Now, on to the myths:
1. The military changes people
I suppose it does in some ways, and as far as I’ve seen, it’s all for the good. I wasn’t born before my dad joined the Air Force, so I can’t say what he was like before his 20 years of service, but I suspect his personality didn’t change much. Neither of my brothers changed much either. As far as my son, other than contributing to his self confidence (which he already had plenty of), he’s still the same awesome person that he was before he enlisted in the National Guard at the age of 18 (he’s now a 1st Lieutenant in the Army Reserves), with no noticeable difference in his personality, outlook on life, or habits. I was really hoping that his three months of basic training would instill a sense of orderliness and neatness – in other words, that he would clean his room when he came back – but that didn’t happen either. So much for brainwashing! And even though he always scored really high on his land navigation skills in the Army, I know that if he didn’t have his GPS, he would still call me to get driving directions while he’s out on the road. Some things never change.
2. Everyone who serves in a combat zone comes home mentally scarred (you know, PTSD) and you never know when they might go off the deep end.
Again, I know this does happen to people, and I don’t want to minimize the suffering of those who do experience brain and/or other physical injuries as a result of their combat service. My Dad flew 100 combat missions as a fighter-bomber pilot in the Korean “conflict,” was hit three times (although never crashed), and flew nukes around the world in B52s during the Cold War as part of our strategy of deterrence through “assured mutual destruction.” But, other than sometimes covering his head with his arms or suppressing the urge to dive for cover when he hears a loud thunder clap, I never noticed any symptoms of post traumatic stress, even though I am pretty sure he experienced many near-death experiences during his service (including one bail out from a burning B52 over Greenland).
My son came back from a 9 month tour in Afghanistan in December, and while he wasn’t engaged in direct combat, I suspect that being stuck in the middle of nowhere on a Forward Operating Base in the middle of a bunch of Taliban fighters who want to kill you might have been fairly stressful. But he’s perfectly fine – no damage done to him or, as far as I know, to any of the others who went over there with him and returned safely.
When I mentioned to a former colleague that my son had been to Afghanistan, her first words were: “Is he OK?” She may have been asking about any outward physical injuries, but I really think she wondered if he was psychologically OK. I think some people expect returning vets to be at risk of some mental instability, because of all the press the issue has been given in recent years. But I think some of the press on this is misleading and creates an undeserved stigma that may cause potential employers to think twice about hiring veterans, particularly if they have combat experience. This is a tragedy (or travesty), since most returning veterans probably don’t have any psychological or physical problems resulting from their service, and their experiences, training and leadership skills generally make them exceptional employees. Besides that, we owe them.
3. Most people who join the military are poor and do it because they don’t have any other career opportunities, or are too dumb to find a “real” job.
Honestly, you do hear people (especially some politicians) say, or at least suggest this. I’ll admit, my dad was pretty poor, but who wasn’t back in the late ’30’s when he signed up. But dumb – not a chance! My brothers and my son are all from solidly middle-class families, all with pretty high IQs. And nearly all of the guys that my son went through Basic Training with were middle-class — a few actually from quite wealthy families. I’m sure they all had plenty of other opportunities in life. But they chose to serve, some on a part-time basis in the Guard or Reserves and some full time.
My son joined because he wanted to “do something.” That’s what he always told me. Not something so dramatic as to “fight for our freedom” or because he is a super patriot, but he wanted to do something meaningful in his life. The military is pretty meaningful. Besides, guys (and some women) like the physicality of it. He doesn’t dream of sitting in an office for eight hours a day, but would rather be out hiking (or “ruck marching” as they call it) with a 50 pound backpack on. Plus, sometimes they get to blow stuff up! Apologies to those who are offended by any suggestion that blowing stuff up would be fun (and I’m talking about things, not people), but it’s true. Why do you think we enjoy fireworks?
I know why my Dad joined – because he wanted to be a pilot in the military. Period. He came from a poor Italian family from Baltimore. No one in his family had ever been in the military and probably few had even seen an airplane. But he had this dream and, despite his friends and family having little faith that he could accomplish it, he took flying lessons at 16 and joined the Air Force at 20 and got to fly all kinds of different airplanes during his 20 years of service.
Annually, I meet my Dad at an air show put on by the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville, FL. He wrote a book called Hangar Flying about his experiences as a pilot. So he sets up his book display along with other flying memorabilia in a vendor tent and sells his books. Mostly though, he talks to the people who stop by the tent and tells stories about flying and his life in the Air Force. Almost everyone who stops by thanks him for his service. He politely acknowledges their gratitude, but always follows up by saying, “The government paid me for something I loved to do – I would have done it for free.”
I think there are a lot of veterans who might say the same thing. But we should still thank them for their service, because not everyone can or wants to serve in the Armed Forces, and I think we owe a lot to those who do –whatever their reasons.