Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever pre-ordered. I went into a KB Toys (RIP) and saw a sign announcing that the game would be available for pre-order and that if you pre-ordered it, you would get a free Final Fantasy t-shirt.

When the game was finally released, I was happy to receive the promised shirt. It was white with a picture of the main character Cloud Strife on the back. Next to the avatar was some biographical data.

If you look closely, his job is listed as “former soldier.”

I remember thinking at the time – and I was just a 15 year old kid who had no idea I’d be writing about the oddities of veteran life in 2015 – “isn’t it kind of weird to list your job as something you were formerly?”

Cloud Strife is a veteran, lost in the twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.

As fans of the game know, the word ‘soldier’ probably should have been written in all upper-case, since it was more akin to a unit than an individual job profession.

But fans of the game also know that the crux of the story revolves around Cloud’s latent PTSD and his self-delusions of grandeur and heroism. Before I even knew what PTSD was, I watched Cloud struggle with it. He also struggled with transitioning out of the military. With no skills, he joined a bunch of ‘freedom fighters’ for no reason other than to keep fighting, really. He broke down – over and over – clasping his head as memories of the past surged into his mind.

As you slowly tease out the story of what happened at the Nibelheim Reactor, the big reveal is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is. What’s particularly interesting to me, is it’s not exactly clear whether he deliberately misremembered the past of his own accord (to trump up his deeds) or if he just didn’t remember, because of the psychological trauma or injury. I always thought it was a combination of the two.

“Former soldiers” or veterans tend to embellish their war stories. While war can be exciting, it doesn’t always match the vivid imagination of the listener, whose frames of reference are action movies and video games. Each time the story is told, a gentle adjective sneaks its way in. The next time, you were a little closer to the explosion – “it was right in front of me!” Usually, these retellings are innocent enough – and they don’t involve the release of a murderous psychopath bent on destroying the world. But the idea of a former soldier mistelling his past for whatever reason – fame, power, gil – is common.

I’ve always wanted to dig into the Nibelheim Incident and Cloud Strife’s PTSD and memory as a larger piece for this blog. It’s a good way to tell the story of something important (veteran PTSD issues, moral injury, stolen valor) in a way that is interesting and might capture the attention of an audience that normally would be uninterested in veteran issues. It was only recently that I remembered the pre-order t-shirt and I wanted to get this idea out there. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore Cloud’s lore and background to give the idea the attention it would deserve to do it justice, so in the meantime, these half-baked ideas will just have to sit here, and wait.

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I’ve met few people who don’t have some twinge of regret for getting out of the Army

Having left the Army once and then come back in years later, I’ve seen lots of soldiers make the transition out of the Army. After the initial honeymoon phase of not having to wake up early, no standing in formations, and the multitude of other absurdities that color military life, there comes a much longer period of time characterized by nostalgia. The miserable field problems in the rain and cold fall to the background. The camaraderie and sense of purpose rises to the top, and regardless of what the veteran is doing in the civilian world, nothing seems to ever match it.

I’ve seen the same in soldiers who leave the Army today. In separation counseling, I mention that with very few exceptions, I have rarely seen someone get out and not regret it on some level. A soldier determined to get out is undeterred, though. Still, I have not been surprised by the number of soldiers that have gotten in touch with me after getting out to say they definitely regret it, if even just a little.

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Book Reviews: The Things They Carried and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!
Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson. America!

I finished two books over the past week: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. The first is a classic that I just never got around to reading until now and the second is what I hope might become a new classic.

The Things They Carried, like many good war stories, blurs the line between what is real and what is fiction, and in doing so comes closer to telling the truth of “what it’s like” than any straight telling of the facts ever could. Some of the stories are so fantastical that they seemingly cannot be true, yet they tell something deeper about war and soldiering in combat that just could not be told any other way (the improbable story of Mary Anne Bell, for example – the peppy girlfriend of a soldier who flies to Vietnam to be with her boyfriend and instead becomes consumed by the war, teaming up with a team of hardened Green Berets and going on ambushes).

Weaving between time in Vietnam, time before the war, and time after the war, O’Brien tells the story from his omniscient position as a “43 year old writer, twenty years after leaving Vietnam.” O’Brien served in Vietnam as an infantryman which helps legitimize the detailed descriptions of life in Vietnam. One of the strongest parts of the book is dedicated to O’brien’s personal struggle before the war deciding whether to attempt to dodge the draft.

While most of the book discusses O’Brien’s experience in Vietnam, I would classify this as a post-war book. This isn’t a historical recounting of battles or a chronological record of a deployment experience. It’s a looking back at the totality of a war experience and a retelling of that experience after years of thought and analysis. And that retelling has been embellished and filtered to get to a more accurate “truth” even if some of the individual stories are blatant lies.

Unlike Tim O’Brien, Ben Fountain did not serve in the military, which made me skeptical about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The author’s lack of military service or experience left me wondering how the story would unfold and I was immediately looking for the author to simply use the story of soldiers to tell some other, “greater” lesson. While it might be argued that this book uses the ‘coming home’ story of a squad of soldiers to paint a picture of modern day America, Fountain gets so much right that to me, it’s a legit post-war story, even though entire thing is a work of fiction.

The gist of the story is this: a squad of infantrymen gets into an intense firefight early in the Iraq War and that firefight is caught on camera by a Fox News crew. The video shows the squad taking it to the enemy and it becomes a feel-good morale booster for a home-front completely cutoff from the reality of the war and starved of any good news stories in the first couple of years after the September 11th attacks. The squad is then sent home from Iraq on a two-week “victory tour” which culminates in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day where the squad will participate in the Halftime Show of a Cowboys/Bears game.

I don’t know how, but Fountain manages to capture both the zeitgeist of what it was like to come home in those early days of the Iraq War and the complete feeling of emptiness that going to war and coming back can have for soldiers. The book will resonate with any veteran that has been to a bar and showered with awkward “thank you’s” as patrons glanced over briefly before turning back to their beers or who were forced to stand up to be recognized at some event, where the act of thanking seemed more a cathartic exercise for the thanker than the thanked.

Billy Lynn’s squad (known as “Bravo Squad” because the media mangled the unit designation – they were part of a Bravo Company) is constantly peppered with questions about what it was like to shoot the enemy in such a non-chalant manner because their exploits became a media sensation. With the exception of a few cutback scenes, the entire story takes place in the less than 24 period that the squad spends in their last day at Texas Stadium for the Bears/Cowboys game. They are shuffled around, moving from their sideline seats, to the owners’ box, to the locker room for an awkward meeting between the soldiers and some of the Cowboys, who begrudgingly sign autographs for the soldiers and some young children with cancer while they get ready for the game. All the while, the squad is followed by a Hollywood agent who is trying to spin their story into a movie. The soldiers, who are being hailed as heroes everywhere they go and who have become celebrities of the week are told they can expect a huge pay-day for the exclusive rights to their story. The rub comes when that “support our troops” attitude meets the reality of people having to lay down real money – a sentiment that has been felt by many veterans who have heard in the same sentence “I support the troops and thank you for your service, but there is nothing I can do.”

Like The Things They Carried, one of the key issues comes when Billy’s sister tries to connect him with an anti-war group that specializes in getting soldiers out of the military. Billy flirts with the idea of deserting, in the same way O’Brien flirted with the idea of fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.

The central question that hung in my mind as I read both books was “what is the deeper meaning of all this?” It seems that in post-war stories, the author is trying to tease out what the purpose of the war was, not on a strategic level, but on a personal level. What does my service mean for me?  Both books left me wondering what it all means. Neither book provided an answer, and I’m not sure there is one or that one will ever exist.

The New York Times Review of The Things They Carried
The New York Times Review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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The Veteran Back-to-School Reader

It’s back to school time. For new student veterans, that means awkwardly moving between campus buildings at a 120 paces a minute, looking for the seat with either the easiest egress route or full view of all students (my personal choice), and digging deep into regulations on how to fully access education benefits.

I thought that it might be helpful to write a post that links some good reading for the new student veteran. If you know of anything that I should add to this, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it.

Posts about the technical aspects of college:
A Veteran’s Blueprint for College – The nuts and bolts of going to college as a veteran.
College Success: Leveraging Your Vet-Cred – How to use your veteran experience to your advantage while at school 

Posts about college life for veterans:
From Soldier to Student, a Bumpy Road – The strange life of the student veteran, by Alex Horton
Johnny Get Your Textbook – What it’s like… by Colby Buzzell

Posts about transitioning out of the military:
Life After Iraq: 10 Lessons on Transitioning Out of the MilitaryThis is good general advice on making it work outside of the military.

Posts about studying Arabic as a veteran:
Learning a Language, and Relearning a Country – A former soldier decides to study Arabic and faces some awkwardness and discomfort.

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A Veteran’s Blueprint for College

This post originally ran on VAntage Point, the VA’s blog. Since school is starting, I thought I’d repost it here.

Having just finished school, I wanted to write an amazing article on what that experience was like as a veteran. (Un)fortunately, Alex Horton and Colby Buzzell recently wrote fantastic articles about that strange transition – and did so in a way that I could not. So instead, I’d like to add to the conversation by writing about some of the nuts and bolts of going to college on the GI Bill and ultimately finishing school with a degree.

In the five years since leaving the Army, I managed to squeeze out an undergraduate degree (CCNY, 2010) and a master’s degree (SOAS, 2011) almost entirely covered by the GI Bill. Starting school, it’s important to understand that getting an education is a long and grueling process. I spent as much time in school as I did in the Army. This post chronicles that journey and might act as a light blueprint for a veteran looking to go to school.

Overcome the skepticism and go

During my last six months of active duty, I met with a number of senior NCOs and retention specialists to discuss staying in the Army and my plans upon separating. The conversations usually went like this:

NCO: “You’re getting out? What are you going to do?”
Me: “I’m going to go to college.”
NCO: “Yeah, alright. It’s not that easy, you know.”

Informal conversations with peers about my future as a college student were often met with rolled eyes and skepticism. It was generally assumed that separating soldiers responded with “going to college” as an answer to questions about future plans without actually putting the thought into what going to college entails. College was also shrouded in mystery as a foreign institution far outside of the base gate since most of the enlisted soldiers surrounding me had not attended. This mystery meant they didn’t have a good second line of questioning. A soldier could say they were simply going to college and that was a good enough plan. Most active duty soldiers don’t have much experience with accessing VA benefits, so there is little advice they can offer.

But if you’re serious about going to school – do it. Don’t be discouraged by the skeptics.

Swallow your pride – start at community college if you must

Fortunately, I had a basic plan. I wanted to pursue Middle East studies and Arabic. In order to do that, I needed to go to a school that offered it. I wanted to go to the City College of New York (CCNY), but I was not a good student in high school, so applying directly was not an option. So, I swallowed my pride and enrolled in a local community college to sharpen my academic skills and boost my GPA before applying to CCNY. At community college, I only took core courses that would easily transfer to CCNY by checking the requirements of the degree program I wanted at CCNY and matching up the requirements to courses at the community college I was attending. I had to take a year of remedial math before I could even enroll in a math course that actually counted. It wasn’t fun, but I needed it. And this year of taking courses I didn’t necessarily want to take laid the foundation for future academic success.

I got my first taste of life with the GI Bill at community college. Fortunately, the community college I attended had a full-time representative that handled veterans issues and she ensured I always received GI Bill payments. If your school has a veterans office, lean on it. Hard.

Start with core courses/general studies – they transfer easier

After a year of community college, I transferred to the City College of New York. Because I had only taken core courses, nearly all of my credits transferred – meaning I hadn’t wasted any time. Switching my GI Bill to this new school was trickier, since it required switching regions. I didn’t have any problems with receiving payments though, because I applied for the GI Bill early and checked up regularly. Phone calls and website inquiries are a student veteran’s best friend when it comes to ensuring timely disbursement of funds.

Stay up-to-date on the latest benefit changes

By the time the Post-9/11 GI Bill was introduced, I had nearly exhausted all of my Montgomery GI Bill benefits. I was a little bummed, since I was otherwise fully eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill and would have received substantially more than what I was getting with the Montgomery. Closely reading the rules governing the new benefit, however, I learned that if I exhausted my Montgomery GI Bill I would then be eligible for twelve months of Post-9/11 GI Bill. Knowing this, I was able to continue to receive GI Bill benefits in the final months of my undergraduate program and then use what was left to help pay for a graduate program in London.

If you do something weird (like study abroad), be prepared to work – you might be trailblazing

I chose to continue my education by attending the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers studying at foreign institutions, but the rules governing this are different than the rules governing studying at US institutions. In order to make it work, I needed to get the specific program I was interested in approved by the VA before I could start receiving benefits. This can be a long process and one that requires lots of phone calls to desks in VA offices across the US.

I also needed to get letters from the VA documenting approximately how much money I would receive over the course of the year to apply for a UK visa – not a normal thing that the VA does. Also, all housing allowances for foreign institutions are set at a locked rate regardless of the location overseas, which may be substantially less than what you will need. While studying in London, I had a GI Bill discrepancy, and troubleshooting the issue was a little more difficult since calling back to the US could get expensive. Lastly, administrative staff at foreign institutions may have never processed a US veteran before, so you need to be prepared to teach someone “how to do it.”

Spin your service into more opportunities

The Post-9/11 GI Bill shouldn’t be the only legacy of your military service while in school. Veterans represent a tiny portion of any college campus. That, together with the unique experiences, ingrained discipline, and plethora of stories can easily by marshaled to pursue other opportunities, like prestigious scholarships. By supplementing your Post-9/11 GI Bill with other scholarships, you can extend the life of your benefits and potentially squeeze out another degree before you finish.

Start slow, but stay in the game

Since starting school, there have been two problems that I’ve seen over and over again with veterans and college: the veteran who never starts school because of how long it takes to finish and the one that never finishes because he or she takes on too much at once. The first puts off going to school every semester because it’s going to take forever anyway (“Why bother? I have to take a year of classes that don’t even count before I can even start school for real”). The second starts school and then is in a rush to finish, often taking too many courses while holding a job and taking on too many side projects. Both of these veterans have a hard time finishing college, but their solutions are similar: start slow and build momentum. Even if it means starting with one or two courses a semester. Slowly, the veteran will build momentum and start taking on more. Each course is one course closer to finishing.

Lastly, as much as possible, resist the urge to take a semester off. These breaks often last longer than intended.

Good luck!

Additional tips:

Enroll as soon as possible – the sooner you start, the sooner you finish

Have a basic plan (what do you ultimately want to study?)

Backwards plan – find the job you want – determine what degree or education it requires – determine which school offers it – figure out how to get into that school – execute!

Knock out your core requirements first – this might take a year or more, in which time you can think critically about the end game and make adjustments if necessary. Also, core requirements are usually the most transferable, so if you change schools, they won’t be credits, time, and money wasted.

Know the rules to the GI Bill and stay up-to-date on changes (this can mean more money, or at least, not having to pay back)

Inquiry, inquiry, inquiry (if you have any problems, send an inquiry immediately through the VA website)

When it comes to the GI Bill, apply early and check up regularly

Be on the lookout for other veteran-specific scholarships

Stay in school – even if it means one course a semester

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VAntage Point – Back in the Army, But Still Feel like a Veteran

I wrote a blog piece for VAntage Point this past week about being back in the Army, but still feeling like a ‘veteran.’ I spent the past five years building an identity as a veteran and talking about veteran issues from the perspective of someone who was in the Army, but out. Now that I’m back in, I still have the feeling of ‘being a veteran’ and I’m trying to reconcile that with my duties and responsibilities of being a soldier.

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The importance of “serious talk” for readjusting veterans

As part of my dissertation exploring Iraqi military experiences during the Iran-Iraq War era, I researched anthropologists’ experiences with veteran communities. Strikingly, many came to similar conclusions regarding what one anthropologist identifies as “serious talk.” That is, the process of communicating a personal war experience to a formal or public audience serves a critical role in the readjustment of the veteran. My own experience speaking and writing about my war experience confirms this for myself. While this may seem like common sense to many veterans, the research suggests that engaging in “serious talk” may ease the transition veterans face when returning to civilian life.

Perhaps naively, before deploying in 2003, I thought that when I came home from war there would be a formal “debriefing.” In the movies, I remember soldiers were routinely “debriefed’ after a mission. I pictured a process that would take place over the course of a week or two. We’d show up in the morning, conduct physical training, eat breakfast, and then stroll into a small darkened theater, clutching mugs of strong coffee. Like a cross between an AAR and a counseling session, the unit would be guided through a deconstruction and reconstruction of the entire deployment. Maps, photos, and video would augment the process. It would be informal, conversational, and involve everyone.

This imagined debriefing would give everyone, from private to commander, the opportunity to speak and relate their experience, for the sake of getting it out. It would not simply discuss the mechanics of war (the AAR does that), but would focus on the human experience of war, for which no amount of training creates experts.

Likewise, I imagined sitting in the dining room with my family, letters, maps, and photographs strewn about the table, where I would discuss at length what the experience was like – from boots on the ground to wheels up. We’d stay up late drinking coffee or beer and I’d lay it all out, once and for all. The ultimate war story.

Neither of these things happened. Maybe the first happens in some places, with some units. I’ve read stories about adventure vacations that platoons take to decompress.

Admittedly, I could have forced my family to sit down and listen to me tell them everything. But I never wanted to do that, and despite their assurances that they were always ready to listen, I’m not sure they really wanted it either. I just imagined that it would happen shortly after returning home.

Instead, my war experience has leaked out in small anecdotes over the course of several years. If I’m in a giving mood, a familiar sight or smell might compel me to quickly tell a story to my wife or parents. Even when I see other veterans, war talk is usually sparse, or spoken about in generalizations since war experiences are vastly different. Speaking in generalities (“man, Iraq was hot”) makes it easier to accommodate the different experiences of other veterans, while acknowledging that there is a shared service between us.

My difficulty in speaking about war is not unique. War talk is a subject that has received significant attention from anthropologists studying veteran communities. Anthropologist Theresa O’Nell worked with a community of Native American Vietnam veterans and wrote about their process of “coming home” (1999).

O’Nell’s important contribution is her identification of “profane talk” and “serious talk” as two modes veterans use to speak about war.

“Profane talk” is the dominant mode, usually done with other veterans, and consists of jokes, cursing, and the retelling of war stories, often with the purpose of establishing dominance among other men.

These are the “no shit, there I was” stories.

“Serious talk,” on the other hand, usually takes place in public or ceremonial settings. It is characterized by a more thoughtful and reflective tone. A speech at a Memorial Day event, an Op-Ed in a local newspaper, and blog posts can be forms of “serious talk.” This essay is a form of “serious talk.”

O’Nell offers that veterans who only engage in “profane talk” are “confined to that generation, trapped in that time and place.”

They are forever in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. For those who engage in “serious talk,” however, “war memories undergo a semiotic transformation within which they are detached from combat-based meanings of death and survival, and become reattached to the sense and flux of ongoing intergenerational and transhistorical tribal life.”

In “serious talk” the veteran is usually speaking to a non-veteran audience. Words and ideas must be reconstructed to be understood. This process of deconstructing and repackaging stories for general consumption forces the veteran to reflect and work through his or her own experiences.

Like O’Nell, Eyal Ben-Ari identified “serious talk” as therapeutic. An anthropologist and reservist in the Israeli military, he wrote an analytical essay on his experience as a soldier during the first Palestinian intifada (1989).

In a section titled “At the Edge of My Society,” Ben-Ari writes about the reasons he wrote the article. He writes “Telling this tale – or more precisely relating my personal story to the more distanced analysis – has provided me with a means for confronting the experience of Hebron as well as for facing some of the deeper implications of my actions and those of my friends and comrades.”

In his essay on survivors of the attack on Peal Harbor, Geoffrey White also identifies “serious talk” as a way of healing and reconciling the past (1999).

The survivors, US Navy veterans, work as tour guides at the memorial for the attack, and are themselves living memorials. White has observed the importance of public performance of “traumatic, repressed, and hidden” memories as a means of healing for war veterans.

The process of packaging military experiences and presenting them to a public or formal audience serves a role in settling the veteran’s conscience.

A few years after leaving the military, I had the opportunity to participate in a museum project called It Is What It Is: Conversations about Iraq. The project consisted of a sparsely curated gallery of pictures from post-2003 Iraq and the husk of a car destroyed in a bombing. In the center of the gallery a person with some connection to Iraq would sit or stand surrounded by a small crowd of museum-going New Yorkers and tourists. The role of the speaker was simple: speak about their Iraq experience. As a veteran, my experience was war. Confronted by a crowd mostly ignorant of the military and hostile towards the war, my challenge was presenting my experience in a way that was easily understood, nonpolitical, and humanizing.

The experience was a strange one, because I was essentially a live, speaking exhibit. People asked me questions, and I answered. Some questions were dumb; the standard “did you kill anyone” type questions that you expect from high school kids, not the aging New York art crowd. Others were more complex and required thoughtful answers, like being asked to recall the level of cultural and language training provided and how that affected tactical operations. Or, how I personally reconcile my participation in an unpopular war with pride in military service (the assumption, of course, that it must be reconciled). Over the course of about a month, I spoke on four or five different occasions. The experience forced me to think about my Iraq experience in a critical way and then communicate that to a public audience. I remember watching the face of an NYU graduate student quizzically contort as she realized I was not a monster. She told me she protested strongly against the Iraq War and was antimilitary, but had never actually met someone who served before.

While the exhibit was designed to inform the general public about Iraq, I believe that the process was more beneficial to me than anyone who attended. This was the first time I was forced to present my memory and experience to a critical public. I survived, and left each night feeling charged and better sorted than the night before.

Since then, I have continued to share my war experience through public writing. It is still challenging, but the process allows me to communicate everything that I wanted to communicate in the debriefing theater and at the dining room table in a safe and manageable way. While this process may not be helpful, appropriate, or needed for all veterans, it has been helpful for me, and previous research suggests that it may be helpful for others as well.

This post originally appeared at Small Wars Journal.

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