“Did you ever kill someone?” she asked, well before the bread sticks arrived. It’s a fair question, I suppose. But on a first date? I prefer to wait several dates before mentioning my veteran status — in case I accidentally give the impression that I was an American sniper.
I’m a 30-year-old black man from Chicago, living in Harlem, N.Y., who was in the Navy from 2004 to 2008. It was an interesting time for me, filled with gasps of horror and cries of joy. As an 18-year-old, I wanted to get as far away from my gritty South Side Chicago past. I had the opportunity to be anyone or do anything. Like most teens, I knew I was destined to be a rock star — so naturally, I enlisted in the military.
While in the Navy, I got to see the world. But long-distance dating while spanning 13 countries is easier said than done. For one especially close relationship, I moved to Germany because I wanted to start a family with a sweet and charming German woman who made me melt each time she looked at me. That relationship lasted about two weeks after I moved.
When I was stationed in Virginia Beach, I knew lots of couples who met in the military and stayed together for long stretches of times. Of course, Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake are all towns with large concentrations of service members, so it was very likely that the stranger you just met was serving, had served or had a long line of veterans in their family. I learned very quickly that I did not want a woman with any armed forces connection.
One reason for my reticence was that, though there were examples of good relationships, I saw far more service members who got together while in drunken stupors (drinking is a religion in the Navy). I saw many relationships plagued with constant fighting, infidelity, and, later, bitter and public divorces that tore families apart.
Since my experiences with dating shipmates were rarely positive, rarely longer than a couple shows at the movie theater or local bars or restaurants, I decided that I had better things to do than commit to someone with a shared background. I craved a good, healthy relationship with a person to whom I could relate less, but connected more. To me, having too much in common would get boring, especially if the only thing either one of us had to talk about was who was dating whom aboard our ships.
I was jealous of those fellow sailors who’d met in some fairy-tale fashion, while the two of them were underway in the middle of the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles away from land, while the tiny phytoplankton lit up the boat and he bummed a cigarette off her, and she stared into his eyes, and they both spoke for hours under a night sky that boasted more stars than most people had ever seen. I’ve heard many stories like this, and I can bet that most of them were false, but still I dreamed of a meet-cute.
For a time, after the end of my active service, I could get dates by mentioning my former military career. Were people more patriotic during George W. Bush’s presidency? Did President Obama make it harder for me to date? It’s hard to know for sure. But even then, I felt like I was abusing the system, exploiting how I’d served my country just to have the chance at a relationship. Could I not captivate a woman on my own merits? Was there anything about me that was special or interesting besides having served? I didn’t have answers to these questions, and as years passed, I found that many women lost interest in me quickly after the novelty of my former military life wore off. This made it imperative for me to become more than just a former Navy man. I needed a personality and actual qualities — like being able to cook or being into romance — to distinguish myself.
Certain aspects of being proud as a vet really appeal to me: discounts, Veterans Day, the Fourth of July. There’s nothing like showing my pride in the country I served for four years, one which I many times find myself at odds with because we don’t always share each other’s ideology. There is no military discount in dating, however. One does not simply cut through pretense and bypass the tough exterior of a conversation, simply because of a former life served in uniform. The same questions usually always pop up: “Why didn’t you stay in?” “Why did you join?” “Did you get PTSD?” Can I just be a boy looking for a nice girl who loves cats, long walks on the beach and “Gilmore Girls”?
I like to wear my Navy veteran hat, with the cool Navy eagle and ship and my former rank, around the city. It feels nice to meet people who also served, to strike up conversations with fellow New Yorkers I’d normally never speak to. Knowing that I served, and wearing that ball cap still brings me a sense of accomplishment, almost nine years after I left the Navy. But hiding that part of me beginning with a first date isn’t much of a problem for me anymore. It wouldn’t be very proper to tell someone you’re out on parole for a crime you didn’t commit from the gate. Is it necessary to learn of my prior service from Day One? That can wait. Get to know me first.