It was one of those old bulky blocks of black plastic and cell phone reception was still spotty in some places, but I could clearly hear my mother on the other line. She wanted me to get in front of a television as soon as possible.
So I continued my walk to the closest bar, ordered a beer, and sat horrified in front of the television with the rest of the world.
The date was September 11, 2001. And along with the shock and confusion and revulsion that everyone else was feeling, I had one overriding selfish thought:
They’re going to call me back…
I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army Infantry less than 30 days before the towers fell and I still had 5 years of inactive ready reserve duty on my enlistment contract. That meant I could be called back to active duty in times of extreme national emergency.
I had friends in the same situation who were called back. After being a civilian for a few years and thinking their days of military service were far behind them, they found themselves back in uniform among the heat and the dust and the blood in Iraq.
Nearly 27,000 inactive ready reserve soldiers were called back to duty.
But not me.
For whatever reason, I didn’t get the call.
And for that I will feel forever guilty and grateful…
My guilt has nothing to do with a desire to serve my country. All military personnel serve an important duty, whether during war or peace time, and my conscience is clear in that aspect.
My guilt revolves around the level of sacrifice that many soldiers made. If they didn’t make it back, they likely left behind a spouse and children. Or if they survived but brought a piece of the war back with them, their families may be disrupted by alcoholism, domestic violence, or suicide.
I have no wife.
I have no children.
And because of that, a part of me will always wish that I could have traded places with a soldier who did have a family.
So yes, I have some guilt about not being called to war. But mostly I feel grateful.
All military personnel, inlcuding those of us who only served during peace time, come to terms with dying. Even without war there will be moments during training or transport where the soldier realizes, “holy shit, I might die today!”
I personally experienced this holy shit moment in a helicopter, in the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and on an urban assault course with live bullets flying around.
Coming to terms with your own death is easy. But coming to terms with killing another person is entirely different…
You like to think you could do it if necessary. And being in the Infantry, killing the enemy is your main job when it comes right down to it. But until you put another human being in the sites of your assault rifle, I don’t think you can know whether or not you’ll actually pull the trigger.
And that’s a level of ignorance I am grateful to have.
I am grateful that I never had to kick in the door of a stranger’s home in a foreign land.
I am grateful that I only know about PTSD from what I’ve read.
I am grateful that I’ve never had to wonder if the woman standing next to me in the market is wearing a suicide vest.
I am grateful that I never counted down the days to when I was shipping home, only to have my tour extended at the last minute.
I am grateful that I never had to pick up the arms and legs of my fellow soldier who was just blown to bits by an IED.
I am grateful that my mother never had to attend my military funeral.
I am grateful for everyone who did get that call and did go to war.
And I am grateful that I never had to put another man in my cross-hairs and find out if I’d pull the trigger.
Memorial Day always has me reflect on the finiteness of life. When I make my yearly visit to the cemetery and look out at the rows of flags, I realize how lucky I am to be here.
Some government computer failed to select my number. That’s it. But for that random omission, there could be an American flag adorning my gravesite today.
And with this appreciation for life and a respect for the unpredictability of its end, I move forward with a desire for freedom, travel, and adventure.
Effective Tuesday, May 26, 2015, Coda and I will be living in a van and traveling the United States and Canada (I’ll write more about the whys and the hows of van life later). If you’d like to meet up at a park or other dog-friendly location, let me know in the comments or shoot me an email.
Below is our tentative travel plan for the next few months:
End of May and June: Michigan mostly with brief stops in Ohio.
July 2 – 8: Road trip from Chicago to Portland. Where should we stop in between?
July 8 – 13: Portland, Oregon.
Mid July – early August: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and other parts of the Pacific Northwest.
August – September: Slowly working south through California, ending in San Diego.
To stay up to date on our latest adventures, be sure to sign up for my daily email newsletter at the link below:
Where should we go? What should we see? If you could travel to any city in the U.S. or Canada, where would you go and during which month? Let me know in the comments below.
P.S. If you are reading this on Memorial Day, please take a moment to remember our fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. Thank you.