There is a lot written about veterans. No shortage of material exists pertaining to veterans, transition from active duty, mental and physical health and about a dozen other topics. We are conscious of our vets, of the men and women who have answered the call to serve, but there are some things that only other vets can understand. Subtle variations of feelings, moments that civilians take for granted that present the greatest challenges to those of us who've served.
I served for 13 years as a Noncommissioned Officer specializing in Aircraft Maintenance. Hayden Meredith attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point then served for over four years as an Infantry Officer in the Army. In many ways you might look at the two of us and note hundreds of differences in our persons and on paper, but you would forget the greatest thing we have in common; we are veterans.
Sitting across from each other at a table in a local coffee spot, Hayden and I meet for the first time. We don't know much about each other; totally unaware that we are both vets. Honestly, Hayden strikes a smile so friendly that you could easily sit with him with nothing in common. It's a smile of humility and integrity; welcoming you to a seat at a table, a cup of coffee and sharing some stories.
Hayden asks me about my story, not just the 100 Connections, but about my journey from the military to where I am now. The question catches me off guard because I largely haven't considered the fullness of my journey to this point. Just a few years ago I left the world I knew so well, and my place in it, entered into a separation and divorce, lived unemployed and scrambled to survive. In fact there are very few memorable moments from those years, they have all blurred together in a timeline far more reminiscent of survival scenarios than actual living.
We both talk of fear, of what it is like to leave a world others don't understand and then enter the world they do. For so many of us we forget that our world is crafted by what we do, be it our daily rituals, our position, our occupation or relationships. We each craft our own place in the day-to-day, form it from the mundane and banal, from the extraordinary, decorate it with the smiles and cries we accumulate over time. Those worlds we carve become our comfort zones, our safe places. There we understand the rules we have shaped, accept them and move on.
For veterans like Hayden and myself, we have already traded our worlds once for the world of the military. Then we went and did it again when we left.
Ask yourself, could you do the same? Change your whole world?
Hayden is a truly brave man, he's honestly a credit to the uniform if I have ever met one. His mind is inquisitive. There is a path before him, some distance covered behind, and he seeks to understand more, to know where he is. I have discovered that the greatest bravery comes from sharing your story, from being vulnerable and seeking wisdom from others. Even more so for those who took on the mantle of soldier, of warrior.
We talk about time; the different ways we learned to keep it. Hayden reminisces about the deployment return countdowns we all know so well, how the days seem to crawl by waiting for your return home. Time is something that shifts in transition too, among so many other things. As he speaks I remember how civilian friends welcomed me "home" after I left the military, about how alien I felt in the world I had always been living in.
I tell Hayden about the bottom.
Prior to starting this project, I had reached a place so low that I almost ended my life. I felt completely isolated and alone, was living the life so contrary to the person i truly am that the idea of death was merciful compared to waking up one more day. He listens intently, his eyes focused but not judging. We talk about how that fall to the bottom put me in the place I am now. For me to become who I truly am, who I was always meant to be, I had to give up everything and walk, a spiritual walk in an often to banal world.
He nods and wonders. You can see him processing, thinking. I have walked a path he hasn't, one that no one else can because it is solely mine, and yet there is a version of it waiting for him too.
We laugh and share stories, anecdotes that make perfect sense to us. There is power in our shared experience and I think it is fair to say that I have liked Hayden from the moment I met him. His voyage is ongoing, like all of ours, but he is taking the wheel and steering on a road without defined borders. We talk about this new fear, this fear of the unknown, about embracing it and growing.
At a table in a coffee shop named for journeys, two travelers take a moment and share their stories away from wars, uniforms, ranks and faraway lands. We just sit here and become friends.
We were already brothers.
Favorite Dinosaur: T Rex
Why: It's the only one he can remember.