There are many reasons everyone should travel the world: It’s the antidote to the poison of prejudice. You learn to become comfortable — or at least tolerate — of things that once scared you; the world is a pretty stunningly beautiful place.
For those, like many young veterans, who are between the obligations of work and school and have no kids, it’s probably the last time in your life you will have this little responsibility. And after having been on call 24/7, that’s a great temporary relief.
The old Navy slogan, “Join the Navy, See the World,” really should have been “Join the Navy, spend 120 straight days surrounded by water and then see everyone from your ship getting drunk for 48 hours in a liberty port that’s a hub for human trafficking.” For many, the promise of “seeing the world” has resulted in multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, with a maintenance stopover in Shannon, Ireland, if you are lucky.
This is not to say the military does not take you incredible places. My memories of a meteor shower at sea over the Gulf of Aden, of humanitarian projects in Timor-Leste, of friendships in the not-quite-right world of Bahrain are treasured and irreplaceable. I would not have seen cherry blossoms in Japan had I not first spent a month deployed following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Thanks to permanent changes of station moves that plucked me from one coast to another, I saw the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Chicago, and New Orleans over the course of four cross-country drives.
1. Experiencing a port like Phuket, Thailand does not mean you have seen Thailand.
A stopover in Rammstein on the way home from the sandbox does not mean you have seen Germany. You cannot truly enjoy somewhere with the specter of curfew, shore patrol, liberty buddies, out of bounds areas, and three-section duty hanging over your head. And while a cross-country PCS road trip is incredible over 10–12 days, there’s always the stress of having to check in to your next command, and hope your household goods make it.
2. Even for those who were stationed overseas in places like Germany or Japan (pre-Draconian liberty rules), being there isn’t the same as travel.
Such deployments can afford the opportunity to live like an expat and immerse in local life. But working for the U.S. government and being surrounded by Americans every day at work and socially still limits the experience.
3. Veterans can travel on Space Available flights if you are on terminal leave or a drilling reservist.
On terminal leave, this is a superb means of transport as it’s free and you will have a higher priority than most. As a drilling reservist, like me, you’re the lowest priority, but that does not mean you cannot get on a flight. It just means you need to be flexible.
4. Most airlines offer fare sales almost every Tuesday and many service members have earned frequent flyer miles traveling commercially on duty.
This can make it affordable to get to locations such as Thailand or South Africa, with beautiful scenery and safe, budget-traveler infrastructure. Airbnb and boutique hostels have revolutionized budget travel, and a little planning will show which countries have a competitive exchange rate with the dollar.
5. For travel within the United States, national parks are free for active-duty military.
For travel specifically aimed at veterans, there’s Veterans Expeditions, a nonprofit based in Colorado that offers outdoor adventure trips around the country, with upcoming excursions this year to Colorado, Maine, and New Hampshire.
6. But there’s one clear reason to travel after you separate: to find out who you are without your military identity.
Go where nobody cares you are a veteran, and without the noise of people and things at home to tell you who you should be now.
When you are on active duty, your personal identity becomes muted; some elements of the you cannot thrive in the military. So you have to ask yourself, who are you now? Who could you be?
First, examine the parts of you that are gone. What was dormant and now resurgent? There may be things you were passionate about that were intrinsic to your identity before you joined the military, that were muted when you served, that may all of the sudden come rushing back.
Most importantly, travel can help you can come to understand who you want to be now.