What We Talk About When We Talk About My Military Career

Lots of people want to talk to Ryan Björklund about his service in Iraq, but few actually want to listen to what he has to say. 

 

I sometimes find myself caught in awkward social interactions where, in order to maintain composure, I must find an imperfection on the other person’s forehead at which to stare. The aforementioned forehead is often sternly compacted to indicate a sense of empathy for me and my perceived selflessness in helping to wage the War on Terror. Whether it is sincere or just a bullshit gesture for the sake of appearances matters little to me. During this exchange, I must constantly remind myself not to get caught up in the misplaced sincerity of today’s American patriot.

This is an adaptation of a skill that’s essential to any military career: While standing at the position of attention or parade rest,  one learns to stare intensely at something in front of him in order to showcase his discipline and military bearing. My new version of that stare is less intense, more ambiguous–akin to the gaze of an aloof , aging guard dog. Having settled into this stare, I’m now ready to receive the fulsome gratitude of my fellow patriotic civilians.

♦◊♦

I had been deployed to Iraq from 2008-2009, with the 555th Engineer Brigade out of Ft. Lewis, Washington, but served with the “Fightin’” 5th Engineer Battalion out of Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. Most of my time was spent behind a machine gun in the turret of an MRAP vehicle (what most people who play video games would refer to as an APC, or “Armored Personnel Carrier”). The heavy fighting had ended long ago, and a sense of boredom and restlessness characterized the sort of work we were doing. Most of my unit’s missions consisted of driving down long stretches of road to ensure that there were no newly placed IEDs, rebuilding structures that had been destroyed during past military actions, and meeting with representatives of USACE and Iraqi army commanders who formerly been under the supervision of Saddam Hussein. Sure, there were very brief moments of “action”–all of which ended almost as quickly as they began. Nothing worth writing about, creatively or otherwise, and certainly nothing I feel obligated to share with the type of person who would ask a total stranger about his military service.

In the course of these encounters, I’ve found people to be clearly divided into two groups:  the smug “pro-soldier, anti-war” intellectual, and the crusading war hawk who enthusiastically voted Bush into his second term. Both types of individual normally ask questions that presuppose answers that serve only to reinforce their preexisting biases. The liberal typically asks something like this: “What was it like being so young, risking your life for Exxon-Mobil? Did wounded civilians get medical treatment, too? Iraqi prisoners get abused a lot, huh? You seem intelligent, why didn’t you just go to college?”  It is possible these individuals were once American Apparel corduroy capri-wearing protestors who spent their undergrad years picketing outside ROTC buildings, but are now highbrow grad students who have simply found sexier causes to advocate. Gay marriage, the disparity of wealth in the US, illegal diamond mines in Africa, illegal sex trafficking in Latin America, etc. Hotter topics, and things that actually matter today.

On the other side, you’ve got the armchair generals. From them, one can expect fervent double-handed handshakes, red-state political commentary (“Don’t you think we’d all be safer with a defense of marriage bill?”), non sequiturs relating to the Second Amendment, and obnoxious jabbering to passersby to take note of what “real heroes” look like.  One distinct advantage to dealing with this sort of character is that that they are likely to buy you multiple drinks at the bar. “How many people did you kill?  Do the women really wear ninja suits? What the hell is a Sunni? Is that different from a Shi’ite? Shi’ite, huh? Who gives a Shi’ite?” While they typically haven’t served in any branch of the armed forces, they always seem to know someone who has. They invariably manage to find a way to share a story heralding their (brother-in-law’s, father’s, somebody’s) military accomplishments before I can find a way to politely excuse myself from the table.

♦◊♦

Such conversations mean more to these people than they do to me. It’s as if the person with whom I’m talking wants to use my experience as a means of reinforcing his or her own views. They’re not so much genuinely interested in my experience as on a quest to authenticate their worldliness through my firsthand testimony. They want to talk about the actions of characters in “The Hurt Locker” while reaffirming their view of soldiers as angsty teenagers with a license to kill in a foreign land and relishing–in a way I’ll never understand–how sexy I must’ve looked while saving the day.

What few people want to hear, however, are candid accounts of soldiers returning home only to endure nightmare-induced outbursts of rage.  They do not want to listen to tales of the bitter, frustrated desperation associated with falling out of love with unfaithful wives or girlfriends. They have no desire to learn about babies that have grown into toddlerhood and  are now afraid of the stranger living in their house. Alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide:  such subjects are huge downers. Yet absent lived experience of the situation overseas, how could my eager listeners ever understand that teenage angst can become adult despair in less than a year’s time?

Photo–Ryan Björklund  Note: the author wants readers to understand that the picture with the aviators that appears at the beginning of this column was intended as a joke, on account of the fact that these sunglasses are unapproved eyewear in the combat theater.  For a more appropriate (and more personal) photo, scroll down to his author bio at the bottom of the page.

 

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About Ryan Bjorklund

While a high school junior, Ryan Björklund went to Australia on a student exchange program. Although an invaluable experience for him, it also depleted all the money he had accumulated for college tuition. Upon receiving zero scholarships despite scoring above-average on the ACT, he joined the US Army and served from 2006-2012, working as an ammo supply specialist, engineer, and cavalry scout. He was honorably discharged as a 19D20 (SGT) cavalry scout from Ft. Bliss, TX and now lives in Pittsburgh.

Comments

  1. SPC Justin M. Gilbert says:

    Fuck yea ryan you the man. Love ya bro :)

  2. Andres Alvarez says:

    We all have questions and opinions about war and democracy. Trying to self appoint ourselves as experts without experiencing both by first hand is pointless. Maybe being in the presence of someone who has experience and has a better knowledge of the same will make us think that their goals and ours goals are a bit bigger than just opinions and words… they might inspire us to follow them and ask .. because we have already acknowledged that we do not know best.

    great article hope to read more in the future.

  3. Thank you for sharing a story of what it’s like to be objectified. You have a wonderful voice, and I would love to read more by you.

  4. Valter Viglietti says:

    Thank you Ryan.
    I admit – a bit shamingly ;) – I’m one of those “smug intellectual”, and I admit my own prejudices.

    But, after reading your honest and thoughtful words, I’d be really interested into listening to “what few people want to hear”. I think that would be much more useful, to my understanding, than expressing my own prejudices.
    I hope to read you again soon.

  5. Kendall says:

    Love you cousin! This is great!

  6. Transhuman says:

    I remember speaking with my cousins, after they completed national service in South Africa. Their stories were very different to what the “public” conversation was like at social gatherings. I’ve never cleared a minefield but I won’t forget what my middle cousin told me about the unrelenting fear that each step could mean pain, dismemberment or death. The fury that I can only describe as incandescent when my oldest cousin described learning they had spent an hour clutching the ground expecting to die under a mortar bombardment that turned out to be from his own side. I remember people saying it was “understandable” that my oldest would visibly flinch when doors slammed. They made jokes about him diving for cover behind a sofa.

    Too much focus on what they wanted the fighting, the forced enlistment or whatever the agenda surrounding the politics was, to mean to them. Scant attention was paid to what these young men endured.

  7. Allison H. says:

    You brought up some good points in this article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    I was wondering how you feel about being publicly thanked for your service…for example, when there’s an active duty military personnel in uniform on a flight, sometimes the flight attendant will ask for applause to honor that person’s commitment. Also, national sports teams will give out free tickets to games to veterans so they can “thank the troops for their service” by turning the cameras on the section of veterans to fill a block of time during a lull in the game.

  8. Not all of us who are pro-soldier, anti-war are “smug” about it; nor is it our latest “cause,” as if it were some sort of fashion. Some of us have just had our fill of wars which are difficult to define in terms of national security vs. other agendas. We’re not even a score of years into the 21st Century, and America is sabre-rattling its way into a third war. Why? Let’s not colonize the moon, and go to Mars and the rest of the solar system! Let’s fight yet another dubious war! Let’s send more of our best and brightest to be wounded and killed, and not given proper care when they get back from their tours. Sounds like a path to success to me! Best regards!

  9. Brenda says:

    Congrats on going to a university :)

  10. I guess what I would like to know and what would be most helpful to me personally and professionally (because I have lot of vets in my life in both spheres) is how to convey that I am open to listening about all those hard things to listen to. It seems kind of pushy to poke and prod about those sorts of things after all I don’t know what you are comfortable talking about. But I also don’t want to be so passive where it seems as though I don’t want to hear about it.

    In the end with some of them it comes to a point of crisis and it all spills and I listen but want to shake them and say, “Hey you could have told me before it got to this. It would have been ok.” I don’t. I know when I was dealing with PTSD issues and some other stuff it was helpful to just be able to say the ugly stuff and send it out in the world and not have it sitting on me. So some people knew it wasn’t all peaches and flowers all the time.

  11. Great writing …. glad you shared this and wish more people would listen.

  12. The Wet One says:

    It will be a happy day when humans collectively decide not to kill one another. That day won’t be coming soon (if ever), but hope springs eternal. At the very least, we can be certain that the peace of the dead will one day be with us.

    As for this article, yeah, I’ve got nothing constructive to say, but we all knew that already.

    Cheers!

    The Wet One

  13. Ryan: Thank you VERY much for your service. I really appreciate it.

    Allison H.: I am in the military. Most of my fellow airmen really appreciate it when we are thanked for our service. I feel somewhat uncomfortable about it as I don’t like the attention, but, I accept their thanks graciously and tell them that I appreciate their support.

    Kat: The right moment would have to present itself for me to want to be able to sincerely discuss my experiences in Iraq. Most people don’t ask. The ones that do ask have only seem to want gory details in quick, 30-second type sound bites. I would need to see real sincerity and caring in a person making such a request. And, we’d have to be in a situation that won’t cause me to be rushed.

  14. I get incredibly frustrated when I run into either of the two people that you describe, even just from an aloof political standpoint. The liberal is actually more annoying to me because I cannot just hate and ignore him

  15. You left out one other stereotype– the returned soldier with a chip on his shoulder, aloof and full of the “secret knowledge” of having once been in combat. Get over yourself, pal. You want understanding from civilians? ain’t going to happen. Be happy this war around they didn’t spit on you when you got off the plane. You signed up of your own free will, you did your duty, and you managed to get home in one piece. Now you want understanding? really? or is it more of I was there… I KNOW! (and you don’t). Here’s a truism: you signed up and risked your ass so clueless idiots could have the right to be cheerfully ignorant and run around spouting their slogans and tweeting happily about nonsense. It’s the American way. Now go to school, get your degree, start a family, and be glad you can still wipe your own ass. (and you can keep the smugness of your secret knowledge– you’ve earned it).

  16. Justin C. Cliburn says:

    You are right on so many levels. People want to hear the crazy combat-related stories, but those aren’t the stories that necessarily resonate with you after you return. I’ve found that I have to “read” people in order to give an answer that will not start an argument. Everyone’s war experience is unique to that individual. What we can all agree on is how awkward the conversations you described can be. I grew up in a military town and lived there for five years after returning from Iraq. Now that I live in a “normal” city, I find myself in your situation much more often. You did a great job explaining why so often it’d be so much easier to just say “I don’t want to talk about” . . . if that didn’t seem so cliche.

  17. Brother! You’re amazing !! Love you

  18. Well, don’t I feel like a prick now. I’m sure my dark forehead probably contained more interest than the brain behind it. I guess sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

Speak Your Mind