What My Time In The Military Taught Me About Happiness

Photo by Chief Warrant Officer 2 Paul S. Mancuso

Ten to seven and we are already high above the clouds, only mountaintops peaking through the cracked white, like an ice shelf with Southern California far below. Eastward, the wrong directions for dreams, some might think. I am gliding towards the old world, across the other ocean --- the one I grew up knowing --- beloved friends, reaching for a sliver of a different life.

I am on an early morning flight to New York, and then on to Europe for two weeks of leave. This lightness I feel upon take off at the start of the trip is prescient of the clarity I will find: I will accept things that I have known to be true for months.

On my second night in Europe, spent on a small island where the sea was always just around a corner, I watched the sunset over the outlines of Medieval churches. My arms rested on the stone wall of a fort overlooking the harbor and the sea. A local festival brought scores of people to the same location. I wouldn't meet another American until several days later, in Rome. I could have been anyone; where I was entirely my choice: I felt an incredible lightness, a freedom.

My two weeks overseas, almost entirely solo, were a dream: diving in the Mediterranean, navigating Roman ruins, sitting on top of a mountain and writing while staring at the sea, meeting other adventurers, and at the end, spending time with friends whom I'd met while on deployment.

I was nervous that seeing friends from deployment would be sadly different, perhaps the closeness we had gained in the discomfort of a foreign country might be used up, situational. But no, the truest friendships transcend time and geography.

Over a bottle of wine, my closest friend and I caught up rapidly, summing up the previous three months in about five minutes before conversing in the same manner we had over shisha and coffee when we’d been in the Middle East. Despite the fact that we were removed from the situation that had fostered our friendship in the first place, everything else remained.

I related to my friend that I recently realized how much my dreams and aspirations had changed after five years of military service. I had started to see what I wanted my different life to look like. I asked my friend how he had changed over the past several months.

He paused, looked away for a moment, and smiled. He knew the answer immediately, and only thought how to phrase the answer. The pause, the prelude of his answer, and then the clear conclusion, "Suddenly, I am happy to be exactly where I am.”

I thought of these words as my Washington-bound flight took off, watching the unmistakable geometry of Paris fade far below, the heaviness of goodbye weighing me down.

I knew that the long farewell to my military service had truly begun. I had, for two weeks, been happy to be exactly where I was. I was my purest self, no facade, no fanfare. I had reclaimed agency long surrendered.

And so, I choose to keep that with me. I have momentum to a different life. Although I have one deployment left, and with it tasks I strive to accomplish, I can be content in the present to know what follows.  As I have trained, I have a plan, and I will execute.

I have dreams to pursue, and new ways I aspire to continue to serve. And I’m on my way.

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