A while back I wrote about "seeing the elephant", an old phrase that has been used for many years to describe people who have seen war close up. In it, I wrote:
No, unless you have seen the elephant, the best you can do is try your best to empathize, try your best to understand what you can, but you can never have that common vocabulary that soldiers who have seen the elephant share. There is a camaraderie that we who have not been there can never share. All we can do is help support the people who are returning. All we can do is let them know we care about them and respect what they have done for us. All we can do is honor the people who serve and protect all we hold dear.
All we can do is realize they have seen the elephant for all of us, and we must stand by them. By their sacrifice and service, they have kept us from having to see the elephant ourselves.
My son read those words and sent me this email. I think it helps explain. See if you do, too.
What is "The Elephant"? When I talk with my father about my experiences overseas (him being one of the few people with whom I can be completely honest), he often remarks that I have "seen the Elephant." I understand the term, its basic definition, but I sometimes wonder what constitutes an "Elephant."
I've fired my weapon in anger, though only in a suppressive manner, by which I mean I've never leveled my sights on another man and ended his life with a hail of 5.56mm NATO standard rounds. My friends, and all of my unit, redeployed to the United States in 2005 without a single purple heart. An unskilled sniper tried to shorten my existence while I was serving as a gunner on a convoy during the summer of 2004, but his bullet missed by such a wide margin it impacted the truck behind me. I slept in forward operating bases and got mortared so many times I couldn't count them all even with my shoes off, but only a few even got close enough to disturb the air around me. My point is, I have a hard time saying out loud that I have seen the Elephant.
I've never tried to curl up in my helmet during a concentrated artillery barrage. I've never rushed a machine gun nest. I've never seen hordes of my enemies advancing relentlessly across an open plain. I've never held the limp body of a friend in my arms and wondered how I still lived while he lay dead. To me, the men (and more recently, women) who have endured these hardships of war are the ones who have truly seen the Elephant.
I have expelled rounds in the direction of my enemies. I have been fired upon. I have cowered in fear before, and embarrassingly, slept through mortar attacks. I have been on three separate convoys that were attacked with improvised explosive devices (the infamous IED of the Iraq War), one of which exploded directly in front of my truck. I have stood over the broken bodies of Islamic contractors, victims of attacks and accidents, waiting for MEDEVAC helicopters and knowing there was literally nothing I could do to stop those men from dying. I have a combat action badge, and I wear the "Screaming Eagle," the famed patch of the 101st Airborne Division, on my right shoulder, denoting that I've been deployed to a combat zone under the aforementioned command.
Do not misunderstand. I am proud of my accomplishments. I am thankful that all of the convoys I've protected have returned to base without any military casualties. I'm proud of the 3.8 million miles my company ran from February 2004 to March 2005, and the six divisions' worth of equipment we moved.
I just wonder if it's presumptuous of me to say that I've seen the Elephant when so many of my brethren in green throughout history have been through so much worse. To those men and women, both those who survived and those who fell, my hat is off, and my heart is grateful for your sacrifices.