When I was in high school, I contacted a Navy recruiter. I had grandiose ideas of military service, of seeing the world, and of a free education upon my return. It all sounded very glamorous. My parents were not pleased, but, in the spirit of the same unyielding support they have always shown me, they agreed to see me through if it was my decision to join. This was early in 2011, when I was a junior in high school. Later that year, Mr. Mattingly, my computer science teacher, wheeled a television into the class during homeroom. He turned it on without saying anything, and the whole rowdy bunch of us stopped and watched as New York was viciously attacked. Soon afterward, I withdrew from recruitment. My parents were relieved. I was unsurprised, as I have rarely been brave, and I was completely unsure of my value. Surely this was something better left to those who knew more than me and who were stronger and faster. I have often struggled with what this decision means about me, and I still don’t have an answer.

I finished high school and went on to college with a friend of mine. He was someone I had known since grade school and is still, to this day, my brother in all but blood. College did what it does, which is to say it makes you get on with things. I got a job. I joined a band. I dropped out of college and moved out of my apartment that I had kept with my friend. We drifted away from each other a bit. It was a short time later when he told me he had signed up for the Marine Corps. It was information I didn’t know how to take in or understand.

I remember when he left for boot camp. I remember his letters, which I still keep tucked into a family album. I remember when he left our country to serve in the desert. I was terrified, but then again, I knew he was stronger than me. You see, where I had cowered at the mention of war, he had not faltered. When I withdrew from recruitment, war had been on the horizon, but when he actively enlisted, war was in full swing. He must have known what could happen. I’m sure I will never fully understand his reasons for joining, but whatever they were, he did not back down in the face of a possible fight. It is something I will always admire about him.

There are many things I cannot understand about that period in my friend’s life. I will never understand the true nature of war as he does. I will never understand what happens inside you when you are confronted with horrors unimaginable and the only thing you can do is fight back, both for your own life and the lives of those that stand beside you. I cannot imagine what it is like to come home to peace with that still in your mind. I cannot imagine, because I did not experience it, and I would not presume to ask because it is knowledge that can only be gained through experience.

I cannot imagine or understand, but what I can do is say thank you. Thank you, because you didn’t back down. Thank you, because regardless of politics, people like my friend sacrifice too much and ask for too little in return. Most of all, thank you for coming home, because there were too many that didn’t, and if you had joined their ranks, a part of me that I hold most dear would have stayed there with you. The world would be darker and colder without you, and I don’t think I’ve said that to you often enough.

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