By Matt Skoufalos
In 2001, Bill Muir was playing in a rock band in Japan, teaching English and martial arts. He had been picked up by video game maker Square Enix to sing “Otherworld,” the opening song on the best-selling Final Fantasy X soundtrack.
For a kid who started out in a Philadelphia suburb, he was about as far away from the home in which he’d grown up, doing things he’d never likely have predicted he’d be doing. And then a pair of planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York City, and everything was suddenly quite different.
Muir remembers watching footage of the attack on a neighbor’s television, and deciding “right then and there that I was joining the military.”
“I had been in Japan for eight years,” Muir recalled. “I was in a rock band, I was an English teacher, I was teaching martial arts; I’m not going to say my life wasn’t cool. But right after 9-11, it sounded like the apocalypse.”
Muir had considered the idea of military service since college, but as a vegan, he didn’t want to enlist because soldiers are equipped with leather combat boots. After the September 11 attacks, that impulse felt “insignificant,” Muir said; plus, as a medic, he could “offset whatever karma” leather would incur, “and I would be able to help both sides.”
With aspirations of becoming an Army ranger, Muir made it into airborne infantry training before the selecting officers saw his vegan tattoo, “and lost their minds that I would be in the special forces.” (The official reason, he said, was that he was caught using his cellphone during a duty day, to let his girlfriend know he was going to jump out of a plane.) Instead, however, Muir was assigned to the 173rd Airborne, stationed in Italy, and deployed to Afghanistan.
“It was what I went in to do,” he said. “I can’t say enough about how it worked out for me.”
Muir was assigned as the Delta Battery First Platoon medic, and said he worked as much on Afghani locals as on U.S. soldiers, volunteering with a surgical unit at a local clinic. He recalled lots of amputation and gunshot injuries, and others from common hazards in the countryside.
“We were often the only chance for them to get any medical care,” Muir said. “I don’t know how many babies I saw that fell into a cooking fire; mosquito-borne diseases. It’s a rough place to live, period, and there was so much good for people to do if they were inclined to do good.”
Through it all, he kept to a vegan diet, “a weird layer to being in a warzone that most people who get deployed just don’t have,” Muir said. Through a website called Anysoldier.com, he received donations of vegan fare from supporters in America, Canada and England. Sometimes he traded his rations with the Afghani locals for rice, beans or footbread.
“A vegan in Afghanistan; that’s such a crazy concept,” Muir said. “So people helped me out. The locals, I might as well have told them that I was a Martian and I ate rainbows.”
Muir has been vegan since 1992, when he gave up meat for lent, almost as an experiment. What would today be thought of as a healthy cleanse earned him remarks from friends like, “Nice knowing you.” He recalled surviving on “a lot of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and poorly made pasta,” but saw his health and mood improving, and stuck with it.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to be going in the right direction if people are freaking out about it,’ ” Muir said. “The more you do it, the better it gets. I got stronger, healthier, ran some marathons, and at no point did I feel like I needed to eat animals to be strong or be healthy. It only reinforced my whole worldview that came from being straight-edge, which is to try to make the world a better place and keep my eyes open to all the other nonsense that society gives us.”
“When I saw that joining the military would be a chance for me to make the world a better place, because of the climate of 9-11, I wasn’t worried about being in a position that it would compromise my ethics, because I knew were I stood, and I knew who I was,” he said.
Because a meat-free lifestyle was already part of his experience, that discipline aided Muir during his discharge from service. The transition from military to civilian life can be emotionally taxing, and despite the support from his family, it was difficult for Muir, too. But he never felt the need to compromise with unhealthy behaviors.
“Trying to reconcile the things you had to do, the way you acted to get through being deployed, that won’t help you back in the United States,” he said. “The same thinking that will help you identify targets and threats won’t help you build relationships.”
“Luckily with my background as straight-edge, I did not get into the cycle of self-medicating,” he said. “It wasn’t something that was even an option. I would go to the gym to work off frustration.”
When his deployment ended, Muir went to culinary school, planning to open a vegan restaurant. After struggling to find the right location, he got swept up in the disaster recovery efforts around the 2010 Haitian earthquake, and joined a non-governmental organization called “For This One” as a nurse-EMT.
“I bandaged a bunch of people up, handed out meds, and thought, ‘I really miss doing this,’ ” Muir said.
That led to a stint in the Army reserves, a YouTube blog as “Sgt. Vegan,” and completion of his training as a registered nurse at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, where he works presently in the telemetry unit.
“I feel like this job works primarily because as a veteran, I’m able to help other veterans,” Muir said. “I feel like I have that connection; I feel like there’s a point to me waking up and going to work.”
“Being in nursing, I feel like every day, almost everything we do has meaning to it,” Muir said. “Being able to advocate for the patients when they’re having a super-rough go of it, I think it makes all the difference in the world.”
Learn more about Bill at sgtvegan.com.