I had a friend who slung his boots over a power line on the road leading out of north Camp Pendleton. He tied the laces together and threw them about 50 times before they caught, and they hung there alongside dozens of other sets of boots, desert boots and jungle boots, boots that had been polished daily for years on end. He’d driven down that road underneath those boots, in and out of camp, for almost four years, and now he was adding a part of himself and driving away for good. It was an old tradition for Marines reaching the end of their enlistments. No one ever said why, but I figured it was like putting a period at the end of a sentence. He’d never wear those boots again.
When I got out, I kept my boots. We’d been through a lot together. Thirteen weeks of government-sanctioned hazing known as boot camp, two months of infantry training, another couple years of running hills and marching and treading through all the climes and places. I even wore them during a firefight in Iraq. There were spare sets to be sure, different colors for different terrains, but those initial boots remained “my boots,” and I didn’t want to part with them.
I didn’t want to part with anything, even if it’s all I talked about for four years. I kept it all close to my heart and drove the last drive underneath all that sagging footwear and grew a beard and became just another asshole, working at CVS. I thought it would be easy.
The first few years are the hardest. No sergeant to come put a boot up your ass, tell you where to go, what to do. No free chow, no free trips to the doctor. Suddenly there’s a rent payment. Suddenly there’s all these bills. You realize it’s an expensive logistical nightmare, just being alive. You realize there’s no esprit, no teamwork, no society. Everyone’s out for themselves. “Individual” used to be an insult. Now it’s a point of pride.
You stand there, in line at 7-Eleven, saturating in your lack of importance. Everything comes at you in two dimensions. Everything is turned down. The grayscale has taken over.
You realize you don’t have anything to talk about except what you’ve been doing for the last four years, and everyone’s eyes glaze over, or they get intrusive, asking if you killed anyone, if you’re OK, if you have bad dreams, flashbacks, thoughts of suicide. You endure the trite but well-meaning stories about relatives who once served, about flat feet and asthma precluding some post-high school urge. They ask things like, “Do you know Tom Sutton?” and you say No and they say, “He was also a Marine,” as if every Marine who ever served knows every other Marine who ever served. Mostly you realize they don’t know what to say any more than you do.
Some of them will say we should nuke the Middle East, as if that’s what you wish to hear, or they say they could never do what you did, implying their soul isn’t murderous like yours. And you keep telling sea stories because it’s the only thing going on in your head.
Readjusting to civilian life is like adjusting to an amputation. You have the rest of your life to get used to it. It helps to make new memories—meaningful memories. They take their place on the shelf alongside the sea stories, crowding up the vacancies and the ugly, obvious chasms.
And as cliché as it sounds, it’s true: Time is a great unguent. Time is a commodity. It’s the payment for improvement, for sanity. I bide my time and every day I figure out what it means to be a human being. I endure the apathy and answer the questions and try tethering the disconnects. I talk about the other side as much as I can.
But regardless of whatever defines me, deep down in the corner of a dark musty closet, next to a row of worn tennis shoes and flip-flops, I still have my boots.