Thursday, March 8, 2012

Act of Valor

Once upon a time (last year), when I was talking with both my awesome IA and one of my favorite helicopter pilots (now a helicopter CFI! Congrats, Gunny!), they were smiling at me in that way men who have been on the two-way-range get sometimes - it's not a patronizing smile, but rather one that simply sits there and enjoys the delightful ironies of life that were crystal-clear to them, but not the person on whom its dawning.

In this case, one of them finally let fly the remark building behind the poorly-hid smile, after I mentioned that Calmer Half was so.... delightfully steadfast and unruffled at the mundane emergencies of life, including a new bride suffering setbacks four thousand miles away. "We always knew you'd marry a combat vet."

"I didn't! I wanted to grow up to be a civilian!" (I did, too. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I reportedly folded my arms, glared up at the teacher, and spat out 'A civilian!' Yeah, I was that army brat.) "I did become a civilian, for years, before I married a vet! But he's not in the service, so it doesn't count, right? And he's not even one of ours!"

The Gunny, who has tempted me into motorcycle rides, shooting a shotgun, carrying a gun from Alaska to Tennessee, and given hugs and jumped a dead battery after midnight, gave up any pretense at hiding his grin. "You're a military brat. You never were a civilian!" He teased, and for all my attempted defense... he had a point, in a way.

Today, I dragged Calmer Half off to see Act of Valor. Which is awesome, and should be seen on the big screen. Twice. It was a very jarring movie, on several levels, full of cognitive dissonance that made it punch me in the gut even harder. Despite a high body count, it had less gore than one minute of a regular action movie fight. The camera did not linger lovingly on bullet time or blood spraying, and moved quickly, tactfully away from carnage or corpses. (Though that was utterly gut-wrenching in its own way, because those are the most realistic-looking bruises on the badly beaten hostages' face I've ever seen outside of a mirror or a friend's skin. It wasn't movie-real, it was reality-real.) It did things right, down to the little details Hollywood always misses - and the little details were what kept throwing me, because they were wrong for a movie, and right for reality. I kept thinking "That shouldn't look like that/be there, because that's how it really is!"

The men, and their wives and kids, were military and military spouses in their blood and bone, in their responses and their skin - one of the reasons I have a hard time enjoying Serenity sober is that the people are so jarringly teen-model pretty in an environment anything but, and so perfectly quippy: these people were instead breathtakingly, gut-wrenchingly real. And yes, the quiet scenes weren't note-perfect with their emotional cues... but they came across to me as the guys trying to recount for the camera conversations you've already had fifty times, or five years ago, with your buddies. It isn't seemingly spontaneous because you've long since moved to a friendly slap or a nod to say the same thing.

But the most important part of the movie wasn't the movie itself; it was the conversation I had with Calmer Half, afterward. I don't know much about South Africa, much less the country in his youth, the war in Rhodesia, or after he left the service. To the extent records of that culture exist, the realities of life in the last decades of apartheid, in the middle of a civil war no side wanted to acknowledge at the time and certainly want to rewrite to their glorious causes now - what record is there? So I miss things that should be obvious - like the lack of military dependent culture. It's a large country, but not so large or structured such that dependents need move with their soldiers, much less every six months to three years, like in the US. So their military culture did not embrace and define their dependents... and their civilian culture did not embrace and support returning veterans.

This would explain not only his continuing befuddlement at my thorough and unashamed preference with working with USAA (who are awesome) and laughter at "Of course they have a pre-marital fiscal counseling checklist! They're USAA! They have a checklist for everything!" - but it also means that after watching Act of Valor, he felt that enough foundation had been laid to attempt to bridge cultures and explain active service, and how combat changes a soldier (or sailor, or airman). What he found, to his surprise, was that I didn't need that. I already knew. I've been raised culturally to love and support my soldier, in the field and at home, and I don't need to have gone downrange to know that those who've been out where civilization has broken down, protecting us back in the good life, will be forever marked by that experience.

He's not weird, he's not strange, he's not broken or damaged... he's my sailor, my vet, my Calmer Half, and I love him from his goofy love for naughty limericks to the shrapnel still embedded along his spine, from the smile he gets when I come home to the way he manages to steal the comforter but not the sheet. He's the hand I'll squeeze bloodless, the shoulder I'll cry on, the explanation for what gun that was and how it was or wasn't used properly, the reminder that I was making tea ten minutes ago, and did I want this...stewed...cup, or a fresh one?

He's the man who stares into a distance I can't follow, seeing things that my military and police have protected me from having to see at home, and said softly, "That's really what it looks like, after a buddy jumps on a grenade to save your life." And I don't know what he's seeing, but I can see the pain he's feeling, and I can hug him tightly, and hold him, and tell him softly that I love him, and I'm very glad he made it home... because I have seen that pain before, under the wry jokes and the friendly ribbing, and watched my mother and the other wives treasure and support their husbands.

The scene where the wife holds it all together, being strong and calm and loving, in control and everything held together so the last thing her sailor sees when he's headed downrange is a happy, unstressed, loving wife.... and then when the door closes, sliding down it to cry at last? I try to never, ever have an argument with Calmer Half on the phone, and always quickly defuse or shelve it if I can, downplay any injuries or bad things, and present life as smooth as awesome - bone deep reflexes. You wait until your soldier's home before stressing him out with the daily minutiae. And I don't ask questions about what he saw or did out there, because the focus is always on being loving, supportive, and enjoying him in the here and now, making plans for the future. It's a little odd to civilian-raised friends when I literally can't tell you where in the world male members of my family are, because I never asked where they were heading - but if I don't need to know, I don't need to ask. It's only important that they come home safely, and if they're gone long enough, I know where to send care packages.

I knew that we'd have cultural gaps, but I was blindsided by his trepidation that he'd have to try to explain the military and combat to a civilian wife, and tentative hope that the movie would help me to understand. For learning on a gut deep level that his I-wanted-to-be-a-civilian wife already knows and supports him, and has never thought him strangely paranoid for normal combat-learned habit or broken and damaged for military-learned reflexes and reactions (physical and emotional), the movie tickets could have cost a hundred dollars each, and I'd have gladly paid.

As for that "Sh*t civilians say to soldiers" video that's making the rounds? If you ever hear those words coming out of my mouth and not in a sarcastic way, slap me, would you? 'Cause I'll need and deserve it.


  1. And you've said all the right things here, too. You've earned another hug - and I'd give you one if Calmer Half permitted. I wish I'd had more time to talk with him, too.

    This veteran salutes both of you.

  2. I was a Navy brat growing up ('70s)and was very happy - so many places and experiences. Our culture's aversion to martial virtues is sickening and debilitating. I've met so few in my profession who have an inkling of the dedication, courage and spirit a soldier/sailor/pilot breathes as life itself.
    I enjoyed your words.

  3. God bless you, dear lady, and your Calmer Half. Thank you both.

  4. Good post, and good points all...

  5. Well done, my hangar mate, well done.

    My ship is back in that well known hangar, missing the company of yours, but I'm happy yours is now with you down there. My love to you and Calmer Half. (If the wings don't wobble, it won't fly)

  6. What incredible insight!.
    I'm a ret'd vet, (NEVER been on the two-way range), but I think I might have a small idea of what it's like.
    Our two sons served, Paul still does, he was 'brassed up' in Iraq, not injured, but one either side of him died in the unarmoured vehicle, RPG's and automatic weapons.
    As for 'combat', I have a theory.
    Combat is undoubtedly the most traumatic event experienced in life. (I'm a mere male, so I cannot make comment about childbirth).
    My point is, at some time in life, many experience a personal 'combat', the most terrifying, potentially life threatening event they have been exposed to, or were part of.
    For me, it was Darwin, Australia, Christmas eve, 1974. The (small) city was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy, I was the only adult male in the house, my Wife and two baby sons and my mate's Wife and baby daughter were with me, my responsibility.
    Our house was destroyed around us, I had to make us safe. (I was scared absolutely sh*tless but could not, dare not, show it)
    We survived, all safe.
    Many years later I came to realise this was my 'combat'.
    A couple of years ago, Paul and I were having a weekend beer,
    He was across the table we talked about our 'combats', unloading so to speak.
    He did an incredible thing.
    He put his hand towards me, said, "Dad I never knew". We held each other's right hands, I looked into his eyes, as he did mine.
    Right then I realised that he understood my 'combat', as I understood his.
    An unexplainable bond, much more than just Father and Son.
    Now, we laugh at stuff others don't even see.
    One last thing. I always taught my boys to respect their Mother, always.
    He said to me, after coming back home, "Dad, I understand what you meant when you used to say, 'Your Mother gave you life, never forget that".
    He has'nt.
    Stuart Garfath,
    Sydney, Australia.