I’m not the sort of person that you look at and think, “I bet she’s seen a lot of interesting things.” I am 21 years old, but I look about 16; I am sweet, quiet, and not at all intimidating. I was in the grocery store the other day and I overheard a father telling his young son to watch out and not hit me with the cart. “Watch out, don’t hit that cute little girl,” he said. I take classes at the community college near my house, and get hit on by foolish freshman.
All this makes it hard to explain to people that I am a veteran, that I was once a soldier and that some days I miss it. When you look like you ought to be trying out for the cheerleading squad, it’s difficult to explain that you’re disabled, that you can’t help them move because you have a pain syndrome, a mysterious one that you can‘t explain, that although you stand up straight and smile you really honestly hurt with every movement.
Growing up I thought of veterans as old and silent men like my grandfather at best, or like the old drunk amputee who sits on the street corner downtown with Vietnam buttons on his ratty old jacket. I wanted to be a soldier for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t think about what that would mean in terms of the rest of my life. I thought I would be a soldier for as long as I wanted to be, and I never thought past that. If anything, I figured I would die in combat and be done with it. Turns out, I was a soldier for two years; I’ll be a vet for the rest of my life.
I enlisted in December of 2002, before the war in Iraq was certain. I had been taking ROTC classes at the University of Washington, but didn’t have an ROTC scholarship or any money to continue school. My plan was to enlist as a Reservist, take the training for my specialty- linguistics/interrogation- and then go through the Reserves ROTC scholarship program to get my commission. Unfortunately, my plan was sidetracked when I was injured while in training. I spent two years at the Defense Language Institute being passed from one doctor to another, some more competent than others, before being chaptered out on medical grounds. My current diagnosis is fibromyalgia, most likely triggered by a pulled muscle or tendon in my hip that was neglected for more than a year.
It has taken some getting used to. I always considered myself an athletic person; the last physical fitness test I took before my medical problems set in, I got a perfect score. I love to run, but I don’t expect to ever run again. Stress on my joints leaves me aching to the point that I am unable to function; my exercise tolerance tops out at carrying a gallon of milk up one flight of stairs. I have limited my life in all the ways I can in order to find a balance between pain on the one hand and giving up everything I enjoy about life on the other. I no longer go running, or shop for fun, or clean more than one room of my apartment at a time.
Adjusting to a life of pain has in some ways distracted me from a more profound adjustment, though. I am unsure what to do with a self that is defined not as a fighter, but as a relic, a memory, or a past glory. In my more melodramatic and desperate moments, I compare myself to my favorite childhood heroes, those bright-beyond-belief children who accomplished their great life's work before adulthood: Ender, Alanna et al. I took my chance, failed miserably at it, and now I'm left with a life that couldn't possibly be anything but a let down, from now on.
Rationally, I know there's more to life than the things I first wanted. I know if I looked hard enough I could see them, I tell myself this all the time. But to be quite honest, I no longer know what to aspire to. In quiet moments, I catch myself daydreaming of being a soldier again. I hated Basic Training, it was boring; but yesterday I dreamt about it, and woke up crying.