I’ve always said I’d never be that veteran with a back car window rendered opaque with military stickers, or the one always wearing some type of military memorabilia regardless of occasion. So far, I’ve lived up to that promise to myself, though I do have the standard circular Marine emblem on my car, and have been known to wear a military t-shirt to a workout or two. (I wasn’t about to throw all those away!)

While I’m still not one of “those guys” wearing the veteran uniform with cargo pants and a moto shirt, after 18 months out of my actual uniform, I’m starting to understand why they wear it. It started after a few trips back to Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Jacksonville is home to Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River. You don’t get a town more military than that. There’s not much to recommend it otherwise. By any objective measure, my new home in a major city has far more to do and see. Still, my trips down there left me feeling nostalgic and missing parts of the life I used to enjoy when I lived there as a Marine.

Machine gunners with Echo company, 2nd Battalion 9th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7, walk to a training site on Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe
Machine gunners with Echo company, 2nd Battalion 9th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7, walk to a training site on Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 28, 2013.

I didn’t really appreciate what I had then. The military life certainly has its share of unpleasantness. Some of it is obvious: The deployments and assorted deprivations are well known. There are the daily annoyances of the sometimes silly pronouncements from higher, safety stand downs, endless formations, and other sundry irritations. At times, I hated it, even as I loved getting to do things that no amount of money could buy in the outside world. I welcomed the day when I was handed a flag and a folder with a certificate of retirement.

Now that it’s actually gone and I live among civilians, I drive through the front gate of a base as a retiree and pass through the looking glass into a whole different world.

It’s a world of courtesy, where people say “sir” and “ma’am.” It’s a world of people who give a damn about what they do. It’s a world where people care about their appearance. It’s a world where people trust each other even if they don’t know each other.

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It’s a world where I and so many others, stood apart from, and maybe even a little bit better than, the rest of society that surrounds it.

Everyone in that world went through the same challenges and ordeals. Everyone in that world took an oath to something larger than themselves. Even those who I didn’t like and who didn’t like me would have put themselves on the line to help me, or even save my ass, had it come to that.

I was part of that world every day for 20 years. Then came the day actually came when they said nice things about me, gave me some mementos, and I took off that uniform for the last time and drove out the front gate.

Suddenly, after a lifetime of being one of “the few, the proud,” I became a regular person. Or, at least, I look like one, even though I try to hold myself the same way I did as a Marine. Sometimes people spot it. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I find myself internally shouting, “You people don’t even know how jacked up you are, damn it!”

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller leads a birthday run Nov. 12, 2015 at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia for the Marine Corps’ 240th birthday.U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brian Burdett
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller leads a birthday run Nov. 12, 2015 at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia for the Marine Corps’ 240th birthday.

So, yes, miss those days when I was a superman, albeit, one without a cape, if only because I never bought the optional Marine officer boat cloak. Now I understand why many still want to wear Superman’s “S,” or at least a t-shirt with “USMC” on it.

New men and women have taken up that mantle, as they’ve done for time immemorial. That’s just how it is and always has been.

The one thing that veterans know more than anyone else is that the mission comes first. Veterans have a harder time than civilians, because we know that we have a mission. However we wear our service’s emblem after we leave it, our mission going forward is just to leave this world better than we found it.

That’s our blessing and curse as veterans. We have the burden of knowing that life is not just completing the 30,000 or so days we’re all allocated. We have to make the days outside the service as meaningful as those inside. Just as we miss the military once it’s gone from our lives, we want the world to miss us once we’re gone from it.