By Alex Cook, an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
My name is on a monument that claims I’m a hero.
Cape Coral just dedicated a new Iraq War monument on Veteran’s Day. I avoided the dedication ceremony, worried about just how publicly my heroism might be extolled, but snuck over with my girlfriend on a quiet Saturday afternoon to check it out. The large stone star, emblazoned with the words “Iraq War Heroes” sits in the shadow of even larger monuments dedicated to the veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The top of the star is lined with dog tags bearing the names of local veterans from every service who deployed to Iraq. I had to gently brush aside a rose someone had placed over the names to find mine. And there I am, among the “heroes.”
How does it make me feel?
Honored: No matter what I feel about my military service, the merits of the war, or whether I was right or wrong to enlist, a group of people got together to say “thanks” and call me a hero. They don’t know what I experienced over there. They don’t need to. The fact that I went is enough for them.
Hypocritical: Who am I to have my name emblazoned on a monument which dubs me a “hero?” I didn’t have a combat job. I don’t recall doing anything very heroic. I faced a little danger, I did my job, and I couldn’t wait to get home. I’ve spent way too much whining about it since. So many others are more deserving of the title “hero” than I.
Nostalgic: I always knew I’d never miss my days as a soldier. I can’t say I miss them, exactly, but fond memories managed to slip in here and there. I got to know some amazing people. I had some unique adventures. I’m amazed that I can get a little misty-eyed thinking about GOOD times I had in the army. But I can and do.
Hopeful: I remember how I felt when I first exited the army. I thought everyone could tell I wasn’t a normal person, that I didn’t belong in civilian society. I tried to suppress every emotion and memory from that time, trying to “start over.” The past few years have seen slow progress as I struggled to accept and then embrace my past. Now I can see my name on a monument of heroes and not be filled with rage and disgust. I went to war for my country. Not everyone can say that. And if that’s something worth honoring, I’m ok with that.
When last I wrote for Off the Base, I described a PTSD treatment study that I took part in. I wrote my entries from my little brother’s old room in my parent’s house. I was unemployed. Some days I didn’t leave the bedroom, let alone the house. I’d come a long way in coming to grips with my military service, but I still had a long way to go.
I’m writing this entry from the little place I share with my loving and supportive girlfriend, just a short bike ride from my full time TV news job. I’m living a pretty good life. I’m not defined by my time in the army, but it’s very much a part of me. I’m not perfectly happy, but who is? I have my dark days. I get past them. To my fellow vets, who may be struggling to come to grips with your service: keep moving forward while accepting and embracing what you’ve been a part of. It’s not easy. It gets easier. Let people love you and don’t give up. Keep living.
And if someone wants to put your name on a monument, go ahead and let them. It’s pretty cool.
Alex Cook is a former intern with WUSF Public Media who now works for WINK in Ft. Myers, FL. Here’s a link to his experience as a veteran as told to his current employer http://www.winknews.com/Local-Florida/2013-07-17/Iraq-War-Memorial-breaks-ground-in-Cape-Coral#.Uou-YMSsiSo .
The new Iraq War monument is located at the Four Mile Cove Eco Park, Cape Coral, FL and is still taking the names of local Iraq War veterans. Details on how to add a name to the monument are available on the website: http://iraqwarmonumentcapecoralfl.com/.