As a veteran, sometimes I feel like a toy from the Isle of Misfit Toys. My reference may be a bit dated, but the metaphor stands. Somehow, even though I fit all of the characteristics of the military and civilian communities, I don’t feel like a member of either group. When I left the military, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I wanted to present my veteran identity. I spent seven years in the army—the majority of my adult life—and from my experience, military culture is almost cult-like.
Everything relates to the military when you’re still in. You get up super early, go to formation, workout, shower, eat, go to work, maybe go to lunch, keep working, leave by 1700 if you’re lucky, repeat. When your day is this structured, you start hanging out with the people you see the most. That means your peers, your fellow soldiers. Your community shrinks down to the military. But when I left, I lost my community and my identity. I had to rebuild.
It should be an easy transition. Half the time I wasn’t even seen as a soldier unless I was in my uniform. My husband got thanked for his service—mine was ignored. Civilian contractors asked for my sponsor ID number instead of my own at appointments, assuming I was a spouse and not a service member. Even my fellow soldiers assumed my military service. It’s funny the things you hear when you’re the only woman in the office. Comments wondering if I’ll get pregnant to avoid deployment or jokes about how lucky I was to have easier physical training standards or the way they always avoided me after annual equal opportunity or sexual harassment training out of fear that I might finally stop acting like their jokes were funny and report them.
Being a civilian again should have been easy. And then it wasn’t. Transitioning back to civilian life felt like jumping off a cliff without knowing if there was water waiting at the bottom. I’ve been out of the Army for a little over three years. In that time I’ve become a student, an activist and a mother. Those new pieces of my identity have been amazing and have allowed me to grow in ways that I didn’t expect. I became more confident in my ability to keep up in the classroom after the second semester. While imposter syndrome creeps in, the reality is, I’m a good student and I love my course load. My classes helped rekindle my dreams of being a lawyer and working in civil rights. All of those life experiences coupled with the birth of my kid should mean I’m living my best life in a lot of different ways. And it does for the most part. I love the path I took because it led to a pretty great life. However, whenever my classmates reference a trend I’ve never heard of or talk about having kids like it’s a curse, I feel my age a little bit. I’m 30 on a campus where the majority of my peers are the age of my baby brother. I have a family friend that goes to Vassar; he’s a first-year student, and I’ve known him since he was a baby. He’s taller than me now, and I’m very proud but it causes some anxiety about life. I’m anxious about the fact that I’ll be 31 when I graduate next year. I’m worried about going to law school with a child under five. I stress about fitting in with my classmates because it can be so easy to get lost in cIasswork instead of forming friendships. I even worry about fitting in with my fellow student veterans because they’re supposed to be what remains of my community. It’s maddening because while my anxiety is in part my own brand of crazy, there is a larger part that isn’t. Veterans don’t feel integrated into their communities anymore. I will never be active duty military again, but I’ll also never truly be a civilian either.
I’m a misfit in the timeline of life and society’s expectations. Most veterans are. We join at 18,19 and 20. We serve for three to nine years. College comes later or not all. When we leave military service, we go back to the civilian population. We find it has moved on without us. Identity can be very isolating. We seek our fellow veterans out, reform our communities’ hierarchies and ignore that we are a drift. We are an isle of misfit toys looking for a new home.