A few days ago, I was drunk in Romania talking to a 24-year-old infantry Marine, who had joined the Corps at the tailend of major combat operations in Afghanistan. He was lamenting how he never got his Combat Action Ribbon. I told him what I usually tell guys when they complain to me about never going to war. “Nobody is going to give a shit about that when you get out of the military,” I said. “So you need to start letting it go now.”
I reflected on that conversation yesterday during my 10-hour flight home. The last time I had spent that much time on a plane was flying back from Iraq after the 2003 invasion. I was a 19-year-old soon-to-be lance corporal then. I had a Combat Action Ribbon on my chest after taking part in the historic jaunt to Baghdad with James Mattis’ 1st Marine Division. If a service member’s ultimate goal is to — and I’m rolling my eyes as I write this — get “baptized by fire,” then I peaked in my first nine months as a Marine.
I could wax poetic about the horrors of war, or maybe use this platform to comment on the enduring ramifications of the invasion, but let’s face it: Most Americans who are old enough to remember names like Jessica Lynch, phrases like “shock and awe,” and the ongoing WMD mystery have already jumped off that carousel.
The author in the Middle East in 2003.
At 33, I’ve become quite content with letting all of that go, simply because half of my mind has naturally forgotten much of it — and the other half knows it’s a rabbit hole I don’t want to go down. I’d rather just talk about my new favorite Netflix original by the water cooler. The Iraq War was a shitty sitcom, anyway.
I knew I had officially gotten over the war this time last year, on the 13th anniversary of the invasion. Not only did I completely forget about it, but that was also the first year that I received zero text messages from my old Marine buddies about it. It seemed the anniversary had slipped their minds, too. It was liberating to know that.
You know why? Because all those dudes are doing well in life. They’ve bucked the pedestrian “broken vet” narrative perpetuated by pop culture. None of them are criminals, all of them are in careers they aimed for, and most of them are loving family men. Some still have PTSD. Most don’t. All of them were extraordinary Marines. However, their greatest contributions to this planet are the seeds they’ve planted since the war, and I mean that both metaphorically and in the context of fatherhood.
For us, life isn’t about the machismo chest-beating nature of our youths. It’s about the loving and reliable people we became long after we stormed Mesopotamia, after we figured out what our true purposes on earth were. Because, minus a few lifers, war didn’t encompass our existence, and it certainly didn’t define our worth as humans. It was simply an unpaved road we took to the intersection of manhood. Every so often we’ll get to remind ourselves of how cool we were when we were young, lean-bodied tough guys with stupid haircuts. Yet we know that the best is what we have with our families and each other now: Peace.
It’s been 14 years since I first set foot on Iraqi soil. That footnote may be one of the more exciting experiences of my life, but it hardly makes the entire story worth reading. You can’t collect a paycheck or give back to the people around you by dwelling on the history you were a part of. That’s why I was so blunt with that young Marine in Romania who felt inadequate for never having his Hemingway moment at war. The only thing that’s going to matter about his service is what he does after it’s all over.