By Steve Fuller
Getting off an airplane. In a hotel lobby while awaiting wedding photos. During job interviews. In uniform, out of uniform when discovered. The refrain, “Thank you for your service,” remains one of the most enigmatic expressions of gratitude to me.
How do I respond? Surely my septuagenarian mother would remind me to simply say, “You’re welcome,” with a measure of humility. Some proud red-blooded Americans might suggest a less humble version of the same laced with a bit of bravado. Neither answer feels right in my brain, nor have sounded right in my mouth when those choices were made. (Admittedly, the bravado version never made it to the tongue if even thought of to begin with.)
What’s more, what are they thanking me for anyway? I never served a day in the tundra of Afghanistan or in the desert or cities of Iraq. My ship offered sanctuary from the real hell of war written about by so many great storytellers over millennia. The romance of the sea remained romantic until the very end, until the last puff from a cigar shared with shipmates on the fantail of the USS George H. W. Bush while marveling at the stars and the moon and the tranquility of the sea beyond the wake.
Yet, in the wake of my honorable service lies a failed marriage and an estranged son. I had the privilege of rebooting my life in the Driftless area of Wisconsin after falling in love with the bucolic scenes painted on the idyllic side of my romantic brain linked to my favorite writers like Frost and Wordsworth. It’s a privilege now marred by unplanned consequences we are all sorting through while waiting for the day of COVID to turn into some hopeful new normal.
In spite of never slinging a rifle over my shoulder or collecting the tormenting memories of killing an enemy or watching a friend be killed, I am still plagued by nightmares, often set at sea, that wake me up to an aura of terror that doesn’t just slough off like it would when I was a kid and my mom or dad would tell me everything was going to be OK. Perhaps my brain, after being rewired watching our airplanes bomb ISIS targets (humans) or chasing down drug runners or oil smugglers, knowing that their poor life choices were ours to catch and begin the process of dolling out consequences, still hears the boy who aspired to the teachings on nonviolence that he read in the works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. A boy who wants an explanation from the man, “Why did we do this with our life? We had other plans.”
In the detritus of a life transformed by service, by a uniform, by being ready 24/7/365 to respond to any order of those appointed over me, I now know and acknowledge that I have work to do. Some of that work will be done with the help of a therapist, medical care guaranteed by my service. Some of that work will be done with fellow veterans, whether through creative writing programs at Shake Rag Alley or with new connections in the Deadly Writer’s Patrol. Most of that work will be done alone, with the encouragement of those who now stand watch over me while the terror runs its course and nightmares finally dissipate to the ether where they can be forgotten with the blissful dreams of youth. I know that the only answer to the question above is, “Thank you.” Thank you for seeing me. Seeing me, you know there is a pain I carry that I cannot always explain and that I am too proud to unpack from my rucksack, but for that very brief moment your recognition of me lifts the load I carry enough to help me to the next.
Steve Fuller retired from the U.S. Navy in 2019 after nearly 27 years of service serving at sea on ships as small as frigates and as large as aircraft carriers. A visit to the Driftless and a desire for a radical course change brought him home to Wisconsin where he lives on a small parcel of land with chickens and horses and … more to come! He has been a creative writer since he first saw U2 perform in Live Aid, and now as he returns home after a life of service, he looks forward to sharing more of his writing with willing readers.