Fewer than four weeks after being discharged from service as an army ranger, I was navigating Yale University. I was a first year, but I lived off campus, far from where my fellow classmates resided. I was covered in tattoos, a few years older and much more jaded. I seldom smiled and often cursed. On the first day of class, I found myself in a room filled with 300 brilliant and friendly students — all while the seats around me remained curiously empty.
The 75th Ranger Regiment is an elite unit, making up just 0.7 percent of the U.S. Army. If you consider the entire military, this number shrinks to 0.3 percent. Army rangers are a select group, a fact we take pride in and build our identities around. Meet the standard or get kicked out. Surpass the standard or get replaced. Rangers are modern-day warriors, a distinctive breed of tattooed defenders willing to bleed and die for their country. But take a ranger out of his battalion, and we’d struggle. We’d be alone.
“Rangers lead the way” was our official motto. When you lead the way, you are out in front, which can be a lonely and violent place. Rangers are indoctrinated into this violence from the very start, trained to place the mission first and never leave a fallen comrade. How do they expect us to have a killer mindset at all times, but then just turn it off when we go home?
Everything we were conditioned to do as special operations soldiers is damaging to us in civilian life. Even though we are elite soldiers, we are still human (regardless of how much we would like to believe we aren’t). We hide our insecurities by criticizing others: Navy SEALs, marines, airmen, sailors, other army soldiers, personnel-other-than-grunts , civilians. We would often joke, “If your primary weapon is a keyboard, you have no right to speak.” We thought the fact that we pulled triggers and jumped out of airplanes for a living made us superior — that we did the jobs that people saw in recruiting commercials, in movies like “Saving Private Ryan,” in video games like “Call of Duty.” But this type of arrogance is damaging in many ways, nor is this exclusivity conducive to to ordinary life. Building relationships becomes difficult. We dissociate from the community, preferring isolation over connection because we’ve been trained to not see others as fit for our company. Rangers don’t get the last laugh out here in the real world.
One moment, I was carrying a machine gun through Afghanistan. The next, I was in a college lecture hall learning general chemistry. I left an environment of crude humor and brutal honesty and entered one of political correctness and nuanced semantics. I am no longer surrounded by my brothers, men who would undoubtedly die for me, and I for them. Men who fought to my left and right as bullets chased us through the darkest of nights. Now, I sit alongside peers that were born after 9/11 — to whom war is a faraway concept, blurred by distance and experienced through screens.
In my time here at Yale, I’ve made many acquaintances but few friends. I’ve had countless conversations but no connections. I don’t wear a uniform anymore, but I am constantly reminded of my service through the aches in my body. I put on a friendly face every day to hide my indifference, my sheer apathy. I chose this. I chose to close myself off.
But then, I arrived in Auvillar, France for a summer writing course. The program boasts an internet ban, and had all 14 of us living together, enclosed by the same four walls of a house in the countryside. I couldn’t help but equate this to a kind of deployment. Socially, I didn’t have any expectations. I came for the quiet. I came for the writing. I came for the opportunity to meditate and be with myself. I didn’t think to open up to any of these strangers. They would never understand — why would they care?
A month in Auvillar quickly helped me realize that people don’t have to understand me to care about me. For most rangers, the four to five years that we spent in Ranger Regiment will have a lasting impact on our lives. But that’s the thing: I still have the rest of my life.
On this trip, I’ve been fortunate to meet so many unique humans with extraordinary paths. Individuals with incredible heart who’ve persevered against discrimination, overcome difficult upbringings and survived life-threatening diseases. They’ve taught me about openness and relationships. They’ve shown me strength.
I’m happy that I have been able to spend the last month with these 13 housemates — my new friends. They have welcomed me. They’ve opened up to me, and I to them. A year ago, when I looked at life beyond regiment, I saw only isolation. And for a while, that’s what it was for me. I was unlike the others. I was out of place. But being here in this small village, surrounded by these friends — these witty, brilliant and beautiful friends — has brought me back to my center. I carried many valuable lessons off of the battlefield in Afghanistan, thinking that those were the only ones I had left to learn. But as I enter a new chapter of my life, I am constantly surprised by the stories and realizations on the pages ahead of me — ones that I’ll carry with me onto Yale’s campus and beyond.
Andrew Nguyen is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.