Welcome to the 1%

Sitting outside at the bar with some old friends, I sipped a cold beer and listened to the conversation. It was hard to believe that only a month ago, I had been sweating in the hot sun of Iraq. I sat, enjoying the warmth of the sun and ideally wondered how this could be the same sun that had scorched me mercilessly for the last year?

But the day wasn’t turning out exactly like I had pictured. Despite having known my friends for much of my life, they felt foreign to me. The conversation – about reality TV shows, sports, or someone’s relationship injustice – all seemed trivial. Next to us, a man complained about his meal, citing a violation of his self-imposed dietary restriction.

What the hell was wrong with everyone?

Almost certainly, a US service-member would be killed or maimed today. While we sat here chatting about bullshit, my deployed friends continued to live knowing that today might be their last breakfast, phone call, or preflight. In the country I just left, having a meal, or a job, or even electricity was a luxury. Going to school or the market could get you killed.

At the bar, people bought me drinks, called me a “hero,” and thanked me for my service. My friends asked a few questions about deployment, but I didn’t want to answer. How could I begin to explain any of what had happened when I couldn’t even talk about college football?

I silently sipped my beer. Angry and alone.

They say less than 1% of America served in the military. Listening to conversations of my friends — about Real Housewives, college football rankings, or some trendy diet — I began to feel just how small that 1% really was. I eventually left the bar, wishing I was back in Iraq with people who understood how I was feeling.

No one gets it.

Perhaps only 1% of the population treated patients, searched for medical miracles, and held the hands of the dying during the COVID pandemic. These workers sacrificed their families and their personal well-being, stood in the face of COVID, and chose not to flinch.

Healthcare workers will be coming home soon. My world of semi-normal will begin to mix with theirs. Our family has had schedule disruptions, frustrations with school, and disappointments certainly, but overall our COVID experience has been rather benign. I’ve seen the pictures of the morgue truck, PPE covered doctors, and people weeping behind masks. But I will never fully understand what it was like to be a healthcare worker during the COVID pandemic.

I will listen.

While I will never fully understand what it was like to fight COVID, I do know what it’s like to come home changed. I have felt isolated by an experience I could not share. When everyone seemed to move on with their lives, I know the feeling of being stuck and left behind. I know what its like to want to talk, but not have the energy to make a sound. I have wanted to just go back.

Welcome — to the 1%.

I pledge to hear your stories, ask you questions, or simply sit in silence and sip a beer with you.