3. Let's Talk About Sex a Bit More...
...Because it sells, and because it is the axis around which young, hot servicemember love rotates. You’re in your physical prime, probably not immensely ugly (dress uniforms are a big draw even if you are), and you have indicated a willingness to go dulce et decorum est for your country. This carnal magnetism leaves two people (or perhaps more; who the hell knows) literally pawing at each other as frequently as possible. A stunning percentage appear to mistake this predator/prey interaction for true love and rush to marriage - seemingly right before he marches off to war. He white knights her for a bit, there’s the hormones, the dressing like you live in a military town (this is a real thing), some public groping, trips to the PX to buy some Army wife t-shirts, parading of the other in front of peers as a trophy, matching tattoos, more youthful bedroom stuff and then he’s gone to a combat theater. The end, please be sure to buy the second and third books in the series.
But let’s face it. This is clearly a guy who likes to be needed and she is, if we’re honest, probably pretty needy. Perfect match. Both are substantially informing the other’s self-image or self-perception, and, if you’re lucky, some maturation takes place. More likely, they’re not together long enough for that to happen. He deploys and she’s still needy and he, quite likely, still needs to be needed. Both look elsewhere. A “relationship” like this isn’t really a relationship at all.
Real life is a bit more complicated. You spend all day at work for a job that - sitting on your ass - somehow emotionally and physically drains you, leaving little left for the wife and kids when you get home. Real life is losing your cool when you get soy in your latte instead of the skim milk asked for. Real life is being stuck in the checkout line in Walmart and the crazy bag lady in front of you is paying for cat food with pennies. Real life is cars breaking down, bills, painfully unrelenting routine, accumulating lawn ornaments and Christmas decorations, agonizing over generic versus name brand shampoo and having no discernable mission at all. Real life is watching your parents age and your siblings make no effort to help out. It’s discovering that the sink is clogged, that the house needs to be repainted, and your dog just shit on the hallway carpet. Real life is moving mostly useless possessions from one location to another for the entirety of your earthly days.
Likewise, real marriage isn’t one night stands and a continuous state of horniness; it’s communicating needs and fears and responding appropriately to those of your spouse. It’s discovering that she’s pretty unattractive in the morning and you’d rather flee the room than jump on her. It’s learning that you view the world differently (a world you previously thought didn’t really exist while you climbed all over each other). It’s getting older and you’re both changing. It’s arguments; it’s good seasons and some pretty bad ones. It’s hard work and a good ride doesn’t hold it all together.
Twenty years of conflict have justified hitting the pause button on a host of critical growth opportunities and the gritting of teeth to tolerate the otherwise intolerable. A veteran may have 4 or 10 or 20 plus years of intense leadership experience, gotten shot at, blown up, and made regular life and death decisions, but not know a damn thing about cultivating a relationship through the monotony of real life. He may know how to dedicate his heart and soul to a mission, compartmentalizing the fact that every other cherished thing in his life is suffering for it, yet then refocus on those things and find he is unequipped to save them. On top of that, how does he handle feelings of failure when the past many years of training have emphasized that failure is not allowed? He might think that 4 years away in uniform matured him well beyond his years and peers both (and in terms of leadership he may have), but how about emotionally? How about relationally? How about spiritually? A high operations tempo lefts little space for that. In a sentence, thousands of competent, dedicated veterans hit pause on reality and marched off to serve in a war, only to later discover that reality is actually pretty complicated and they haven’t had that much practice; they’ve been too busy.
The fear, fighting and hunger that occupy the wasteland at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid needs leaders who can skillfully locate, close with and destroy the enemy and the military has them in abundance. Yet those leaders, infinitely seasoned and capable in their specific disciplines, may be unpracticed in every higher tier of the same pyramid. As it turns out, even veterans have big feelings, and extensive training to channel them into anger didn’t really help. It has to be infuriating to know you can lead a squad of Soldiers through a complex ambush, yet lack the ability to healthily argue with your girlfriend. Indeed, those hated asshole civilians may be younger but still more mature where it matters most. Makes you hate them even more.
Perhaps this is the perfect storm that leaves this population, on the whole, more inclined to turn a gun on themselves: the intersection of higher than average Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), higher exposure to violence, discontinuous or stunted personal/relational development, an inability to consider that leadership prowess in one area of your life doesn’t extend to any others, and a culture of origin that loudly proclaims that failure isn’t an option. Sheepdogs focus on the fight; not cultivating nonhierarchical relationships with the sheep.
Copyright ©, Ben Shaw, 2023
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