Coming Home

04.30.13

A Night Along the Military-Civilian Divide: An Iraq Vet in New York

Dressed for Columbia’s Military Ball, an Iraq veteran found himself straddling America’s unspoken fault line on the streets of Manhattan.

As I squeeze into my dress blues for the first time since 2009, I think of my grandmother. She’d told my brother and me that Americans were once embarrassed to be seen in public with young men not wearing a military uniform. Then she’d shake her head, say that had been a long time ago, and ask if we wanted another bowl of Raisin Bran.

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Members of the United States Marine Corps attend the 234th Annual United States Marine Corps Birthday Gala at the Intrepid Sea on November 5, 2009, in New York City. (Jemal Countess/Getty)

My grandmother was a practical woman and a career Navy wife, so nostalgia didn’t soak her words when she said this. Just consideration. She passed away 10 years ago. The World War II–era America she referenced has been dead far longer than that.

Tonight, in 2013, we’re going to Columbia University’s Military Ball, my wife and I. Even though my particular graduate program doesn’t have a lot of Iraq and Afghanistan vets in it, the school as a whole does—more than 450 last year according to an article on Bloomberg.com, by far the highest number in the Ivy League. This is the school’s third annual Military Ball and is being held at Gotham Hall in midtown Manhattan. Our friends, both vet and civilian, promise we’ll have a good time.

Until we decided to go to this year’s ball, my blues had been boxed up in my mom’s garage, untouched since I’d left the Army. It takes me a long time to get ready, ensuring all my ribbons and badges are straight and in the correct order. I’ve forgotten how much the military revels in dog-and-pony shows. I realize that I’m proud of these ribbons and badges and of being able to wear them, modest in significance though they may be, even though my feelings about the war I earned them in remain complicated. I’ve grown more earnest about my service with time.

More earnest and angrier. Angrier with whom, and what, has proven a shifting target. Sometimes it’s with politicians. Sometimes it’s with anyone who didn’t go with us. Sometimes it’s with the yellow-ribbon patriots who won’t hire my former soldiers looking for work, or with the straw men who think we’re all victims, or all heroes, or all monsters. Sometimes it’s with myself.

As I put on my bow tie, I think about how lucky I am to be any of those things. I think about the young men I knew that aren’t earnest or angry about Iraq right now. They’re just dead. Then I think about the Iraqis in the town we were stationed in, if the schools we helped build are still open, if the sectarian fault line remains as prominent today as it was in 2008. I think about the Iraqi mother whose house my scout platoon raided going after an insurgent, who told us that if we really wanted to help, we needed to leave her house immediately, for fear of her neighbors believing she was one of our sources. I think about how her gray eyes quivered when she said that, two clouds rushing across a wide, flat prairie of a face.

My wife finds my tardiness amusing. She’s ready—dress and makeup and hair complete. I grin and then groan as I bend down to put on my spurs. As a former cavalry officer, if I’m going to do this I’m going to do this right. I put my on my big blue Stetson last, back to front like I’d been taught some years before at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, and we’re out the front door and into the spring evening.

Gangly and self-conscious, I’d feared this walk to the subway in my dress blues. But Friday night in Williamsburg has seen much odder sights than a young couple going to a dinner and dance. I remember that New York has a long and proud military tradition—we’re now a part of that. It’s comforting, in the way of realizing it’s all been done before is, as banal an understanding as that may be. My wife puts her arm in mine and we laugh about the time in Hawaii we wandered through the set of Lost on a hike.

Despite what the Internet commentariat can (does, will) proclaim, I know that I’m not a victim, or a hero, or a monster. Like anyone else, some days I’m all of those things, other days, none. I do, however, prove a curiosity on the L and N trains. I understand and appreciate the irony of wanting to blend in while dressed as I am, but that doesn’t prevent the instinct. I’m not 2Pac and thus do not appreciate All Eyez on Me. Though, I admit, admiring the reflection in the subway’s window, I do look rather sharp in my Stetson. If only I had another half-inch or so at the waist, I might even be comfortable. A panhandler joins the car and eyes me with great disdain.

“I was married to a Marine for 10 years,” she tells my wife. “He beat me every day.”

When I’m done and sit down with my friends, I realize that I’ve done nothing but widen the military-and-civilian divide tonight. It’s our very own sectarian fault line.

My eyes drop to the ground like loose change. Nothing good can come from this. My wife nods. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she says, grace and compassion filling her words. “Domestic violence is a big issue in and out of the military.”

This is not what the panhandler wishes to hear and she continues through the subway car. I kiss my wife on the forehead. “I don’t deserve you,” I say.

She winks and says she knows this.

Perhaps in response to the panhandler, perhaps not, a teenage girl sitting nearby thanks me for my service. I never know how to respond to this. No one does. I am my mother’s son, though, so manners matter. I thank her for thanking me. The exchange is not as awkward as it could’ve been.

We arrive at Gotham Hall in time for cocktail hour. The ballroom is darkly lit and vast. Someone says it used to be a bank. I’m called “Sir” for the first time in four years. It feels more appropriate now than it did then, perhaps because I have to shave every day now. Everyone here is dressed similarly to us. We find our friends, many of whom are former infantry or intelligence officers. They tease me about my spurs and Stetson. I reference the great cavalry leaders of the past, such as Teddy Roosevelt. This leads to a conversation about the Banana Wars, which we all agree is a more appropriate historical analogy for our brushfire wars than the one constantly imposed on us by the uninformed, Vietnam. That was a cultural and societal scar that resonated for decades, a very different thing than whatever it was we did. Our dates tell us to at least get drunk first before we talk like this.

The guest speaker for the evening is a Marine general who is quite charismatic. He talks about bridging the much-discussed military-and-civilian divide. He does this partly by pointing out that not everyone is capable of serving in the military—physically, mentally, ethically. Though incongruent from his stated theme, deep down in the parts of my soul that aren’t civilian-friendly, I agree with him, though this military-elite mentality is a huge part of said divide. I wonder if the draft is the answer, but then remember my parents’ stories from their youth when they protested Vietnam. I know it is not. Neither is the all-volunteer force. Peace is the only answer, of course, but it’s the only answer to a different question.

We toast to the Fallen.

I look around our table. I’ve known some of these men and women since college, when we joined the same ROTC battalion. Whatever happened in the last decade, wherever the empire’s orders took us, I know that we joined for the right reasons. More importantly, I believe that things like right reasons still exist, despite experience and hard-earned understanding that suggest otherwise.

We eat, drink and be merry. We dance to Sinatra. We dance to Rihanna. We Harlem Shake, albeit poorly. Some of the Marines don’t like my Stetson, but, I point out, they wouldn’t be Marines if they liked things like Stetsons. This is true, they say.

The ball ends. Our group goes to a nearby bar. There, as we wait for a table, a man about our age asks, politely, if we’re Civil War re-enactors.

We tell him no. I think of my grandma’s America again and trust that it’s comfortable in its tomb, for better or worse.

Upon hearing we’re Columbia students, another man asks if we’re enrolled in “a special program.” A woman he’s a friend with says she thinks my Stetson means I support the Confederacy and/or slavery. I laugh until I realize she’s serious. My throat burns with whiskey and then my words burn with hot Irish resentment. As patronizingly as possible, I wax eloquent about the merits of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill for American society, and how the Union also utilized a cavalry during the Civil War. Both General Sheridan and the Battle of Brandy Station are mentioned.

When I’m done and sit down with my friends, I realize that I’ve done nothing but widen the military-and-civilian divide tonight. It’s our very own sectarian fault line. My wife and my friends joke about my sharp tongue, and I pretend like someone needed to set things straight.

Maybe someone did, I don’t know.

Who cares? they say. They’re just civilians. They don’t know any better. It’s not their fault.

I curse and bang my head against the table in frustration.

Welcome to 21st-century America, my friend Ted says. The rest of us have been here for a while.

After another round, my wife and I head home. My feet ache and my forehead is sweaty and sticky from a night’s worth of Stetson wear. Walking up the subway platform at Union Square, a couple of smart-ass high-school kids walking by hum “The Imperial March,” from Star Wars. I appreciate this and salute them crisply and encourage them to talk to their local storm trooper recruiter when they’re old enough. They laugh appreciatively. My wife rolls her eyes and says she hopes the train taking us home doesn’t take long. It’s been a long night.

When we get home, I put away the uniform and ribbons and badges in the box they were mailed in. I don’t know when it’ll be opened again.

The next morning I put on a flannel shirt, jeans, and black Ray-Bans, just another white person walking around post-hipster Brooklyn in his post-hipster uniform. It feels nice to be a part of this army again. I put “The Imperial March” on my iPod and think about how, someday, I’m going to write something that has nothing to do with Iraq and nothing to do with war. I’ll write something about a sunny spring day in New York, or maybe something about eating Raisin Bran as a boy with my grandmother. It’s a pleasant thought.