Imagine being given a rifle, some ammunition, and a bag with your belongings, and treating each day as if it may be your last. In direct contrast to what many have done through the years, I volunteered to fight in a war because I was running away from college. I figure maybe I’d have an adventure and I wouldn’t have to study as much; man, was I wrong, a thousand times over. From the moment I set foot in the fleet of the United States Marine Corps I was tested at each turn. From knowing how to use certain weapons and knowing when might be the perfect moment to flank an enemy position, or withdraw in hasty retreat.
This is my second semester in college -- at Berkeley College, in Brooklyn --so I have been on this campus for quite a while. But it is still different for me, every single day. The environment is dramatically different to what I was accustomed to in the military. Sure, I have more freedom to do what I want ---but this newfound freedom can fluster my emotions. My military service has lead me to many countries and continents -- Africa, Egypt, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Ireland, Germany --and never have I been more unsure of what is to come than this moment, back in New York, back in Downtown Brooklyn among the fast food places and department stores, back in college. When I first set foot on this new battlefield it was brutally hot and I had not much choice for cover from the sun much less cover from enemy fire.
My wartime terrain was both mountainous and like a vast wasteland. Berkeley’s Brooklyn campus is a normal city building filled with students and faculty alike seeking to further themselves in some way. The environment is urban and loud, and people are always going or coming from a class or tutoring session. Most of the people who come here have the mindset of doing school work and passing their classes.
They are not asking themselves will their next choice lead to sudden death.
For a long time, I had to think exactly that way, only that way, and it’s hard to turn off. One moment I am in my intro to composition class ,the next moment I am thinking about a time when class instruction was me squatting outside an empty building in a dense forest holding a machine gun, going over room-clearing procedures.
As time passes, the comfort of coming here to educate myself becomes a little more appealing. The commute can be a bit of a pain with the constantly delayed subway trains. Waiting forever for my train to arrive only to see that every seat is taken and that I must mash myself within a group of fellow riders. Getting off the subway, I am immediately bombarded with the sound of constant honking horns and cell phone chatter: welcome to Downtown, Brooklyn.
It is hard after years of living a quite different military lifestyle to adjust to this one. Rather than sitting back to smell the roses of having made it through my service in one piece, my mind is still always on high alert. So not only am I thinking about school, I am thinking about my past, my present and my future. All these distractions conflict with what I am here to accomplish and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to turn it off. I cannot shake the feeling that there is more disorder in the alignment of my current classroom than there was when I was in a desert, turning around every few seconds, to make sure my partner was still safely behind me.
Often my military day went by muscle memory and didn’t really require too much thought on my part because I was brainwashed. Wake up, grab my weapon, load a magazine in it, make sure my other magazines were loaded, put on a bulletproof vest, and walk out into a world where half its citizenry wanted me dead. The fact that the college environment isn’t as hostile, is to me is actually a little discomforting. People here are more open to conversation, and I know it’s weird for me to say that negative energy feels better, but for a time that was how I had to deal with my environment; take that negative energy and channel it towards the battle when I had to. At Berkeley, as a student, it isn’t so much about fighting, of course, it’s about returning to the state of mind that I was raised with, but forced to abandon in my time of war. In many ways, I am still at war with myself, always questioning my every move, or the character of others around me. Can I trust this person, and will they do unto me as I do unto them?
People always wonder why veterans end up with post traumatic stress disorder, I say it’s because they simply forget how to be what is considered normal, and the people around them criticize them for it. Instead of listening to the PTSD sufferer, they throw a label on his condition, pour pills down his throat and say deal with it. To many people, where I am now, this is college, a place where you come to earn a degree in the field you hope to work in some day. To me, it is not that simple.
College: the road to success, a stepping stone to something greater. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, isn’t that the old saying? What do you do for those that aren't too far gone, but are unsure about how they should act in a non-combat zone? Looking at the world through a battlefield altered perspective makes it difficult to see things the way everyone else does. This debate I hope to lay to rest at the end of my time attending this institution. In the meantime, all I can do is try to channel some of my unorthodox energy into the work required for my degree.
To me this is my chance at redemption, integrating myself back into a world that will never look the same to me again. Like putting on shoes that from a distance seem fine, but are a size smaller. You try to walk, others may not notice, but it doesn’t feel right.