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Some time ago my wife and I visited Rock City, a popular tourist attraction on the Tennessee/Georgia border. While we there, we came into contact with a young man who was touring the site on the heels of his mother. He was wearing an OD colored tee-shirt and his desert camouflage BDU trousers were bloused over combat boots. His hair was cut short, close to being shaved, and he was in excellent physical shape. I came to the conclusion that the young man was in the military.

A short time later my brilliant deduction was confirmed when we had a few words with him and his mother. The mother told us that her son was a Marine, and the way he strutted around with his chest puffed out showed just how proud he was of the fact. He was young, full of piss and vinegar, doing the whole flex and pose thing, and generally drawing attention to himself. His mom kept apologizing for his behavior, which was boisterous enough that it did grate on us, I admit.

Maybe it was just my own snobbishness, but after this brief conversation I just couldn’t picture this young man waging war with a keyboard or a joystick. He seemed to be an uncomplicated kind of guy, one that I could easily see whooping it up while soaring through the air on a four-wheeler. I saw him as Combat Arms material, eventually bound for some dirty place where somebody thinks some dirty work needs to get done.

Because of my own experience in the Army, I’ve always had a soft place in my heart for those ordinary soldiers… the grunts… the ground pounders… the boots on the ground that the ex-officer talking-heads on TV say every war needs. Because of this kinship, I grinned at him and called him Jarhead. It was a good-natured jab, not meant to be derogatory, and he didn’t take offense… just nodded his head and grinned back, still proud.

We went our separate ways, and before long I got to feeling bad about calling him Jarhead. He was, after all, doing the job that most of us think needs to be done, but can’t… or won’t… do ourselves.

Every day, young men and women from around the country enlist. Some of them are just like that young man I called Jarhead, some of them not at all like him. They come from varying walks of life and join up for very different reasons, but they do it. After signing on the dotted line, they raise their right hand and solemnly swear, giving up just about any right that a normal citizen has.

Until their time is served, their young ass belongs to Uncle Sam.

They’re separated from their families and loved ones, posted to far-flung places that many Americans couldn’t find on a map. Christmases and Easters and birthdays aren’t spent at home, but often in countries where those holidays aren’t even acknowledged. Those special days aren’t spent with their natural families, but with a surrogate family made up of people with vastly different backgrounds.

They suffer discomfort that most people can’t even imagine. We’re not talking about dial the central air down to save money discomfort, but hydrate or suffer heat stroke discomfort. Not “my ass is sore from sitting in this chair all day” discomfort, but straining up rocky scree with a full battle load discomfort. Dirt in the food and iodine in the water discomfort.

Too many times they face danger. Not the “if we’d gone into that intersection five seconds earlier” kind of facing danger, but the serious right-fucking-now kind. Straight up… face to face… eye to eye… nose to nose. They wear ballistic-fiber body-armor and helmets because dedicated people are trying their very best to kill them.

These young soldiers visit me in my dreams, sometimes… the kind of dreams where my feet move, but I don’t go anywhere. The kind of dreams where I can smell the diesel fuel and feel the ground shake and almost taste the C-4. The kind of dreams that wake me up, then suck me back in when I finally manage to fall asleep again.

They’re riding in side-slipping CH-47s or bone-jarring Humvees in those dreams. They’re walking through villages, knocking on doors and watching for movement in windows. They’re peering down the barrels of those wicked-looking M4s as they scope buildings or vehicles or rocky slopes. Their eyes are wide and their mouths are set. Their breath is quick and their hearts pound. They face down the fear and stand fast.

I walk among them and pat them on the shoulder. I tell them to check their buddy’s gear, to keep their shit together, to watch their ass … all that good stuff. I try to say the right thing in those dreams, but my own war was so long ago and so different that my words are inadequate and my good intentions are out of date.

I’m afraid for those young warriors, of course, but I’m downright terrified for us who sit so piously safe at home… because I can see no end to it.

Because after all this time… after all our gloating over scientific advancements… after all our prattling about human rights and saving the planet and all that other happy horse-shit…our nations still ultimately solve their differences with the force of arms. We still send others to do our killing and dying for us… like someone hiring a lawn service because they don’t want to get their hands dirty.

That rowdy young man at Rock City was one of them we called on to do the dirty work, and he answered. In a feeble attempt at camaraderie, I called him Jarhead. I know… it wasn’t meant to be insulting, but that’s still not what I should have said.

I should have shaken his hand and told him something else… something that would have raised his spirits… something that would have told him that we’re proud of him… maybe even something that mattered.

I tell myself that I didn’t say any more because I knew that I couldn’t keep it together while I did, and…  in all honesty… that’s mostly true. I probably would have stood there awkwardly, with my throat tight and my eyes misting. An empty silence would have fallen over us until one of us turned away in embarrassment. That’s part of the reason I didn’t say any more to him, but that’s not all of it.

There was so much more that I wanted to say, but it wouldn’t be what he needed to hear. And, just like in my dreams, what I thought would help would be, in reality, irrelevant… maybe even harmful.

But right now, whether it’s right or wrong, I’m going to say something. It’s still not everything I want to say, but at least it’s something.

Here’s to you, Jarhead. And to all of you that take the risk, that feel the bump of that 5.56 against your shoulder, that hear the snap of the rounds, that feel the bite of the ruck straps. To all of you that put your ass on the line while we watch mindless television and argue about whose fault the current war is.

You have my deepest respect, Jarhead.

I know my war was different… that my time was different… that we’re so very different that I’ll never be able to say the right thing.

But I still consider you my brother.