Military veterans are neither a "hero" nor "broken."
Jeb Herrin says in most cases that sentiment presents a false choice that has served to perpetuate stereotypes about people in uniform.
"Ninety-eight percent of us are middle of the road. For me, I joined for college money and a little bit of tradition," said Mr. Herrin, who served two tours in Iraq as a combat medic.
"Short version of that is just, avoid the labels 'cause we're not labels," said the now 32-year-old student who this week earned his masters In fine arts from the University of Tennessee.
In addition to pursuing a teaching career in higher education, Mr. Herrin is working on his first book, which includes his poetry and short essays that center on his life as a soldier for four and a half years.
"There's not a lot of Iraq War veterans doing the poetry thing right now so it's something that needs to be done at least for the poetry world if not for the world at large," said Mr. Herrin, who recalls receiving that inspiration from a professor who took an interest in his writing and encouraged him to do more.
In his written words Mr. Herrin began to learn more about how his service overseas shaped his thinking and his actions back home.
"Like the violence that I did encounter and some of the nastier things and sort of embrace that in poetry, it helped me deal with some of the issues I had," said Mr. Herrin.
For more insight into the influence his military service had on the rest of his life, the Army veteran took time to answer the following 10 questions.
1. What one person influenced you most in life?
I'm probably going to have to go with the cliche answer here and say, "My mom." She raised me and my sister on her own for a number of years, while successfully managing her career. She showed me what it means to achieve a goal, and how to be a successful person. I know, for a fact, I wouldn't be who I am without her influence.
2. Do you feel honored and respected for serving your country?
I absolutely do. Some of that may be part of being from a small town in North Georgia which strongly supports the military, but there are a lot of instances in which I've had other customers buy meals for me, simply because I "look like a soldier," not to mention various discounts and signs of thanks from individuals and companies. I know there are some parts of the U.S. that aren't quite as supportive as North Georgia and Knoxville have been, so I'm very appreciative of the reception I've had in my home towns.
3. How can people thank you for your service?
That's a heavy question. The common "thank you" is a simple handshake and a "Thank you for your service." That's a bit of a mixed bag due in part to the Pavlovian nature of the response, much like saying "Bless you" when someone sneezes, or "You're welcome" in response to "Thank you." Most veterans I know (including myself) don't care for the "Thank you for your service," simply because it doesn't feel genuine. It feels more like something people feel they have to say, but I don't have a better alternative. I guess, in short, if you don't feel the sincerity of the gesture, I'm perfectly fine with just treating me like you would if you didn't know I was a veteran.
4. How do you honor your fellow service men and women?
The easiest answer to this is the collection I'm working on right now. If it turns out the way I'm hoping, it will help fill in the gaps for people who don't know what it means to be a veteran. It's hard to write a book that covers the experience of an entire subgroup of Americans, and I certainly won't hit every demographic of veteran, but hopefully this will be enough.
5. How do you think this generation of military men and women is different or similar to yours?
I think this generation is so close in time to my own that there really isn't much of a difference. I know when I was in that a bunch of the older guys I served with had a very "old guard" mentality, and that the military was their life. Whereas now, I feel like the majority of us see the military as just another bullet point in a list that makes up who we are. I don't think either of those perspectives is necessarily a bad perspective, though.
6. What influence did your military service have on the rest of your life?
I definitely figured out what I want to do for a career. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job as a medic was teaching, and that's what I'm working on now. I know it's not a big answer, but it's the biggest answer I'm willing to discuss in an open field.
7. Does your family have a history of military service?
Lots. Lots and lots. My dad, and his dad. My mom's dad and his brothers. More, I know, but I don't know specifically who served when or where. The history is there, but it was never really imposed upon me, if that makes sense. I've certainly talked more about military service with my family since joining than I ever did before.
8. Would you encourage younger generations in your family to join the service?
If it's the right choice for them, absolutely. I think I really needed the Army, for a variety of reasons. It's not a light decision, though. I saw a billboard recently that I would ask younger generations to consider. It's for the Marines, and it's pretty hokey, but the message is strong. It says something along the lines of "We don't accept applications. We accept commitments." That's an important talking point for anybody considering joining any branch. It's easy to idealize the military and the military experience, and if you're planning on joining, you really need to consider all the aspects, just like with any job. It's not something you can just walk away, and it will change who you are.
9. How has your opinion of war changed?
I'm far more aware of how war affects the country fought in. It's unbelievable how many different levels of destruction there are in the country the war is fought in. It's not just structural damage; there is destruction at the social level, the economic level, familial level, industrial level. War isn't just opposing sides killing each other off. One side essentially leaches off the other until complete submission. War isn't an action as much as it is a parasite.
10. How did your military experience shape your faith?
It solidified my belief that religion is what you need it to be. For some people, religion is what helps them make sense of the world, or what guides them to being a good person. For others, religion is just an idea; a philosophy to consider. Faith itself is important, but not necessarily a strict religious ideal.