I smiled to myself as I sat across the table from her at the community breakfast. Once upon a time we had several classes together. We went to the movies together. We skied Hermon Mountain together. And we graduated together. But she did not recognize me.
I smiled because this was not the first time since returning to Maine that I was a stranger to someone I once knew well. One of my best friends from Central High didn’t believe it was me when I shook his hand. In the end he was at least happy to see me. Others have seemed shocked, or even frightened, and hurried away.
In their defense, I have been gone for a long time. For 20 years I wore my nation’s uniform and for another four I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back to Maine. I simply did not fit in anymore. In a high school psychology class I was introduced to the term “marginal man syndrome” as a complex explanation of the old adage “you can never go home again.”
While I was away I saw things that most of my high school friends only witnessed on television. I’ve seen erupting volcanoes and the polar ice caps, the Pyrenes and the Andes, the Pyramids and the Panama Canal. My service gave me a front-row seat to a beautiful world. Those seats also provided views of flag-draped coffins, one-armed baby girls, and goats flying silently through the air. Only a modern veteran will understand that last reference.
I don’t really fit in here in Maine anymore. If given the chance I would greedily don that uniform once again so long as it also meant returning to another war zone. I am not alone because nearly every veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan I talk to expresses the same desire. These are my brothers and sisters, even more so than my own blood relatives.
This is not an indictment of how we are treated by our families or community. Most of you will consider yourself patriotic and will declare openly that you support the troops. But when you hear one of us say, “I want to go back,” you look at us with a disbelief that further alienates us from home.
We do not want to go back because we miss being shot at or because we miss shooting at people. We are not warmongers who long for the iron-like smell of blood in the air and the distant rumble of artillery. What we miss is the other side of that coin.
We miss the simplicity of having a mission and knowing that what we do matters. In Maine, if we make a mistake at work the worst thing that is going to happen is that the boss is going to yell. There, if we make a mistake people might die. We who learned to be significant cannot adjust to being insignificant.
We miss the comradery and trust that exists nowhere else in the world. In Maine, your coworkers are people you might be able to trust on a good day and that you occasionally do stuff with after hours. There, your coworkers can be trusted to be at their best on the absolute worst days and you spend every minute of every day with them. Your differences, no matter how big, are nullified when you share misery and triumph on a regular basis.
We don’t miss war itself. We miss the sense of purpose and a sense of community that far surpasses anything your average Maine resident even suspects is possible. War is the cost of admission to participate in an endeavor that strips away all of the trivial distractions of the world and reveals love in its crudest and most beautiful form.
You didn’t recognize me. That’s okay. The guy you knew back then was really worth forgetting. But the guy who wore that uniform? He was worth knowing, and you never got to meet him because he was over there. I miss him. I wish you did too.