When Matt began working for a major U.S. bank in his mid-20s, he never expected he’d have a front-row seat to the implosion of the financial industry in 2008, the result of corrosion from toxic investments backed by the credit of vulnerable Americans. Every day, though, he woke up to take phone calls and emails from people who were most devastated by the economic crash — “working-class folks” who demanded to know where their savings had gone.
“One day, I decided to quit, and in a fit of self-righteousness, decided to do the most selfless job I could be proud of: I decided to join the Marine Corps,” Matt says. “I believed the story of how the U.S. military was a liberating force, on the side of justice, around the world. I bought in.”
Matt enlisted in late 2009, and went on to serve in an expeditionary unit based off the coast of Libya during the Arab Spring. His second tour took him to Afghanistan in 2013, where he manned an M1A1 Abrams tank as a gunner. One evening, while on patrol, the tank rumbled over a bomb tucked under the dirt surface of the road. The ensuing explosion tossed Matt like a ragdoll within the steel cabin. Somehow, he survived in one piece.
Things began to change after that, however. Matt would forget names of men in his squad, and lose track of what he was saying. He struggled with anxiety and mental blocks and was ultimately medically retired from the Marines with a traumatic head injury and PTSD in 2016. The retirement brought a sensation of uselessness, and he mulled suicide. He was saved by a combination of therapy and Twitter, where he went to reflect and ramble on his time as a Marine and current life as a veteran. The twist was that he did so anonymously, under the moniker of “The Warax,” a riff on the Dr. Seuss character that “speaks for all trees.”
Today, he’s one of a number of funny, incisive and critical servicemembers and veterans on Twitter who are using the platform to speak out against divisive politics, public officials who exploit veterans’ causes, sexism in the military and myriad other social issues. In doing so, they’re pushing back against the stereotype of the conservative military man and fighting the way that politicians and talking heads alike use veterans as a “prop” (as Matt puts it) for their own agenda. Whether it’s President Trump, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Fox News host Tucker Carlson, veterans continue to be used by public figures to represent a political perspective or moral value, despite the fact that veterans themselves cannot be discussed as a single bloc, Matt says.
There are a number of standout accounts, but I spoke to three millennial men in particular who have garnered loyal followings by writing honestly and satirically about both current events and their experiences in the military. (Two of them asked to remain anonymous, as they’re active military members.) Here’s what they had to say…
Angry Staff Officer (@pptsapper), 32, Army
I’ve been in for about 10 years, and enlisted out of college. I eventually completed ROTC and got my commission as an officer in the Army. I’d always wanted to enlist, and I knew that if I got older and didn’t do it, I’d regret it. What I didn’t expect was to still be in after 10 years. I was much more conservative politically back then. I bought into the idea that we were totally right to be in Iraq and that our leadership would never lead us astray. Then you learn more about how the military is a human institution. I love what the Army stands for, but it often doesn’t meet its own standard.
I’m an engineer officer now, but one of the things I learned in the infantry is that you see a dick-measuring contest everywhere. It’s never about proficiency. It’s about eyeing uniform bling and judging people. You see people who are supposed to be great leaders, only to realize they’re just full of themselves and make terrible decisions. I got real tired of it all. One common idea is that if you’re not in infantry, you’re a piece of shit. And a lot of these guys choose to treat minorities, women and the LGBTQ community as if they’re all less than them.
I remember being in the infantry and being one of those guys who said women can’t do this or that, and that they don’t deserve to be here with the men. But then, as I became a commissioned officer, I took time to think about it. I’m no big, jacked-up strong dude and I did fine, so maybe it’s not a body-strength problem. And the excuses from men worrying soldiers will be having sex in the ranks or there would be emotional issues, I mean… isn’t that a male problem? If we can give an 18-year-old a rifle and tell him, “Hey, go shoot that kind of guy, but not the other dude there,” shouldn’t we also trust him to keep his pants on? This is supposed to be a disciplined military, right?
I started tweeting while I was in Afghanistan. The anonymity was a self-protection thing — the higher-ups had strict rules for being on social media. But I wasn’t tweeting about operations. I just wanted to vent. I remember one tweet that got a huge reaction. I said that, as a soldier from a Jewish background, I stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters in uniform. Many people that I respected DM’d me to say thanks, but it also introduced me to the world of the alt-right, people telling me I should get back in the oven or making aspersions about my family. The hypocrisy was interesting.
It’s weird, veterans haven’t always been considered this singular bloc in American history. Sure, we’ve honored them in the past, but we didn’t create this special social class. And on both the left and right, it feels like one exists today, as if a veteran’s words are more hallowed. But we don’t speak for America. When you start using the military as a symbol of your perspective, using the parents of fallen soldiers as mouthpieces, it all makes me queasy. Just being a vet doesn’t make you more qualified to have an opinion on how this country should be run.
The majority of my followers aren’t military, but these open and honest representations of service members helps break down that civilian-military divide. We’re just like you. In fact, we are you.
Cav the Knife (@CombatCavScout), 32, Army
I come from a military family, so I didn’t have too many doubts when I went into college and ROTC with the plan to become a commissioned officer and then deploy. Being a cavalry officer in the Army meant that I’d be fighting on the ground. It wasn’t political for me. The fight is gonna be fought, and there are gonna be Americans in harm’s way no matter what. So I’d rather be there and help keep them safe than not. I deployed to Eastern Afghanistan in 2009, and it was surreal stuff. I got my combat badge in the first week or two.
I joined Twitter in late 2010. The first thing that drew me there — you’re gonna laugh at this — was Charlie Sheen’s public mental breakdown. I felt for him falling apart, but it was a trainwreck and I wanted to experience it through Twitter. I quickly found, however, a community of veterans or people in national security. I have a couple of international relations degrees so it was amazing to freely interact with people in that field, including academics.
There weren’t much politics in my home, but I’ve begun embracing them in the last few years, and using Twitter to talk about them. You might not be interested in politics, but it’s interested in you. It still affects you, and others. And maybe it’s because I grew up in a family that stressed service to others, but I have to confront the fact that I’m a straight white man who can go through life without much of a care in the world. I guess I’m a minority in that I’m a non-Christian in the Deep South, but has that ever really cost me anything? Nope. So I see that the world is bigger than me, and I try to advocate for other people, because I’m in a position to try. What am I serving in the military for if not to help Americans in some meaningful way?
I don’t necessarily try to subvert stereotypes about the military, but it’s important for people to see that we’re not a faceless white guy in a uniform. The majority of the military is white and conservative, but a large number of service members don’t share that background or views. That includes the assumptions about what we think of social issues.
Some of the stuff I’m most proud of is being open about my journey with PTSD and my engagement of mental health professionals. I go to therapy regularly, and I talk about it because there’s a huge stigma in the military about seeking treatment. I know people who still believe that you can lose your security clearance for seeking mental health treatment. That’s incorrect. I know people who think it’ll kill your career. That’s incorrect. I’ve been in therapy for years, and I continue to be promoted and take on roles with more responsibility. So I’m proud when other service members come to me and say, “Hey, I appreciate your honesty, and you inspired me to get help. I’m a better person for it.”
The Warax (@IAmtheWarax), 34, Marine Corps
The Marine Corps is… special (laughs). It’s like the Marine Corps really believes in the stereotypes about being a tough guy. The younger men play that up; they act like the dumber you are, the cooler you are. It’s a strange culture, and it was a place where it was difficult to express liberal viewpoints without being called a pussy. Some people would even use their rank and position to put forward political ideas that held no water. One example: The whole fake Jade Helm conspiracy thing was picking up in 2012, and friends of mine really believed it. And they thought if you didn’t believe it, you were a sheep. Like, goddamn guys, that’s really crazy.
If you’re thinking of a veteran, you’re probably imagining a white male combat vet with a long beard or whatever. But it’s not correct because the majority of people in the military work jobs that have nothing to do with combat. Or they’re so much more diverse in background than you imagine. They’re so removed from the stereotype of what a soldier is. It was frustrating to me that so many people felt disenfranchised by that. I wondered what it would feel like to serve the country but not in a way that captures the respect of the country.
What really pissed me off was the disrespect from people who had never served in the military. It’s a joke in the military where we call each other “pogues,” like people in support roles, rather than grunts, the guys who fight. But now I saw this insult, “pogue,” being directed at soldiers from civilians. What the hell is this? I saw it happen with some anti-war activists, some folks in the Democratic Socialists of America or Veterans Against the War, when they delivered talking points about why they oppose the wars. Instead of debating the point, all these folks started attacking people’s service.
More largely, there’s more than one kind of soldier. It helps to be able to talk about these topics, especially from an anonymous account. Topics like what it feels like to be a veteran who’s queer. To be honest, I want to spend more time writing some of these more serious pieces — people really thanked me for the article on suicide. I’m grateful for that.
I hope there’s change in the military. Servicemen are having more conversations about sexual violence and abuse, for example. But what I see is that the Marine Corps identifies problems and spends more time making sure people don’t find out about them, rather than solving the problems. And if people try to talk about that, there’s a willingness throughout the Corps to treat them like a heretic for it. Jim LaPorta, a Marine and a defense reporter, has written extensively about sex crimes, including the “Marines United” scandal of sharing revenge porn. He took a ton of flak from Marines because they were angry he was dragging the Corps through the mud. Which is crazy, because it’s not Jim LaPorta who was sharing pics of naked Marines and taking advantage of rank to force himself on subordinates. It’s an example of the real barriers to progress.
But I have to tell myself a lot to take a fuckin’ break from social media because it’s toxic and overwhelming, too. Y’know, it’s nice outside. Get fresh air. Remind yourself that life can move on.