Thursday, August 10, 2017

THOR'S DAY RANT: What being a Veteran feels like

One of my favorite things to see on the internet is veterans succeeding. That’s probably because I’m a veteran.

I enlisted in the USAF back in 1990. At the time, it was an alternative to going back to college—I had dropped out several years earlier, and simply couldn’t afford to go back. I had always wanted to join the military. I took JROTC for four years in high school, and was taking Army ROTC in college—before I dropped out my first semester. In fact, I had dreamed of enlisting ever since before I was a teenager. Life just derailed me somewhere along the way, and it took a while to get back on track.

My time in the USAF wasn’t particularly hard, or eventful. I spent two years in Germany during Desert Storm. I finished up my first four years in California at a repair depot, McClellan AFB, in Sacramento. I never got shot at, or entered a combat zone. I worked law enforcement on base (Security Police we were called). 

When I did leave he USAF, I decided to continue my career in law enforcement—I was an SP in the USAF, a law enforcement specialist. In California, a job in law enforcement was pretty much a guarantee, but I wanted to return to my home town in Southern Indiana and serve my local community.

First up, I decided to apply with the Bloomington Police Department. I even took a few days of leave and flew back to take the written test. At the test, I found out that physicals would be in two weeks. I asked if there was any way to do mine in the next couple of days, since I was still on active duty and had taken leave time to fly back for the test. Nope. No assistance for a soon-to-be veteran there.

I tried the Indiana State Police, too. Back then, they had a requirement for 62 credit hours. I had 35 or so. I asked if my military service counted for any hours, like it did with Federal jobs. Nope. Oh, but during the interview process it might come in handy.

By 1997, I finally landed a job in law enforcement: I was hired as an investigator for the local Prosecuting Attorney. I stayed in that thankless job for seventeen-and-a-half years, starting a family, buying a house and settling down. My dreams of Federal service or even a job with local departments faded. I either couldn’t move the family, or local departments just weren’t interested in a veteran.

Neither was the (Clinton-era) Federal Government. I learned that when I tried for a Veterans’ Readjustment Appointments. Those are appointments with Federal agencies that are non-competitive for veterans for two years. Basically, you get hired (assuming you meet qualifications), do the job for a couple of years, then compete for it. Kind of like an internship, I guess.

Well, the local Marshall’s office in Louisville, Kentucky needed some people, so I applied. Unfortunately, no one at the Washington D.C. Office of Personnel Management seemed to know what a VRA was, and I was forced to take the written test, competing against other candidates. I had to drive three hours to take that test, and apparently didn’t score high enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t enlist to get anything. But I appreciate there are programs out there that recognize the sacrifices of veterans—whether they be of life, limb, or just the personal freedoms we protected during our time in uniform. I just wish I had the same kind of access to these programs so many of my fellow veterans seem to have. 

During technical school, back in 1990, I came down with pneumonia, and ended up with a scarred lung, an increased risk of developing asthma, and an ability to come down with bronchitis every year or so. Staying in shape became difficult, and by the time I did complete my enlistment, I was dangerously close to being “overweight” by USAF standards.

Around 2000, years after my Honorable discharge, I found out I actually could have gotten a disability rating because of my lung. No one told me that all during my convalescence period, or when I out-processed. I wish they had, as in my part of the country it has proven impossible to get that status now, despite my damaged lung continuing to be a problem year after year. First, the VA told me that there was no record of my illness. When I later found some hard copies, they claimed there was no indication of it causing a continued problem… despite my local doctor’s records of all the times I got bronchitis. It is abnormal to get it year after year, right?

No one seems to really care about vets at all here. I’ve since said goodbye to law enforcement, retiring from it to pursue writing. I thought for sure being a veteran and a retired law enforcement officer might help me attract readers. On the contrary, it has sure seemed like the kiss of death. In particular, one local event at a public library, where I was one of many local authors, but the only veteran, I actually got sneered at by people passing my military-themed books and display. One woman even stepped out, away from the table, as though I were contagious or something.

I see lots of veterans as authors online. Or producing movies, or serving in police departments or public offices in their communities. Their service is applauded by their communities. That leaves me a bit befuddled. I don't think I've ever been applauded for my service—other than on Veterans Day assemblies at my kids schools, when all the veteran parents are asked to stand. Did I imagine serving? Am I really a veteran?

All the young kids coming back from the Middle East get much-deserved respect and acknowledgement these days. People seem to revere and support them as much as they can. But I have to wonder, where’s my appreciation? I don’t go around proclaiming everywhere I am a veteran, but when it has come up, it’s more often than not met with shrugs, blank stares, or outright ambivalence. I sure as Hell hope none of my fellow veterans are experiencing this. But I’m sure there are many of them living in the same region as me, surrounded by communities of ingrates, underappreciated, ignored, or outright hated. 

I'm glad some veterans out there get appreciation for their service. I just wonder what it feels like...

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