Everyone keeps coming up to me and wishing me a Happy Veteran's Day. Now if it were my birthday, there'd be virtually no fuss (which is fine by me). But today, Veteran's Day, I have been elevated to somewhat of an office celebrity.
This makes me feel like crap.
It's no one's fault, and certainly no one here knows why wishing me a Happy Veteran's Day would make me feel like crap. They don't know that I dread Veteran's Day every year.
Hey, I'm cool - I was in the Army! I repelled down walls, inhaled chemicals in a gas chamber, did hand-to-hand combat, and threw grenades. I fired a machine gun, could fully take apart and reassemble an M-16 in two minutes, and was one missed target away from being considered an expert shot, a feat that my grandfather was so proud of that he gave me his old rifle, which now sits mournfully alone in a corner of my closet. I never managed to do a pull-up, but on my very last physical fitness test, I did 45 push-ups, 80-something sit-ups, and ran two miles in 17:42, my best performance EVER in all three areas. When I started basic training, I could do three push-ups. Oh, and uh, I managed to learn a little Russian along the way. A skill that now also sits mournfully alone in a corner, albeit a corner of my mind.
Wow. I never talk about this. Maybe because the shame I feel is as painfully sharp today as it was in December 1996. People know not to ask me about this, and when someone does, I gloss over it as quickly as possible and casually try to direct the conversation elsewhere. Anywhere. Anywhere but here, on this topic.
You have to be in a certain weight range for your age group in the military. When I signed up, I was fifteen pounds over my specific required weight limit. Soldiers need to be able to physically carry their wounded and/or dead buddy should conditions require it, and you can't do it if you're already carrying a spare tire with side order of thunder thighs. I had quit my long-standing job at JC Penney two months before I shipped out, and spent every second of that time at the YMCA. I wore a rubber suit from a lady I worked with whose son used it to cut water weight down for his wrestling team. I wore at least two sweatshirts and two pairs of sweatpants over that, and ran around the track and did aerobics classes until I got so tired I could barely move. I would drag myself out to my car and sleep in the parking lot just to gain a little energy, then go back in and start the process all over again for the rest of the afternoon. All the while, eating as little food as I possibly could. I was so proud of myself when I'd get as far as four days without a single bite. I packed my bags, my recruiter drove me to Butte (MT) from Billings, and I didn't make weight. I was two pounds over. He drove me back to Billings in silence, looking at me like, "You're an idiot."
Imagine the resolve I had when I got back to Billings! That first string of workouts? For wimps. Personal trainers couldn't have kept up with me. You wanna hear about fasting? Please. The most devoted hunger-striker had nothing on me. Two weeks later, there was a HUGE family fight the night before I was supposed to leave again, when my dad found out what was really going on (we laugh about it now, right Dad? We ALL proceeded to get out of the car at various points on our way back from dinner and tried to walk home; it's pretty comical - that part, anyway). The next day, my recruiter again drove the two-plus hours to Butte, with two other very skinny, very military-ready girls. I made weight. BY ONE POUND. I called home and told them that I wouldn't be coming back; I was shipping out. I went to my room, waited for my bus the next morning to take me to the airport, and proceeded to celebrate with all the junk out of the vending machines that I could possibly stuff into my mouth.
[insert crying here]
It's all downhill from there, folks, and it ain't pretty. I spent my whole military "career" in what I liked to call the Fat Kids' Camp, doing extra workouts in the mornings and evenings, getting surprise middle-of-the-night weigh-ins, and getting yelled at - "motivated" - by any and all authority figures who had been saddled with the task of preventing me from making my uniform look like a camouflage sausage casing. I could go on to tell you how I used to get measured in front of my whole platoon, unscheduled checks for "unauthorized food" in my room, or how I cried knowing how much everything would jiggle for everyone's eyes to see while the drill sergeant made me do extra sets of jumping jacks in front of the company commander. Or no, wait, how about the letter I had to submit, at the end of November, begging and pleading with the Army to just let me have one more chance to prove myself. I've learned from my mistakes. I can do better. I couldn't hack college; I need to make it here. Please. Please. Let me stay.
Nah, here you go: one spit-shined, starched, and battle-ready Army, tired of babysitting, bribing, and threatening, left me to my own devices three days before Christmas with one swift stroke of the pen. December 1996. Not my best month. Despite everything, I loved the military. I loved my friends, I loved the possibilities, I loved what it stood for. Some people say the Army was my biggest mistake. Um, excuse me. I was my biggest mistake.
So here's how my silly mind works. I don't talk about the Army for many reasons, most of which I think can be understood from what I've laid down here. But the biggest reason is because I envision that, someday, someone will look at me and say, "What the?!? YOU got kicked out of the Army?? How is that even possible?" And I, in all of my healthy size ten splendor, will respond, "Well see, I used to be pretty fat and..." Right now, that scenario would go something like, "Oh, you got kicked out because you were overweight? Oh... Um... Well, I, uh. I. Better. Get. Going. [Because suddenly I'm really uncomfortable and from looking at you, I can see why that happened.]"
* * *
Everyone has stuff that hurts them that they have to deal with. Some people can actually forgive themselves for things they've once blamed themselves for. They move on, they leave the past behind them, and they don't dwell on what can't be fixed. Or, they might even try their best just to keep things so deeply submerged that they figure there's no way the ugliness will float to the top. Unlucky for me, I break one of the biggest rules - I wear my issues on the outside.
If you didn't know the real story before - tah dah!! It's so right when people say that the truth hurts, and I'd just like to trick myself into believing that I won't cry about this until another 365 days have passed. You might say I'm feeling sorry for myself because, let's face it, it looks very much that way. But this is the most shameful, degrading thing that has ever happened to me, and until you've been there, you don't know. You don't know.
Hey, this IS my forum for telling stories, is it not? I'll file this one under "Chilling Tales of Horror" and go back to happy stuff for a while. Until then, Happy Veteran's Day.
To the real soldiers.