The Veteran is on a bus in Chicago wearing greens and camo, a bag of luggage on the seat beside him. He left a boy and is now a man. Long ago he passed the commonly accepted threshold for manhood in the United States, being twenty-eight years of age, but only now can he lay all doubts about his worth to rest. He was dissolved and reborn anew in the flames of service. He not only entered the service willingly but walked away with a Post-9/11 GI Bill, paid in full. No longer will he fear the grasp of college debt. The proof is not just in his uniform but in his DD Form 214, which he keeps enclosed in a translucent blue file buried in the bag beside him, where it rests comfortably alongside his high school diploma, certificates of training, and letters sent from loved ones (some present, some past) during basic training. There is another document, a VA disability decision letter. The second section on the letter is titled Decision, and beneath this heading is the following text: “Evaluation of bipolar II disorder: hypomanic, with anxious distress, with rapid cycling, with moodcongruent psychotic features, severe.” The Veteran does not like to think about this. But he thinks about it again and again.
The Veteran has a name but has become his title in the eyes of family and friends. His hair, cropped short in the service, has blossomed into a fro, the curl and bounce from the Black blood in his veins and the lengthening of the curl from the Indigenous. His peanut-butter skin has darkened into chestnut in the sun, its rays absorbed in the flurry of local concerts and festivals he’s attended all summer long. He has begun lifting weights with his girlfriend (of similar background, brainpower, and beauty) and has taken up arm wrestling after two shots of whiskey. The Veteran revels in the glory of victory, hosts parties in his doorless one-bedroom in a nice neighborhood, takes in smoke and firewater. Everywhere he turns he meets faces old and new that say “congratulations,” that say “you made it,” that say “I never expected this of you.” The repetition of the first two annoy the Veteran yet he smiles anyway. But it is the third, rarer and more a lighthearted nudge than a verdict, that he smiles and laughs at, yet inwardly thinks they’re more right that they think, that maybe he was never meant to succeed, that his honorable discharge was more glitch in the system than actual judgment, and the actual decision was that he should have returned home with nothing at all.
The Veteran has a plan: he will go to school and get a degree in computer science. He already completed two years an eon ago, so another two years means there’s more than enough for graduate school. He chose this university because it is the most diverse university in the city, and because he figured there would be many other older students. He was right on both counts but no matter how many Black and brown folks like himself he meets, no matter how many older students or veterans he encounters, he cannot shake a growing sense of alienation. He is more diligent in his classes than he ever has been before, but he is bored, lulled to sleep by empty code and numbers and unstimulated by the clubs and organizations. He speaks to other students but cannot call them friends. Most of his class discussions involve him speaking and hearing his voice echo. Two semesters pass before he decides to change schools. It is the first college of three.
Every summer the Veteran receives an invitation to the Wounded Warrior Games. In theory he has the right to attend, for he is a Wounded Warrior. He knows it would be good to attend and meet other veterans and hear their stories and how they found ways to continue onward. But he has no Purple Heart, no scars from a blast of shrapnel. His wounds are invisible. He plays with the idea of attending like a cat swipes at a ball of tightly wound yarn—it’s free, it’s a way to network—but in the end he never does. For whenever the thoughts begin to take on substance, he drifts to the truth that he has retained the use of all his limbs, a privilege that not all veterans have, and he simultaneously feels a flush of shame and the cold of alienation.
The Veteran is with friends at a log cabin in northern Wisconsin, celebrating his now ex-girlfriend’s birthday. They are all high, but he is inexplicably sober. The Veteran watches the sunset and the twilight and the stars and then has a realization. “People always talk about wanting to do art, but they never do the work. Directors need to make films, painters need to complete paintings, and writers need to write books.” He is speaking to his friends, but he is also speaking to the sky. His friends look at him, and then they stare. “That’s just philosophy,” one of them says. The Veteran continues to talk. No one else responds. Soon they all go inside and eat and watch television and sleep, but the Veteran cannot sleep. The Veteran cleans up their mess, steps outside, and listens to the flutter of hummingbirds and the clank of the wind chimes as the dawn heralds the sunrise.
The Veteran is majoring in business and has chosen a creative writing class as an elective. While he quickly realized the choice in major was a mistake, this particular class is a treat, and he needs no external motivation to guide him. But during the last meeting of his creative writing class, one of the better writers is missing. Several students said they wished he’d attended. The Veteran was acquainted with him, as he had added him to Facebook after a chance encounter. He suggests that they contact the missing student through Facebook. The Veteran figured this was a direct solution to a problem. The students all looked at the Veteran and laughed and said that was the behavior of a stalker. Even the professor joined in. The Veteran was furious, but then he realized how they were all the same—they all followed the same social conventions, all looked the same, all reeked of wealth and privilege and other metrics the Veteran lacked. This was not a new realization— he had known all along—but the Veteran had refused to acknowledge this until this moment. After this, a sign-up sheet for future critique sessions between students is passed around, but the Veteran already knows there is no point in trying. When the Veteran gets home, he decides to take a break from further education.
The Veteran is beginning to think that all that he has gained since his release—a free education, healthcare, the ability to support his family—is being outweighed by all he has lost—strong friendships, ease of communication, a sense of belonging. He is thinking of how crabs in a bucket will pull down a crab that is trying to escape. He relates to the crab, its exposed exoskeleton an apt symbol of his own title. He thinks about his diagnosis, and considers the possibility that he is the problem, not Them. For he knows the answer to who broke ranks.
The Veteran, not in school, spends forty hours a week in various cafés. He copies sentences verbatim from books he likes, fiction and nonfiction alike. He keeps an irregular journal. He works on projects and stops but picks them up again. Many friends express interest in what he does, and he invites them to join him. Sometimes they accept. They meet him and spend a range of thirty minutes to an hour engaged in various tasks until they are bored and ask if the Veteran would rather get a drink instead. The Veteran is disappointed, but always says yes.
Two years back in civilian jeans and flannel, the Veteran still questions if he is truly a veteran. He remembers being in Keesler Air Force Base and standing at ease as a two-star general smiled at them all and said “all of you are veterans” even though he and the others were still in tech school. He knows that on Veteran’s Day he can get free meals from Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. He knows he uses a Military Service Pass that gives him free rides on Chicago public transit. He knows only some ten percent of soldiers engage in direct combat. He knows that he is a veteran in a legal sense. He knows this all but has yet to internalize it, for his perception of the title conflicts with reality. He fired a M4 rifle and felt the adrenaline rush as the air filled with sulfur and the spent shells fell down his shirt, but he never fired at an enemy combatant. He pulled up antenna masts and input frequencies on a radio, but he never said anything besides a confirmation of his identity and the phrases “I copy” and “over.” He never constructed communications in a combat zone, nor did he pack his duffle bag and deploy across the oceans. He did not experience what his MTI told his flight about during a break in basic training, when for a moment the sir became a human and said he watched one of his best friends get blown apart by a missile. The Veteran has stories, arcs, and epics, but none of them involve war.
Attending the last semester of his third college, the charismatic dazzle that the Veteran reentered civilian life with has faded into a dull luster. His hair has grown longer but his ability to fraternize has not. His face, still youthful and beardless, keeps its gleam and his energy in class discussions has retained its vigor, but the bags under his eyes and the weariness with which he approaches others betray him. He gets along with others but is alone. He wants to help others but cannot. He knows his optimism was silly, but he keeps a hope that some will come around, that some will pursue what they want most. He is tired. The Veteran reconciles his past experiences and present dissociation through analogy: the rite of passage, the descent into the underworld, the return with the elixir. He tells himself he is crossing the return threshold. He tells himself he will bridge heaven and earth within his soul. He tells himself this again and again, but when he steps to the edge of the infinite chasm that separates the two worlds, he finds himself looking down.
The Veteran meets a therapist. The therapist tells him stories about his time as a psychologist in corrections treating prisoners with bipolar. He tells him that people with bipolar often think they’re rational but are not. He mentions one prisoner that insisted on being called the president, and another that would engage in rigorous intellectual discourse before drinking water from a toilet bowl. The Veteran tells the therapist that he will be back because his corrections stories are intriguing and a great resource to mine for future stories and research. But as he waits at the bus stop that will take him home, the Veteran decides he will never go back.
The Veteran is graduating from college four years and three colleges after he started anew. There are not enough months remaining on the GI Bill for graduate school, but he does not care, for he is tired of school, he is tired of structure. He is the first in his family to get a bachelor’s degree, but it barely registers on his radar. All he feels is the lifting of a burden off his shoulders. He knows he did well, he knows he chose the right major, he knows he did all in his power to walk the right path. He also knows the reality of psychic wounds yet to close. He is a better writer, a better man. But he is still at war, a war within himself. But only now has he come to accept that it is the way things are rather than the way things should be.
The Veteran is at the Baldwin and Co. café in New Orleans. Under the gaze of a Langston Hughes mural he is writing in a baby blue dotted journal. He is traveling across the States, and with the journey comes the habit of writing every day. In the journal is a mixture of summaries of the day before, streams of consciousness, book excerpts, dictionary definitions, and random asides squeezed into the margins. Travel stimulates the Veteran, sparking him to scribble, and demands distance from the endlessly mirrored reflections of thought—there are too many inputs invading the sphere of self. And when he grasps these inputs of new landscapes, faces, and voices, he is liberated a little more from the inner demons of guilt and doubt. The Veteran becomes a Stranger, and a Stranger need only tell his tale. There are no other obligations beyond the commandment of reciprocity. The burden of the past breaks apart like a saltine cracker and the fallen fragments become the ingredients of a shared stew of story to tell other Strangers. He still wonders how many more battles he must fight before he can finally beat his sword into a plowshare, when he can plant a seed and tend it as it takes root and slowly uncoils until it breaks the soil and grows. But in this moment, the Veteran enjoys being a Stranger.