Once you are accepted in to the Legion, you acquire many new things (grey hairs and bruising aside). Some are evident, others a little more discreet. A new haircut, for example, is quite noticeable from the moment that razor makes contact with your quivering scalp. New clothes, too, announce themselves with violent determination as anything unscathed by the harsh central europe camouflage pattern finds itself confined to a dusty archive until such time as the Legion sees fit to allow you back out in to the real world. Certain acquisitions, however, successfully traverse the cosmetic boundaries to find themselves revealing startling changes in attitudes and opinions concerning the long-abandoned civilian life. Routines once cherished and even occasionally taken for granted have somehow since mutated in to unrecognizable and unpalatable rituals, executed in savagely pacific unconsciousness with little or no regard for those severed limbs of a forgotten anatomy, a bygone era. My recent trip home to Ireland following six months in Afghanistan perhaps benefited from heightened emotions but nevertheless provided a solid argument in support of such a theory.
In my last blog, I joked about the suicidal pedestrians challenging articulated trucks to duels during the race home through Dublin city. Light hearted as it may have been, I proceeded to meditate on my compulsion to publicly consider such matters. The word "civvy" always irked me ever so slightly. A soldier's label for all things outside of the military system, I knowingly defy all arguments to the contrary in saying that said term inevitably carries an air (however light, on occasion) of derogation. Proceeding to recall several conversations with a group of sergeants from the French army while on tour in Afghanistan, an overriding theme proved impossible to ignore.
"You come home to France, say you've been in Afghanistan, and people just don't give a shit! They treat you like dirt".
Another disillusioned French NCO offered his two cents:
"People don't even realize what you do, what you face on a daily basis. They get paid 3, 4, 5 times more per month without ever having to worry about being shot at or blown up. They just don't get it."
It was undeniably fascinating, hearing the discontent from what are essentially career men. Soldiering is their profession, their dream-come-true and unwavering path for decades to come. It was during moments like these, ungloved chest clearing sessions such as this when I felt slightly awkward, slightly embarrassed. Slightly out of place. Championing my own unwavering determination to serve honorably for five years before moving on to another chapter in my life, I sometimes forget that this job I do, this thing I volunteered to become is itself a way of life. A life choice, one might say. My egg timer contains far fewer grains of sand than some of these boys, and perhaps for that reason I've never truly converted. During basic training in Castel, a favorite saying of corporals is "T'es encore civil dans la tête". Roughly translated as "You're still a civilian in your head", the instructors sought to hammer out any former complacency, reflection and general habits deemed unsupportable in army life. I won't lie, some improvements were acquired and implemented in my approach to life, from small tasks right up to my overall outlook on the world and its enormously diverse gang of inhabitants. But I never fully crossed over. I suppose I just honed my ability to disguise and hide those habits that remained. There's a difference between surviving and thriving in the Legion. I'm at neither one end nor the other completely of the spectrum. Instead I sit somewhere in-between, perched on a pendulum whose momentum slowly diminishes with every swing back and forth. The difficult early days recede far out of reach as I swing forward, the possibilities of "une belle carrière" assuming a similar course of action as a prolonged future in the Legion's ranks slowly slips out of reach with every day I approach the end of my contract without an new-found determination to sign-on emerging from the tall grass.
But I enjoy my purgatory. I enjoy my weekends in Paris, the friends I've come to know and love, the bar that took me in as one for their own and provides greater sanctuary and solace than any Irish embassy or consulate ever could. I enjoy staying a bit "civvy" in the head. It's a necessary ingredient in the recipe used to off-set the daily soldiering through a military life. The yang to the ying. Some acquaintances rejoice in seeing me after such a long absence. Among them are a certain few who never even knew where I was all this time. Who cares? I'm here now, I'm back. I no longer feel detached from the dedicated element intent on recognition, understanding and acceptance of what we do for a living, what we risk and what we sacrifice. I feel for them, and try to comprehend their distress. I can certainly relate to the occasional derision and antipathy for the civilian world. However, most important for me is not the eradication of such sentiments, but rather their successful management and interpretation. I've always prided myself on an ability to adapt, to integrate and flourish in any social environment. As long as I continue to flourish as vibrantly in the boots and combat fatigues as in the jeans and sneakers, I'll be happy. Happy in who I am and what I do, regardless of who knows it or not.