A Cowboy is Nothing without his Hat and Horse

Going all the way back to my childhood, some of my favorite memories are of watching westerns with my dad.

There was just something about seeing the good guys winning every time. Mostly, the heroes wore white hats and rode gallant horses into action as they saved the day — and the damsel in distress. I think of men like Gary Cooper — my namesake; seriously, my mom loved him — in “High Noon.” Faced with long odds, he stood up for what he thought was right. And, of course, in the end he won over Grace Kelly.

Or John Wayne in “True Grit” — or just about any other movie starring The Duke. He wasn’t anybody’s picture of a heart throb, but he was almost always the good guy, and he usually won the lady’s heart.

So, so many movies. So many memorable lines. “Come back, Shane! Come back!” “Dying ain’t much of a living, boy.”

And from the Duke himself: “There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living, you do the other and you may be walking around but you’re dead as a beaver hat.”

And back then, we didn’t even have to wait to head for the theater to see the good guys riding horses and wearing hats. Daytime TV featured classics such as “The Lone Ranger” and “Cheyenne.” I couldn’t wait to get home from school in time to watch those men riding hard and doing the right thing.

To me, those were the original superheroes. The fought for justice and for the weak.

I can’t say with 100 percent certainty those early exposures influenced my decision later to join the Marine Corps. I can, however, say that when the time came, I felt it a decision that would change my life. I’d have a code by which to live, just like those old cowboys. I’d get to feel as if I were on the side of right; maybe I’d even have a few adventures along the way.

And from the first weeks of boot camp, I realized I’d found my place. From the drill instructors hammering words like “honor” and “integrity” to the daily grind filled with spills and thrills, obstacles and other challenges, I felt I was living my own blockbuster. As the years passed, I found myself involved in the types of adventures some people only see in the movies. Instead of a horse, I rode helicopters and fighter planes. Instead of a six-gun, I fired every type of weapon imaginable. I scuba dove in the Pacific Ocean, examining wreckage from a long-ago war. I saw pieces of the world I’d only read in books.

I lived for those adrenaline rushes.

Then ... it was over. For me, very suddenly (and unwillingly). I wasn’t ready to leave the Corps, but a freak accident left me no choice. Yes, everything ends, but not all endings are easy to accept, even when we know they’re coming. Just ask any veteran. Sure, there’s a yearning for home while we’re serving, but the reality awaiting is a hard, hard pill to swallow.

After wearing a uniform and all its earned adornments — a look certain to capture glances from passersby — we go back to wearing what everyone else does. We thought we were Superman, but Superman without his cape is just plain, old Clark Kent. A regular guy. A cowboy without a hat and horse. Nothing special about us. Whatever titles we earned mean nothing in the civilian world. Suddenly, we’re simply “Mister” or “Miss.” Just like everyone else. We don’t rate a second look. No more helicopter rides. I drive a pickup now. About the only thing I shoot any more is the breeze.

After years of order and knowing our purpose, we try to re-learn how navigate our way around the mundane and routine. Those adrenaline surges we took for granted are gone, and there’s not much in place to duplicate them. Even now, I find myself looking at old photos and wondering, “Did I really do that?”

I think of Gus McRae in “Lonesome Dove”: “Yesterday’s gone down the river and you can’t get it back.”

No, sir. We sure can’t.

Even harder for some is finding a way to be “the good guy” again.

Those who make the adjustment and find another good-guy route are fortunate. I’m one of the lucky ones. Becoming a teacher filled a huge void for me. I again have a sense of purpose to my life. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t. The only thing that would make it better would be if I were able to rappel from a Huey into my classroom every day.

I know others who became law enforcement officers or other first responders. Some have gone into the medical field. I truly believe they never got over their desire to help others. Maybe they watched some of those same movies I did.

Unfortunately, not every veteran makes such a smooth transition. They’re the ones struggling to cope every day — and that’s not even accounting for the ones suffering from PTSD. I can’t even fathom the struggles those men and women endure.

Getting out of the military sounds easy until it happens. Then it becomes an effort to rebuild ourselves into something we can still respect.

Maybe just something we can recognize again.

We veterans are a proud bunch for sure. To this day, I swell a little inside when someone thanks me for my service. I feel more than a little nostalgic when I see a current service member in uniform walking past. Yes, I look at him or her with respect. I see movies and think, “I did that!”

But I can’t help but worry more than a little when it comes to the ones coming home. I hope they get any help they need, and I hope they can accept their new lives. It won’t be easy, but then again, neither was their time in service. I hope they’ll meet the type of people I met; VA counselors and advisers who helped show me a new way, and who taught me that just because my service was over didn’t mean my life was.

Most of all, I hope they remember Gus McRae’s words of wisdom when it comes to choosing how to exist in their new lives:

“It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.”

I tip my big, white cowboy hat (if I had one) to all of them.