I got out of the Army in 2006 in order to go to school. A friend and mentor warned me not to be “that guy” who leaves the military but can’t live it down while attending college, telling anyone who will listen about jumping out of airplanes or my time in Iraq. I took the advice seriously and tried my best to keep my head down between classes and to blend in the best I could.
That lasted all of about two weeks, when I met another paratrooper in my first writing class. Neither of us knew the other had served. He had a beard and seemed like he could have been just a regular guy. For some reason, we started talking after class one day and began the usual small talk, asking about each other’s backgrounds. We were surprised to learn we both had recently left the Army after serving in the 82nd Airborne Division and were beginning our new lives as students.
It was a relief to know I wasn’t the only one, and it was exciting to meet someone in the classroom who understood me and what I experienced, someone who could nod appreciatively when I told him how many jumps I had or what neighborhoods in Baghdad I patrolled.
From that point, it was clear to me that my identity as someone who served – a Veteran – was going to define me to the rest of the world, whether I liked it or not.
So I ran with it.
I started a Veterans club at the City College of New York and became an active member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I advocated locally and nationally on behalf of Veterans and did my best to highlight the traits that make Vets an asset to any organization. I’ve written as much as I can about Veterans issues, fully believing that talking seriously about military experience is important in both spreading awareness and as a therapeutic tool for me.
I spent the past five years doing these things. Without question, the best part was meeting other Veterans, from all eras, and talking about the strange transition back into American society.
After finishing college last September, I decided to make another run in the Army and applied for Officer Candidate School. I missed the Army and I missed being a soldier. I was accepted, and I recently commissioned after attending the twelve week course at Fort Benning. I am currently attending infantry training.
One of the strangest things about making the transition back into the military is the fact that despite knowing that I’m a soldier again, I still feel like a Veteran. Not in the sense of just someone who served in the military or in war, but as an all-encompassing identity.
Having expended so much energy over the past five years talking about some of the things that happen after military service – going to school on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, getting treatment at VA, PTSD, TBI, and the civilian-military divide – I can’t help but view the military through the prism of the Veteran.
On the outside, and especially in an academic environment, I had the privilege of being able to discuss freely the military, foreign policy, and issues facing Veterans. I was able to criticize and scrutinize – with no limits – things like mental health stigma and the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, here I am, back in the Army and staring down the very things I lobbed snow balls at from the safety of a college classroom. I find myself continuing to scrutinize those things, but then filtering them through the added lens of being ‘back in’ before I can say anything or take action.
It’s weird. But I think I’m in a unique position, having transitioned out and back in. I’m bringing lots of baggage with me – it’s good baggage, but I have to be careful where and how I unpack.
2LT Don Gomez blogs at Carrying the Gun. You can follow him on Twitter: @dongomezjr