A Veteran’s Story

Soldiers and veterans do things for this country that go beyond our imagination and their stories deserve to be told. What follows is the story of a medic. While the story is obviously much longer than what I can post here, I can honestly say that I am grateful for having the privilege of having this dialogue with someone so brave. Thank you, Sheldon, for having the courage to share. 

What were your reasons for joining the army?

For me personally, the army was the most viable solution for my situation. I had three things going on. First my citizenship situation; I needed to find a way to stay in America because the immigrant life wasn’t working out. The second was that I felt like because of my immigrant situation I was being held back professionally and I needed to find something to bring me back to even ground and I thought the military would help me do that. The third reason

was my little one. She was American born and her mother communicated to me that she would be raised here and I didn’t want to be a vacation dad, I didn’t want to be away from her. The army was my surest route back to her. It hasn’t brought me there yet, but it has allowed me to build a foundation to make it happen. Everybody has their reasons for joining – crappy life somewhere, trying to make it work, tradition – but what I’ve encountered is that it doesn’t matter the reason for going there, it’s just the reason why you do it once you’re there.

What would you like to share about your experience while you were enlisted?

I think that there are a couple of things I learned in the military that would be cool the share. I think that I would like to talk about the people, not the army, not the military, but the soldiers – my brothers and sisters.

I think that people join the military for different reasons but once once you’ve been through hardships, when you share those experiences with people it becomes a very powerful bonding mechanism and it makes you stronger when you have that bond. That bond is the key to surviving. Whatever your military experience may be, it’s the people that you do it for. You don’t do it for anybody’s political agenda, you don’t care about public opinion, because you and that group of people, they understand that the reality of it is that it’s a bad place and there are hard people that have don’t hesitate to harm you or the people that you love and you need hard people to respond to that. I think that’s a good thing in a way.

Being a political science major in the army, the first year I always tried to consider the international relations picture, always tried to put some type of value to what I did, and the reality of it is that I couldn’t. I couldn’t make sense of

what we did with a political lens. The only way it made sense to me was when I abandoned those civilian sentiments and started looking at it as a warrior. We don’t make the rules or make decisions about where we go or what we do. We don’t have the luxury of public or personal opinion. We just have to do the best we can to ensure that the people you’re with come back with you. I can’t say that what we did in Afghanistan made sense, all I can say is that everyone I was there with- we brought them back. We brought them back but I think it’s very hard to come back and be the same person. I think it’s hard because I guess that veil that’s over everyone’s eyes- you don’t have that veil anymore. That exposure and sights of dark things changes you.

A lot of guys get in trouble when they come back expecting to be that same person, or on the other side they heap so much on themselves that it’s hard to reconcile with who you are and what you’ve had to do. The PTSD stuff is real. I

don’t think the authorities even today have a really good idea as to how it affects people. With PTSD people automatically assume you’re crazy and can’t function. Does that happen on the extreme end, of course, but I think there are more subtle forms of it: Heightened sense of awareness at all times, easily agitated, callousness.  It could be easy to fall into those traps. But again I think the key to navigating that is understanding, or coming to terms with the fact, that yeah, I’ve done these things and having the person that you are today accept that. That’s the biggest challenge.

But it’s not all dark. Go back to the camaraderie. I shared bonds with people that I met in the army that I don’t even have with my family. It’s sad to say that some bonds are stronger than family but it’s a good thing because I think it enriches you and it expands your human experience. One of my closest friends now is a young man from Diriter,

Louisiana. Four generation KKK. And I could say without a doubt he’s one of my closest friends and I love his kids like their mine. The army is like that where you can have an Islamic Rasta and a redneck KKK and get past barriers that society invents because at the end of the day we’re just people. In the army you are people that have to function in a high stress environment.

Sheldon served as a medic and shares about his experience. 

According to the army I treated 378 causalities over two deployments. I don’t remember them, their faces, what they look like. But if somebody that was there and recalls the injury I remember that – the gunshot wound, the amputation. When it comes to the US casualties the pressure is different and the gravity of what happens is different.

When you’re in a country where everyone is trying to kill you – you’re there to save lives but you’re job is to kill as well. It’s a little bit of an oxymoron. That’s why as a medic you have to build your own value system because if you’re solely a killer you’re not going to be a good medic and if you’re solely a soldier you’re not going to be a good medic.

At times – we were hunting a bomb maker. This guy is considered a high value target and we hear that hes in the area and we start looking through villages and on the third day he made a bomb and it went off and it killed friends. There was a strong emotion for revenge. The bigger guys decided that he was a high value target and told us not to kill him. You have moments like that where shit doesn’t make sense. Well it makes perfect sense but you have to put away your emotions.

What is your opinion about the marketing the army uses to recruit?

After everything I experienced in the army it was the best thing that happened to me. I think there’s a marketing to it and yea you can do all that stuff and it’s not fun. To be honest with you, I think that if a kid was hanging on the streets not sure what he’s going to do with himself, I would tell him to go to the army. Its four years of hard stuff but it can make you stronger. It can help you get to where you need to go. It allows you time to figure shit out. I’m not opposed to recruiting. I know that civilians reading this make look at commercials and think they’re trying to dupe you, that may be, but people have their reasons for coming and if the army wasn’t there those reasons would still be there. I don’t have a problem with it. Before I joined the army I would see it as something dubious but now I don’t think it is at all. I think that civilians need to understand that we need the army and we need those guys. It’s a bad world.

Even the process of becoming a soldier is difficult. One of my brothers, he lost his job and his wife was pregnant and it so happened during the pregnancy there were complications but he couldn’t be there and the reason why he was there was for her and part of being there is not being able to be where you want to be. I’ve seen that hurt people. Distance. The unknown. People in Afghanistan with wives back at home – guys can’t function. I’ve seen it destroy people. Trade offs. But it’s worth it. I know I sound like an army ad right now but it’s worth it. Sometimes I miss it. I’ve been out only a year and they say it takes about 18-20 months before you transition out, so im still in the process. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about it or hate my job a little more because I remember the shit I did before. I cant sit in a cubicle anymore it’s so mundane. It’s changed me.

I want to harp on the fact that the greatest gift I ever had from the military are my brothers and sisters. They’re all over the world. The biggest gift I ever had- those friendships are never going to go away. There’s a loyalty amongst that group of people that makes it worth it a million times over.

In the past year I’ve lost 3 friends to suicide as recently as 2 months ago and before that 3 months ago. It’s a big problem. I’m not going to try to give you reasons. The firs thing that comes to mind is PTSD but it hasn’t been the only reason. I think that soldiers endure a lot and I think the army must come to terms with what is the appropriate level of care for soldiers and veterans because what they’re doing now is not enough. I’ve noticed changes but every 22 days – that’s too much. I have personally experienced that timeline. I’ve lost 3 friends about 20 days apart and it hurts to know that you made it past all that shit over there and you come back here and home takes you out. That’s a hard pill to swallow. There’s a lot of sadness there.

And his piece of advice for any veteran’s out there who are struggling…

I just want to let any veterans know that you’re not crazy, you’re not alone. Reach out because more often than not you’re going to find that what you’re experiencing, someone else is going through it. The more you reach out the better your chances are of figuring out a way to address it. There are folks out there going through it, gone through it and got past it. PTSD and stuff too, please reach out. I know the demons, I know what they are and I’m not going to pretend as if I’m a specialist but I’m telling you it’s bettter to face them with someone else. Same code when we were in the army and same code when you’re out.