I want you to imagine for a moment that you’ve spent the last four years, or maybe more, of your life on another planet. This planet is unlike any place you’ve ever been. Everything is different there. Social norms, behaviors, communication, rules; it’s all vastly opposite of Earth.
You went back to Earth to visit every now and then, but you never really felt like you belonged, and you always found yourself counting the days until you could go back. Earth, the planet you grew up on, where all of your family is, where you developed your own version of normal, somehow isn’t normal at all.
It’s completely foreign to you.
You have made new friends, new family; family that you would willingly give your life for; family that you feel more comfortable around than your own flesh and blood.
And you’ve done and witnessed things that very few on Earth have ever come close to. Perhaps those things were exhilarating; gave you a high like nothing else can, and you would trade your left hand to do them again. Some of those things were terrible, things you regret, things you can’t get out of your memory rolodex.
Then one day you have to leave this planet that has become your home, but you can’t come back this time. You have to say goodbye to everything and everyone for the last time. Most of those family members you will never see again. And you will surely never see anything from that planet again.
It’s all gone forever.
So you return to Earth, you return to your old neighborhood and try to pick up where you left off. You spend time with your family and call up those friends from high school and before. Being around them feels stale and musty, like that old basement at your grandparents’ house. Maybe you get a job and you try to love it; but deep down you know you never really can. You try to relate to anyone, but it’s impossible.
It’s like watching that movie you loved when you were a kid, but now you’re an adult and it just seems so dated and uninteresting, and you question yourself for ever loving it.
And everyone treats you differently now, like you weren’t living among them all those years. All you want to do is blend in and go about your business, but they label you and stare at you and treat you like an alien. They talk about you and politicize you and try to come up with ways to deal with your differences. They give names to the way you think and act, and they try to invent new ways to remedy these named conditions.
Sure, you may be battered and bruised, with the body of a fifty-year-old rugby player and the mind of a tortured, psychology-experiment subject, but you’re still human like all of them.
Some of them hate you for what you did while you lived on that planet; most of them don’t. Most of them thank you and try to give you things. They make holidays for you and put up signs for you and slap bumper stickers onto their cars for you. You just want to be treated like everyone else, but it’s hard to be calloused in the face of such gratitude; or maybe calloused is all you know how to be, all you possibly can be. Maybe you built up layer upon layer of armor to protect yourself while you lived on that planet, but now you can’t take the armor off, even when you want to.
Okay . . . so that got a little depressing, but now you have a taste of what it’s like to be a veteran.