“I don’t even know you…… you look good on paper, I guess” were the last words she said to me before she walked out and cut any ties or association to me forever. I’ve thought about that comment a lot the last few weeks. After months of deployment conversations, skypes, e-mails and letting my guard down and sharing on such a deep, personal, and soulful level– it felt a little like a punch in the gut. It’s succinctness and coldness in sharp contrast to the warmness and empathy I had experienced in all our conversations prior to that. To be fair, this wasn’t my first break up– not even the first time I’ve been dumped. But this one stung a little differently than the rest– maybe because I had found someone to finally open up to– I felt safe and it came back to bite in a painful way at a time when I least expected.
My story is not anything special among my circles of peers. Broken engagements, divorces, bad relationships– it seems a lot of my peers get it wrong more than they get it right. And in the wake of it all, spiteful women that swear never to date someone in the military again. It kind of breaks my heart because I see what they don’t– how those men live their lives every day and what they sacrifice out of love– but sometimes that isn’t enough.
So allow me to set the record straight. Strap yourself in and prepare for some good old fashioned disillusionment. The military is one of those professions that falls into an idealized romanticism. It does look good on paper– travel to exotic places, doing cool things like jumping out of planes, rappelling out of helicopters, driving tanks, shooting weapons, leading soldiers, and don’t forget about those dress blues– it’s enough to make any woman weak at the knees. I have a pretty good collection of pictures– kind of like a highlight film of my life– taken snippet by snippet over the years.
And yes, I did do those things. There is nothing fake about them– we did it. But there’s something missing– the spaces in between. And this is what I’m going to talk about with you now.
For some of you, I’m about to tell you Santa Claus doesn’t exist. But it needs to be said. Life in the military is not a recruitment video. In fact, it can be really hard, boring, even monotonous. People in the military are not yellow ribbon poster-boy heroes– many of them have done heroic things– but by and large they are normal people that have normal human emotions.
But they chose a different path– one that puts things like duty and service above the obligations to family, happiness, and comfort.
What does that look like?
It looks like waking up at 4 am– it doesn’t matter if your sick, sore, tired, bad weather or anything else and dragging yourself into work for physical training. It looks like 15 hour work days working right through lunch– or as late as it takes to finish your work. And when your work is finished? You go work out again because that’s what it takes. Sometimes the work is just dreadful– no cool guy stuff– inventorying serial numbers and updating hand receipts on every piece of equipment you have, updating readiness trackers, or writing lengthy orders and requests to resource training 6 weeks from now. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone’s birthday or anniversary or if you made plans for a date night or are expecting a text…. the Army doesn’t care.
It looks like getting home at 7 or 8 pm exhausted and knowing you have just enough time to make dinner, shower, watch a TV show or take an hour of personal time before you are in bed preparing to wake up and do it all again.
It looks like going to the field for training, sometimes for weeks at a time, sometimes without a cell phone, sometimes on holidays. It looks like missing Christmas and Thanksgiving 6 out of 7 years with your family. It looks like not going home regardless of how much you miss it. It looks like calling home to your family only to small talk because there is no way they would ever understand– even if you tell them– and even if they do their best to listen.
It looks like deployments… again and again and again. Not knowing until the last minute where you are going, or why, or for how long.
It looks like uncertainty. About your future. About your relationships. About your family. About your career. Where will I be assigned next? What is my next job?
It looks like doubt. Doubt that you are not giving enough. Doubt that there’s something more you could do. In private, alone, dealing with it, spacing out and just thinking– should I have done that differently? Or tried this? What can I do to better myself for my soldiers. What can I learn from all this?
It looks like burden. The responsibility for those under you. The responsibility to those to your right and left. And their families. And their children. And their relationships. Then finally, after all that, you worry about you.
It looks like guilt. Knowing that there are those going through way worse, those that have given much more, and that ultimately you have no room to complain and you owe it to them to find that extra inch.
It looks like frustration, anger, and pain– because you care and you know that there’s always one more thing you can do or should be doing. And you take all that and channel it into making yourself better– you use that as a tool to motivate you and push beyond your perceived limits– the more it hurts, the more you keep going.
It looks like not quitting and not making excuses. Not ever. Not for anyone.
It looks like pressure. Trying to live up to your oaths and your creed and your commitments and at times falling short. But picking yourself back up again and trying to fix your mistakes and improve because people depend on you.
It looks like failure. Sometimes failure that stings so bad you go off alone to vomit or just sit and think to yourself. And knowing full well that it is necessary– because that is how you become stronger and that is how you build character.
It looks like loneliness at night– by yourself missing your friends, missing your family, missing anyone. And actually looking forward to work because at least there people will understand and you feel connected to them…. because it’s all you’ve ever known.
It looks like 2 weeks of leave and trying to make up for 50 weeks of lost living by cramming everything together. And then feeling confused because you don’t really remember what you should be doing, what it means to relax, or how to be normal.
It looks like hopelessness at times. Watching the news and seeing current events, that mean nothing to everyone else in the room, but to you look like a decade of service, lost friends, and war– that is personal to you– and having to ask yourself “Was it all for nothing? Does anyone even care anymore?” and then to find the strength to keep the faith– because that is your job and even in your darkest hour you have to believe.
And finally, it looks like broken relationships– because you weren’t what they expected and they just don’t understand and why do you act the way you do. And they thought they could handle it– but they didn’t know “it” would be like “this”.
If you make it through all that– maybe, just maybe you will succeed. Maybe just maybe you will do something for others and make a difference. And can look back on a life spent in the service of others. Service is a very powerful word. And it brings with it a lot of meaning. And maybe…just maybe… you will begin to actually be as good as you look to others on paper.
The thoughts conveyed in this article are the writer’s alone, and the following content does not reflect the official views or policies of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, the United States Military Academy or the United States Government.
Ty Stephens is a Native of East Texas, and he is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point with a BS in International Relations. After commissioning in 2011 as an Infantry Officer, he has served as both a Armored Platoon Leader and a Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader while assigned to 1st Battalion 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Ft. Riley, Kansas. He has deployed in support of Operation Shared Accord to South Africa in 2013 and Operation Enduring Freedom- Horn of Africa in 2014. Ty has traveled to the North, Latin and South Americas, Western Europe, and South Asia. Ty enjoys the outdoors and adventure sports.