The army was my first full-time job after graduate school. During my seven years in uniform, I did some difficult things, but leaving the army and becoming an unemployed veteran was the most difficult thing I have ever done.
I resigned my active duty commission so I could live near my two sons who, after my divorce, were moving from Pennsylvania, to Kentucky, then to Texas with their mother. The only way I could be sure I could live near them was to leave the army. The ability to move freely around the country is not a benefit the U.S. Army offers.
On the day I left active duty, I was ready to be a civilian again. I had saved enough money to survive without a salary for more than a year, I had joined the Army Reserve, I had a doctoral dissertation to write, and I was in the process of being ordained in The Episcopal Church, but, I was not prepared for the existential loss of my identity. After years of defining myself as a member of the military, I could no longer do so. All my friends -- essentially my brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers -- were in the army. Now I was all alone. After experiencing the violent streets of Baghdad in 2006, I wasn't afraid of dying. I was only afraid of being alone. Now I was alone. Now I was an unemployed veteran.
I collected unemployment insurance. I sent resumes out like spam. I applied for numerous full-time jobs only to realize that my experience in combat zones and army hospitals only impressed other veterans, and not potential employers. If anything, my army experience made me seem different and perhaps unstable. In an unstable economy, this is not good.
Whenever I heard someone complain about their job I would get angry at their ungratefulness. Whenever anyone asked me, "What do you do?" I felt ashamed and said a different answer every time. I missed being on the army team, and so I petitioned the Army Reserve for an opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan so I could be back in the game. The war was winding down for the Reserves, so there weren't any openings. I prayed constantly for a job in my field. I thought about entering other fields so I could have a job again -- so I could be a person again.
I eventually took some a part-time job as an on-call chaplain at a local hospital. Getting called at O-dark-thirty made me feel like I was back in the army again. It made me feel like I had an identity that was worth something. I finished the dissertation and graduated, then began to work on another masters. Several time a week I picked my children up from school, I ate lunch with them in their cafeteria, and took them fishing after school. I was ordained in a new church. I moved to Texas near my children. I read lots of books. I went on long runs of three hours or more, several times a week. Most days, I would spend the whole afternoon at the gym, all the while trying to keep the anxiety of a lost identity at bay.
Before my ordination to the priesthood this summer, I went on a running pilgrimage from Springfield, Ill. to Washington, D.C. This summer I also met and fell in love with an amazing woman who recently said "Yes" to a wedding in the fall. I was only able to do all this because I was an unemployed veteran, because I had the time. I accomplished some things as an unemployed veteran, but nothing made me feel like I was home from the war like my first job offer. I'm happy to report that my first day was Monday, January 14.
As I reflect on this year and a half, I think I only learned one thing. I learned that the anxiety of doubt is the beginning of faith and courage. I now realize I needed far more faith and courage during my year and a half as an unemployed veteran than I did in combat. I wrote my dissertation on Paul Tillich, an army chaplain in World War I, who said, "The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt." I don't like to think that God only appears in the midst of my anxiety, but, after a year and a half, I know it is true.