Saturday, August 13, 2011

Confession by a soldier's sister

"There’s just something about a man in a uniform." What an overused phrased. It should be permanently retired. For starters, it is cliché and has worn out its welcome. What girl hasn’t heard this phrase in a movie, book, from a stranger’s lips, her friends, or even –god forbid- her own? Could we not try for something more original please? Secondly, the phrase is completely ambiguous. What kind of uniform? What is it about a man in a uniform? Does it make him look different, stand different, talk different? Does it turn him to stone? Does it make him more appealing, terrifying, ugly, powerful, or romantic? And how does a simple uniform change a person? Why not say there’s just something about a man in a fedora? But that’s just me. The truth is no one is going to retire the phrase because it’s so darn true. There is something about a man in a uniform. On Friday night, for me, it was a slap in the face.

I don’t dislike men in uniform. I think a uniform makes a man look respectable and well put together. I come from a family of men in uniform. They are proud, strong, and dependable. I love a man in a uniform. So of all people, I was the last person expecting my reaction that night.

I was attending an awards dinner meant to honor our veteran soldiers. I had just finished up a week of intense political training in Austin Texas with nearly a hundred of my peers. Morale was high despite the general exhaustion. All of us girls primped in front of our mirrors wanting to look our best –some to accept an award, some for a boy, and some because it was an excuse to look nice. I knew there would be wounded veterans present. I had come to this dinner the previous year. I had even sat with the color guard and chatted. I knew exactly what was coming and I was looking forward to it. Then, I stepped off the bus and caught my first flash of blue cloth.

I think it was shock at my own reaction that kept the tears from falling. I hadn’t realized just how much I missed my brother until right at that moment. It’s amazing how one uniform can take a person and turn them 180 degrees. I felt silly for getting choked up and angrily stuffed the tears back where they belonged. I knew I was going to have to come up with a plan or I would end up crying in front of everyone, and I hate crying in front of people.

I busied myself with making a strategy, and avoided all uniforms. I got as far as thinking I could excuse myself during the part of the ceremony where the veterans were honored and given medals. I made it no farther because just then a coordinator came up and stuffed a medal in my hand. She explained she’d been looking for me. She needed me to be one of the lucky students who got to put a medal on a veteran. I nearly melted into the floor. I tried to come up with a reasonable explanation for why I didn’t want this honor, but I’m pretty sure it came out weak and unconvincing. Instead of telling me she understood and taking the medal to someone else, she clapped me on the shoulder and said she had confidence in me. I could do it.

I looked at the medal in distaste and shoved it into my purse. I was doomed. I spent the rest of the dinner distracting myself from what was coming. I drank three cups of coffee, trying to screw up my courage. I thought about the previous year. The veterans had been older, that would help. I would just have to picture my grandfather. This was my new plan. I thought it was a good one, considering my options. God, apparently, thought it was funny. As the veterans stood to be introduced, my eyes wandered over their figures. I clapped politely, but the friend beside me wasn’t fooled. She saw the horror that filled me. These veterans weren’t old; they were young, earlier twenties. I almost handed my medal to her right then, thinking back on it now, I probably should have. I stopped myself only because as the introductions continued the grandfatherly veterans appeared.

It was our turn. Each student holding a medal stood. I made a beeline for the oldest looking veteran out there. At least, I tried- which means I wove around the circular tables, dodging chairs as quickly as I could without looking like a terrified animal. By the time I made it to the center of the room I found myself standing in front of no one and all the old guys taken. Slowly moving towards me was a man. He was bent over from the crutches in his hands. His face was proud and determined and young.

I lost it. I knew that face. I’d seen it before in many young men. I’d seen it in my brother. For one terrible moment all I could see was him struggling toward me. It was as if my nightmares had come to life. Then, my brother was gone and it was just me and the wounded veteran.

As he came to a stop in front of me, his comrade pulled out a chair for him to sit in. He looked at it in disgust and frustration. I may not have recognized that there were others in the room anymore, but he certainly did. He was aware of every gaze, every pitying thought. He knew what he looked like dragging his feet after him. He knew. For a moment I wanted to reach out and tell him it would be ok. This injury didn’t define him. But I couldn’t because all of this took only a moment, half of a shaky breath before the look turned to acceptance. His face relaxed. He politely declined it.

By the time he turned forward, I am pretty sure no amount of makeup could have redeemed me. I hated myself for crying. He looked at me with kindness. He was full of strength and peace. He wasn’t angry or frustrated anymore. He would be ok. His eyes said all of that.

I know it’s hard to believe that one look carried that much information. I am a skeptic, after all. So maybe I saw what I wanted to see. But that’s what the smile in the corners of his eyes told me, and I believed it.

I wanted to smile back and tell him how much I respected him for his strength. I didn’t want him to think my tears were for the sorry state he was in. I didn’t want him to think I pitied him. I didn’t. He was a soldier. He had chosen this life. We both knew that. But I couldn’t stop crying.

“I’m sorry.” I told him, and he knew I was referring to the tears. “I’m sorry, it’s just, you remind me of my brother.” I managed.

He smiled up at me, and in that moment I felt as if he were the kindest person I’d ever met. “It’s ok.” He answered. His voice filled with compassion, and I couldn’t help but believe him. How could I not? He understood everything.

I put the medal over his head. My fingers shook, brushing his cropped hair. Not waiting for permission I hugged him tightly. I think we were supposed to shake their hands. If it had been my brother, he’d have been upset with me. Public displays of emotion are discouraged. For once, I didn’t care. I whispered my thanks in his ear and asked him to pass the message on to his family. For all I respect our soldiers, I respect their families just as much.

I left the room quickly after that. I needed to pull myself together. I knew better than to make a spectacle like that. I was supposed to be strong. But I realized all I was at the moment was scared. That’s why I was crying. I was terrified inside and out and had been since my brother had sworn his oath.

I tried a couple of times to explain this to my friends later. They had either asked me what was wrong, or given me a hard time for falling apart. I found as I tried, that I really couldn’t explain it. I wanted to be able to say “he looked like my brother,” and have that explain everything. Only, it doesn’t. And that kind of justification tends to get sympathetic looks in reply. I realized if people were going to understand, I was going to have to come at it differently.

So here’s my confession. I get angry, a lot. I’m angry more than I am sad. I wonder why people think family have to be strong too. I didn’t get to make the choice, my soldier did, but I have to live with it every day. He didn’t ask me if I was ok with it. When I’m not angry I’m scared to death. My days and nights are filled with "what ifs." People always ask if I support our soldiers. What do you think? I have to support my soldier no matter what, how could I not? And while we're on the topic, I don’t need to prove my support by wearing it on my t-shirt or re-posting some stupid message on facebook.

When people make fun of my soldier’s job or his branch I want to yell at them. What do they know? Instead, I hold my tongue and pick my chin up a little higher. When wives of soldiers express their loneliness and terror, I want to scream. They aren’t the only person in the family who feels that way. When people ask where my soldier is stationed and the answer is not Afghanistan, Iran, or Iraq I feel guilty for being afraid. I pretend like it doesn’t bother me, but I think about my soldier all the time. I wear his old shirts for comfort, and read his letters over and over. All I want is to see him again. I hate telling people how much I miss him, because I don’t want people to think I’m being silly. I already think that myself.

So, no, I don’t want to thank a wounded veteran for his sacrifice because all I can think is that might be my brother one day. And that thought scares me to death.

I know it might be easy to get the wrong idea from what I’ve said. So I’ll say this too, I am proud of my brother. I am happy that he is doing something he loves. He looks good in that uniform. There’s just something about it. But sometimes when I see a uniform and it’s not him, it’s like a slap in the face.

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