When the War Ended, My Life as a Veteran Began
Though I became a veteran by definition when I separated from the Army four years ago, it has been difficult to view myself as a veteran in actuality. Veterans were the grizzled old men who fought in Vietnam, or maybe former Green Berets who deployed to Iraq. While I got out, my teammates were returning to Afghanistan for second, third, and fourth tours. “Veteran” connotes the past, but my past was not the past to me because it was the present of my former teammates — friends with whom I share some of the deepest bonds possible.
My cognitive dissonance ended suddenly and terribly as Kandahar, then Helmand, then Uruzgan — places I dared to think we had made a difference — all fell within a matter of weeks. Until then, it had felt foreign to live a civilian life while the friends I fought with continued the mission. Now I can no longer pretend that I am neither soldier nor veteran, as if there is a purgatory in between. I have had to take a deep and critical look at what my time in service was worth and what, if anything, it achieved. It is very difficult to point to much of a positive impact for the world or my country when all the patriotism-based premises upon which I based my early adult life fell apart, seemingly in an instant.
Veterans Day is different this year. With the sudden and cataclysmic end of the war in Afghanistan, or at least its American-led chapter, there is a jarring sense of finality. Personally, the war’s end represents an immediate break between my past as soldier and my present as civilian.
Perhaps self-preservation is the reason I have abhorred questions about the politics of the U.S. withdrawal or debates on counterinsurgency since August. Participating in these impersonal debates, at least for me, generates a sense of painful helplessness in which my lack of agency is only too clear, while the sacrifices of the men and women who, along with their families, gave so much, are cheapened by abstractions and political ambitions. Maintaining a sense of self-worth and an ability to fully participate day-to-day as a husband, father, and employee requires that I avoid the fray of the withdrawal discourse for now.
Maybe someday I will be interested in the strategy debates, though it is hard to ever imagine diving into the often toxic political rhetoric. The other possibility, however, and the one that to me is much more profound and provides empowerment beyond mere self-preservation, is that the personal elements of my experience as a soldier are what truly gave me purpose, long-lasting direction, and a small sense of existential control.
My purpose, or at least my hope, is that I played a role in my teammates coming back alive. Not that I did anything unique or distinctly noteworthy — I did not. But perhaps my wholly unremarkable individual actions were a small part of a tremendous collective mission to bring each other home. We all knew each other’s wives, children, parents, hopes, dreams, and fears. We all knew one another’s stories, stories that are ours together, but not mine alone to share.
If I have any fear now, it is that my life does not live up to their hopes and expectations, after they endeavored to allow me to live it.
It may seem cliche, or it may just be the next step in a search for meaning after a failed war, but there was never any higher and more tangible sense of purpose than the unity I felt as part of a team of Green Berets. That purpose was not strategic, nor even patriotic perhaps, but was instead a mission to fulfill our duties to each other. The feeling has extended into my current life and beyond my former unit — I have been most comfortable and at ease when visiting former teammates, participating in the veterans’ club during graduate school, or attending Green Beret Foundation events.
I know that people want a clear answer on what Veterans Day means to former servicemembers. The reality is that I’m still struggling with my own understanding of the holiday. When I was younger, being a veteran seemed like it ought to come with satisfaction from fulfilled service to the country, which we celebrated as a nation on Veterans Day. But the events of August introduced gnawing doubts about having centered prime years of my family’s life around a war that ended so disastrously. Once I reflected on what mattered to me about my time in service, however — the camaraderie, the bonds, the team — my understanding of what it means to be a veteran crystalized somewhat.
What I have come to realize is that Nov. 11 is a day for veterans to celebrate each other — not what we sought to achieve for our country, but what we mean to one another.
What I know now is that the veteran community — an extension in the civilian world of the unit in the military sphere — provides me the space and support to sort through struggles so that I can chart a path forward. Shared bonds that we forged in diverse units extend well beyond our time in uniform and continue to give me a sense of communal purpose as a civilian.
My evolving sense of camaraderie is probably what makes this Veterans Day different. As long as my buddies were still in combat in a country to which we deployed together, I could not conceive of myself as a veteran. I felt more like a deserter. My friends continued to return to Afghanistan, but I chose to go back to school. I did not feel that I had quit on the national mission — by the time I was in Afghanistan, it was clear there would be no ticker-tape parade celebrating a grand victory on that score. Instead, I harbored a deep fear that I had quit on my teammates. We had fought for each other downrange, but I had chosen a path that took me out of the fight. The guilt of leaving my friends who would have to go back into harm’s way was crushing and constant for as long as they would have to return to Afghanistan. The reality, of course, was different. My teammates were some of my biggest supporters. They all still check in on how my family is doing, how school is progressing, what new job or internship I have lined up. Their support only made the guilt worse.
Now that our war is over, though, I will finally move on, looking toward the future as a veteran rather than the past as something else. But I will still need my veteran brothers and sisters. Not to bring me home this time, but to remind me that duty is about each other, which means the mission continues even out of uniform.
Brian Mongeau is a former U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Beret”) non-commissioned officer and deployed to Afghanistan in 2017. He will soon be joining First In as a principal. First In is a veteran-led venture capital firm focused on cyber security and dual-use technologies and investing in veteran founders. Brian is a native of Massachusetts, recently graduated Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, can be found on Twitter at @bamongeau, and now resides in Boston with his wife and daughter.