The 4th of July holds a double meaning for me. The most obvious one is the independence of our great nation from those tea-taxing Brits. In addition to that, July 4, 2009 was the day I got my personal freedom back. It was my ETS (End Term of Service) day. Civilian types don’t understand the burden that is lifted from one’s soul when one is no longer an indentured servant to the big green machine called the United States Army.
I had saved up a month of paid leave and was able to go on terminal leave on June 4th. I was still officially part of the Army when I left Fort Lewis, Washington and headed on my motorcycle trip around the United States. One month later, I was in the small town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
The day had been uneventful, and I was headed to Colorado Springs after spending a couple of nights in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The ride turned out to take longer than expected, so I decided to pick a nice-looking small town to spend the night, and Pagosa Springs was it.
I walked around town as the locals gathered for the Independence Day festivities. It was full, but not overwhelmingly so. I had some dinner, then headed to one of the bars. While I was there, someone told me there would be a fireworks show in about an hour. I attempted to make friends with some people, but no one was interested in me or my story. I sat at the bar drinking a couple of beers alone while watching people dance until the fireworks show started.
I went outside and found a place to sit to watch the fireworks. I was surrounded by families who were drinking, eating, and laughing. I sipped on my beer in silence, not attempting to talk to anyone. As the fireworks started, I began thinking about how this show was not only for America, but for me specifically. I’m done, it’s official, I’m out of the Army. The days where I could say being a soldier was my profession were behind me.
No one there knew who I was or what I had done for this country, but it didn’t matter, because I’m sure among them were veterans who had done way more than I have. I thought of the hundreds of missions I went on as a Stryker driver through the streets of Baghdad and Mosul. I started thinking of the soldiers I knew: the ones who didn’t make it back, the ones who mentored me, the ones who were my friends, even the ones I hated. We each did our part.
The families loved the fireworks. I missed my friends and family from California. I thought about my mom. How she cried her eyes out and covered me in kisses the day I left for Basic Training. How she constantly worried about me during my entire time in the Army and was prouder of me than words could describe. I thought about the rest of my family and friends. How each one showed me support in the best way they could. I thought about the drunken bullshit my best friends had to put up with from me when I was home on leave. A smile came across my face because there were a lot of good memories piled high.
There were couples holding each other. I thought about the various women I had been with during my time in the Army. Yet one woman consumed my thoughts—my only ex-girlfriend. I thought about how we met, how she became the first woman I ever truly loved, and how we had a roller coaster of a relationship amplified by my alcoholism and her drug use. Our bitter fallout happened while I was on one of my deployments to Iraq. I didn’t feel hatred at that moment, but rather loneliness, for it would have been wonderful to embrace her right then as the night sky filled with brightness.
The fireworks ended. People clapped and cheered. I sat there in silence. Everyone was celebrating our freedom; I celebrated regaining mine. It was over. It was a wild four-and-a-half years that will never escape me. I sat there as an invisible visitor in a town whose very existence I learned of only a few hours earlier. Once I left, it wouldn’t feel the difference—just like the Army. I wondered if I truly was ready to take on the real world. I left the Army the same way I joined it—alone.