Missing the Military: When You’re No Longer Part of the Machine
Missing the Military: When You’re No Longer Part of the Machine

By Dave Chamberlin and Battlefields Staff


I’ve read accounts where amputees will feel sensations where their missing limbs used to be. One of the phrases describing it is “phantom pain.” The Amputation Coalition describes it this way:

“Phantom limb pain (PLP) refers to ongoing painful sensations that seem to be coming from the part of the limb that is no longer there. The limb is gone, but the pain is real.

The onset of this pain most often occurs soon after surgery. It can feel like a variety of things, such as burning, twisting, itching, or pressure. It is often felt in fingers or toes. It is believed that nearly 80 percent of the amputee population worldwide has experienced this kind of pain.

The length of time this pain lasts differs from person to person. It can last from seconds to minutes, to hours, to days. For most people, PLP diminishes in both frequency and duration during the first six months, but many continue to experience some level of these sensations for years.

Unlike pain that is caused by trauma directly to a limb, PLP is thought to be caused by mixed signals from your brain or spinal cord.”

A few days ago, this question was asked on a veterans’ social media page:

“As a veteran, what was the most difficult aspect of transitioning from military to civilian life?”

My answer came quickly and easily. The most difficult thing for me was how quickly I was cut off. It happened the moment I drove off the base on my last day of service. Oh, you still maintain some friendships, but you are no longer part of the machine.

There’s a lyric in a Pink Floyd song that says, “Welcome my son, welcome to the machine …” And much of what the military does from your very first day is to assimilate you into the system. And please don’t take a negative connotation from my words because they aren’t intended that way. It’s just what it is.

Good machines work according to a set of rules and logic. They serve a purpose and produce a good repeatable product. They are reliable and robust. And any military has to be that way in order to be successful.

But when a part gets worn out it gets replaced. And where does the removed part go? To the scrap bin. It’s no longer useful to the machine. And again, that’s just how things are. Nature works the same way.

Yes, the military does a much better job these days at helping people transition back to civilian life, but it still happens quickly. One day you are in the military, and the next you are not. Of course, some people are happy to be out and can’t wait for that final day.

In fact, my last few years were not terribly happy ones, mainly because of changes that were occurring within the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF), and part of me was ready to go.

March of 2018 saw the culmination of 38 years for me in the USAF and Air National Guard (ANG). I drove out the gate the day before my 60th birthday and started drawing retirement the next day. I got home in a few hours and thought I was done. My uniforms got hung up in my closet and my shaver lost its purpose in life for the benefit of my Freedom Beard.

Yep, I thought I was done. Until the phantom pains started. The first one happened when I heard about my unit deploying. I had dealt okay with not going on some prior deployments because they couldn’t take everyone, but I was still part of the machine. This time was different. I was the removed worn-out cog on the recycle pile. Yeah, it created a longing and a hurt. I just figured it was a one-time thing and put it out of my mind.

Then an article popped up in my feed about the unit doing something else. I stubbed my toe and yelped in pain, even though that toe had already been gone for a few years.

The phantom pains then invaded my dreams, and I’ve had many over the past few years. The general theme is that I’m back in and working on my jet and we are getting ready to deploy. Everyone is working hard, griping, and joking around pulling pranks on each other. I’m blissfully happy. Then I wake up and it’s all history.

This article was prompted by my dream last night. I had shown up for work and was standing out by my jet getting her ready for a mission. Then I looked down and saw I was wearing civilian clothes and not my uniform. Confusion raced through my mind until it dawned on me that I was out of the military and wasn’t supposed to be out on the flightline with my jet.

Imagine spending 38 years being a part of a team, doing something you loved, with people (some anyway) you loved, and then overnight it’s all gone and all you can do is stand outside the fence and look in?

Please don’t read into this that I’m suicidal or clinically depressed. I’m fine. It’s just not as easy a transition as I thought it would be.

I miss having my own jet. I miss the sound of jet engines cranking. I miss having to stop briefing because of the sound of afterburners. I miss the smell of jet fuel. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the satisfaction of fixing my jet and seeing it fly. I miss the mission. I miss the sense of purpose. I miss the sense of belonging to something bigger than me.

Ah, the phantom pains. I suppose they will fade. Or will they? I guess in some twisted and demented way, I hope they will not.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

This article first appeared in The Havok Journal.

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