I used to want to be an astronaut.
No, that’s not a fair statement. I still want to be an astronaut. I’m a giant nerd with a hyper-tuned sense of adventure. If Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic called me tomorrow and said, “Leaving for Mars tomorrow. You in?” I’d grab my bag and head out. It was some of the impetus for me quitting my post-college day job and enlisting in the Army, and for continuing to watch “Cosmos” even without Carl Sagan.
With that in mind, I am going to drop some quick knowledge for readers who didn’t grow up watching endless hours of PBS. A black hole is a massive star that collapses and explodes into a supernova when it isn’t pushing out energy any longer through burning nuclear fuel.The remaining core then collapses in on itself, unable to repel the gravitational forces of the remaining mass, and gets more and more dense until it reaches a single, massive point. Anything crossing the line of the point’s gravitational pull, including light, then cannot escape. This line of gravity is the event horizon. Some believe that at the core is a whole new universe, a baby universe born upon the death of the star.
Mind. Blown. But that’s science.
That’s also my experience with veterans organizations upon getting out of the service.
I got out of the military and embarked on a new adventure, ready to explore strange new worlds of civilian life that I hadn’t experienced in nearly a decade. I prepped as best as I could. I secured a landing party comprising a few friends (no one is allowed to wear a red shirt, for you “Star Trek” fans out there) and headed into the unknown.
But there was a pull, a tug, that I couldn’t ignore. The dense mass of the veterans collective community already had me trapped. I don’t fault myself for it; I’d been circling the edge from the day I signed my contract and became a “future veteran.” It’s something to be proud of, something we all wear and share, and our parents brag about to their friends — it is a part of our identity. Signing that contract guarantees us passage across that event horizon and we can’t escape — so we embrace it, entering our own baby universe of veterans organizations, activities, and surroundings.
There are good and bad things about being in this new universe. We are still comfortable, surrounded by the familiar, and largely unaware of how things might be on the outside. We can’t know what it’s like to have never served, since we did. We gravitate to each other and cling to our shared experiences, which makes the pull stronger. These organizations and relationships allow us to connect and be a part of something bigger and be around people whom we are likely to enjoy being around. We can trade war stories or tell each other to shut up, we’ve heard that one already. We can tease the Air Force and the Coast Guard for their comforts, and the Marines for just about everything else, because everyone gets the jokes and knows that it’s still one team, one fight. We remember that we aren’t alone. We know each other, we are happy in this universe.
But what is happening outside? The gravitational pull keeps us cocooned in our little veterans “space” — our baby universe of veterans organizations keeps us connected and comfortable with each other. We find that we have more trouble relating to the outside world, some of us only briefly acknowledging its existence. Then we have trouble understanding why we can’t seem to make new friends, or we get annoyed when someone who never served a day in his/her life talks about how hard life is because the local train is delayed. We drift closer and closer to the gravitational core of the black hole, and the closer we get, the harder it is to break free.
But again there are those positives. There is the camaraderie, the stories, the connections, all within that universe that supports us. I attribute vet groups to saving my sanity on more than one occasion. The support is needed; we aren’t always the most capable baby birds when we first start our transition out of the military and these organizations are the mama bird that chews our food for us, then teaches us to fly on our own (though we will still ultimately stay with the flock).
The danger only comes when we allow ourselves to slip backwards, to lean so heavily on these organizations that we can no longer find happiness outside of our circle, that we fully disconnect from the outside universe, that we lose sight of the other universe out there of which we no longer feel a part, but with which we still need to engage to do things like get jobs, go to the supermarket, go to Thanksgiving dinner.
What I want to do is find my place on the event horizon, the place that is on the very edge of the gravitational pull of the veterans universe. I want to see the outside world. I want to associate, connect, and live on the cusp of both places. It’s hard to get there, hard to find balance when the pull inside is so strong and the outside I know seems impossible to reach.
But there is a way to find balance. I teeter often and immerse myself in the inner core, but slowly I’m finding other veterans who don’t talk about veterans issues over every cup of coffee and civilians in careers like fire and medical who continue to demonstrate that there is a place for thrill seekers like myself in this scary unknown world.
Organizations that take veterans and connect them with civilians who are vet friendly, those are the ones to which I now devote the majority of my energy. There is Team Rubicon, which marries the skills of first responders with those of veterans to perform disaster-response missions and empowers veterans and civilians to work side by side in local communities. And Team Red White and Blue, which has civilians in the mostly veteran run group I keep saying I’ll go to one of these evenings. These are groups that allow me to enter the outside space, even while still circling the massive depths of my veterans world. They give me my fix, my support, my friends, and while it is up to me to find that balance, they help by exposing me to my old universe with some amount of regularity.
The nice thing is that even as the veterans universe expands, that just means the space gets bigger. So according to science, there is room on the event horizon for all of us to balance. Just because we are in this black hole doesn’t mean hope is lost — far from it. We have the comfort and pull of our organizations and our fellow veterans, but we can still circle the edge and enjoy the best of both worlds.
Elana Duffy is a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a veteran of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. She currently lives in New York City.