Most military members that I have gotten to know through my squadron or have met since I became a civilian have inherently become altered by their experience with the armed forces. To ask a veteran to write about an attribute that they have either gained or lost in the military is the equivalent of asking a cave diver if he found anything interesting in the deep blue depth, or lost a piece of gear to the great abyss. There are so many skills and attributes that one can both gain and lose in the military. Some of the skills we develop have both a positive and negative effect on our lives. Sympathy — or lack thereof — is something that every veteran can relate to. We are trained to let go of emotion, making it hard for us to gain some of those senses back. It is also something that is forced out by the lifestyle of a deployed soldier. It is something that we may just as easily gain once we process our experiences as we try to make sense of it all.
Most people love to complain. I have learned to let the stupid emotions not become a habit of my own because it is a waste of time and energy. We are all tired. We are all hot. Not very many people really enjoy working out in these conditions. Yet there are always the ones who have an excuse or are unable to refrain from letting everyone else know how much they are not enjoying their workout. This is the type of emotion that we are trained to dismiss as we move forward with the rest of our lives. It is the pointless and mundane of “water cooler talk” that can get you caught up in drama and cost you emotionally. This is why I do not care that I may have lost some of my sense of sympathy. To show sympathy in a situation like that is careless because it only adds to the excuses and to someone else’s bad habit of complaining or gossiping. The hard part is realizing the difference between complaining and true feelings of self-doubt or a number of bigger issues. Because we get so used to hearing these things from people, sometimes we ignore those who are really hurting and dismiss their feelings. After creating this habit, we lose out on some true relationships with people based on our lack of emotion to deal with their everyday problems.
The lifestyle that I lived as a military member kept me too busy to care about things that most people find natural to sympathize with. When deployed, we learned how to live with little. There are needs that every human depends on to survive, and you start to forget about the rest. This makes it harder to sympathize sometimes. I tend to always believe that someone else “has it worse” than I do. Let me explain. When I was going into Afghanistan, we stopped in Kandahar before we got pushed out into FOBs, and the chow halls were filled with whatever you could imagine to eat. There was even a Korean chef making stir-fry for you on a whim. When I got there I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad.” But then after being on a tiny COP for six months, listening to some fat Air Force clown complaining that they didn’t have ice cream that day really upset me, and I realized that his bad day was one of my best. That taught me that even on my worst day someone out there has it worse.
In the same way, I also learned that I could sympathize that day. Maybe not with the jerk who wanted his frozen fatty cake, but I became empathetic to those who didn’t have ice cream — for the guys who were still on the FOBs and COPs, or for the people who don’t have the luxuries of a Korean chef at their beck and call. For the most part, I have never wanted for anything in my life. Everything I have needed has been provided to me. I have learned through my time in the military that that isn’t always the case. There are many people in the world who have to fight for the things they need, and even then, sometimes we end up there fighting on their behalf. I learned how to be more sympathetic than I ever thought possible.
Since being back from my deployments, or even out of the military, I have had more time to process my emotions, or lack thereof. Yes, I have both lost and gained sympathy in the military. I have learned to live a lifestyle where I am immune to the small stuff, and I can focus more on the big picture. I don’t want to waste time getting emotional about the things in life that are not important to me. I have instead learned how to focus my emotions on what is important. When it comes to sympathy, I can be tuned into the emotions of my friends and family and be able to empathize with them when I am needed. I have the military to thank for this. Without my time in the Air Force, I wouldn’t have learned how to skillfully refrain from emotionally exploding over dumb stuff, and instead, I have learned to harness my emotions in a healthier way in order to better serve those around me.