“So like, did you go to combat or anything?”
I had to smile a little bit when they said that. I’d never heard the question posed that way before. I’m used to the blank stares, the awkward silences and the sideways glances of my fellow undergraduates when I tell them that yes, I am a sophomore and no, not the grad student kind. Sometimes it’s fun to let their indecision of whether or not to question me hang in the air like a silent and unclaimed fart, but usually I just tell them:
“I served in the Navy for 10 years.”
The most common responses usually include “Did you deploy? How was it?” and “That must’ve been crazy!” But asking “Did you go to combat?” at a pizza social as casually as you’d ask Tom Cruise if he did his own stunts in “Mission: Impossible” is like asking, “Did you sleep in a rat-infested hole? Did you wake up to the sound of bullets hitting the wall above your head? Did you have to carry your dead friend’s body to a helicopter?” It’s like asking, I can only imagine, a trans person whether they’ve “had the surgery” or a person in a wheelchair “what their disability is.” It’s not that I find it particularly offensive or insensitive, just a little stifling.
You see, veteran experiences vary widely. Some find themselves on submarines, breathing recycled air and sleeping in shared bunks in shifts. Some stare at monitors in bunkers, working for three-letter agencies and not seeing daylight for weeks at a time. Some work on engines. Some float around on hospital ships. Some do search and rescue. Some simply stack paper and push pencils for hour after thankless hour, keeping oil in the cogs of the massive and rusty military machine. Every role is crucial and, just like no other minority should be stereotyped based on the details of their experience, a veteran’s contribution is difficult to define by the amount of gunfire they sent or received, how close they were to explosions or how many planes they jumped out of.
Even “Thank you for your service” — while well-meaning — is loaded because a lot of us question whether we did “enough.” Personally, while I can answer yes to the questions about the sleeping conditions, the gunfire and carrying my friend’s body, I’m still insecure about the validity of my experiences. Does it count as real “combat” if I didn’t kick down any doors, shoot shoulder-fired rockets or cover babies from shrapnel with my body? More importantly, is it right to romanticize, almost fetishize, the war experience like that?
There seem to be two stereotypes centered around veterans. We’re either riding T-Rexes, toting gleaming machine guns and leading troops valiantly into combat, or drinking our trauma-damaged brains away and throwing puppies off of rooftops. But the reality is that the vast majority of us are floating between those extremes. We’re a bunch of people from all genders, orientations, socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds with reasons for joining that are just as diverse as we are, and often left unfulfilled in the purposed we set out for.
Stanford brings us here for a reason which, at least for me, is not my scruffy beard and balding head. When we make our voices heard, we bring the stakes of the world we come from to the table of the classroom. We have skin in the game. When we don’t, we leave our peers to the mercy of romanticized movies and sensationalized news. And although my experiences might seem abnormal to you, every single one of you has overcome something I can’t begin to imagine. But I want to, and I want us to grow together.
Good questions are uncomfortable questions, and I’d rather you ask any question than none at all. I just want to warn you. Not all veterans will be able to answer that yes, they’ve been to combat, and if they can’t, it might seem like their experiences are diminished in value. If they can, don’t expect their stories to be uplifting or tie up in neat little bows of resolution and especially mistrust anyone who says, “Yeah, it was just like Call of Duty III.”
The bottom line is that I’m glad you asked. I don’t want you to feel like you have to bust out your phone and Google the top 10 most appropriate questions. I don’t want to correct you or educate you, nor make you tiptoe around potential conversational landmines. I just want to help you understand the complexity of the question you’re asking.
That being said, if you do like combing for needles of hope in haystacks of human absurdity, I encourage you to reach out to any of your veteran peers. We’ll be happy to talk to you. In the meantime, if you do run into me, you’re welcome to ask me if I went to combat. Just plan on having time to spare.
Finally, for my fellow veterans, whether or not you “went to combat…”
Thank you for your service.
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.