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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

America’s Troops Speak Out: 45 Things They Wish You Knew About Shipping Out, Coming Home, and How Their Lives Change

We treasure our soldiers for what they do and stand for, yet how many of us know more than the basic facts of life in the military? Here are the hopes, dreams, doubts, and everyday challenges met by our active-duty and former service people—in their own words.

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“My favorite part is the first ten seconds. When you climb out of the F-15 and see your family for the first time, it’s like experiencing a renewal of your marriage, the rebirth of your kids. You’re so overwhelmed with emotion.” For more joy, read our funniest military stories of all time.
Air Force Maj. Jeremy Verbout, 37, 2000–present

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“What I missed most while I was deployed was being able to touch my wife, especially the casual moments of tenderness like her hand reaching for mine, as if to say, ‘I’m here, and I love you.’ Do you have any idea how hard it is to go a year without a hug? When I came back, my wife ran toward me, and in the next instant we were in each other’s arms. In the space of one breath-crushing moment, I felt like the deployment was squeezed out of me.” These 10 veteran reunion videos are bound to make you happy cry.
Ret. Master Sgt. David Abrams, 51, 1988–2008, and author of the Iraq war novel Fobbit

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“I returned from going to the store one Veterans Day, and someone had left a mum on my doorstep at home with a flag and a card that said ‘Thank you for your service.’ It meant so much. To whoever did that: thank you.”
Army Maj. Holly Cribb, 40, 1998–present

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“When people say, ‘Thank you for your service,’ I sometimes have the sense that they don’t know what they’re thanking you for. What I appreciated after I got back was when people thanked me, asked what I did in the military, and listened. Even better was when I said, ‘I was on patrol in Kandahar,’ and they knew where it was.”
Former Air Force Capt. Brian Castner, 37,1999–2007, and author of the Iraq war memoir The Long Walk

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“When veterans first return, they’re flooded by well wishes and meals, but then those stop. That’s when they need help. Insist they join you for dinner or a walk. Your insistence could save his or her life.”
Former Army Capt. Stephen Clark, 43, 1992–2006

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“People think you come back, hug your family, and have that reunion you see in commercials. That is a great moment, but it doesn’t end there. I remember my son running up to me in the airport, but I also remember a week later that my wife didn’t know what to say to me and my son wouldn’t talk to me, because he didn’t know me.”
Army Sgt. David Tejada, 30, 2001–present

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“My best homecoming was this last one. I came home at 4 a.m. and got dropped off at my house. At the door was my wife, Kim, and she handed me our new baby. Vivian was seven months old, and I held her for the first time. Then, after the three of us got into bed, my wife went to pick up a sleeping Sophia, our two-year-old, and placed her next to me. Kim and I were whispering, and Sophia woke up and yelled, ‘Daddy! You came back!!!’ I had my whole family there. It was the best.”
Marine Maj. Dave Fleming, 40, 1992-present

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“When we get back, we don’t need huge parties or gifts. We need the small things: someone to listen to us, make us a meal, watch our kids.”
Ret. Army Staff Sgt. April Martinez, 34, 2002-2011

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“Making the transition from the military to the civilian workplace was tough. Even though I got jobs at big, well-known companies, they seemed to be completely disorganized compared with the military. I formed my own business after I realized I didn’t want to work for anyone else.”
Ret. Navy Chief Petty Officer Michael Marlow, 40,  1993–2013

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“In the Army, we had a buddy system. When you wake up, the guys are there. If you go play basketball, someone goes with you. It’s hard to adjust to the loneliness of the civilian world.” Army Sgt. David Tejada

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“When I came back, I can’t tell you how many times I met people who said, ‘You’re the first person I’ve ever met who’s served.’ It’s very easy to feel like you’re completely alone.” Former Army Capt. Anthony Garcia, 38,  1999–2007

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“After driving in Iraq, driving in the civilian world was really hard. There, insurgents hid IEDs in pop cans and in trash on the roadside. When I came back, I’d see a plastic bag and want to slam on the brakes, change lanes, or turn around. It took a year for me to fight that reflex.”
Former Army Specialist Stephanie Morgareidge, 30,  2002–2005

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“The war taught me that all a person can do is affect one small thing for a short time, like one part of a city for a few months. Now I’m much more interested in helping an individual rather than joining a political party.”
Former Air Force Capt. Brian Castner

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“Many people don’t know how to talk to wounded warriors. What they want is for you to treat them like an ordinary person. Don’t try to understand what they went through, because you can’t understand it unless you’ve experienced it yourself.” You’ll want to read about this teen’s amazing invention to help wounded veterans.
Ret. Marine Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Michael Langley, 49,  1983–2011

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“When we had a job to do in the Marines, we did it. We didn’t complain. At home, I notice that people complain about everything: ‘It’s too hot.’ ‘It’s too cold.’ ‘Traffic is awful.’ They don’t realize how easy they have it.”
Former Marine Cpl. Rajendra Hariprashad, 37,  1998–2002

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“The number one question you should never ask someone who has deployed is, ‘Have you ever killed anybody?’ Even for those who’ve had to, it’s not something they wanted to do, and they don’t want to talk about it.”
Ret. Marine Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Michael Langley

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“The toughest part about adjusting to life afterward was the feeling that at age 28, I’d already done the most important thing I’d ever do in my life. I was in a war that was on the front page of the newspaper. I had 60 people under me, a $10 million budget, and I was in charge of keeping them all alive. For me, writing eventually filled the hole, but it took several years to discover that.”
Former Air Force Capt. Brian Castner

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“Those cards from kids we don’t know, full of their drawings and saying, ‘thank you for your service’? Those are the best.”
Army Sgt. First Class Sheila White, 43, 2003-present [pictured above with husband James, 49, and daughter Nema, seven]

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“Serving overseas, we see many people who are less fortunate than us. During a deployment in Kyrgyzstan, we went to schools and rebuilt their roofs so the kids could stay warm in the winter. It helps you appreciate what you have.”
Air Force Capt. Joseph Brzozowske, 26, 2009–present

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“Being in the military makes you stronger physically and mentally. You gain confidence, and you find out you can do things you never thought you could do.” Try these 9 science-backed tricks to boost your confidence.
Army Sgt. First Class Sheila White, 2003–present

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“Something that many service members struggle with is survivor’s guilt. One of the first people who got injured in my unit was a mother of five. I was 18; I had no spouse or kids, no one relying on me. I’d think, why not me?”
Former Army Specialist Stephanie Morgareidge

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“People on one end of the political spectrum think that only poor kids with no options serve; people on the other end think everyone joins for the noblest intentions. Both are untrue. Soldiers join for a variety of reasons: college money, patriotism, or the chance to participate in history.”
Former Army Capt. Matt Gallagher, 31, 2005–2009, and author of the Iraq war memoir Kaboom

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“When civilians think about the military, they think about war and combat. But a lot of us were in noncombat roles. I was a supply person, and my job was to make sure everything got ordered, from a screw for an airplane door to paint for a warehouse.”
Former Air Force Technical Sgt. Carol Gee, 64, 1970–1978, plus 14 years in the Reserve

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“If you want to support the parents or spouse left behind, find out when their soldier’s birthday is. Don’t let them be alone on that day; celebrate the birthday together with them.”
Army Maj. Adam Scher, 32, 2004–present

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“Sending care packages is a must, and it doesn’t matter what’s in there. Just getting a box that you know your family put together, even picking up a bag of chips that you know was in your mother’s hand, feels really good.”
Navy Damage Controlman First Class Latrell Bellinger, 29, 2003–present

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“What did I really appreciate getting when I was deployed? Believe it or not, coloring books and colored pencils. Coloring is very calming. Sometimes I’d do it at night when I couldn’t sleep, and I’d share them with other people, and we’d all color.”
Navy Airman Ada Tate, 25,  2013–present

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“When I was a new lieutenant in Georgia, I was having dinner one night with ten guys after our training had finished. At the end of our meal, the waitress said, ‘The guy at the next table covered your tabs before he left.’ We were completely shocked and grateful. She said he would come in around once a month, find a group of soldiers, and pay for their entire table.”
Army Capt. Matt Houston, 36,  1997–present

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“People think that every service member is trained to think one way. But the military is trying to develop leaders who know how to think. I continue to be impressed by officers who challenge me to find creative ways to solve problems.” Army Maj. Adam Scher

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“There’s a lot of discussion in the news about the U.S. military: shrinking budgets and whether we’re able to deal with ISIS and the Ukraine. But we are still the best military on the planet. No one can match us. Our unique, real strength lies in our people, who have strength, determination, and resilience.”
Air Force Maj. Jeremy Verbout

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“A deployment can either make your relationship better or tear it apart. Often when you two are home, you’re watching TV together, reading books, or playing with the kids, and you don’t have to talk. But when you or your spouse is deployed, you have to have a dialogue. Our marriage is stronger as a result.”
Army Maj. Holly Cribb

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“Being deployed is a lot easier for the soldier than for the spouse. When you’re deployed, you are focused. You do your job. You don’t worry about homework, sports, and lunches. We had two kids the first time I was deployed and four the second deployment, and those were tough times for my wife.”
Ret. Army Lt. Col. Mark McMillion, 46, 1991–2013

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“When my wife and I talked while I was away, it was mostly small talk. I wasn’t going to tell her about the horrible things I was seeing, and she’d hide the crazy things she was dealing with at home. That’s the way it had to be in order for us to function.” These are the 36 questions that can make you fall in love with anyone.
Ret. Marine Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Michael Langley

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“When I was deployed, I could make a phone call home only once a week. Many times, my wife would hand the kids the phone, and they didn’t want to talk. I understood because they were young, and we didn’t push them—but it was difficult for me.”
Army Capt. Matt Houston

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“People who live in one place tend to accumulate a lot of stuff—not us. In the military, you move all the time, and because your family is often separated, it puts into perspective what’s important. You learn to focus not on possessions but on experiences.”
Air Force Maj. Jeremy Verbout

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“The first time I was deployed, I was young. I didn’t have fear. But when you’re older and have kids, it’s more difficult. Before my last deployment, I wrote letters to give to my kids in case I didn’t come home. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” These are the 12 steps you need to take to heel from a traumatic experience.
Ret. Air Force Maj. Jarrod Suire, 46, 1989–2011

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“I miss the adrenaline rush. There is no feeling like strapping yourself to a Black Hawk at 0200 under night-vision goggles, heading to a landing zone with an enemy in the area, picking up a U.S. brother or sister, and landing safely at home. I miss that high.”
Former Army Capt. Anthony Garcia

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“When I was in high school, my grandfather died, our family business suffered, and I had to step up and work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Thanks to the Navy, I’ve been able to get my GED and even some college education. Being in the military has given me so many opportunities, and I try my best to pay it back every day.”
Navy Air Controlman First Class Jorge Munoz, 29, 2004–present

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“In the military, you know your place in the hierarchy. You see my rank, and either you call me ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and listen to what I say, or I call you ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and listen to you. In the civilian world, a 19-year-old can cut you off for a parking spot, argue with you, or tell you off. That lack of respect is hard to get used to.” These are our 8 favorite photos of soldiers soluting.
Former Army Capt. Stephen Clark

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“I grew up in a small town that was all white, all Christian, with little diversity. When I joined the military, I went to South Carolina. I’d never eaten catfish or grits, and the 100 soldiers in my unit were from many different cultures and religions. And that was all before I left the country! I got firsthand knowledge about how diverse the world is, and that really changed me.”
Former Army Specialist Stephanie Morgareidge

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“You miss combat because it’s so simple. There are no to-do lists, and you’re not worried about doing the dishes, walking the dog, or the hot water heater going out. You just live every second, and as long as you’re still alive, you have this constant feedback that you’re doing something right.”
Former Air Force Capt. Brian Castner

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“Just like everywhere else, the military has a smaller budget, so they’re asking us to do more with less. My experiences here have taught me to prioritize my time and think about what matters: Should I spend an extra hour at work and push out that one last paper or e-mail, or should I go home and play with my kids? I go home.”
Air Force Maj. Jeremy Verbout

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“In civilian life, no one tells you what to do to get ahead. In the military, it was clear: This is what you do to be promoted. And if you did what they said, you moved up. In the civilian world, you have to figure out things for yourself.” This is the one skill that will help you get promoted faster.
Ret. Air Force Maj. Jarrod Suire

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“I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t enlisted. I learned many real-world skills that helped turn my life into a success. Now I have three successful businesses, and I couldn’t have started them without the experience I got in the military.”
Former Marine Cpl. Rajendra Hariprashad

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“Only a small percentage of us have seen combat, but those who have are changed for life. I think about Iraq every day. I will think about it every day until the day I die.”
Former Army Capt. Anthony Garcia

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“What did I learn from the military? To live life to the fullest. I don’t complain about the annoyances, because I realize the sacrifices that people are making overseas. And I hold even the smallest things—like going to my child’s play, vacationing with family—closer to my heart than I did before.” These are the 8 ways to find true happiness.
Former Army Capt. Glenda Oakley, 32, 2005–2009

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest