I went to see 12 Strong. I thought I was going to do a movie review from my perspective — I was wrong. I left the theater crushed and crying. Not because the movie was bad. It wasn’t. It was beautifully shot and despite any inconsistencies or breaks from reality done for the sake of storytelling, I am glad this story was told. Those guys — the real ones of ODA 555 — were amazing. They did amazing things in the face of overwhelming odds.
It took me a little while to figure out what kept me sobbing through most of the film. Thank God it was the middle of the day on a Monday and I was only one of three people in the theater. I’ve found myself tearing up whenever I watch ANY movies that touch on the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s been almost 20 years now and the bulk of my adult life has been taken up by these conflicts. But not in the way that it should have. And that is what causes me to weep.
I have some bizarre version of survivor’s guilt and as it turns out, I am not alone. I have decided to name the feeling Elusive Valor. I didn’t steal anything or pretend to be someone I am not. I didn’t lie about my time in my little corner of the Defense Department. But I also did not put my life at risk in the green zone, or outside the wire, or in some godforsaken FOB the way so many did. And it haunts me. I’ve actually sat down in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and apologized — to all of them.
In war we leave no man behind. But what if you … stayed behind?
I reached out to friends in the community today, looking for others who served — people like me who gave blood, sweat, and tears to this country we love, but ones who like me never set foot in Iraq or Afghanistan. There were quite a few and they shared my anguish.
My friend, SSGT Jennifer L. Rector, former USANG Intelligence Analyst, shared her thoughts:
I feel extremely guilty and robbed of that vital work experience due to not serving in Iraq or Afghanistan in the years following 9/11. As an Intelligence Anayst, I volunteered for the first opportunity I heard of, which was at the Air National Guard Crisis Action Team under Operation Noble Eagle and in direct support of OEF and OIF. I was activated under Title 10 orders there in November 2001. By the time those orders expired in 2003, two new members of my Intelligence unit, the 143rd Airlift Squadron, had volunteered to serve several deployments overseas. I have so much respect and admiration for those who served in combat and as grateful as I am for not having to deploy, I find it difficult, almost shameful, to admit I only served stateside.”
I was already a China hand when 9/11 happened. Not covering the Middle East or counterterrorism meant I never delved into what was going on against Al-Qaeda or the Taliban the way so many of my colleagues down the hall did. I remember thinking, and even saying out loud a time or two, how I had spent so much time getting up to speed on Asia that I didn’t have the bandwidth to catch up on the centuries old conflicts in the Middle East. So, I never went.
Months became years. So many Americans died. So many people that I knew came home injured or tormented or never came home at all. By that point I had two small children. And so, I never went. I could have volunteered for a deployment — I wasn’t the only one with babies at home — but I didn’t. And it haunts me.
Another friend and former colleague, MSG (ret) J.T. Johnson, has a son serving in Afghanistan now, though he himself never did. He told me, “I’ve often debated on volunteering for a deployment now just to make amends … now that my son is there, I feel doubly guilty.”
I am sure there are more of you out there. Those who also bristle at the words, “Thank you for your service.” It never sits right with me. It feels misplaced somehow — burdensome even. I have to remind myself that these brave men I work with now, the brave men and women I worked with before, do not think less of me for it. I have to remind myself that what I did still mattered.
As my SOFREP colleague, former Ranger Luke Ryan, put it
“It’s the service that matters. Out of the people who step up to the plate, some people get called to do more dramatic stuff and others get called to do more interesting shit … others get called to sit in the U.S. and handle paperwork. Doesn’t matter, you just do what’s necessary — it’s the stepping up to the plate that matters.”
Some days, that feeling of Elusive Valor keeps me riding the bench. But the baseball fan in me knows Luke is right. Stepping up to the plate is what matters– Batter Up.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.