I’m usually happy to talk about my 16 years in the Air Force, my four deployments, and my current role as an Air Force Reservist. So, for me, it was an easy decision to participate in the PBS American Veteran series.

Honestly, though, sharing my experiences on the program felt like an indulgence. Sometimes I just assume people don’t want to hear those stories. It’s like your vacation pictures; you think they’re awesome, but maybe your 2,000 photos aren’t as super interesting to other people as they are to you.

But the American Veteran interview was great because I felt like somebody really wanted to hear about my experiences, and they asked very thoughtful questions. It was helpful to get past the “Wow, you were in Afghanistan, thank you for your service,” surface-level interactions.

I think a lot of veterans or military members are like me — we are more willing to talk about our experiences than you might think. You see veterans portrayed in the media as the grizzled, hardened guy with the thousand-yard stare who never talks about what happened to him. I just don’t think that’s usually the case.

Sure, it’s easier for us to talk to someone who’s been through something similar to what we’ve done. There’s a shared vocabulary; you don’t have to start from square one. There’s already a sort of baseline foundation. If we shared the same deployment or mission, it’s easy to trade stories — like when that herd of goats ran through the compound or when someone stepped in the shit pond and was stinky for days.

I don’t mind sharing those stories with anyone — not just fellow veterans. If you let me know you’re interested, ask me a question — the more detailed or specific, the better.

Someone asked me once, “What’s the deal with MREs?” We had this really interesting conversation about how meals-ready-to-eat work, and how everybody wants the jalapeno cheese spread, and that you can use certain items in the MREs as currency to trade with. It was great because it was an organic conversation that led into even more stories. So if it makes sense to ask a question, don’t be afraid to ask.

When we’re around other people, most of the time we’re not thinking, “I’m a veteran; you’re a civilian.” My husband, who is also an Air Force veteran, and I have some civilian friends who don’t quite understand exactly what we’re doing, but they’re very supportive.

But I’ve also had some weird interactions with strangers, especially when it comes to their assumptions about women and people of color in the military. I remember years and years ago my husband and I were chit-chatting with people we had just met on vacation. I was an intelligence officer, so I really couldn’t talk about what I do, but my husband could say, “I’m a pilot in the Air Force.”

The people we were chatting with then asked if we met when he was deployed. I remember thinking, “They think I’m an Army wife, like he was deployed to Korea and brought me back with him.”

Of course, we laughed about it, and it hasn’t happened again, but that was the assumption they made. It’s the same reason I’m always ready to pull out my military ID when I park in a veterans-only parking spot. I think people will assume that since I’m female I couldn’t be a veteran. But it actually hasn’t happened.

I’ve never run into any blatant sexism, but there are still these underlying assumptions. Even within our extended family, when people talk about the military, they direct their questions to my husband. He just “looks” military. He’ll always say, “My wife also served.” But it’s never me having to be like, “Oh, by the way, my husband also served.”

When you’re deployed or serving with someone, you pay attention to the differences in the team. Everyone is very much focused on the mission. And I think we are more focused on the things we have in common, like we’re all in the military; we’re all in it together, doing whatever we had to do.

I’ve heard some people talk about having a jarring experience when they come back from a deployment, and it’s super weird to reintegrate. My experience with that wasn’t after a deployment, but when Kabul fell in mid-August. My husband and I were among the veterans and active duty military members who tried to help evacuate Afghans. We would be holed up in front of our computer screens for 20 hours a day, and barely had time to eat or take care of our kids.

I remember at one point, though, about three or four days into the evacuation, we had to drive somewhere and we saw people going for a walk in the park in D.C. We said to ourselves, “People still do that?” It was such a stark contrast that all of this crazy, crazy stuff was happening thousands of miles away, but there were people enjoying a picnic with their families.

These are things I don’t mind talking about, whether it’s with family, our civilian friends, or 50 female veterans crammed into a restaurant for a reunion of our special operations group. I’ll talk about my most memorable experience, or my craziest experience, or what the deal is with MREs.

I’m a veteran, and you can ask me anything.

Written by Annie Kleiman

Master of Science and Technology Intelligence Candidate, National Intelligence University

“American Veteran” traces the veteran experience through a four-part broadcast and streaming series on PBS and PBS.org.  Featuring testimony from a diverse group of nearly 50 veterans – young and old, enlisted and officers, men and women, from all five branches of the military, and more – the programs offer powerful personal stories of service. Find Annie in episodes 1,2, or 4 on www.pbs.org/americanveteran or stream it on the @PBS Video App, and catch the final episode live on PBS at 9/8c on November 16th. Share your story or response to Annie’s using #AmericanVeteranPBS

Feature image courtesy of Pixabay

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