Veteran Talk – Twenty Years Later

(Niceville, Florida; 11 September 2021) – Twenty years ago today I was standing on the flight deck of USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) as we spun up the Tomcats of VF-213 for a routine day of flying over the Arabian Sea. One of our civilian tech reps had a small camera and waved to me, telling me to ‘strike a pose,’ so I did.  He snapped the photo at about, oh, 08:00 or so that morning (Arabian Sea Time).  Not long after, I was told to turn in my tool pouch, grab a camera, and go to the ATO office.  I was being sent aloft in a C-2 Greyhound to photograph our Tomcats in the air for the cruise book.  Getting a cat shot and a trap, and hanging out the back of an aircraft at 4,000 feet with only a gunner’s belt keeping me in the plane, was going to be the greatest day of my first deployment.

After returning to the ship, we learned about the attack on our country.  I was on the fence about staying in for a career or getting out after my hitch and going on to grad school when the deployment started.  I woke up on 9/12 a lifer.

That was twenty years ago today.  Today is a dark day, and not simply because of the act of war we suffered in 2001.  I can only speak for myself, but the injuries (mental and physical) I incurred during my service suddenly seem so damned meaningless after watching the chaotic retreat of our forces from Afghanistan this past month.  Hearing our president say he’d get all Americans, out, and then abandon hundreds just to meet a politically set deadline was a betrayal of the highest order.  Watching our State Department beg and negotiate with terrorists to get our stranded hostages out has been humiliating.  Hearing our international allies castigate our nation for breaking our pledge to them and forcing them into a full-on retreat turned every bit of military pride I possessed into bitter wormwood and gall.

The last photo of me (striking the pose) taken only hours before the war started with the 9/11 attacks. I’m attached to VF-213, deployed aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70). This was around 08:00 Arabian Sea time. (Mr. Rob Bartley, 11 September 2001)

I was never on the ground in Afghanistan (or Iraq).  However, all my sea duty deployments were in support of operations in those two countries.  Although I was never shot at directly, there were moments where we thought we had missiles inbound, or Iranian speedboats darting at us as though they were trying to re-enact the attack on the USS Cole, etc.  Those things left their mark on me; if I was permanently affected by such events, then how much more grievously affected are those who were on the ground?  We did it because we were told by We The People it mattered.

I spent weeks with the air wing chaplain back on Carl Vinson working through the reality that, as soon as VF-213 launched the first manned Navy strikes of Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, 2001, I was a killer.  I maintained and configured the recon cameras and laser-targeting systems onto our F-14s.  Those systems found the targets and put the warheads on the foreheads.  I didn’t doubt the necessity or rightness of the cause, but it was something that still bothers me to this day—killing other human beings.  By a simple accident of birth was I born here in the U.S. where we’ve spent 200 years striving to expand the definition and beneficiaries of freedom.  By accident of birth, those people I helped kill were born in a land oppressed by a hateful theocracy that tolerates no divergence from their worldview.  I helped kill someone’s father, brother, husband, etc.  However right it was, it was still a huge responsibility to have in my history.

How much more might those who were on the ground, firing directly at the enemy, be wrestling with reconciling such darkly momentous actions?

What was it all for, I wonder?  What was it all for?  I was changed by 9/11.  We all were.  I was further changed the moment our first strike jets left the deck and those bombs killed our first targets.  I spent years looking at my hands off and on, marveling with depression at what those hands had done…but, again, comforted by believing it was a necessary action We The People called upon the military to perform.

Myself (PH2 Nathanael ‘Sparky’ Miller), and a shipmate on deck aboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) ass we get ready to spin up and launch the first manned Navy strikes of Operation Enduring Freedom. (Photographer’s Mate 1st Class John Gorenflo, 7 October 2001)

I feel alienated from my country for the first time in my life.  We The People elected leadership that cut and run like cowards, political leadership that installed military leaders concerned with their post-career paychecks but lacking the courage to resign in protest when the president ignored their counsel and got our people killed.  We The People put this leadership into place.  All the pride I used to have in being in the Navy, in being a Navy veteran, in wearing anything recalling my naval service, is gone.  I’m ashamed of it now.  I’m especially distressed when I hear of fellow veterans who suffered things far beyond the pale injuries I sustained despair that everything they suffered for was wasted.

I feel only anger, bitterness, betrayal, and even a simmering hatred as I watch the news of our citizens trapped while We The People’s government plays words games to hide its guilt.  I used to believe in this nation.  I celebrated our remarkable exceptionalism, and I mourned our mistakes, but I believed in We The People.  I don’t anymore, and that rudderless, rootless feeling, that sense of having no ‘national home’ anymore is, perhaps, the darkest and most dangerous part of this for me.

I have no answers for anyone, not even myself right now.  But, you know what?  None of us have answers for anyone else.  What we do have, within all of us, are the tools we need to find our own answers and meaning.  What we need from each other is simply company on the road we each must walk.  Don’t take on the burden of trying to solve someone else’s problems; instead, walk with them and let them talk.  Simply being there, whether we understand their pain or not, provides validation that their pain is real, that their struggle is real. 

I’ve linked my video on this Veteran Talk below, and also Part 3 of the short series I did on the Naval Aviation Museum a few months ago.  Part 3 of that series tells the story of one of our F-14s that resides in the museum today.

Don’t give in to despair.  I feel despair right now.  I feel it deeply, profoundly, and painfully.  Whatever you feel, don’t hide from it.  Feel it.  Own it.  Pain sucks rocks, but the shortest way to mitigate pain is to pass through it, not try and run away from it.  Lean on each other, just like we did when we were all in uniform together.  We got through some serious shit together back in the day; we can do it again if we do it together.  Even if you don’t understand why or how someone else feels something, accept it’s real for them just as you need them to accept it’s real for you.

We can do this together.

– Check out my video on this topic at:  https://youtu.be/F5n0x9Mhfys

– Part 3 of my Naval Aviation Museum series can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kf8WrKs_ZDk

– The Real Warriors Campaign: The campaign links service members, veterans and their families with care and provides free, confidential resources including online articles, print materials, videos and podcasts. If you or someone you know is coping with any concerns, know that reaching out is a sign of strength.  Find them at: https://www.health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Centers-of-Excellence/Psychological-Health-Center-of-Excellence/Real-Warriors-Campaign

– The Psychological Health Resource Center: A trusted source of psychological health information and resources related to combat stress, depression, reintegration, how to get into treatment, types of treatment for mental health conditions, and many other topics for active duty and veterans.  Reach them by phone at: 866-966-1020; email at: resources@phcoe.org, or on the web at: https://health.mil/Military-Health-Topics/Centers-of-Excellence/Psychological-Health-Center-of-Excellence/Psychological-Health-Resource-Center

– Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255, and press 1; or, go to: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net/get-help/hotline

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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