A couple of years ago, I spoke at a storytelling competition about some Marines I’d known during our deployment in Iraq and my feelings on getting out of the Corps. After I left the stage, an older woman in the crowd came up to me and, without asking, started rubbing my back. Startled, I looked over at her. “It was very brave of you to tell that story,” she said.
“Oh, thank you,” I said, a little confused by what was happening. “I’m OK.”
She smiled sympathetically but didn’t stop. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I turned to watch the next performer—and she remained behind me, rubbing me down as if I was a startled horse in a thunderstorm.
It was my first really jarring experience with an increasingly common reaction to my war stories: pity. I never thought anyone would pity me because of my time in the Marine Corps. I’d grown up in the era of the Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. military shook off its post-Vietnam malaise with a startlingly decisive victory and Americans eagerly consumed stories about the Greatest Generation and the Good War through books like “Citizen Soldiers” by Stephen Ambrose and movies like “Saving Private Ryan.” Joining the military was an admirable decision that earned you respect.