LOA: How do you reconcile the difference in gravity between what you did in the military and what you do as a civilian? Do you get restless? How do you deal with this restlessness?
Taylor: There is no doubt that my military service and everything I experienced while in uniform changed me as a person. It can be challenging to come home and realize that decisions and actions no longer have life and death consequences. I sometimes felt like civilians were really missing the big picture, and I still find myself feeling that way at times.
So the waiter messed up your order? At least you are getting a hot meal. You have three final exams in the same day? I’ve gone days without sleep, been shot at blown up, and mortared. Is your life really that rough?
I found, when I came home, that I was ready to overcome any obstacle. Isn’t that what we did in the military? We faced challenges head-on, and always accomplished our missions. The civilian world can be frustrating, and it certainly has its challenges. There are obstacles, and they aren’t always as clear as those we faced in the military. It is never quite as simple as, the bad guy is in that house. Break the door down and get him. As a veteran, I often feel that the task at hand is never as clearly defined as things were in the military. Most of us have bosses now, but it just isn’t the same.
I am finding that I miss a lot of things about the military, and a few of those things are somewhat surprising. I miss moving every few years. I miss being out and seeing different parts of the country and the world. I miss the excitement, and of course I miss being with some of the closest friends I’ve ever had. Do I find myself being restless? Absolutely. I’ve been out for almost 7 years now, and I’m ready for a change. I’m ready for a new house in a new town. I’m ready for another new adventure.
Dealing with the restlessness is a different story. I have a family, a job, and responsibilities. I have a hard time being idle, so I am always doing stuff. I rearrange my garage and my closet, because I need something to do, and I want something different. I’ve realized that every time I have a day off, I’m working on something. It seems ridiculous, because I always feel like there is a mountain of work to be done, but I never make any progress on it. I’m always doing something though. I have a hard time just relaxing and taking time for myself. I have found some things that I enjoy. I like to write and cook. I ride a motorcycle, and I like to get out to the shooting range when I can. I don’t ride or shoot as often as I’d like to, but I do enjoy doing both of those things. Honestly, I think that the military is part of the reason I don’t spend much time doing the things that I really enjoy.
LOA: Scott Fitzgerald said, “all life is a process of breaking down.” How have you used these breakdowns (often of the body and the mind, and even the nerves) as a platform for rebirth?
Taylor: It’s like exercising a muscle. You work and work, and break it down. It comes back stronger next time, and things get easier. The military broke me down. I was away from home. I lost friends. I was tired. I was hungry. I can’t speak for everyone, but I was an infantryman, and I served four tours in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Each time, those experiences were breaking me down. We become more and more numb to physical and emotional pain and more prepared for the next challenge. Each time we come through something, we come back stronger the next time. There are times now when it seems like the world is just kicking my ass. I’ve been through worse, and I know I’ll keep moving forward. I’m still here, and I’ll still be here tomorrow.
LOA: What is the most life-changing event you’ve participated in since getting home?
Taylor: I went to college immediately after leaving active duty. After graduating, I became a teacher. It’s a very different world, but in some ways it is the same. I wouldn’t call this a life-changing event, but I have noticed that my identity has changed. I used to be a soldier. I identified as a soldier. When people asked what I did, I told them that I was in the army. If another military person asked, I told them, “I’m an 11 Bravo.” That meant something.
When I got out of the army, and someone asked what I did. I told them, “I just got out of the army. I’m going back to school.” Their next question was always if I had been anywhere, and it turned into stories of firefights and IEDs. Hell yes, I’ve been somewhere. Which time would you like to hear about? What the hell have you done?
When I became a teacher, I still identified as a combat veteran. It was one of the first things that I told my students, their parents, and my coworkers. I was proud of it, and it set me apart from the rest of the people at my school. They always asked why I became a history teacher, and I always told them that I missed the war. It’s like I’m getting my fix. I get to read, write, and talk about war almost every day. What a great job for me!
I’ve been a middle school teacher for three years now. I am a veteran, but when people ask me what I do, I don’t tell them that I was a soldier. I don’t tell them that I’m a veteran. I tell them that I am a teacher. The tough soldier that I used to be is now hidden behind graying hair and a growing waistline. There are still little hints in my personal appearance though. My dress shoes are spit-shined like my boots used to be, and my shirts are creased and crisp. I don’t look like a soldier anymore, and I don’t feel like one anymore. I am getting softer, both physically and mentally, and I don’t like it. These days, I am a teacher. In my head and heart though, I don’t feel like a teacher. I don’t feel like a soldier either. I’m not sure where I fit anymore.
LOA: What do you miss about the military?
Taylor: Like many veterans, I think I miss the camaraderie the most. I miss living in different parts of the country and the opportunities for new experiences that went along with that. I lived in Georgia, New York, and Hawaii. While living in those places, I got to know the areas. I did some traveling and exploring on my own time. Those are experiences that I wouldn’t have had outside of the army, and I miss that.
LOA: What do you NOT miss about the military?
Taylor: I don’t miss being away from my family. I don’t miss the late night and weekend phone calls because some soldier in the unit got into trouble. I don’t miss the unpredictable day-to-day work schedule.
LOA: When you reflect on your time in uniform, what moment, or event, comes back to you most often?
Taylor: This varies from time-to-time. I have so many stories that pop up in my mind at different times. Some are good, and some are bad: weekends in Canada and boating on the St. Lawrence River when I was stationed at Ft. Drum, surfing when the sun came up when I lived in Hawaii, the other married couples we hung out with at Ft. Drum, fighting in Sadr City, losing friends, etc. I could go on and on about memories. There are times that I remember fondly, and other times that I really didn’t like. There are stories from great friends and great times we had.
If I had to choose a time that comes to mind most often, I would have to say that it was the time I spent in Sadr City, Iraq in spring 2008. It was there, in the streets of Baghdad, where we really put out training to the test and learned what we were made of.
LOA: Do you discuss your time overseas with your civilian friends? How do they respond?
Taylor: I have discussed some stories with civilian friends, but to be completely honest, I don’t really have many civilian friends. I have shared some stories with my coworkers. They don’t get it. I once played a video that I took in a firefight in Sadr City. The video doesn’t show much. I turned the camera on and just let it roll during the fight. The battle sounds intense though, and it’s more than enough for people to understand what a firefight is like. One of my coworkers commented that she hoped we were shooting targets for practice.
I have told some war stories here and there, but people just really don’t get it. The humor isn’t the same. They really can’t relate to my experiences, because they have just never been in situations that are anything like combat. Sometimes they are interested, and they want to listen. Other times, I can tell that what I’m saying is making them very uncomfortable.
I’m not shy about my experiences, but I also don’t push my stories on people. Plus, the longer I’m out, the less relevant my stories become.