"Hey, welcome home, soldier."
"I'm not a soldier any more."
"Well then, welcome home, soldier-not-a soldier."

Iraq and Afghanistan are full of American soldiers-not-soldiers, marines-not-marines, sailors-not-sailors, and airmen-not-airmen. Not all of them are the "mercenaries" you hear about on the news, and many aren't making big bucks with contractors. Yes, some of them are making more money than they did in their 20+ years with the military - but perhaps they want to start college savings accounts, or buy a house, even a new, safe car for family transport. Just like you.

Their names and faces won't be listed in Faces of the Fallen at Washingtonpost.com. You won't know to weep for them, or their families, when they die. If you are the spouse or family member of an active duty service member, be thankful for these nameless not-a souls: they are saving the butts of the ones you love. Remember them tonight, please, particularly if every seat at your dinner table is filled.

If you have a few minutes, I'd like to tell you about one of them.

He's a civilian military employee who put in his 20+ as both a non-com and and officer, constantly traveling to places that certain officers posted at the Pentagon seem to avoid. He has a special knack with certain technology used as a strategic, operational and forensic tool - but technology can't always replicate human assessment, and green kids need to be trained. This middle-aged cowboy gets new injuries, aggravates the old ones, but receives no new Purple Hearts except the stamps on my letters.

He goes because someone has to do it. He goes out of loyalty to the men who did the same for him, and the inexperienced kids whose lives are on the line today. And he works as a civilian to side-step the constant threat of reactivation to active duty, thinking it keeps a little bit of control in his life. Trust me, it doesn't; being on constant call is worse than a defined tour of duty.

To this friend's loving eyes, the dutiful sacrifice never ends. When he's stateside, he's actually a government executive, working more than twelve hours a day. He designs training and certification programs, streamlines procurement to avoid duplicative contracts, and develops reasonable budgets. An accomplished educator and public speaker, he's the guy the one-stars select to prepare and deliver presentations to the big brass. While that might sound important - perhaps even a bit glamorous - it means he's the one burning the midnight oil when the birds fly home and the stars ascend home to dinner with the family. I asked him once, "what good is a one-star who's too afraid to give a presentation at the Pentagon?" To his credit, he never answered that question. Loyalty, while honorable, can be misplaced. Sometimes I wonder if he allows me to criticize so he won't have to, and if that harms his soul, or mine.

Having a close friend so involved in military operations isn't easy for a pacifist who has spent time learning about the ethnic cultures and ancient rivalries "over there." September 11, 2001 wasn't a surreal news story to me, I saw the Pentagon smoking for days on my way to work. Yes, I often find U.S. policy on Iraq and Afghanistan a bit (ahem) misguided - but I try to remember there's plenty of information I don't know. Supporting the troops, but not the policy, is a tough road filled with potholes of hypocrisy. Damn it, one of my dearest friends helps find the best place to set explosives and position troops with automatic weapons.

Ah, but the soldier-not-a-soldier has became a member of my tribe, and I of his.

He brings me dinner when I am ill, we commiserate on the heartbreak of our aging parents. I walk down a city street with him without scanning for danger, because this former MP does it for me. He laughs with me when the ordinary trials of life pile up a bit too high. When I say "help," he replies, "how?" He's just a kind man with common interests in cooking, theology and computer-based instructional design. I say "just," but how often to you find such a friend - and how can you bear losing one when found?

Damn it, friend, where are you tonight? I just mailed you a recipe, let's try it when you return. We missed you at the party yesterday. Come home soon, come home alive. Love ya.

Pssst...don't tell him I wrote this, he gets a little pissy sometimes when I criticize the military.

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