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A intimate conversation about leaving the military and struggling with identity as a civilian.
Tim Crytser spent decades in the military. He joined when he was a teenager in California. His family didn’t think he was serious. Before he knew it, though, he had a military career and deployed several times, advancing to sergeant. He recently retired from the military and now works as a case manager for the Central New York Veterans Outreach Center in Watertown. Meredith Turk, our Homefront producer, sat down with him to discuss what it was like to leave the Army. He went from the Army, which he said was like a bee hive, to being a solitary person in the civilian world. They talked about his first days out of the military.
Meredith Turk: What was your first day like?
Tim Crytser: It was horrible, actually. Really, I did not like the idea of having to come back from where I was into a regular civilian life. As a matter of fact, I failed miserably at it. I still fail miserably at it. And it was really kind of surprising to find that when I came back it requires my family or my friends to be able to accept that idea that you are now very individual and very autonomous and very—completely independent. It was very hard to convince my friends you need to understand what this is. And they were very quick to say, ‘no, we don’t want that.’
MT: Wait, so what conversations were you having? Like, can you give a me a little access to…
TC: Yeah, they wanted to know – as if somehow it’s wrong – why do you show up 15 minutes early to everything? What’s wrong with you? Nothing’s wrong with me, I just don’t want to be late. Well dude, it’s no big deal. Relax, don’t be so uptight. I’m like, I’m not uptight, it’s just the way that I make sure I’m not late. It made it difficult. You’re odd. You’re that square peg again. Well how are you supposed to be a square peg that worked well in the military and suddenly come out here where it doesn’t work? I dated this women one time who said, ‘Well, you know, you’re not in the military anymore, so stop acting that way.’ And I thought, it’s the only way I know how to be. It was almost as though it was something you were supposed to compartmentalize and throw into a corner and suddenly become something else. And you couldn’t do it.
MT: So what did you do?
TC: I sat in my house and I looked out the window for three years and did nothing. I went to counseling and they said you should meet friends. And so I would go out and I would sit in the bar alone. You didn’t have friends to go to a bar with, to interact with. And so you would sit there looking like the weird guy at the bar. Then you’d have three drinks and then you’d go home. And the next morning you would wake up and, you know. They said maybe you should go to parties. I’m thinking, well that’s a really good idea but you don’t invite yourself to parties. If the rest of the world is not engaging into veterans as they leave, it’s very hard for veterans to engage the other way.
MT: Did you think that was going to happen? Like, were you prepared for this?
TC: No, I had no possible way of imagining that the thing I that I was going to need the most was not there. It was completely gone. It just completely ruined me. Completely.
MT: When does it start to work, or get better?
TC: Mine started to work when I stopped thinking that I could—that I had to have somebody else. I think it almost killed me. These people were not going to give me what it was that I needed by asking them for it. And so if you’re not going to get it, you’re going to have to do it on your own.
MT: And that was what?
TC: Everything. You’re no longer sitting there wasting your Friday night wondering who it is that you’re going to ask out on a date and being frustrated. You simply sit down on Friday, make yourself two grilled cheese sandwiches and watch SyFy Channel eating a tub of ice cream. I don’t need to have somebody else, nor do I have to feel miserable that I don’t. You just take care of yourself. I don’t think that works for everybody.
MT: But that’s where it changed for you? And I mean it sounds to me, like if I were to just close my eyes and hear what you said, I would be like, ‘oh this is someone who just got out of a long relationship.’ You’re in this long relationship with this organization.
TC: It did. You were in a very long relationship with this organization. And once you stopped being the piece that they could need or use, you are not a piece of that machine. So I don’t blame the Army for it because that’s a collective. You can’t blame a collective for an individual problem.
MT: It sound like you just stop blaming anybody for anything.
TC: You do, I think a lot of it – and that’s really sad because it does – you stop feeling a lot of things. Its anhedonia. It’s that you have anhedonia, you don’t know the difference between a wedding and a funeral. Like there’s a blanket over every emotion, good or bad. You just don’t feel it.
MT: In your work, is this a story that you hear a lot?
TC: We get a lot of them, yeah. Apathy is—and it’s a smart way to do it really. If you were to take that same soldier in a combat environment, you can’t afford to have somebody weepy or incapacitated in fear to do anything. And you can’t have somebody making jokes about it to the point that you can’t get the job done.
MT: Would you do this again knowing what you know now?
TC: Knowing exactly what it was that I know now, and everything that happened with it—I lost two wives, I lost the childhood from my son, I have lost more back and forth—would I do it again? Absolutely, absolutely. Had I done it the other way and I had been a civilian, that’s not going to guarantee that I’m not going to have failed marriages or that things wouldn’t have happened to my kids or I wouldn’t have had an education or that I may have got an education and still owe $60,000 to pay on it. I don’t understand or don’t know what those consequences would’ve been. And so my survival mechanism is to say that if I were to set the way-back machine and wake up 18 years old again on my first day in that ugly old cot with that drill sergeant screaming at me, I would have said ‘yep, let’s do it again’.