SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Drink Water and Drive On

Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts go to college

by Valerie Bogard

In a large classroom, in the middle of a lecture, the former soldier stood up. He alone stood in a sea of sitting students. The habit is a remnant of his military education: if a soldier gets tired during class and feels he’s having trouble paying attention, he stands up, which forces him to stay awake, be alert, pay attention. He’s spent the past six years of his life in the “Sandbox” and now he’s moving to the schoolroom.

shoe   shoe   shoe

Matt has a perfectly straight line of exposed scalp, his gelled hair reminiscent of the 1940s. He dons a buttoned-up, long-sleeved purple and blue-checkered dress shirt, complete with a dark blue tie. It doesn’t matter that it’s just a Thursday. A tie is still necessary.

The twenty-something does everything with precision. He takes time to write the “@” symbol, especially the surrounding curve, the way an artist might carefully sketch. Even his conversation skills are immaculate. His responses are always short but not too short, not curt or disrespectfully short. He is a gentleman: the type you bring home and who addresses your father with “Sir” after every reply. Matt works at a veteran agency. He doesn’t need to tell anyone that he’s a veteran himself.

Books are stacked; there are no stray papers. He gives his desktop Mac an intent stare. It doesn’t even occur to me that he’s on Facebook or some other time-sucking Internet site. He is all productivity. He doesn’t avoid distractions; he simply doesn’t need them, all emotions duly accounted for and contained.

The pamphlet he gives me tells a different story. It warns of “emotional numbness and sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, and irritability or outbursts of anger.” It adds that, “Feelings of intense guilt are also common.” They may present in “flashback episodes, memories, nightmares, or frightening thoughts.” It urges veterans to seek help, to take advantage of the services and programs offered. But Matt didn’t have any problems with his transition even though he attended University of South Florida immediately after returning home.

There’s a military saying: “Just drink water and drive on,” which means keep doing your job and suffer in silence. I’m reminded of the deceptiveness of nature. A calm river never reveals the turbulence below its surface.

Matt is introduced to a veteran who walks into the office. He quickly stands up behind his desk, fully facing the older man. His arms are flat by his side, back straight. He looks him straight in the eye. No blinking.

“He served in Korea,” Matt’s colleague explains about the visitor.

“Oh wow,” Matt replies, “Thank you for your service. Happy Veterans Day.”

shoe   shoe   shoe

If a soldier calls up Welby and tells him he wants to go to school. Welby asks one question: when do you get out?

Three years from now.

Okay, Welby replies, I will put it in my computer and keep you updated so you can apply on time.

Sometimes, they still don't. Veterans get their application fees waived but, like all bureaucratic tasks, there are still forms to sign, procedures to follow, like the required shots for measles, mumps, and rubella.

“Vets are like: I’ve been in the military. I have every shot possible known to man. But then with the D219 they’re getting a waiver.”

Welby Alcantara is the Veteran Affairs Coordinator at City College of New York. After getting out of the marines, Welby graduated from undergrad in two years.

“I went to summer school, I went to winter session, I was like I gotta graduate, I gotta graduate, I’m old! I felt very intimidated. I usually get those vets: ‘I’m 27 years old and I wanna graduate tomorrow. How can I do this? I wanna take 15 credits, 18 credits. I can do it! I know I can!’ It’s like okay guy, calm down, it’s okay.”

Welby goes on with anecdotes about “his” veterans and about his own time in the military.

“When I was a student I used to be a member of the Future Educators of America and I never told anyone there that I was a vet. Nobody knew. Until one day it came up and I was like I was in Mogadishu. They were like ‘What were you doing in Mogadishu?’ I was like, ‘I was a marine.’ They were like ‘Really you were a marine?’ I was like, yeah, I was at the beach swimming and snorkeling and the rangers were all getting shot up…”

The last line he says sarcastically, exaggerating the contrast between his administrative job and the fighting of others. There’s a brief pause. I resist the urge to ask him why he feels the need to water down his eight years of service.

“I’m a paper-pusher. I’m not a combat guy. I’m like a glorified UPS guy with a uniform.”

Now Welby is a different type of paper-pusher. He attributes CCNY’s strong veteran support system to good luck. They had a collection of higher-ups, who all happened to be veterans themselves or relatives of veterans and were more committed to the cause. Three years ago, when Welby was first hired as a part-timer, he worked 40 to 50 hour weeks. Now he’s at the office ten hours a day Monday through Friday.

Welby soon segues into another story about his previous military experience.

“We were getting a new commander and we were there at 8:30, and we get our brown bag for breakfast and we’re eating like sandwich, fruit and a little juice. 8:30. 9 o’clock. 10 o’clock. He was supposed to be there 9:30, 9:45, it was already 10:30 and we were like what in the world?! And the sun is coming up. North Carolina sun. In the bright light. And we were waiting about 120 of us. And then we see the plane. Okay.” Welby goes into his “sergeant” voice. “‘Alright, anybody who has a watch, anybody, raise your hand!’ We raise our hands. He says (voice again) ‘Okay put your clock time to 8:30 because the general cannot be late.’”

His tone changes just a little into one of a tired bureaucrat as “we” changes to “they.”

“So that’s a problem with a lot of military people, they get used to it. Just swing it. Shooting from the hip. And they get good at it.”

There’s some frustration in his voice. He’s had to deal with veterans who turn in things last minute and once there’s a complication, it’s Welby who begs the registrar to enroll them anyway. But as he knows, for the military last minute is: “Typical. Operating. Procedure.”

shoe   shoe   shoe

“Veterans get labeled,” Daniel tells me, “Even this new generation of veterans. They get redefined, public perception of what the word veteran means. I mean when I was growing up you think of the crazy dude at the VA with pins all over his jacket. And now it’s like veterans are 25 years old.”

Daniel Hodd

That’s the type of veteran who is before me. Twenty-eight years old, Daniel Hodd joined the military at the time most people start college. Even now it seems most civilians associate the word with old and disabled veterans from Vietnam or World War II. But with two wars that association will change. Daniel remembers the novelty of the concept of war in 2003.

“People had an interest because it was fresh but your peers at school, they grew up with the wars. They spent more time of their life with the United States at war than at peace.”

College freshmen were nine years old during the Iraq invasion. Even though they grew up with the wars, the chances of actually encountering those who fought them are slim. Post 9/11 veterans make up only one percent of the population. As they head home, they can turn to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which gives veterans full tuition for state colleges as well as housing and book stipends. More and more veterans are taking advantage of these benefits, confronting the other 99 percent in the schoolroom.

“Actually I was just talking with my roommate yesterday about this weird predicament that he and I face…”

Daniel’s roommate was trained as a scout sniper, but doesn’t want to be defined by the fact he’s a veteran.

“It’s like you’re in school and even though you don’t necessarily want to be a part of the college parties and all that crazy stuff, you kind of regret the fact that you’re left out or excluded from it because you don’t have the social ties with anyone. It’s weird… So even though you don’t want to be a regular college student, you kind of miss the fact that you aren’t. But that could just be an effect of this transition, because the transition really doesn’t stop. Ever.”

I can’t help but notice that Daniel uses the word “weird” twice to describe his experience.

Daniel, who is the president and founder of Armed Forces at Fordham, starts talking about his friend Gary who helps him run the club.

“Gary seems to… he’s probably not that much different from when he was in the Marine Corp and people will probably say the same about me. You’re just in a different role. If you talk to Gary he’s still a United States marine, he’s just in school.”

"You don’t just take your uniform off and you’re not a marine anymore...It’s like it’s with you. For the long haul.”

This is confusing to me. Of course we are all influenced by the roles we’ve had in the past, but Daniel seems to be speaking about something more than that. I push him to try to define it more. I want to know what qualities make Gary a permanent marine, what makes him different from civilians.

“I don’t want to say the way you conduct yourself because there’s people that do pot, there’s people that do all kinds of things you don’t do in the military, but it’s just a life change and a defining part of your life. It doesn’t shake. It’s not a job. You don’t just take your uniform off and you’re not a marine anymore. It’s like it’s with you…” he takes a short breath, “For the long haul.”

The uniform reference reminds me of something Welby said: he compared it to basketball; the uniforms are like jerseys. Even when you take them off, you’re still part of the team. Although the analogy makes sense, I’m still thinking in civilian terms. Aren’t we all at least somewhat defined by our jobs?

Daniel is still trying: “Maybe grow my hair a little longer. But it doesn’t really change you because the military is you.”

shoe   shoe   shoe

For a laid back guy, Alfonso frowns a lot. There’s a natural ease to his gait and posture. He reminds me of a diplomatic brother, the type who breaks up fights amongst siblings and has them discuss the conflict afterwards.

I ask what he’s studying: “Nothing. I’m just taking core requirements right now,” he says, “Maybe social work.”

“Can you tell me a little more about your service?” I ask.

Alfonso instantly frowns. He’s the type of person who doesn’t frown with the mouth but just with the eyebrows, almost an expression of confusion but with inklings of anger. Frankly, he tells me, there’s nothing interesting about his time with the army. “I’ve only been shot at maybe once,” he then corrects himself, “A couple close calls actually but nothing too crazy.”

There’s a pause as I scribble down that Alfonso has been shot at twice. I allow some time of silence for him to elaborate more about the “close calls”: why he seemed to overlook one at first, why they seem to be “nothing interesting” but he doesn’t fill the silence. I follow up with questions about his transition home, mentioning that other veterans cited an enduring adrenaline and pressure.

“Adrenaline? Pressure?” Another frown and a pause. “I almost got shot at a couple times and I’m glad to not have that anymore.”

Alfonso doesn’t go into too much detail about his emotions about the transition. Instead, like Daniel he describes it as “weird.”

“Have you ever seen the movie Jarhead? Imagine that but it was like eight months long.” Jarhead is a movie about the quiet boredom of war with a soldier protagonist frustrated by the lack of action.

Alfonso didn’t like the time he spent in the military. He doesn’t like to talk to other veterans. They bring things up in corny ways, or they lie about what they did or what happened to them. He doesn’t know why they lie. It’s just something they do.

I remember a scene in the movie. A sergeant asks a soldier if his father ever talked about his time in Vietnam:

“Sir, only once, sir!” The soldier replies.

“Good! Then he wasn’t lying.”

There’s yet another pause in the conversation, as if Alfonso can’t quite communicate his experience to a civilian.

“You’re not going to use my last name, right?” Alfonso asks. Before I get a chance to reassure him, he starts, “I remember one time… No, we’re not going to talk about this.” He shakes his head and adds, “That was craziness. I don’t miss it at all. Not at all.”

shoe   shoe   shoe

Welby’s empire is a comfortable lounge with blue couches and a giant stuffed Scooby Doo with a t-shirt for the 82nd Airborne in the corner. Next to the lounge, there are four computers, a copier and a small bookshelf where vets can get tutoring. The office encourages veterans to contribute to its decoration, which results in an eclectic mix of memorabilia. On one wall hangs a signed picture of Colin Powell, below it are old packages of military MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat and covering the rest of the area are pictures of vet events, vet families, and vet ceremonies.

“Patience is something you need with veterans because sometimes they get very high strung,” Welby tells me.

The bureaucracy of college is one big adjustment. He tells me one story: “We had a veteran who was a platoon leader in Afghanistan, he basically ran all aid and supply and money to about five villages and he learned how to speak Udism and he wanted it to be waived as foreign language, but they don’t teach that here.” Welby eventually got the veteran the credit. But navigating bureaucracy is not the largest obstacle.

“A lot of vets don’t like to say I have a disability. I have this problem that if the school doesn’t know it at the time, they try to hide it. They feel that nobody should know what their problem is.”

The word “hide” resonates with me. I want to tell Welby about the long pauses, the elusive attitude of the interviews, but I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise him. Military culture asks, “Are you hurt or are you injured?” If you’re injured, you need to go to the hospital. If you see blood, you need to go to the hospital. If you’re hurt, shake it off. Man up. Pretend it doesn’t hurt; keep it hidden.

The college tries to address this by creating a supportive environment. Veterans have first preference at CCNY for wellness and counseling services. They also have two onsite counselors that keep it off the books, leaving the identities anonymous. The VA also gives veterans $1200 in tutoring money that few vets take advantage of. Typically, professors are much better than students at picking up veteran cues.

“A lot of the professors know how students behave and when a lot of the vets come in because they’re a bit more mature, they act differently, they have a different perspective, they basically… the professors that have been teaching for a little while could tell who’s who and what is their background.”

But veterans don’t always get along with their professors.

“A resume of a real eight year veteran: he’s been to Korea, been to Japan, been to Afghanistan, been to Iraq. You have this professor who graduated high school, went to college until he got his PhD and now he’s teaching ‘What do you know about life?’ A lot of the vets feel that they experience real life and they sometimes get very anxious at that.”

By “anxious” I think Welby means “annoyed.” A person who has been in this academic bubble, a womb of sorts, lectures you about life: you, who have seen war. Veterans get understandably frustrated, a feeling that persists when dealing with some of the other students.

Welby tells his veterans: “You’re 27 years old, yes. That kid is 19, yes. You might not like what he has to say. I have many vets who come in here and say, ‘Can you believe this student? This student did this, this student did that. I can’t believe how disrespectful they were.’ And I’m like, okay, take a leadership role. Tell that kid ‘Look this is what is expected of you.’”

Within the lounge and offices, beliefs already ingrained in vets are honed. The community creates a home for military camaraderie. The veteran club meets every Thursday afternoon and sometimes has volunteer events on Saturdays. Welby just started a program in the fall where every veteran gets a battle buddy, a fellow student who basically acts as a mentor.

“If you are a good soldier and you bought into the military which I say 99 percent of them do, we take those core values: honor, integrity, responsibility and we basically focus on those core values and we implement them in your college life.”

Even with Welby’s enthusiasm, I have a hard time believing that concepts as abstract as those will help with the day-to-day frustrations of higher education. Honor, integrity and responsibility are all good things to strive for, but how would they help with 8 a.m. classes or piles of reading?

shoe   shoe   shoe

Welby had said most vets are “high-strung.” Daniel, on the other hand, is instantly disarming, effortlessly easy-going. He claims the small bits of ingrained military culture don’t occur to him anymore. Habits once demonized are now okay. Daniel demonstrates one example by rubbing his eye.

“That’s nasty. That’s disgusting. It’s this whole nasty civilian, this word ‘nasty civilians,’ ‘nasty civilians,’ it kind of gets in your head.”

He laughs but I don’t understand why soldiers can’t rub their eyes.

“Well that’s just one small example of a lack of discipline. You wipe your eye, you’re getting crap in your eye: you can get sick. It’s part of field hygiene.”

As Daniel goes on about other military attitudes that seep into his civilian life, his attitude becomes less and less laidback. He starts telling me about the radio station he works at.

“I am frustrated all the time. Because I see nepotism and I see lack of accountability and it’s not just here it’s pretty much everywhere. And to me that’s wrong because in the military it doesn’t exist, at least not in the same way, and not nearly at the same scale.”

There are other things that civilians don’t get that the military had right. Daniel’s tone of annoyance holds a hint of disappointment. His relationships with civilians are never quite what they are with veterans.

“You don’t call someone or you’re busy or you’re off in something in your life and you’re not maintaining that friendship. Not all times but sometimes they take it personally, like ‘Where have you been?’ You could not talk to a marine for ten years and call him up and be like ‘Hey man, let’s go get a beer.’ And he’s like ‘Alright.’”

shoe   shoe   shoe

Since Kris Eglin got out in November 2011, it seems he’s given a lot of time thinking about how to describe his transition, trying to articulate the effect of strict structure on the psyche. Even with all this contemplation, Kris hasn’t found a perfect description, yet. After 18 minutes pass during the interview, he admits, “A lot of times you don’t talk about it because you can’t describe it.”

He’s getting his Masters in social work at Fordham so he knows how to roll complex issues over in his mind. And yet it’s a bit surprising that Kris hasn’t yet gone to any veteran events at Fordham. One might think he’d want to explore these issues with his peers. He says that although he would like to attend, he just can’t fit it into his schedule. But he is grateful that he has the opportunity there.

“A lot of times you don’t talk about it because you can’t describe it.”

“I’m not the only one. I don’t feel I’m the only one, I can email people and certainly contact the network that way, but as far as face-to-face I haven’t felt the connection yet.”

This is the first indication that Kris is a newly integrated veteran. And despite his rhetoric, that fact gets more and more pronounced.

“You kind of wish something would push you in a direction. I find myself at a stand still with the motivating factor. Am I motivated? As much as I would be if there was someone there to push me?”

Questions make up the most of Kris’ interview. I’m not usually the one who asks them, though.

He puts on the voice of a lieutenant: “Okay we need this training done. This is how it’s done. Put together this training. Go do it.”

Now he’s a professor: “Here’s a paper on this theory. Research it. Tell me what you think about it.”

Finally, he is Kris again: “What do I think about it? Wait… what?”

There are no straight-forward demands. Just to think. For himself. An inch of freedom can expand exponentially into an anarchic abyss.

“Just this morning, I have this feeling: I have to go to school. It’s my obligation. I have to be there and I want to be there. But I don’t have to go. If I don’t go, nobody’s going to yell at me, nobody’s going to pick up the phone and wonder where I’m at. The accountability… you’re counting on yourself now.”

It’s clear from Kris’ voice that he’s drawn to this opportunity to sleep in and forget commitments. He’s taking four classes concentrated in two days a week. He has to commute six hours roundtrip on a bus from Pennsylvania every school day.

“I could have chosen not to get on that bus at four in the morning and I could have justified it to myself but at the end of the line the core values are ‘No, I made this deal.’ That value structure will always be there.”

shoe   shoe   shoe

Alfonso is thinking about his time in the military again.

“I’m grateful not to wake up at 6 every morning.”

I ask him if he misses anything about military culture. He thinks of a couple more things.

“You mean like bossing people around or going on patrols and maybe getting blown up by something because I could definitely live without that.”

“I knew people had to do certain things in a certain way. It’s like I’m a civilian I can just do what I want, there’s no repercussions. You might get fired. Maybe.”

Alfonso doesn’t mention one positive thing about his service. With other students, he doesn’t bring it up at all. He omits the eight years, discards them like shed skin, no longer a part of him, no longer of use.

“I never stayed anywhere longer than two years. I always was preparing to go somewhere else. Now I can do anything.”

Alfonso tends to lean back when he’s talking about his time, as if to say, “The military isn’t a big deal.” There’s a stigma that every veteran is mentally unhinged. I can imagine other civilians inspecting every movement, every emotion, looking for hints of PTSD or some other mental disorder. Perhaps that’s why they choose to keep quiet. And yet, even though most veterans are adjusted or become somewhat adjusted, that doesn’t mean they weren’t changed in some way. Alfonso got out of the military in December 2010 and started classes just a few weeks later.

“So you were only back for a few weeks before you started school, right?” I ask.

“No… I got out in December…” There’s a pause, “Well… yeah, actually. Yeah.”

“Was that strange? That seems really sudden.”

“Everything just went by really fast, I didn’t really think about it too much.

I was just chilling and relaxing. I’m just glad it gave me something to do. I didn’t think about it too much.”

I ask if it was difficult adjusting to the workload.

He frowns, “Not really, it was just weird…” he says.

He pauses for a few seconds. I feel like this is the first time he’s taken the time to think back about that period of time. It seems odd that he didn’t realize there were only a few weeks between changing roles from soldier to student but then, as he said, he didn’t like to think about it.

“Now that you mention it, it was kind of weird. First I was this fully independent person. Then I was sitting at my parent’s place, taking classes.”

Even though he’s been out for over a year, he tells me at the end of the interview: “I’m still in the process of everything. I still feel that way sometimes. It’s just weird that I’m my own boss, like no one tells me what to do. It’s a weird concept.”

Alfonso used the word “weird” 11 times through out the interview. “Weird” is generic. “Weird” means he doesn’t want to talk about it; he doesn’t want to think about it. There are no details, no emotion, no possibility for flashbacks to unpleasant thoughts attached to it.

shoe   shoe   shoe

“This is a lifelong process of what you want out of life.”

Tom Murphy runs the workshop, called Edge4Vets, at Fordham. There are three of them over the course of the semester, with the themes of “Prepare,” “Plan,” and “Act.” Veterans are given pre- and post- surveys. They even get workbooks. The goal of the workshops, as stated in the workbook, is “to help you gain CLARITY on your leadership strengths, get DIRECTION and SUPPORT to apply them- and give you a chance (through the Edge4Vets Corps) to HELP other vets.”

I expect to see a roomful of rolling eyes, but instead there were only earnest faces.

There’s John and Paul, older veterans in their sixties who went to Fordham after their service. They’re here to show the veterans that “there is life after the military.” Paul is a professor at Fordham Law School. John, now a general counselor for IBM subsidiaries, went to Fordham Law School five weeks after he left service. Paul tends to say things in broad, supportive ways, like, “You’ve done something for all of us; it’s time for us to do something for you.” Or “Do not doubt the value of the experience you have. It’s unique. But if you position it well, it can go far.”

The rest of the group is in their twenties and early thirties. Many of them are combat veterans. Four of them are starting school this year. None of them are fazed by the abstract self-help concepts. Their attention is not just polite: they want this.

In the Class

John had a joke about how easy the military was: “They give you money, which you can’t spend. They give you a place to sleep: a bunker. They give you something to eat: two meals a day…

“All you got to do is stay alive.”

Everyone breaks into groups of four to five people. My group has Eric, Ky and Paul.

After explaining briefly what they hope to get out of life, work, and school, Eric and Ky start a casual conversation about what they did in the military. Ky tells him he dealt with EODs.

Eric responds, “Oh wow. Well I see you have all your limbs.”

EOD stands for Explosive Ordinance Disposal. Eric asks if he’s going to pursue a similar type of work in the civilian world. “No, no,” Ky says straightaway, “I don’t want to think about that.”

“When people are trying to kill you, it’s pretty clear what you’re going to do,” Paul adds.

I think of Alfonso. Like Ky, he had said he didn’t want to think about it. Striving to not think can often be a goal. There is the infamous Nike line, “Just do it.” For the sports brand, the slogan is less about what it’s saying, “do, act, move,” than what it’s saying not to do: think, contemplate, wonder. In David Foster Wallace’s “How Tracy Austin Broke my Heart,” he says perhaps there is nothing at all going through the heads of successful athletes during those moments of intense concentration. Wallace explains “for top athletes, clichés present themselves not as trite but simply as true, or perhaps not even as declarative expressions with qualities like depth or triteness or falsehood or truth but as simple imperatives that are either useful or not and, if useful, to be invoked and obeyed and that’s all there is to it.” Like athletes, soldiers confront moments of great stress. They need endurance and quick action. Somehow they don’t think. They allow the body to take over and follow with unyielding reverence those dictums of service.

As instructed, Ky meticulously draws a perfect pyramid around the words, “Action plan,” “Skills,” and “Beliefs.” Beneath his concentration is something like control, as if by perfectly encasing these words, they now belong to him.

Veterans must hold the values of service and the requirements of civilian life. They must learn to integrate them.

The workbook lists values taken from the Marine Corps and Army. Justice, Judgment, Dependability, Initiative, Decisiveness, Tact, Integrity, Enthusiasm, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty, Endurance, Duty, Respect, Honor, Integrity. Welby’s three, “honor, integrity, and responsibility” are all either explicitly or implicitly included.

Tom goes on with a quote from a former soldier, “Ernest Hemingway once said ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’” Veterans must hold the values of service and the requirements of civilian life. They must learn to integrate them.

One veteran tells a story about applying to a job. He was in an interview and it was going well, but at the end of the interview the interviewer said they weren’t going to hire him. He asked why.

“Because you never smiled once.”

Tom says this is a good example. In the military, you can’t smile. But in the civilian world, not smiling means dislike, hostility. The military code that you learned, though, that can always be applied.

shoe   shoe   shoe

Daniel talks about his deployments like they were a long time ago, yet he still sports the military “high and tight” haircut, with sides short and the top kept a little longer. Recently he’s been debating whether or not to stay in the reserves. He could really use the time to focus on his studies, his future. But that would mean putting his needs before his battalion’s, before soldiers he’s known for ten years. Daniel’s answer has always been: “if my buddies are going, I’m gonna be going.” They’re why he chooses to go back and forth to war.

“So when I got home I was 19 or 20 years old…”

Daniel is telling me about his first return. He was a soldier in Kuwait, then two days later a civilian in Brooklyn.

“When you spend a lot of effort and time switching off a bunch of emotions that you used to have, at that age and at that time it was difficult for me to turn them back on. So probably for a good two years I was readjusting and becoming myself again. And it was hard for me because I didn’t realize it at the time, I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t feel a damn thing for two and half years. Really. Nothing. All I felt was angry. I would get angry at people. Angry at traffic. Especially traffic…I hate traffic.”

Even though Daniel is laughing, his emphasis on “hate” isn’t casual.

“I laugh about it now, but at the time I had a girlfriend who loved me and I was hurting her by not being there emotionally…”

“And then, like, I forget how the hell it happened but eventually I got to a point I just broke down, I broke into tears for like a half an hour. I called her up. I realized that I had shut off such a…I just shut off a lot of things. It’s a really weird process.”

This was the seventh time Daniel used the word “weird” to describe the process of returning in the interview. Given that Daniel constantly alternates between the military and civilian world, I thought he might finally solve the mystery for me. As much as he may want to, as much as he tries, there’s something impossible about the task of describing his experience. In total, I’ve heard the word “weird” twenty times throughout the interview process. Part of it is that veterans think a civilian can’t understand what they are talking about. But there’s more than that: it’s like all the military sayings coalesced into a toughness that won’t be infiltrated, emotions that won’t be released. This is the first time I’ve heard specifics about a breakdown from a vet.

“It’s much easier to do a job if you don’t have to feel, don’t have to think about it. A part of you shuts off and you do what you gotta do. And deal with the rest later.”

Daniel gives many reasons why the first return was so hard: he was young, the military hadn’t yet created a transition program to address the issues of returning home, and, perhaps most importantly, the war in 2003 was different than war in 2008, when Daniel deployed again.

He doesn’t go into any other details about the war in 2003. He says only: “the circumstances of the deployment in 08-09 didn’t necessitate that sort of adjustment.”

I remember one thing Welby had said, “Some of the people are crazy. They’ll tell you yeah I went over there and this and that, but if you do some research of what they did they probably were a paper pusher or a truck driver. People that were really in bad situations… they don’t really talk about it like that.” Alfonso, too, hinted at the same phenomenon. Those who really “know” are either silent or vague.

In a book called The Truth about Freud's Technique , there’s a line about psychoanalysis: “Concealment doesn’t merely obscure truth. It contains it.” I’m convinced the vets I interviewed never lied.

shoe   shoe   shoe

Considering he’s only been out three months, Kris has clearly embraced nonmilitary freedoms. He’s able to sport a brown goatee for the first time in ten years. Maybe it’s this small but evident act of defiance that makes his remark so surprising.

“If someone came up to me asking, ‘would you like to reenlist right now?’” He says, “Yes. I love the structure. I love what I was doing. I love having a role.”

But moments later he changes his mind.

“I don’t really want to go back to that. I’m a better person and I’ve evolved and I’ve learned much more than when I was in.”

“The team was great. But you pull all that away. Now what do I do? It’s just me. But that’s what I wanted.”

Inside Kris’ head are two well-educated debaters.

“It was so easy to do,” one explains about the military. “They just tell you be at the right place, at the right time, wear the right uniform, do the right thing. And you’ll be fine. Which was really simple. Because you knew what you were wearing. And they told you where to go. And they told you what time to be there. So really you just had to show up.”

But that’s exactly what is so great about being back, the other debater counters: “No one’s going to bother you if you don’t show up.”

There is no sergeant yelling in your face. There are no required uniforms. Options are limitless. The term resonates in the mind. The only deciding factors are your own whims and wants, looking out for numero uno. That’s why he calls his decision to leave the army after ten years to pursue his education “selfish.”

“The team was great. But you pull all that away. Now what do I do? It’s just me. But that’s what I wanted.”

Kris says the last line almost like a question. Kris tells me that no matter how many times he tries to describe it, it will never be enough for me to understand. I ask if he could try to describe the military anyway, laughing at how the question contradicts what he just told me. Kris sighs.

“You learn a lot about yourself… You relinquish certain things about yourself…”

All of a sudden Kris’ face becomes strangely serene.

“You ever ride a rollercoaster?” Kris asks me after a moment.

“First starting, hear the click-click click-click click-click . You know it’s coming. You have to have faith that that machine’s gonna work, have faith that nothing’s gonna go wrong but you still got that worry and the butterflies and as soon as you get to the top and feel the breaks release and that pahh…” there’s a small smile, “That’s the feeling. That ‘Oh no.’ But you’ve relinquished all that fear and control.”

The smile fades but his face is still calm, “If you’ve never been in those situations, you don’t know how to relinquish that feeling.”

NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute