When you're facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who has already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they're letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.
Cameron Cook signed up for the U.S. Army in 1994, three days after his high school graduation, and that's been his life ever since. The job took him to Germany, Macedonia and Albania. He did combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cameron says it came with a sense of purpose, camaraderie and excitement. "It's just been something new every day, every month, every year," he says. "Whether it was a new job skill, go get a new piece of equipment. It's like Christmas every week in the Army."
That's all about to change. Cameron is retiring.
That means adjusting to a civilian life without the built-in brotherhood and mission of the service. It also means giving up the routines that have structured his days for more than two decades.
Jarrad Turner knows those challenges well. He was an Army medic for nearly a decade, and saw combat in Iraq. He left the military in 2010.
He remembers, on his first day as a veteran, waking up, putting on his military physical training gear without even realizing it and walking out of his house — only to find out that he was the only person out on his block.
"For me it was a rude awakening," he tells Cameron, "because I kind of had the mentality of, OK, slackers, get up! I was like, you're wasting time! We've got stuff to execute upon."
Advice from Jarrad Turner
On learning to slow down
When I got out, my son — so he was 4. You know, being 4, he was still in dad's arms, you know. And kind of just falling asleep on the couch with him is one of the things that started to break some of those old patterns. You know I'm looking at my kids, and I'm like, I'm looking at my family, I don't want to lose this precious time. So, it's like just chill out.
On dealing with civilians well-meaning but unwelcome questions
I don't think that they do it intentionally. You know, a lot of times they're just trying to help out. But, when you start telling them, because you're trying to help them get a better understanding, and you say, "Well, when you're in boots, you know, you're in that big dust bowl and you lose people, unfortunately that body goes somewhere else and you still got a mission on," a lot of them just don't get that. And it can frustrate you, but I just kind of take it from a place that look, they just don't understand. They're trying to get a better understanding of it. So, when I can talk about it I talk about it, and when I can't I just can't.
On building a support system
Having a support system that you can trust — family, your bros, veterans' organizations — that is truly the reason that I'm still here. I buried my tenth soldier to suicide, Dec. 24, we buried him. I mean, to this day it still hurts. But, I would say, there's gonna come times in your life now that you just need to be brutally honest with people. Whether it's pain, whether it's memories, whether it's life, there's a time when this stuff can come back on you. And, if you're willing to just talk about it, and understanding that it doesn't necessarily have a rhyme or reason to it, you'll be good.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Back in 1994, three days after his high school graduation, Cameron Cook signed up for the U.S. Army. That's been his life ever since. The job took Cameron to Germany, Macedonia, Albania. He did combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says it came with a sense of purpose, camaraderie and excitement.
CAMERON COOK: It's something new every day, every month, every year, whether it was new job skill, go get a new piece of equipment. It was - it's like Christmas every week in the Army.
SHAPIRO: Now that's all about to change. Cameron is retiring.
COOK: I picked up my discharge papers yesterday, and today it's - signed out on transition leave.
JARRAD TURNER: Wow. How many years?
COOK: Twenty-three, one month, four days. But who's counting?
TURNER: Oh, my goodness. Took 23 years to get that wake-up, huh (laughter)?
SHAPIRO: That other voice is Jarrad Turner. He was an Army medic for 10 years until he left in 2010. For Cameron, this is going to be a big change, and he's got some questions. So we sat him down with Jarrad for our series Been There, connecting people on either side of a shared experience. For Cameron, being out of the military means adjusting to a civilian life without the built-in brotherhood and mission of the service. It also means giving up the routines that have structured his days for more than two decades.
COOK: Well, you've been out for seven years, and I've only been out for I mean one day. And getting up this morning totally threw me off. I mean do you find yourself drifting back into old routine, or did you just totally dump it and adopt a new routine?
TURNER: It took me between three and five years.
COOK: Oh, wow.
TURNER: Yeah. My first day, I remember waking up, walked outside, did not even consciously realized that I had all my PT gear on. I was ready to go...
TURNER: ...And like, walked, out and was like, you're the only one on your block who is out (laughter).
TURNER: For me, it was a rude awakening because I kind of had the mentality of, OK, slackers get up, you know? (Laughter) I was just like...
TURNER: You're wasting time. We got stuff to execute upon. It took my family - and let me see. When I got out, my son - so he was 4. You know, being 4, he was still in dad's arms, you know?
TURNER: And kind of this falling asleep on a couch with him is one of the things that started to break some of those old patterns, you know? I'm looking at my kids, and I'm like, I'm looking at my family. I don't want to lose this precious time. So it's like, just chill out.
TURNER: You know...
COOK: You've lost enough on deployment and hospital. So what do your kids think about you being out of the military?
TURNER: My oldest - she loves it, you know? She's seen the worst of it, though. You know, she's been at the kitchen table when we've had to have the conversation about, you know, hey, if something happens to dad, this is what my will is going to be. She is definitely glad, and she holds a little animosity, just to be honest, towards the military, towards the Army specifically because the way she sees it is, this is the thing that almost took you away from me.
TURNER: My two youngest - they love it. But at the same time, they never got to see what she saw. We kind of made a conscious decision in the family just to - we don't deny what is taking place, you know, 'cause we lost some good people.
TURNER: You know, we lost some bros in combat. It wasn't all good times.
COOK: No, it's - yeah. The bad times overshadow the good times even though there were more good times. Come May is an anniversary of me losing one in Iraq and then six in Afghanistan. So...
COOK: There were some good buddies. I mean my wife - she knows when the time's coming about 'cause...
COOK: ...I'll have the memorial bracelet on, or I might have an extra beer. And she just knows. And she had some friends over one night, and they couldn't figure it out. It's like, what's wrong with your husband? Why you acting this way? And...
COOK: It's my understanding that a lot of civilians just don't understand, or if they want to try to understand, they pry and ask the wrong questions at the wrong time in the wrong manner. Was that an issue? Did you have to stop, put down whatever and want to blow a gasket or throw a punch at somebody?
TURNER: Yeah, yeah that definitely took place. I don't think that they do it intentionally. You know, a lot of times, they're just trying to help out. It can frustrate you, but I just kind of take it from a place that, look; they just don't understand. They're trying to get a better understanding of it. So when I can talk about it, I talk about it. And when I can't, I just can't, you know?
COOK: Yeah. You're probably like me. Just - it's going to come out at a random time. You don't know when. You just can't force yourself. Like...
COOK: Like with my wife, I - she doesn't pry. She knows that it's going to come out whenever it comes out.
TURNER: Yeah. There are certain things that you feel comfortable with. I mean to this day, I don't - I still have family members - you know, the guys that we lost - who, you know, they'll ask, was he OK? And in my response is, he was OK. Is that the reality - no, but you don't need to know the reality.
COOK: You sound very resilient, like you got your ducks in a row. I mean I imagine your low points in life have - you've just managed to handle them with your family or your friends.
TURNER: I will be lying to you if I told you that those low points weren't rough, though. Having a support system that you can trust - family, your bros, veteran organizations - that is truly the reason that I'm still here. I buried my tenth soldier to suicide. December 24, we buried him.
COOK: Oh, wow.
TURNER: I mean to this day, it still hurts. But I would say there's going to come times in your life now that you just need to be brutally honest with people, whether it's pain, whether it's memories, whether it's life. There is a time when this stuff can come back on you. And if you're willing to just talk about it and understanding that it doesn't necessarily have a rhyme or reason to it, you'll be good.
COOK: Well, five years down the road, what can I envision for myself on a positive note that would keep my spirits high as my transition period continues from being separated from military?
TURNER: The biggest thing I would say is, you really get to understand how much you love your family. I mean last night, I'm out here coaching, you know, my son's lacrosse team, and it was just the most beautiful thing that practice was going late. And I was just like, this feels so good.
COOK: Yeah, since the last three weeks, I've been able to get up in the morning and, you know, make my wife coffee and bring it to her and wake my daughter up for school.
TURNER: Yeah, I mean it's good. It is some good stuff. Truly enjoy this time. It's different, but you know, you deserved it. You earned it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD SONG, "TRUTH LIES LOW")
SHAPIRO: That was U.S. Army Veteran Jarrad Turner, who now works for the Wounded Warrior Project. He was talking with Cameron Cook, who is leaving the Army after 23 years of service. They spoke together for our series Been There. If you would like advice on a big change in life or if you have advice to share, send an email to email@example.com, and put Been There in the subject line.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD SONG, "TRUTH LIES LOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.