The Military Within the Military


This is the third post I’ve written in response to Lauren Kay Johnson’s Glamour Magazine essay about her struggle to adjust after Afghanistan.

For reasons which I think are obvious, Johnson’s essay had a far larger impact than she expected. And rightfully so; she unintentionally illustrated a stark contrast inside our military. This isn’t the traditional “us and them” split between combat and support troops. It’s at a deeper, more elemental level.

In my last post about Johnson I asked if she is receiving disability payments for Chronic Adjustment Disorder. Johnson’s fiance contacted me after my first post on this subject, but I’ve heard nothing since I asked this question. That silence is probably an answer in itself.

As I said previously, if Johnson is receiving disability after never being in combat, and now suffers from a loss of interest in such things as potluck dinners and karaoke, then in my opinion she should be ashamed. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect her service, and don’t wish her well. It means I don’t think anyone should accept money for not experiencing trauma, and having minor adjustment issues after a deployment.

Many veterans, especially combat arms veterans, tend to agree with me. But others vehemently disagree. Some have expressed anger at the fact that I question Johnson’s disability assessment.

Two people who identified themselves as members of the Air Force made these comments on Reddit:

“She is disabled. Just because it doesn’t affect her on a daily basis doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. If she received the rating from the VA, she deserves the pittance paycheck.”

“There are so many things wrong with this [my blog post]. Is there now a certain level of horror that has to be met before a veteran can be treated and compensated for problems stemming from their service?”

I’ve seen similar comments from other vets, and especially from civilians. Perhaps they believe all veterans’ claims should be taken at face value; if a veteran says they have PTSD, they have PTSD. To question their claims is to insult all veterans.

I had a similar experience when I attended an EMT course several years ago. By policy, if a patient said they were having an emergency, it was an emergency. Even if it was, as on one call, “My scalp really itches, so I need an ambulance ride to the hospital.” As a cop accustomed to false claims, those blatantly ridiculous 911 calls grated on me. But as an EMT student, I had to shut my mouth and accept them.

Now, as a combat vet, I’m in the same situation. I hear constant stories of veterans with PTSD, including Johnson. If I call nonsense on any of them, I’m being insensitive to suffering veterans.

Here’s the problem: unfortunately, I know what kind of “trauma” many of these veterans experienced. In Iraq my mission was escorting convoys, which could be extremely dangerous and nerve-wracking. However, I lived on Tallil, a huge air base with a big PX, coffee shop, Pizza Hut and Burger King. Some of us had wireless internet. We had a large Morale, Welfare and Recreation building with movies, video games, books, billiards and free phone calls home. And while I was there, we never took a rocket or mortar hit. Tallil at that time was, as one soldier described it, a resort.

In Afghanistan on my second deployment I marveled at the contrast between the war in the countryside and the circus atmosphere at Bagram. Bagram took regular incoming, but the place was huge. Most troops were never affected by those rockets. One day one of my soldiers and I arrived at Bagram to find a party and DJ playing music at the “Bagram Marathon” finish line. My soldier shook his head, laughed and said, “There is no war here.” Yet if a soldier who never left the wire at Tallil or Bagram claims PTSD, I’m not supposed to question it.

Actual combat definitely leaves a mark. Constant anticipation of danger can do the same thing. But never being in combat (as Johnson admits in her blog) and living on a relatively safe base somehow also produces debilitating trauma?

Johnson’s essay shows the dramatic difference in mentality between those who joined the military specifically to endure the privations of combat, and those who seem to view war as an anomaly of military service. I know many of the former. They wanted combat, they accepted the pain that comes with it, their self-worth came from their ability to function under fire. They are what I call “the military within the military”. The latter, however, are built differently. They seem to feel that if they suffered in any way – and I mean ANY way – they’re entitled to a lifetime of compensation for it.

Consider Johnson’s list of “hardships” and “effects”. Dry meat, soggy vegetables, vulgar talk, knowledge that “something bad” could happen at any time. A loss of interest in potluck dinners and karaoke. The fact that Johnson voluntarily submitted her essay to Glamour as a “triumph over adversity” story is telling. At the conclusion of her essay she says, “But I know that being unsettled is OK. I know that I’m OK.” And many of us ask, “Unsettled from what? OK after suffering what?”

I know a man whose humvee was blown in half by an IED that killed two of his friends and nearly killed him. One of my soldiers had to dig the remains of six dead friends from a destroyed vehicle. Another friend called in an air strike on a house occupied by a handful of insurgents; after the strike, he discovered to his horror that it had also been occupied by over a dozen innocent civilians.

Two of these men are still in the military and leading successful, productive lives. The third would still be a soldier if he wasn’t crippled by his injuries. Yet I also know a soldier who has never deployed, openly states she could never fire a weapon at a person and can’t even handle combat training exercises because they cause her to have panic attacks.

I sit in the middle of this divide between warriors and, for lack of a better term, others. I’ve never been in the regular military, yet have been to war twice. I’ve held two combat arms specialties, yet gained most of my combat experience as a support soldier working with line troops. I’ve been in units where “suck it up and drive on” was the norm and a unit where a first sergeant declared “If you’ve been deployed and say you don’t have PTSD, you’re a liar.”

I know both extremes. And I’ve reached some conclusions.

Our country has been defended by generations of men and many notable women who went to war knowing it would be horrible. They didn’t expect a lifetime of sympathy simply for having been there. They would have been ashamed to proclaim to the world that they were never in combat yet receive disability payments for trauma. They wouldn’t have considered the normal aggravations of military service to be cause for complaint or compensation.

The spiritual descendants of those men and women fill our infantry, armor and artillery units. Many also serve vital support roles while bristling at the lack of warrior spirit around them. In America’s past crises and our current War on Terror those true warriors have risen, willingly embraced war’s challenges and placed themselves between us and danger. If they returned unscathed they carried on normal life, more likely to brush off any lingering effects of war than to ask for financial or psychological help.

If the country respects us veterans, it’s for our selfless service. Words like honor and sacrifice are imaginary constructs for most people. For us, they’re real. We joined the military for the stated purpose of serving our nation, not being served by it.

America doesn’t owe us a lifetime of comfort for doing what we volunteered to do. Yes, we deserve fair pay and benefits for our willingness to place ourselves between our people and their enemy. Anything above that, like the GI Bill, is an extra that we should be extremely grateful for.

That doesn’t mean we’re not owed anything. We’re owed, to a degree, respect for what we’ve done. And we get that respect. We get it when we fly back from Iraq and land in Maine at 3 a.m. to find dozens of well-wishers waiting inside the terminal. We get respect when we’re granted leave from Afghanistan, fly to Dallas on a chartered military flight and receive a standing ovation as soon as we get off the plane. We get respect every time a waitress tells us, “An anonymous customer paid your bill.” We get respect every time someone shakes our hand and thanks us for our service. We get respect whenever we stand in a group of veterans and tell war stories.

If someone came home wounded, they deserve wholehearted support. If they came home truly scarred by a horrible experience, they have every right to expect care and compensation. But if they had a basically safe job in a relatively safe place and didn’t experience anything worse than being scared sometimes, all they deserve is an honorable discharge and a handshake.

If you’re truly a warrior, that honorable discharge and handshake will be enough. But if you’re out for yourself, if you don’t care how much it costs our nation as long as you get as much free money as possible, if you feel no shame twisting simple stress into incurable trauma, you’re something different. And it’s not something that can be described with words like honor and sacrifice. Those words are the sole possession of true warriors, of the military within the military.

Available in print and as an ebook from and Available electronically from iTunes/iBooks and

23 Responses to “The Military Within the Military”

  1. You’re being extremely even-handed and long-suffering in not calling “shenanigans” on her claims of PTSD.

    The more I read about her case, the more inclined I am to group her as a small step improved over the Stolen Valor douchebags pinning on medals they never earned for exploits they never did.

    Special Snowflake Cinderella is claiming PTSD for what amounts to the same “stress” experienced by college students any day in the dining commons:
    soggy vegetables
    rough language
    the sense that “anything” could happen

    She never saw a day of combat, never experienced half the traumatic stress that kids across America in inner cities live daily, and has all her arms and legs.

    The only thing she’s suffering from is Post-Reality Stress Disorder, denoted clinically by the continued inability to process and deal with what billions of other people worldwide call “everyday life”.

    Special Snowflake Cinderella should turn in her disability paychecks, disavow the articles, suck it up and go get a life. The facts of the resource pie mean that her whining and grasping for unearned stress disability means that somewhere, there’s some guy with no toes after Bastogne or Chosin who can’t get his prosthesis updated regularly, and some guy who’s deaf from 6 months under rocket fire at Khe Sanh or Con Thien can’t get new hearing aids. It means the kid I took care of, who had a humvee windshield and three of his buddies blown into his skin in still visible scars can’t get the regular treatment for chronic back injuries after being the sole survivor blown out the door, and even worse, his legitimate claims for disability are subject to 10 times the scrutiny from BuMed and/or the VA – specifically because of mooching crybabies like Johnson with pretended disabilities. (And he just wants to stay in and serve, not stay home and weep in his lap while sucking at the public teat.)

    Johnson’s story is Argument # 517,382 for reducing the military’s size by 11.5%:
    The 10.5% who are women and can’t meet male standards of physical and institutional performance, and the 1% of males who come equipped to boot camp with a man-gina.

    Being emotionally unable to deal with something that rates somewhere between freshman year at college, and 5 minutes in Harlem or Watts isn’t traumatic stress, and it isn’t a disability. Johnson is a lazy lying mooch. Any sympathy or adultation for her lack of character now is only going to cement the behavior in concrete, with the likely result being that the last time in her life she ever accomplished anything worthwhile was the day she graduated her initial training.

    Unless she decides to come out of her fluffy bubble world, shoot a back azimuth, and do a 180-degree turn towards taking responsibility for getting on with her life, and dealing with something as scary as soggy veggies and harsh language.

    Maybe the Air Force could helpfully include a full day on the NYC subways just riding around as a post-basic training indoc to reality. If it spares even one other Precious Princess from PSRD, it’d be worth it…

    • Aesop,

      I’m doing my best to be fair to Johnson. As far as I can tell, she rendered honorable and faithful service in a war zone. She deserves credit for that. It’s the disability for not being traumatized and not being disabled that’s tearing me up.

      I agree, reality sucks and sometimes you just need to deal with it.

  2. 3 Jennifer

    Fantastic! As the granddaughter of a decorated WWII vet (field medic-one of the first on Normandy Beach), an aunt to a senior who just signed up (her plans are to be a nurse), a mother to a Freshman JROTC member that has already had many long discussions with the local recruiter, and the wife of a former tanker (medical discharge-honorable), I couldn’t agree more! I love your posts! No sugar-coating to be seen anywhere!

    • 4 KHorn

      Not only would WWII vets never think of playing this game, but most of them didn’t really consider their service anything special, just a job to be done and move on. I just recently watched a special Jeremy Clarkson did on Victoria Cross recipients, including his late father in law, Robert Henry Cain. Cain’s family didn’t even know he’d received the VC until after he died. Can you imagine what a man like that would think of this Johnson loser?

      • K,

        I don’t think she’s a loser, but I do think she accepted the “we’re all victims” mentality without question. Maybe this, and the memory of the WW2 generation, will bring her around.

    • Thanks Jennifer. I’m trying to be fair to her, but definitely will not sugar coat anything about her story.

      Good luck to you and your family. Being a military parent can be pretty rough.

  3. 7 Eowyn

    Come to think of it, her PTSD reminds me of Messieru Kerry’s Purple Heart wound … which was covered with a bandaid.

    • Eowyn,

      As far as his VN service goes, I can only criticize Kerry so much. I never even had to put a band aid on, worst I had was a rolled ankle and twisted knee.

      Actually, I did need a band aid once. I hit myself in the head with my rifle scope and got a cut. Now, where’s my PTSD check? 🙂

  4. 9 RandyGC

    Here’s one ex-AF that thinks you have valid points. While the USAF has a much more corporate culture that way too many members are comfortable with (despite efforts such a “Project Warrior” in the 80’s), including several good friends that never “got it” in my opinion, there were always a large number of us that were more interested in getting to where the fight was than where the O Club was. 😉

    • Randy,

      Hopefully these articles haven’t come across as an indictment of the entire AF. I worked with some good AF guys and girls, people who loved going outside the wire. Even if the AF culture doesn’t promote it, there are still AF people who have the right mentality for wartime service.

      Thanks for your service, Randy.

      • Nah, you haven’t come across as anti USAF. I jut wanted to balance some of the crap you got from some of my fellow ex-zoomies in the comments you received of Reddit.

  5. 12 Justin Savage

    Amen. You can always tell the real warriors by how much they DON’T say. There are few exceptions such as the authors who have written about their experiences just to inform people while not puffing up their chests (even though they probably would have a legitimate reason to do so).

    • Justin,

      I’m a little torn on that. I grew up around men who didn’t talk about what they had done, including a great uncle who fought at Inchon and Chosin. I think we’re lesser for never hearing about his experiences. I’ve decided to talk about mine, but not with the “I’m a hero” message. I’m definitely not a hero, and it really chaps my ass when someone calls all vets heroes.

  6. Outstanding. I have three deployments, all as an Infantryman. I have nothing to add to this. Very well said. Very well said, indeed.

  7. 16 Stuart the Viking

    The more I read about this case, the more it seems like it is a case of the usual stress one goes through when separating from the Military… then some ass-jack decided that it needed a diagnosis.

    When I separated from the Marines, we were warned that this would happen. They let us know that when we got home there might be an adjustment period. Personally, I thought it was a bunch of hooey until I got home and wow, it just wasn’t the same. I tried to hang out with my old friends and they were stupid, immature, and had no discipline. They hadn’t changed from High School, I had. This is NORMAL. It isn’t “PTSD lite”. It doesn’t require a diagnosis and a disorder name. It just requires one to suck it up and move on.


    • Stuart,

      I know exactly how you feel. Johnson thinks life back here is trivial compared to wartime service, because it IS trivial compared to wartime service. It’s normal for vets to feel that way. Nobody needs a disability check because they see bullshit for what it is.

  8. 18 SPEMack

    Dude, this is spot on.

    I’ve found that the modern American military has come to be almost a perfect reflection of the society it defends.

    The split lies between those who only want to be pampered and rewarded for their service and those who actively seek to fulfill their mission and do their duty to the fullest.

    And surprisingly, the split isn’t between Combat and Support MOSs, either, atleast in my experience. There was a girl in our civil affairs shop who loved any chance she got to go outside the wire with us, asked to be shown how to work the M-2 on the turret and all sorts of things so as to be a more productive part of the team.

    And then there was a guy, a 19D like me, who found any excuse he could not to go outside the wire.

    I took pride in wearing the patch of a unit that fought the Germans (twice), the Indians, and those damn Yankees, and I took pride in taking the fight to the bad guys.

    I joined the military expecting to see combat, as should anyone who joined post 9/11.

    • Bam. I knew hardcore support guys, and combat arms guys who wanted nothing to do with combat. It’s the mentality, not the MOS. On my first deployment we had cooks, mechanics and other support guys regularly on missions. On my second deployment I was a support guy but worked with line units. My pride comes from my willingness to serve, not just my MOS.

  9. Chris,

    Thank you for the updates on this story and for your service in this great country.

    I’m OK with her collecting disability and most of the article but I’m having a hard time with her complaints about soggy vegetables and vulgar language. What was she expecting, Filet Mignon, chocolate covered strawberries and romantic evenings? She’s in the military in a third world country and in a war zone. I also wonder whether she walked around town to see the poverty level in that country. She should feel greatful and lucky that she came home alive to a great country.

    I apologize if my note is harsh to some. I’ve never been in the military but I’ve experienced wars.


    • Thanks Manal. I really have a hard time with Johnson collecting disability. Nothing about what she wrote leads me to believe she’s either traumatized or disabled.

  10. 22 Reserve Corporal

    Hey Chris i Just found this online and i thought you could like it 🙂
    Take care

  1. 1 Military | Grumpy Bastard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: