The Smell of Cordite
by James Eyler
The smell of cordite; standing in morning formation, wondering why we haven’t changed back into summer or winter PT’s; complaining about having to clean weapons that haven’t been shot since the last five cleanings; staying at the unit until 5:00, even though all training and duties were finished three hours ago; wondering all the while, “Why did I reenlist?”
I never would have believed, at the time, that those would be fond memories, and based off of the posts and stories I see on social media and TV outlets, I know I’m not the only one. In fact, I’d say veterans like me represent the majority of veterans.
Most of us soon realize, especially during a deployment, that our initial intentions of joining the military (serve the nation, college tuition, family tradition, and a million other reasons) fades into a single purpose—we do it for the person serving to our left and to our right. For our brothers and sisters in arms. Because of the camaraderie we formed.
I’d been thinking about the afflictions that veterans face when we leave the service, and why we seem to be plagued with depression and an ever-voracious suicide rate. Certainly it afflicts active duty members as well; however, the levels of depression and rate of suicide seem to increase after separation. Why? Because, for many, the desire to rejoin their brothers and sisters in arms is over-shadowed only by their frustration not being allowed to. This sentiment is most prevalent in posts on social media. Veterans were so focused on leaving, on not having to wake up at 5:00 am to PT, on not having to deploy and all the suck that entails, on not having to wonder why you’re cleaning your weapon for the fifth time that week, that they don’t truly realize what they’re leaving until it’s already gone—the constant togetherness of others that are suffering through the same crap. Some veterans thought to go back to their old friends from before the service, or maybe just make new friends, or eschew contact altogether. But that is rarely enough to fill the void, and is best demonstrated by the twenty-two lives taken from family and friends every day.
Suffering through the horrors of war alongside others—be it for the nation or contracted—builds a unique camaraderie that is isn’t relatable by any other field. It’s Hume’s argument for empiricism; basically, “You can’t know. You weren’t there.” Being around others who went and returned from war with you, and lost the same friends as you, is a powerful thing, and is only every truly appreciated after it’s gone. That absence exacerbates depression, which can lead to thoughts of suicide. Especially when feelings of isolation overwhelm while in the middle of a crowd.
I’ve thought and struggled for a long time about that, and how to prevent it. But that’s akin to preventing puberty. It can't be stopped. The invasive feelings and thoughts are as inexorable as the tides. All we can really hope for is to help veterans transition into, and rejoin society. Some veterans continue to serve (police, fire, medicine, volunteer/nonprofit work, etc.), and that seems buffer the anxiety from feeling un-relatable. But those options aren’t always available, or desirable, for everyone, and for those people the anxiety can worsen into an empty void of despair. They struggle to return to something they can no longer have, because they feel that’s the only thing that can fill the void. But it can’t be filled. Not ever. The people we lost won’t ever come back. That life of war and 'the suck' is forever lost. Our void is ours alone, a burden we bare so that others don’t have to.
At least that’s what we say.
Truth is, we have to learn to live with the void, and appreciate all that it entails. That doesn’t mean we have to like it. Some parts are definitely to be appreciated in the same manner as one might appreciate a well-planned attack by the enemy. What we don't do, is we don’t try do fill the void—that's impossible. Instead, we create something that will outshine the darkness of the void. We build upon the camaraderie we’ve already established, and share it with veteran and civilian alike, understanding that it will never be the same, and that’s okay. Life after high school wasn’t the same either, this is just more difficult. But we’re also a lot tougher than we were after high school. So what do we do? Well, we reintegrate back into society. This brings us back around to isolation even amidst a crowd. How can we reintegrate if we feel isolated while we’re surrounded by people? Unfortunately, I don’t think that can be answered with a single solution. There isn’t a quick fix, or magic pill. It is possible to mitigate the isolation, depression, and suicide.
And that’s why we developed Arizona Veterans Helping veterans—to not only provide one of many possible solutions, but to be a platform and foundation for others. It can be done. I know it can.