Living Columns & Blogs

What does a veteran grieve for?

When people think of military grief and loss, death comes to mind. I don’t want to write about military death, it’s something that everyone is aware of. We see it on the news and social media, we hear about it from our neighbors and friends. We see the impacts a military death creates. Every day I grieve for the loss of Marcques Nettles and Alejandro Carillo, but that’s another story for another day.

So, what else do I grieve for? What else do many other veterans grieve for? Transition from military to civilian is hard. It’s an emotional roller coaster: anxiety, confusion, grief, loss, relief, happiness, anger. There’s a conflict of who we want to be and who we should be.

I grieve for the loss of my military identity, as there has been a loss of community and cohesion. It’s been hard for me to make those same connections with civilians. Yes, I have non-veteran friends. Yes, they are wonderful generous people, but I do not feel the same connection. I do not know if they would ever die for me or die trying to save my life. Would I? I’m not sure either. I have yet to encounter a situation that answers those questions.

I allow myself to speak more frankly with veterans (male and female) without fear of judgment. With civilians, I hold back. I am less of myself, adjusting to their civilian norms. I become confused about my sense of self. I begin to lose who I thought I was.

I grieve for my Chinese identity — interestingly enough, I didn’t grieve for it while I was active duty. The military had people “like me” as we all wore the same uniform, and the same mission. I felt my Chinese identity was strong. I noticed the slow loss of my Chinese identity when I came to a PWI (Primarily White Institute) — I didn’t see anyone like me. I felt alone.

Assumptions are often made about me. “You speak English so well.” “You’re a woman, a Chinese woman, how could you have served in the military?” “Wait, you speak Cantonese. Teach me to say something!”

People, I am not your Rosetta Stone.

It’s hard to feel welcome or wanted at a PWI set in a predominately white town. There are places in this area where people of color do not go for fear of their life. As an American citizen who deployed to Iraq, I can die for this country, yet there are places I should not go because of the color of my skin. I continue to grapple with what it means to be a Chinese female veteran. Where is my place in this civilian society? Who am I as a woman? Where would I be welcome?

For some, every day is Memorial Day. So I grieve. I grieve for the loss of Nettles and Carrillo. I grieve for the loss of my identity and wonder if I will ever find my sense of self.

Maggie Kwok is a Navy Corpsman (FMF) veteran. She is currently the Military Disability Specialist for Penn State World Campus.
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