J. Mark Jackson served in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division in the war in Afghanistan in 2009.
I was a soldier, and I went to war. By and by, I became known as a veteran. My civilian career progressed, my family grew, and the Army drifted into the gray mist of memory. But the experience of military service leaves an indelible imprint on the psyche and soul of each soldier, sailor, airman and Marine.
What does it mean, on a day-to-day basis, to be a veteran? To this Army veteran, it means:
●Advil is the narcotic of choice for a bad back and creaky knees, both earned like an invisible Purple Heart.
●Fourth of July fireworks sound surprisingly like a mortar attack.
●. . . and a nail gun sounds startlingly like the bark of an AK-47 when heard in the distance.
●Watching the evening news and feeling guilty for not being beside the soldiers fighting in the story.
●. . . but being grateful the country doesn’t still require my service, because it was always sweltering hot, and physically I could no longer keep up. This is a poignant realization for any former soldier.
●Waking up desperately searching for my rifle, while my wife softly says, “It’s all right, it’s all right; you are home.”
●Finding a lump in my throat and tears welling in my eyes when I see images of a crying mother or wife holding a flag folded into a triangle.
●Feeling slightly self-conscious at my child’s grade school on Veterans Day, but also feeling important and honored.
●Having a mother say, “Thank you for your service. Because you served, my son did not have to.” Really?
●Finding the term “hero” applied too liberally. Audie Murphy was a hero. We were soldiers.
●Wondering, when I forget how I filed my tax return the previous year, if I am suffering from a case of undiagnosed traumatic brain injury or if I just forgot.
●Wondering, when I miss words in a conversation, whether it is from hearing loss from the close rattle of a .50-caliber machine gun or if I was just not paying attention.
●Experiencing a faint gag reflex when Girl Scouts try to sell me cookies, though I loved them for sending countless boxes of cookies to the theater of war. It’s not their fault I made a pig of myself on their generosity.
●Feeling positive about the next strong and dedicated generation of future veterans to whom we handed the baton of service.
●Having a cracking, faltering voice when speaking of certain wartime events that trigger strong emotions, no matter how many times I speak of them.
●Forever being identified as a “military person” based solely on an upright posture and a shoulders-back walking gait.
●Buying a red paper poppy whenever I see another veteran selling them and calling him “brother” when the exchange is made.
●Being unable to throw those paper poppies away, ever. They seem somehow too sacred to desecrate.
●A surge of engulfing pride, like a warm shiver, when the American flag passes or during the singing of the national anthem.
●Surviving a hostile staff meeting by saying to myself, “It has all been easy since . . . ,” filling in the blank with the battle of my choice.
●Maintaining a slightly obsessed fetish with how a bed is made, with emphasis on the corners.
●Perpetual promptness. No event is too unimportant not to arrive early.
●Having a wave of emotion crash down while my son raises his right hand and swears the same oath I did a generation before.
●Desiring to be treated like everyone else — unless I’m waiting in a long line at an airport or praying for an upgrade to first class on a flight. Then I prefer to be treated as special.
●Sitting slack-jawed in amazement when I realize my family’s dinner was purchased by a table of teenage girls sitting across the restaurant. Thank you!
●Critiquing any marching organization during a parade and resisting the urge to cry out, “left, left, left, right-ta, left” if it is out of step.
●Gladly deferring saber-rattling to those who have never had to do it.
●No longer feeling compelled to prove my mettle — that urge was settled and sated while wearing a uniform.
●Grasping the knowledge that peace is eminently more precious than any state of war, regardless of the justification. Veterans know the cost of peace firsthand, and that cost has a first name, a last name, a middle initial and parents.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said of his Civil War service, “In our youth our hearts were touched with fire.” I would add devotion, exhilaration, camaraderie and fear. Our service in the armed forces determined who we were and continues to define who we are moving into the future. My father said about events in his life that “I wouldn’t give a penny to do it again, but I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the experience.” Would most veterans say the same about their service? I believe so; I know I do. Further, and more important, I consider it my honor to have served our country.