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A Millennial Veteran Takes on the Notion That His Generation Isn’t Man Enough

Millennial masculinity was publicly mocked twice in three days earlier this month. (It’s unclear how many times it was privately mocked over the same period of time.)

First, Joe Scarborough compared the young men of today who “stay at home playing video games” with those of the Greatest Generation who “liberated Europe from Nazism.”

Next, Tomi Lahren questioned the physical prowess of millennial men struggling to “lift their bags into overhead bins.”

Finally, David Brooks claimed in The New York Times that we’re living through “a crisis of masculinity.”

As a number of people have pointed out, this all seemed to fly in the face of the fact that a sizable portion of the soldiers who saw active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan were born in the early 1980s or later. To get a sense of their perspective on Scarborough et al., I recently stopped by a local Southern California VA campus to observe a session of Wordcommandos, a creative writing workshop for veterans suffering from PTSD led by my friend Robert Morgan Fisher, a writer and teacher.

Two of the most ardent defenders of millennial masculinity came from female vets. “I’ve never met any harder-working men in my life than the ones I served with in the Navy,” says 30-year-old Andrea Ward, among the few women in the U.S. who have served in the Seabees, the Naval Construction Force. Sure, these are different wars in a different time, adds Alison Smith, a 31-year-old former combat medic with the Texas Army National Guard, “but if anything, it’s harder because in addition to advanced lifesaving gear, we have to carry more electronics and bear the brunt of a heavy load.”

As for being “weak,” she notes millennial Olympians are constantly breaking world records.

But the most poignant and thorough response to Scarborough and Lahren came from 31-year-old Chris Ehling, a former master-at-arms second class in the Navy who, among other things, led a harbor patrol unit in Bahrain and served as a block guard at Guantanamo Bay. Here’s what he told me…

I don’t think any generation is prepared for war.

Millennials are no different in that regard. The specter of war in our lives has been ever-present, but not necessarily a real part of it. The government isn’t selling war bonds, or playing propaganda newsreels before movies. War is a removed component of day-to-day life in this society, just another thing that happens behind the scenes that’s relegated to an underclass of people.

That’s not to say it didn’t make an impression.

I grew up in New Jersey and watched 9/11 happen.

Fuck terrorism, I thought.

President Bush had stood atop the rubble and told us to keep shopping, keep flying — otherwise, the terr’rists would win. Still, Osama bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda antagonized our psyches like comic-book villains. There would be no draft to root out this evil, though. Our generation would need to individually decide how much we were willing to sacrifice for freedom, retribution and the destruction of terror networks.

For my part, I was raring to go when I was cold-called by naval recruiters my senior year of high school. I enlisted shortly thereafter with a contract to go into law enforcement, or master-at-arms as military police are called. There were so many people flooding into the military at the time, however, that their capacity to train incoming law-enforcement personnel was overwhelmed. So they sent me to a ship in Norfolk, Virginia, as an “undesignated seaman,” a department of extras doing all of the grunt work like painting and sweeping.

The hardest work was mooring ships. Any time the ship pulled into shore, tugboats got us in the vicinity of the pier before we threw mooring lines to people on shore who stuck them on bollards. Then 15 to 20 of us would pull the ship in while we were all crammed in a little room. It was like playing tug-of-war with the earth. (Not that I minded. I couldn’t do shit before the Navy: I was a scrawny, pizza-faced teenager — a queer little boy who had no real sense of identity or self-esteem. All of this nonstop rigorous physical labor completely transformed me physically.)

Part of the mission of deploying to the Persian Gulf during the Global War on Terror was to do what are called “maritime interdiction operations.” Basically, we were responsible for doing what the Coast Guard does around the U.S., but throughout the Persian Gulf instead. We went through a weeks-long course for close-quarters combat — weapons training and familiarization with searching and clearing small spaces in ships for contraband (i.e., people, weapons and drugs).

Eventually, I ended up as a block guard at Guantanamo Bay, where the most reviled 9/11 conspirators and associates were held.

In fairness to Mr. Scarborough, there was an Xbox in pretty much every hooch or armory I was in — no matter what part of the world it was. But just as G.I.s toted radios and typewriters during World War II and Vietnam, we have video games and Skype.

In fact, when I enlisted, there was a new job description that was colloquially referred to as “Xbox technician” because this new specialization was described as “sitting in a box and playing a video game most of the day.”

I’m talking, of course, about drone pilots.

And you know who they are?

People who know how to use joysticks and monitors.

Whether you consider them less masculine than servicemen from previous generations entirely depends on your definition of masculinity. To David Brooks’ point, is this version outwardly aggressive? Not at all. The environment doesn’t necessarily demand it. You do, however, need to use the hell out of your mind.

Millennials were raised on American exceptionalism, cartoons and Hollywood — our country was the best, cars could fly, problems had happy endings and sponges lived in pineapples under the sea. All the while, we were wholly acclimated to extended screen time because our parents sought refuge from tedious, time-consuming child-rearing by deputizing the TV as a de facto babysitter and life coach. When my mom and her siblings were kids they were obligated to get out of the goddamn house for the bulk of the day — and not come back unless there was something really wrong.

We didn’t have that. Everything was totally structured and supervised. I think because our parents had very few boundaries, they didn’t necessarily know how to navigate them with us. And that made them very nervous.

That said, I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with what Brooks and Scarborough are talking about. Millennials are obsessed with gadgets and glam, but did we invent these things? Are we the sole demographic of Facebook and Twitter? Are we pulling the strings of society?

As for Tomi Lahren, if she thinks it’s such a big fucking problem, she should go ahead and enlist.

Millennial veterans who wear the trauma of dead comrades and assassinated children are now experiencing the warrior’s inevitable evolution in our society. We are expected to compartmentalize, reintegrate. Take these pills. Find a hobby. Go to school. Get a job. Get over it. Thank you for your service.

Does it come as any surprise that we’ve adapted by disengaging?

The victors of World War II plugged back into a country where the war was ever-present because it affected every facet of life and consumed nearly half the population. Today, veterans make up our own One Percent, and that marginalization is evident all but one day each year (Veterans Day) when we can get a free burger at Hooters — if we buy a drink.

So where does that leave masculinity in young Americans?

The form of manliness I would most like to aspire to is when Barack Obama cried about Newtown. He stood there on national television, and he addressed a situation that was beyond horrific — an absolute catastrophe. And when he had the impulse to cry about this terrible, awful thing, he didn’t fight it. That moment gave me more hope about what we could do and be as a people than any other I can remember.

Ironically, it’s Donald Trump’s generation that can’t cry in public. That can’t be sad about shit. That can’t discuss their feelings.

Millennials, to a large extent, are very comfortable erecting so-called safe spaces and drilling down into a subject.

That gives me hope.