hoped that I was wrong. I mean, I was a honorably discharged soldier who was injured in training. I had all of my countless doctors visits written down on record. Surely they wouldn't just push me aside…but I was wrong, and they did. They took no responsibility for my injuries and sent me on my way. Which in turn made my service meaningless for all intents and purposes. I couldn't claim that I was a Vet on job applications and I didn't receive any benefits from any VA programs, and since I was only in training I didn't get any benefits from any GI bill programs.
After that I was finished with the VA. If they weren't even going to acknowledge me, I wasn't going to bother with them again. That was pretty much the way things went for 10 years…until this year. My Dad, who is also a vet, has a friend who helps people deal with the VA and get claims put through. I spoke with her and did the paperwork, saw a few doctors and low and behold it worked. The VA actually accepted my claim! it had taken 10 years but they finally accepted me, I could now proudly call myself a disabled American Veteran. It was one of the happiest moments of my entire life! I cannot fully express how amazing the feeling was…to finally be recognized, to be heard and have them finally say, ‘yes we see you’ and ‘yes we are going to do what we are supposed to do for you’. It was simply amazing.
It doesn't take away the pain from my injuries. It doesn't bring back my friends who have died. It doesn't tell what happened to the others. But it does say that I was there too. That I count. That I served.
I served, and I hate Memorial Day. It is a day meant for remembering the men and women who died serving this country. For me it is also a day of failure, and a day to grieve the ones I personally know we've lost. It’s a day to reflect on how things could have been different, if I could have done something different. Also, it is a day to consider where we are going, and if we are moving in the right direction. Do all those sacrifices made by men and women who were brave enough to fight and die mean anything at all if we, the survivors, do nothing to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes that lead to there sacrifices? I don’t know, and I don’t know if I ever will.
All I can do is hope. Hope that people will reflect and be humble. Hope that it was all worth it. Hope that we can learn from our mistakes so that other friends and families do not have to suffer the loss.