“You always have your gun on you, which is bizarre,” said Marco Reininger. “You’re taking a shower and you have to figure out where to put your gun. It’s one of the first things that makes you feel naked when you get back. You don’t have a gun strapped to you at all time. When I first got back, I was always like, ‘Fuck, I left my gun.’ It’s such muscle memory to have your weapon.”
In a black straw hat, black T-shirt and white jeans, sipping red wine outside Epistrophy Café on Mott Street, Mr. Reininger looks less like a soldier than a run-of-the-mill grad student, which he happens to be as well.
“I don’t think I represent the war; I represent the warrior. There’s no place in the United States that I have felt more welcomed, admired and respected and appreciated while I was in uniform than New York City,” he said.
Mr. Reininger first moved to New York in 2004, at age 20. Born in Munich to a German father and an American mother, he came back to the States after attending film school in Australia. “I took the Chinatown bus from D.C. to New York. I didn’t know anyone. My first apartment was in Brooklyn with a bunch of gay guys in an old toy factory near Prospect Park.”
During his first two years in the city, Mr. Reininger worked as a bartender at the Rose Bar in Gramercy Park; at David Barton Gym in Chelsea; did some modeling; and took a job at Deutsche Bank on Wall Street. In 2006, at age 23, he joined the New York National Guard. His family had ties to the armed forces: His mother was a U.S. Navy nurse, and his grandfather was injured in the Korean War. The terrorist attacks of 2001 unnerved him: “Somebody fucked up the place where I knew I was going to achieve my dream.” But what ultimately drew him to the Guard was the desire to escape working on Wall Street, “making rich people rich.”
“My friends said, ‘Aren’t you scared?'” Mr. Reininger said. “They said I was crazy.”
Soon Specialist Reininger was stationed in Afghanistan at Forward Operating Base Phoenix fighting a worsening and unpopular war. “When we got there, we had a little wooden hut that my team lived in. We had to construct our own living quarters, make our own little nooks to get some sort of privacy,” he said.
His duties had him rushing to IED blasts all over Kabul. “It would always start with a loud boom somewhere. And then it was like an alarm going off in a fire station. We would get all our shit together, get our body armor on and race out of there. As you’d get close, you can see the smoke now. The closer you get, you see pieces of tissue, you see body parts, glass, shattered metal. You actually get in robot mode. There are no real feelings at that point. You just snap pictures, gather evidence.
“Oftentimes they don’t just kill Americans or coalition troops. Almost all of the time civilians die. Especially in a city as packed as Kabul. People walk around everywhere. Just people going about their daily lives. Those are the people that get killed every single time,” he said.
Since Mr. Reininger, who is still serving in the Guard, returned to his Soho apartment, he has been a full-time student studying political science at Columbia University on the G.I. Bill. He is also pursuing acting and modeling opportunities, and he’s been taking flying lessons in Buffalo.
“I can’t tell you how many times people have bought my breakfast, bought my dinner, shaken my hand, told me that they are thankful for what I do when I was in uniform in New York City,” he said. “The reaction isn’t what you think it is, especially from people in Soho or, you know, the hip neighborhoods. People actually do have respect for it. You represent the government to them. But even totally hipstered-out kids that you would never think would show any type of sympathy do have respect for the fact that you did what you did.”
Coming home, Mr. Reininger said, was “like being high for two weeks straight. I don’t have to worry about mortars flying around. Just eating a burger was like, ‘Yes!'” But other aspects of his homecoming weren’t so easy: “It was difficult coming right back and being a boyfriend again. I’d be lying if I said my relationship just picked up where we left off. It took a while for me to be the type of person that people wanted to be around again.”
Mr. Reininger keeps in touch with the soldiers he deployed with, but he has thrown himself back into life in the city. “I came back and this was exactly what I needed. I needed to be in contact with people and jump into a completely different life. One day you’re worried about whether you have enough mags on you; the next day, you’re worried about whether your favorite restaurant has panna cotta that night. I loved it.
“When you first come back and you hear people whining and complaining and bitching about miniscule and insignificant things, yes, you laugh about it. But it didn’t piss me off, because I knew that ultimately this is what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for the fact that people can worry about whether to have soy milk in their coffee.”