By Jonathan Raab
My wife can always tell when I‘m on the phone with an old Army buddy. My words speed up, my voice slides a shade deeper, and I swear. Quite a lot.
I‘m both an educator and a Christian, so I‘ve worked very hard to tame my tongue. This is a far cry from my day-to-day communications as a soldier not so many years ago, wherein every other sentence was laced with a particular slant of the f-word, or some such. Every other sentence was pretty good—I considered my vulgarity to be mild compared to the rest of the guys.
Still, even years out of uniform, those old neural pathways open up as soon as we begin to reminisce. The vulgarity isn‘t borne out of frustration—not always, anyway—it was just part of the language. It was how we spoke.
And, apparently, it‘s how we still speak, sometimes, when we reconnect after a long while and have a good “Didn‘t it suck when...” session. The swearing is just as often accompanied by laughter as it is furrowed brows and shaking heads. No matter where you are, what you‘re doing, or how long it‘s been—something changes, a switch is flipped, and you‘re back where you were—in the barracks, on some mud-caked firing range, or staring out at desert wastes.
The holidays are good occasions for these connections. I‘m not sure why we reconnect at these arbitrary times. Veterans Day, sure, or Memorial Day—these seem like reasonable occasions for a text message to or from the guys. But in recent years I‘ve opened my phone around more and more holidays—Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas—and found texts from my old leaders or fellow soldiers. Sometimes I get one or two, and I linger over them for a moment, wondering if I shouldn‘t reach back, or reach out to someone else.
This recent Thanksgiving I did just that—sending out bland, impersonal texts to the effect of “Happy Thanksgiving, dude” to almost every veteran in my phone‘s contact list. I got a couple of messages from the guys whose numbers I missed. It wasn‘t much. I‘m not sure it was taken as much. But when I got the first text from one of my former leaders, I struggled with whether I wanted to bother to respond or not.
It‘s been almost two years since I left the service, and I live in a new city, in a new state, on the other side of the country. I‘ve made some friends here who are vets, sure—but the majority of people I know are from church, work, or our relationships are built around other interests. I will always be a part of the veteran community, but I don‘t like being defined by it. Therefore, I often push communicating with the guys out of my mind, especially around holidays.
I decided this year would be different. This didn‘t result in some grand breakthrough of depression, or help me to see events more clearly. Nothing as extravagant as that. But it did result in some quick text message exchanges, and one phone conversation.
One of my former squad leaders, now a pre-med student down south, wanted to have a real conversation. We talked about our personal and professional lives, and the changes we‘d both experienced in the few years it had been since we last saw each other.
Very quickly, however, we started to complain about Army Stupid (TM), and about how we didn‘t really miss showing up to drill every few weekends, or miss the constant will-we-won‘t-we grind of potentially deploying (and the subsequent damage that does to personal and professional lives) that left a sour taste in our mouths the last couple years of our enlistments. The swearing and the acronyms—the lingo of service—buzzed along old neural pathways and out of our mouths.
He talked a bit about his time in the Marines; I shared a bit about my tour in Afghanistan; we both agreed to never let our kids join the National Guard.
What became clear was that we were glad we were out, but we were also appreciative for the connections we‘d made, and for the character we‘d built in the midst of really difficult and absurd circumstances.
“I don‘t talk about this stuff too often,” I told him. “It gets me all spun up, I start swearing again—and that‘s not good for anybody.”
But maybe sometimes it is okay to get spun up, to reconnect, to think back. Not in regret or anger over our time gone, but in appreciation for the freedom, the maturation, and the relationships that came out of those distant and fading struggles. Even if it makes us swear too much.