U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Erik S. Anderson/Released

About the author:
A Massachusetts native, P.J. White has served on three combat tours in Southwest Asia since 2006, and is a former member of the elite US Army Parachute Team, The Golden Knights. He has been a contributing writer for Harris Publications since 2008.

“Daddy, why are you crying?”
It was Memorial Day in a small New England town, otherwise unremarkable from many other cozy bedroom communities in that area, and yet on this particular day, I stood alongside my father in a light drizzle as the American Legion rendered a 21-gun salute to the fallen. My father turned to me and quietly explained, in the best words he had at that moment, that he had lost many of his OCS classmates in Vietnam, and that this particular day was very difficult for him. I remember thinking that this was all very profound, seeing my normally stoic father crying, the sharp-looking American Legion veterans crisply working the actions on what I later came to recognize as being lovingly maintained ‘03 Springfields, and seeing the other small children scrambling in the wet grass afterwards, searching in earnest for the spent blank casings.

I didn’t understand the totality of what I had just witnessed, but I realized even at that young age that it was something profoundly important, something that had my father’s utmost respect. And so it earned my curious respect also. recently asked me to write an article on what the Fourth of July means to deployed servicemen and servicewomen. More specifically, what does that particular holiday feel like, taste like and smell like, while experienced from within the boundaries of the Hostile Fire areas to which our military is presently deployed? I must say that I was a bit taken aback by the request, and at first I was rather reticent to even take the assignment. What does that even mean, “What does the Fourth feel like?”

I really hadn’t pondered its meaning in that context before, any more than I pondered the deeper significance of that particular holiday at any other time in my life. It is most assuredly a great American holiday, perhaps the greatest one of all. But overseas, it is often perceived as being just another day in the “sandbox,” with all of the associated dust, smells, boredom, noise, trials and tribulations. Sure, there may be an impromptu (and liquorless) barbeque with the guys, or a USO tour might come to visit the larger bases on that particular day, or maybe the engineers will entreat an assembled crowd to a fougasse demonstration in lieu of fireworks. But more often than not, it is just another day of missing home, and carrying out one’s assigned duties, just like any other day “over there.”

But the very assignment begged the question: Do people back in the States really understand what being there is all about? Not politically—that is best left to the pundits and the politicians to sort out. But from within the ranks, how can we tell them what it feels like to be there? Do people know? Can they comprehend? Do they even care anymore? After all, approximately only 1 percent of the U.S. population has been at war for ten years, with the majority of the rest only serving to offer up their unqualified opinions on the matter; occasionally celebrating a “big win” and then going back to their daily lives without giving much additional thought to those who are serving in harm’s way on their behalf. So, I felt obligated to give a glimpse, if only through my own perceptions, as to what I have felt while serving overseas on that particular day. But it wasn’t the day that was remarkable. I can barely remember what happened on the Fourth on any of my three combat tours. I can only say with the utmost confidence that I felt the same thing every day I was over there, including the Fourth of July.

Photo courtesy of the Singapore Navy/Released

I felt honored.
There is a reason combat veterans don’t often speak of their experiences with the uninitiated public. I believe many feel that it is easier not to discuss such things, because many of us share the overwhelming belief that words don’t carry enough weight to communicate what it feels like to serve in combat. It changes everything. I believe it changes people for the better, in most cases. This partially explains the exceptionally high re-enlistment rates currently enjoyed by all the services at this tumultuous and uncertain time in our country’s history. We are an all-volunteer force, comprised of people from all walks of life. People who want to be there, even those with multiple tours under their belts. Some have been wounded in combat, only to be rehabilitated and fight to return to duty. Most civilian employers can’t manage to get all of their employees to show up to work on time, but in this profession, people go to great lengths just to be able to keep coming to work.

In my youthful years, I often caught snippets of conversation exchanged amongst the menfolk at family gatherings, exchanged between those who had experienced war firsthand. Those fortunate souls had “seen the elephant,” and had it not been for the presence of some alcohol, their stories might have remained silent, only to be shared with others at the VFW. It all sounded very romantic, dashing and fascinating to me, and I must admit, those stories played a part in my later decision to join the military. I wanted to be one of the “splendid few” who served their country and experienced all that the military had to offer. Those murmured war stories about World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the lesser commented upon but equally important military actions of the late 20th century, all shaped my young mind. I needed to serve and I wanted to serve. I wanted to join that brotherhood more than I wanted any other one thing in my teenage life—which says a lot, since teenagers tend to want EVERYTHING, and right now!

Before my first tour, a senior, battle-hardened NCO told me that I would see the best in people while serving overseas, and that I would also see the best people having their worst days imaginable. Days that the average civilian would never be able to comprehend. I bet that I couldn’t pay the average civilian $100,000 to run across a street that had bullets whizzing down it, but I know for a fact that members of our military perform this feat on a daily occurrence, and for far less money. But with that experience, people also change.

They become more appreciative of their country and the freedoms they enjoy, as compared to those people they encounter daily in less fortunate parts of the world than our own. They appreciate the great personal sacrifices military people great and small have made in the furtherance of freedom and liberty. And they appreciate the innate kinship shared with those who have suffered, grieved, celebrated and triumphed alongside them. Those bonds are life-lasting, and are really the focus of this piece, as all of the semantics really lead up to those key elements.

An inseparable bond between like-minded individuals engaged in similar pursuits, in furtherance of a common goal. How different that is from everyday society, where each person has his or her own agenda? Nobody looks out for you, or cares how you are in today’s society; perhaps nobody outside of your family and close circle of friends, that is. But what about strangers who wear the same flag on their uniform? Strangers of every ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious background you can think of. The same diversity that makes America both unique, and yet often at odds with itself. Those people care about their fellow service members in a selfless manner that would make the most generous civilian, embarrassed. They might not even know you, or be from the same unit (or even the same service), but they sure as heck will rush to put their lives on the line to help you when their help is needed most. Why? Because you are an American. You are one of them—one of their own. Selfless service. Integrity. Honor. Courage. Respect. Strong words to be sure, but until their true meaning is felt within the context of belonging to something larger than oneself, it is all just semantics.

After experiencing that sense of belonging for myself, I wonder if I don’t actually pity those who will live out a whole lifetime and never experience that sense of belonging to something as wonderful as the Brotherhood of Arms.

Police, Fire, EMS, medical personnel, and others who band together to go into harm’s way or serve the greater good also tell me that they share similar bonds to that shared within the military ranks. In fact, professional courtesy is often extended by law enforcement to members of the military, almost without a second thought. It is no wonder that many in law enforcement also previously served in the military, as the drives appear similar—a duty to serve others, at grave risk to oneself. I am not one of them, so I can’t pretend to know for sure; in their realm, I am the uninitiated one. But, I must suppose that this same bond, this kinship, is most evident at a gathering of people who enjoy any of these professions.

Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

But it so lacks in the retelling. Speaking of it almost trivializes what it is really all about. How can a patrol officer explain the feelings related to his or her first vehicle pursuit to a civilian who has never experienced these things? How can a firefighter explain how it feels to hear that someone is trapped within a burning building, knowing it is their job to go in and attempt a rescue, knowing that the building may collapse at any second? How can a woman put the full emotional and physical experience of childbirth into words, with all of the associated emotions, joy and physical discomfort that go along with it? Words just don’t do these things justice. These events are deeper than words can convey. And combat is one of those experiences where words escape us when we try to explain how it feels to be there.

At the end of my first deployment, a military chaplain asked our assembled group to look right and left as we were seated before him. We were heading home from a fairly rough tour, and we were ready to be home with our loved ones. But the chaplain wisely counseled us to take note of those we sat with, because these individuals were also our family now. People we could call in 20 years and say we needed help with some pressing matter, who would unhesitatingly be on the next plane to come to our aid. Those words stuck, and have since proven themselves time and time again.

People I had served with in the past, some long ago, traveled long distances and incurred great expense to attend my wedding. An FBI SWAT agent friend of mine, who had also served in Iraq, was undergoing a bone marrow transplant for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (ostensibly contracted as a result of working the toxic pit at Ground Zero) and said that his being unable to attend the wedding as a result of his ongoing treatment was a “lame excuse.” And he meant it. We shared that brotherhood also, albeit through different professions.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark Logico/Released

With my military friends, certain dates where we lost someone overseas would arrive, and the phone would ring or an email would appear in the inbox, asking how I was doing and telling me in that peculiar military manner that I was loved and missed without ever coming close to saying those exact words. It is just known. It seems as though the same words that escape us when we try to explain what it feels like to others also escape us when we tell one another that we are missed. And I believe that being missed is the strongest compliment there is. The concept that an event, or perhaps even a whole life, is incomplete without a particular someone’s presence. Those same calls and emails also occur with the birth of a child, a promotion ceremony, a transition to civilian life, or a graduation of a son or daughter from high school. It seems that no major life event is truly complete to a combat veteran without including at least one of his or her “war buddies” in the process.

And so, at the end of this whole written, convoluted journey, I still have no good answer for What does the Fourth mean to a deployed service member? I don’t know. Probably a million different things on a topical scale, ranging from the profound to the mundane. But that very question made me again take that walk within myself, and relive all of the emotions related to my wartime experiences, and remember those friendships that helped me become the man I am today. And I wouldn’t trade those things for anything in this world.

Maybe the lesson here is that after all this ruminating, all of this self-assessment, there are no words to describe any of it. To truly understand what it is all about, you need to live it.

So, with all that being said, Happy Birthday, America. I hope I have finally earned my place here. Because now I cry on Memorial Day, just like my father does. And he and I needn’t speak a word between us to understand why.

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