Why this Afghan war vet joined the VFW

I‘ll always be a part of the veteran community, whether I engage with it or not

Why this Afghan war vet joined the VFW

Photo by Pete Zarria/Flickr

By Jonathan Raab

Coming home from each deployment, the last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by military culture or soldiers. I‘d had my fill of Joe, NCOs, officers, and DoD civilians alike, and wanted nothing more than to be a normal person—whatever that means—and decompress a bit.

The first time I went through the Kafkaesque process (as in: labyrinthine, confusing, demoralizing, feel-like-I‘m-turning-into-a-huge-bug) that is “redeployment”, I was shuffled into a cramped room with other soldiers from my company, and we had about fifteen minutes to talk to a counselor. As a group. About stress. We were infantrymen, mind you, coming off a particularly trying and difficult mission, having been scattered all over Afghanistan and without support (logistics, personnel issues) for almost a year.

When it was my turn to share my feelings, I looked at the pretty young grad student at the center of our range card—I mean, counseling session, or something—and told her I planned to go home, take off the uniform, grow my hair out, and walk around the woods and smoke weed for a while.

Yeah, I wasn‘t in the best state of mind. I mean, grow my hair out? Ridiculous.

That sort of cloying, aggressive self-pity is something that I struggled with, and many others did (and do). It wasn‘t long before I began to miss the comradery that being in a mission-driven organization can bring. Having a group of people in your life on a consistent basis—even if it‘s just one night a month—can mean a lot to someone whose personal disposition or experience-driven behavior is that of self-isolation, or inability to not be isolated.

I joined one of the many Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in the Denver area shortly after I moved. While being a silly hat-wearing old guy sitting in a dark bar was not my thing, I found that my Post wasn‘t interested in that, either. The Post is young and old, vibrant, and very active.

Each year, the Post organizes a semi-formal event in downtown Denver, called The Founders Dinner, in honor of those who started the VFW. Not being one for a monkey suit (or any semi-formal variation thereof), I didn‘t want to go this year. However, wife in tow, I did attend.

Working with the organizers, I arranged for a display table in the main hall for one of my favorite veterans organizations—The War Writers‘ Campaign—to shill some books, business cards, and handouts, all in the name of promoting veteran (and their families) writing. (Disclosure: I‘m both a writer and editor for the War Writers‘ Campaign.) The organization‘s co-founder, Derek, and my wife, Jess joined me.

It was a pleasure to see the community—including a goodly number of government, business, and nonprofit leaders—come out to show their support and respect for what Post 1 represents, and what it does in and for the greater Denver area.

Still, there were several moments in the evening where I felt a little uncomfortable and out of place. The Colorado VFW Band played through each service‘s official song, beginning with the Army Song. That contemptuous melody had been drilled into my head since Basic training, and it was quickly stuck in my mind once again. Each service got their song played—and many people stood up, cheered, or spun napkins over their heads to show their pride. Sometimes, the big band sound—meant to inspire pride or courage—can come across as maudlin and inauthentic. Something so upbeat doesn‘t fit the grim reality of war.

As our guests of honor were announced, I was selective with my applause. I refused to put my hands together for a particular Army general, or for representatives of the local VA leadership. My wife, astute as ever, firmly but politely asked if me being rude was the appropriate response to my problems with Army and VA policy.

She had a point.

After our meal (and a less-crappy attitude on my part), we went back to the table in the main hallway to talk to more folks interested in the War Writers‘ work. We met an ROTC instructor and his wife, several younger vets interested in sharing their stories, a son of a World War II veteran—and I even got to give a copy of my short story “Window Licker” to Joe Anello, a Korean War ex-POW.

It wasn‘t a bad way to spend an evening—talking literature, writing, and vets programs over Jack n‘ Cokes.

I realized that, for better or worse, I‘ll always be a part of this community—of veterans and their families—whether I engage with it or not. I‘ll be one of them, even if I don‘t always see eye to eye with everyone or want to celebrate certain leaders or policies.

Whenever I get tired of hearing war stories or hearing the Army song—I can take a break. I can walk away, and go off into the woods—metaphorically and literally—for a little while.

But I can always come back, and find others in my community waiting to receive me with friendship and comradery. For all my own personal issues or views on the shortcomings of our nation‘s military and veteran policies, that‘s something I‘ll always have. That‘s something that we‘ll always have, as long as we make the time to come together.