Bing Crosby made “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” a hit in 1943, a year when over 9 million Americans were in uniform and this country was much more culturally united than it is today.
Unlike today when wearing a face mask has become a political statement, during World War II the GIs knew why they were sacrificing, and those they left behind understood why rationing was necessary. Instead of being divided by cultural polarization, the country for the most part was on the same page.
Sean McElligot and Kevin Garcia have a few things in common. They work at the Fitness Factory, located at the corner of Desplaines and Industrial Drive. Both are Millennials, and both served in the military.
Although their experiences were very different — McElligot in the Air Force and Garcia in the Marines — they agree that transitioning from military to civilian life has been difficult because of the cultures are different. We hear all the time about the “culture war” between conservatives and liberals. What the two young veterans experienced was the extreme difference between the culture in the military and the values and world views of the 93 percent who have never been in uniform.
Coming “home” was difficult in some ways not because home had changed but because the military had changed them, causing them to view what they had returned to from a whole new perspective.
Garcia said in his three-month-long Marine boot camp experience, the goal of the drill instructor is to tear you down psychologically and build you back up as a Marine.
“Your world and the way you think about life is turned completely upside down,” he explained. “They don’t want to add on to who you are. They want to erase everything that you thought was normal, stop thinking of yourself as an individual and make you feel that the platoon’s needs are more important than your own.”
In other words, the “we” is more important than the “me.” Robert Putnam in The Upswing argues that when “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was written, our country valued “we” more than “me.”
Garcia could have been talking about those WWII GIs when he said, “I began to feel like my needs were not as important as the platoon’s. My unit came first. If I as a machine gunner had to go on a ridge and get killed so my squad could move up, that’s my job and I’ll do it without thinking.”
McElligot returned home from the Air Force right around the time Obama was elected president. What struck him was how individualistic civilian society had become in contrast to what he experienced in the Air Force.
“Everyone [in civilian society] thinks that they are the star of their own movie,” he explained, “and everyone else is a supporting actor. These days it’s all about self-glory. The military, in contrast, teaches self-lessness, service before self, it’s a team effort.”
Another jarring difference had to do with structure.
McElligott’s mother, for example, was in the Air Force for 22 years and happens to be married to his boss Stuart Glenn, who said, “When she was in the Air Force, she didn’t have to fret about what to wear that day or make appointments with doctors or dentists. All of that was scheduled for you and could be done right on the base. When she got out of the military, she’s like, ‘I need a dentist. Where do I go and what do I do?'”
The transition also can be felt as a come-down in authority. In the Air Force, Sean’s mother was addressed as Chief Master Sergeant Linda K. McElligott, the highest non-commissioned rank in that branch. She was in charge of Air Force recruiters in the whole country. But she couldn’t take that rank into civilian society.
Likewise, Garcia was a corporal at the time he left the military and was in charge of 35 Marines. “When you get out, you’re starting from scratch again,” he said. “Nobody cares what you were. It was a huge hit. I went from a person who was in charge of 35 people to mopping the floor in my part-time job while going to college after getting out.”
And that requires a major adjustment in your identity. “I wasn’t Corporal Garcia anymore,” he said. “I had to kind of reinvent myself. I’m in customer service at Fitness Factory. When a customer is upset and abusive on the phone, Corporal Garcia wouldn’t tolerate that, but I have to. You have to adjust.”
McElligott said he got a lot out of his time in the military — little things like learning to iron, sew on his stripes and make his bed perfectly. Big things like a sense of pride, learning to not procrastinate, and an increased love of country.
“I was patriotic before going into the service,” he said, “but I’m definitely more so now. When I see people disrespecting the flag, it hurts me. I’ve lost buddies serving that flag. We live in a free country so people can express their opinions but some don’t understand that the flag is not the politicians. It stands for the country.”
In that regard, six and a half years in the Air Force taught him to distinguish between the rank [or government office] and the person. “In the military,” he explained, “I might not have liked one of my superiors but I still respected his rank. I just wish they would teach that in school more to younger children.”
Garcia revealed that he has a tattoo of an Eagle, Globe and Anchor, the Marine Corps insignia, on his chest to remind him of what he went through in boot camp and to give him perspective. Now he remembers not to sweat the small stuff.
Stuart Glenn said the veterans he has hired — four altogether — have proven to be great employees. They are disciplined, punctual, polite, and know how to set goals.
Both veterans acknowledged some of their experiences have not been of help in the civilian world. McElligott, who was a military policeman in the Air Force and was in a few fire fights in that role, said that even after eight years he is still hyper-vigilant.
“When I’m in a restaurant, I have to sit with my back to the wall so I can see the whole area. It’s built into my brain now. I don’t want anyone sneaking up on me.”
Garcia was a machine gunner. Although he was never in combat, he was for a time placed in a unit with other machine gunners who had done tours in Afghanistan and who insisted that you had to learn to hate, because in a combat zone, that’s what will keep you alive. The enemy is out to kill you, they insisted, and you can’t feel empathy for them.
“I was raised to love my neighbor,” he said, “but I found myself hating certain groups of people. After I returned to the states, I entered the College of DuPage where there is a lot of diversity, and although I never said or did anything disrespectful, when a Middle Easterner or a Muslim would walk by I would cringe. When I would talk to them I would be nervous.”
Because there are people like Osama bin Laden who want to do bad things to good people, he said, we need people like the Marine machine gunners who are trained to pull the trigger and kill people, so the rest of us can live in peace.
“I don’t want hate to be in my mind anymore,” he concluded, “but even though I am healing, those feelings are still there.”