Sunday, October 21

The Big Leagues

Expat Blogs

The soldiering profession trades in strange currency. We barter with stories of scrapes and scares, hardships and insulated joys. We profit from the general esteem in which we’re held by a willing (if ultimately unknowing) civilian public.
Wherever we go, a certain line of credit is afforded us, allowing for minor lapses in social decorum or unconscious switches to military terminology that leaves our unarmed counterparts slightly bemused. It’s our leeway. Our permissible shortcomings in a long and sometimes endless road to reconversion. Back to life, but not as we knew it.

I’ve just waved goodbye to the end of my first true holiday in over five years. Of course one is in receipt of generous amounts of annual leave each year in the French Foreign Legion, beginning with 20 days in your first year of service and rising to 45 working days (yes, 9 whole weeks!!) for your fourth and fifth years. Naturally such extended time off can only be taken when feasible – someone returning from six months in Afghanistan can’t turn around and immediately demand 2 months. Nevertheless, it is a rather agreeable component of the Legion machine and being called into the lieutenant’s office to sign our permission slip is probably the only time that entering said office can be described as anything approaching pleasant.

When I say that this recent holiday was my first in five years, I must qualify that statement for your benefit. You see, a very defined path has been relentlessly carved out by my good self over these past 4 years in the service of France. Dublin to Paris and back again. And again. And again. Repeat repeat repeat. I am not ashamed to admit that each sliver of freedom creeping under the door has been consumed in a noble bid to visit my loving family and closest, oldest friends back in Ireland. Less an obligation, more a welcomed respite from the distanced and disconnected goings-on 600km away. Nipping homesickness in the bud, putting a smile on the mammy’s face. Still, the cycle needed to be broken sooner or later, and with a mere 10 months left to negotiate on my contract, there was an increasing feeling of “now or never”. Break the mold. Shake it up a bit. Rub it in the faces of the lads when we all get back to regiment. You know, the traditional reasons for taking an extravagant holiday. I boarded that plane expecting luxury, relaxation and exoticism. Inevitably I found all of that. But one could also say I cashed in all my chips in one foul swoop in order to earn a glimpse into a previously unknown world. That of the VFW.

The VFW (“Veterans of Foreign Wars”) is a veteran’s organization for US soldiers who have specifically fought in a foreign conflict and who have their medals to prove it. Unlike the American Legion – a fine institution working to support all former US military personnel, the VFW consists purely of combat-experienced vets. If someone had have told me that I’d be welcomed into a “VFW” post all the way out in Fairport, NY, I would’ve scratched my head in confusion. Thankfully, an enlightening education awaited me inside.

Staying with my close friend Marianne and her husband Sam in Fairport for the weekend, they invited me to the “club” on a Friday night. Sam was a highly decorated US soldier, earning numerous medals as well as a purple heart during a tour of duty in the First Gulf War. I had no idea, and the invite was a pleasant if somewhat bizarre surprise. Escorting me in to the club, I could have been forgiven for thinking I’d entered a type of bingo hall. Little snacks and nibbles decorated the billiards table as husbands and wives sat chatting at the bar. I very quickly became the centre of attention, however, my unrecognized face and youthful demeanor slowly drawing a crowd discretely seeking an explanation for my presence in this rather exclusive club. Sam and Marianne’s escort obviously lent me some authoritative muscle, but the revelation that I myself was a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict (and a French Foreign Legionnaire to boot) really set the party in motion. Dick – the commander of this particular VFW post – gave me an informal tour of my new surroundings. The most poignant focal point was undoubtedly the table-for-one, a small, simple and immaculately set table in memory of the lost soldier – a tribute to all those soldiers either killed in action or still missing, in some cases for longer than one cares to imagine. Outside, Sam showed me Freedom Hill – a magnificently imposing installation in this sleepy up-state town with a helicopter and tank perched majestically on top of a beautifully manicured grassy knoll. A cobblestone walkway further back sported a dazzling array of inscribed bricks, each displaying a soldier’s name of times gone by, from WW1 through WW2 and onwards to Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf wars and even Afghanistan and Iraq. A truly moving monument to the servicemen of the United States.

The rest of my trip to New York City and Washington D.C. was nothing short of breathtaking, a long overdue break from the norm and a chance to lose myself in childhood fantasies of The Big Apple. All the major attractions were covered, old friends were visited for the first time in ages, new friends were met for the first time full stop. But despite all the wonderful things seen, activities undertaking and people encountered, that unexpected trip to the VFW post in Fairport NY stands out as the undisputed highlight. Sometimes making light of my affiliation to the military profession is an attempt to distance myself from a certain perceived machismo, an oftentimes unqualified bravado that has me running for the antithesis as a cure from the plague of poor pretenders. But that trip to the VFW, the conversations enjoyed with great (and greatly humble) men and their lovely wives, the respect shown to me as a Legionnaire is something that I won’t forget in a hurry.

In fact, it may just have restored a little bit of faith and pride in this messy business. Vive the land of the free, home of the brave.

Vive la L├ęgion.

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