I don’t know if it’s my own guilt or if it’s because I feel that I’m not worthy, but I hate when people thank me for my service. When a stranger instinctively tells you thanks for your service to me it’s completely hollow. I think, “man you should thank the families of the ones that didn’t come home or the men in Walter Reed”. I don’t do anything deserving of thanks or medals. I didn’t do anything heroic or extraordinary. I served with my brothers and I was a volunteer for both of my combat deployments. It’s a completely different feeling when it’s family or friends thanking you because they know you, they have a feeling of what you are about, and what you went through and the sacrifice. When someone thanks me, I accept their thanks, but deep down I feel like I’m not what they think I am. It’s not that I believe people are being insincere, but for me, it’s hard to come to terms with being thanked for something that is such a curse and a blessing.
I didn’t join the military out of a sense of purpose or patriotism. I did it because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college and I was a screw-up. I knew that if I didn’t make a change in my life I was going nowhere. I did it because I knew it would open doors and help me grow into a man. It helped me grow into a man and I learned many useful skills. It also gave me some deep emotional scars that I’m sure I’ll always carry and remember daily. As bad, as it was sometimes for me, I’m thankful because I had it easy and a lot of people are in much worse shape than I could ever imagine.
I served 12 years and got out prior to a third deployment. I lost a good deal of friends who viewed me as a coward for getting out prior to a deployment. I made the decision because I was newly married with a baby on the way, and that was and still is my #1 priority. It’s not that I was scared to deploy or die, or be injured. I just didn’t want to miss my son being born or be away from my wife. I know that millions of men have served in combat away from their families, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. My heart just wasn’t in it. My thought was I already did two tours and I’m not willing to leave my family. I will always feel a sense of shame for the decision, but it’s one I would make again and again and one that I do not regret.
The hardest part of being thanked is the feeling of being a fraud. I don’t feel that I ever did anything that made me special or that deserved special recognition. I was just a regular guy doing the job I signed up for, trying to do a good job, and trying to keep my buddies safe. I didn’t do it for the awards, or the money, or to feel good. I just did because it needed to be done and it was my job. In all honesty, I didn’t give a shit about Iraq, or the Iraqi people. I just wanted all my friends to come home alive and in one piece. The hardest part was not being what I was supposed to be or feel how I was supposed to feel. I wasn’t this super soldier; I was a just a scared 24-year-old college kid. I was constantly surrounded by all of these warriors. Intelligent, strong, experienced men who could do these great things. And here I was this regular guy, just hoping I was going to make it through and that I wouldn’t lose any friends along the way. I’m still in awe of the toughness, intestinal strength, and courage that I saw from these men. I’m sure I had my moments but I was just a boy playing in the field of giants.
One of the hardest moments I remember was my parents having a party for me when I was on leave during my first tour in Iraq and I didn’t want anything to do with it. I know for them it was 100% out of love for me and I’m with that totally. My family was awesome and they were/are so proud of me and I always loved and appreciated it. I wasn’t who they thought I was. I wish I was but I wasn’t. I’m sure they thought I was this high-speed Rambo, but the truth is I wasn’t. I did bad things, I hurt some people, and honestly I didn’t care. And I didn’t like that feeling. But when you’re fresh from a combat zone the last thing you want (at least for me) is to be around a bunch of people making a big deal out of things. What you do want (at least for me) was to get back to normal life and let your guard down. It’s the reason soldiers love having beards and long hair after they’re out. They loved the part of the military where you’re with your buddies and you feel useful, but after a while, you don’t want to feel like you’re a Joe anymore.
I know for me the first time I came home from Iraq was toughest, the lowest point in my life and I felt completely alone. I had nightmares stemming from a specific incident that came and went periodically for years. That event still bothers me on a daily basis, but it’s too late to go back and there is nothing I can do about that now. The bitch of it is, we didn’t do anything wrong. Bad shit happens and it is what it is. When I got home all I really wanted was someone to ask me how I was doing and if I was ok. The truth was I was not ok, and I was not alright. But I was too proud and trying to be strong and be what I thought I was supposed to be. Because of that I suffered, for a long time I don’t know at the time if I would have accepted help, or if truth be told, but I know I rarely had the chance. I put up artificial walls of false bravado around me, the alcohol and my stubbornness were all a part of it.
I had all these people thanking me and telling me how proud they were but most of them never wrote me a letter, sent me an email or a card while I was deployed. I had my family and close friends and that’s all I needed or so I thought. I could be surrounded by everyone I loved and I felt completely alone. I wanted to be back in my living quarters or my truck or on a rooftop with my team. But when I was on that rooftop and in that truck all I wanted was to be in that room with my family.
There’s a scene in the movie Blackhawk Down where the movies main badass “Hoot” says, “When I go home, people ask me, “Hey Hoot, why do you do it, man? Why? You some kind of war junkie?” I won’t say a goddamn word. Why? They won’t understand. They won’t understand why we do it. They won’t understand it’s about the men next to you… and that’s it. That’s all it is.” Truer words have never been spoken. You can thank me if you want, but at the end of the day, I don’t need the thanks. Unless we wore the same patch, rode the same truck, or walked the same patrol, I don’t need your thanks. If I have the men whom I served with respect me than at the end of the day it’s all that matters. Some of them I do, some I do not. And that’s fine. I make no excuses, I am what I am and who I’ve always been. With or without their respect, they have mine and I’ll always consider them brothers and my heroes.
This may seem harsh, but it’s my honest feelings. If anyone deserves thanks, it’s the men who I served with, my wife, my mom, my dad, my stepmom, my stepdad, my sister, my brothers, my wife’s family, my extended family, Curtiss, Cole, Rob, Jim and my other buddies who supported me while I was away. Thank you to them.
Please don’t thank me for my service, thank the wars for making it possible.
The Blogging Owl’s Guest Blogger: Nickolas Gilbert
Nick served in the military for 12 years. Nick spent 3 years on active duty in the 82nd Airborne as a Sergeant and combat medic in an infantry battalion. This was followed by 9 years in total with the Michigan National Guard serving in an Airborne long-range surveillance unit and also a light infantry battalion. He served two-year long combat deployments in Iraq. Nick is a husband and father. He is an Eastern Michigan University graduate.