Juan Mendez, United States Marine Corp, E-6 Staff Sergeant, LCVFSF Veteran Peer.
Juan did community outreach work in Milwaukee that included the Marines’ “Toys for Tots” and worked with Marine Reservists on employment and other issues. Juan was deployed three times to Iraq, as well as other assignments in the Philippines and ports in Singapore, Japan and Thailand. Juan will complete a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at North Park College in December.
Earlier this year, Paul Baffico, my boss and LCVFSF founder, suggested that I write an answer to the question: “What does it means to be a Veteran?”. I told him that I wasn’t ready; in other words, allow me my space because I don’t want to pick the scab on those wounds right now. Well, that’s what I wanted him to believe. In fact, I had no idea how to answer that question, and that terrified me.
Here I am, a Veteran who dedicated almost 15 years of his life to the Marine Corps. I deployed eight times with multiple combat tours. I have seen Marines and Iraqis die for a cause they believed in fighting for. I had friends commit suicide battling their post-war demons. I isolated myself for almost a decade with drugs and alcohol to numb my feelings and pain. More importantly, my military service is responsible for the person, husband, father, and son I am today. Yet, I don’t quite understand what any of the above means to me.
There is no textbook answer to this question. If you asked 100 veterans, you would get 100 different answers because each service member has his or her own unique experience. Moreover, how I answer this question will continue to evolve as I continue to learn about myself.
I was on a summer family vacation when this troubling question started to make sense. My family was in Round Rock, Texas, at a waterpark and I went outside to smoke a cigarette. A black truck pulled up and parked nearby. I’m not sure why, but the car got my attention. The driver stepped out, and I instantly yelled, “Bunga.” It was Jacob Tambunga, a fellow Marine whom I was stationed with from 2004-07 and with whom I had served two deployments. He, too, had his family with him.
I had not seen Tambunga in nearly 13 years. There had been no text messages, emails, or social media contact between us either. But we picked up right where we left off in 2007. We introduced our families to each other and hung out at the waterpark for the rest of the day. Later in the week, we went out for dinner and spent my last day in Texas at the pool with the kids. The oath we took and the shared experiences we endured completely erased the 13-year break our friendship had experienced.
That last day at the pool, Tambunga and I talked while my wife swam with the kids. My barriers and defense mechanisms vanished -- the same walls my psychiatrist has tried to break down for ten years. Why? Because Bunga understands me and I trust him.
Why do I still trust him after almost 13 years? I’m not sure how to explain it, but we were willing to lay down our lives for each other. When we got attacked in Iraq, we were always there for each other. Not because it was our job, but to make sure that we protected each other. At a certain point, Marines on the ground lose sight of the national military strategy or the unit’s mission. It becomes more about supporting each other.
While war is chaotic, disturbing and tiresome, it can also become fun. I don’t expect you to understand how something so horrifying as war can become fun. But I know some Veterans understand.
On the plane home from Texas, I realized that being a Veteran was not about meeting some bureaucratic military criteria, receiving a tuition-free education, a special license plate, or any of the other benefits associated with a Veteran’s ID card. Instead, to this Marine Veteran, it means that I preserve a gift. It’s a gift of freedom from pain.
That’s because there are thousands of Tambunga’s out there.
I understand them, and they understand me.