Growing up, I watched a lot of television. (Like, a LOT.) I gravitated toward the types of shows with storylines centered on relationships.
What can I say? I'm a sucker for love.
These shows always seemed to feature a female lead dating a war veteran. And though intoxicating to my younger self, these storylines had a problem: They were all extremely limited. They only showed a one-dimensional portrait of what it's like to date someone who's been through a literal war.
I learned firsthand that dating a veteran is anything but one-dimensional when I fell in love with an Iraq War vet. It doesn't only entail waiting for someone to triumphantly come home after cycling through deployments. Hell, it's about more than just going through war.
It's about the 250,000 service members who are transitioning back to civilian life each year — reuniting with their families, trying to find jobs and starting their lives again. It's about commitment, both the commitment of the relationship and the commitment the vet has to his or her country.
And for me, it was about trying to understand something I couldn't imagine. I gained the kind of perspective I never had before, and together we took on issues that can be deeply uncomfortable and are often brushed aside.
I realized just how much people are willing to risk for their country.
Most of us love our country and would consider ourselves patriotic. But when it comes to actually defending our nation? That's where the patriotism of many falls short.
When I dated a veteran, I loved someone who put everything on the line for America. Experiencing his sacrifice together made me appreciate our country that much more, but it also opened my eyes to the lack of options that lead some to the choice of military service.
Their battles are physical and mental.
When we think about the battles that veterans have fought, we mostly think about the physical ones. We think about combat, weapons, trenches — all the trappings of war that most have only experienced through the lens of Hollywood films.
But after the battlefield is in the rearview mirror, the scars left behind aren't just on the surface. They plague a veteran's mind. Consider post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects a large number of vets. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, nearly 30 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars treated at VA hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with PTSD. That's more than 250,000 reported cases.
When I was with a veteran, I saw the effects of PTSD firsthand. And PTSD is just one of the many pernicious afflictions that silently haunt so many veterans.
It's okay to let someone not talk about it.
When my significant other was dealing with an issue, it was my natural impulse to urge him to talk about it.
But PTSD and other post-war problems that veterans routinely experience are not simple issues that you can talk about and magically solve. They often require professional help to work through, and not everyone is able to overcome the demons they face.
I learned that it's okay to let someone just be. It's okay to let someone not talk about it. It's okay to sit and live in the silence. Sometimes the only way I could relate was simply by being there.
I became a part of the veteran community.
The bond that a veteran has with his or her fellow soldiers is unbreakable. I mean, it has to be, right? In order to head into combat with someone, you need to implicitly trust that person. This is your life at stake, as well as your country.
I was welcomed into that community. I saw the perspective of many, not just my boyfriend's, and I saw how they're there for each other. It's an exceptionally close group of people because each person has a fundamental understanding of what it means to go through something few others can comprehend.
Theoretical issues become real.
There are certain atrocities that most of us will never encounter. We hope we will never have to see someone die. We hope that we will never have a friend who commits suicide.
These theoretical issues become real when you're in a war. And as stories came to light in the span of my relationship, they felt more real than they did before. I've met people whose lives have been touched by things like homelessness and death, and the issues have become uniquely personal because of that.
The transition back to civilian life isn't easy.
We hope that, when a veteran leaves the service, he or she will be welcomed back into society with open arms.
But for many veterans, transitioning back to civilian life is a struggle. According to the VA, more than half of all post-9/11 veterans will face a period of unemployment — even as the national unemployment rate continues to decline.
And when it comes to getting post-service benefits, things don't look much better. As reported by the Military Times, despite ongoing improvements, the VA was still sorting through 75,000 backlogged disability claims at the end of 2015.
This means that many veterans need not only emotional support, but also financial support.
It made me really grateful for what I have.
When I was with someone who had been through a literal war, I couldn't help but think about the hardships that I've endured, and man, they just didn't stack up. It doesn't make my experiences any less valuable, it's just that I learned to appreciate the things I haven't seen.
The important thing I remembered through this realization is that I couldn't feel guilty. I needed to maintain a healthy perspective.
Because the other thing I was grateful for was this person I had fallen in love with. I was grateful that he survived the war and came out the other side open to love.
In this week's episode of Secret Lives of Americans (Friday at 10.p.m. on Pivot), we meet Amber & Alex, who have been harboring a secret: they are buried in $50,000.00 of debt after being discharged from the Coast Guard for medical reasons. Find out how they changed the conversation about the transition back to civilian life by watching this video, and then visit the series' Take Action hub to find out how you can get involved.