Sometimes it takes some days for an encounter with a combat veteran to sink in. Sometimes it takes some days just to decide how much I dare let it sink in.
I’ve talked of this man before, in Buddy, Got the Time? He’s sharp, insightful, witty. He can be cutting (hilariously so, I might add). He’s a Desert Storm vet.
He’s been trying to make his life work for over twenty years.
He’s been doing much better at that since we’ve begun working together. His combat nightmares have dramatically reduced. His relationships, though still, shall we say, on the complex side, have calmed, at least some. He has been able to work more regularly, and he has come up with some very doable, very challenging long-range business plans.
We hadn’t spoken for a few weeks, primarily because of my being in and out of town. When we did, I heard it in his voice.
“Been a tough couple of weeks, Doc.”
“What’s been up?” I respond.
“The nightmares. But they’re totally different this time. It’s weird. They’re not about combat. They’re about guys I knew back in Desert Storm. None of them died, but somehow I keep meeting them in my dreams. And these aren’t good meetings, Doc. They’re confusing, upsetting. There’s one dream I’ve had a good five times, and every time I bolt up after it and can’t fall back asleep.”
“There’s this senior officer I served under. He’s just standing there, not even in his combat gear, looking at me. He’s covered in blood, sand, dirt. He’s upset, and he keeps talking, keeps trying to tell me something, keeps reaching out to me. But I can’t understand a word he’s saying.”
“What was he like,” I ask, “the real man, as a person, to you?”
“He was like John Wayne,” he answered, his voice brightening slightly. “He even sort of walked like Wayne did. He was a man of few words, but he knew what to do, when to do it, and he knew how to lead. He could be calm when no one else was. He took charge. He was quite the guy, almost like a big brother to me. And that’s what’s so strange: in my dream, he looks so lost, desperate, trying to tell me something, I know it, but I can’t understand a thing. It’s not him, Doc. But it is.”
“How long have you been having the dream?”
“The last two weeks, I’d say.” He paused. “I’m trying to think if there was anything that went on then. I really hadn’t thought about that before right now.” He paused again.
“Anything?” I finally asked.
Still no words, but then, slowly, “You know, that’s right. That BBC show, about the guys in Afghanistan. Yeah, that’s it. It really upset me.”
“What happened in it?”
“It’s not so much what happened as what was happening. These guys had taken direct hits. They’d lost several men. But you know what they were doing over there? Helping Afghans learn to farm. Can you believe it? It was agriculture class. And guys were dying for it.”
His voice had become more distant. I could almost feel him in front of that television, open-mouthed, furious, but too shocked to do anything about it.
“I mean,” he continued, his tempo picking up, “that’s crazy! Crazy! There’s a f***ing war going on, we’re sending these guys to battle, and for gardening? Look, I understand: the best thing we ever did when I was over there, the one thing I’m still proud of, is that we completed a big public works project that saved the lives of I-don’t-know-how-many people. I get it: we’re trying to help the locals, show them we’re not horrible people. But what, Doc, what?”
I hadn’t heard him this animated in quite a while.
“What the f*** are we doing over there?,” he continued. “Where has all this death, this destruction gotten us? What is it about these politicians? None of them served. What do they know? My job was to watch out for young kids like those kids over there who are plowing fields or whatever they’re doing–and getting killed! I was a kid myself. I mean, if you want us to do good works, send us to do good works, fine, we’re the best, we can do that. But to send us over to fight, to kill, to die–and then to garden? Are you, like, for real, man? This is crazy, Doc, f***ing crazy.”
He was on a roll. I couldn’t have stopped him had I even wanted to.
“And you know what else? I just remembered this, too. It was around that time that I had this really serious talk with my daughter. She told me she wanted to talk to me as an adult, not as my little girl. So we did. And you know what she said to me?”
I couldn’t even utter a mere “what?”. Clearly he had too much to say, right then, now, now.
“She said that she’s sick and tired of people telling her that she should have known me before I went over to Desert Storm, that she should have known the man I ‘used to be.’ She looked right at me, Doc, and she dropped the F-bomb. I’m not kidding: I’d never heard her say that in her entire life. She looked at me and said, ‘Don’t they f***ing get it? You’re my Dad. You’re the man I’ve always known. I don’t care what you were like before. I care about who you are now. I care about you trying to care of yourself, trying to take care of us. Why can’t people just let you be who you are?’”
Silence. On both our parts. It was one of those silences that I dread, a silence that dares me to say one, single word, a silence that shakes me at my core, demanding that I say something, anything, all the while laughing at me because it knows there is nothing to say, nothing to do except feel the silence shake me, shake, shake.
Then I thought it. I waited a few moments. I asked it.
“Is that what your officer is trying to ask you? Why did we do all this? Why did this happen to us, back then, now? We’re covered in blood, sand, dirt, we’re just . . . why?”
For at least fifteen, maybe even thirty seconds, he said nothing.
“Doc, ” he finally said, in a whisper that shouted, “I’m proud that I served my country. I’m proud that I made people’s lives better when I could. I’m proud of the men I served with. I honor the men I sent home to be buried. But, Doc, some days, I just don’t know, I don’t think I can take another g**d***ed minute. Do they know what they’re doing, do they have a clue, these politicians, these bureaucrats? Do they know what they’re creating? This is gonna take years, Doc, years to clean up the mess they started! And I’m just talking about the men and women who are coming back! And why? Why? For vegetables? Are you kidding me? Vegetables?”
I can’t fully describe to you how it is to sit with someone who feels that, says that, lives that so deeply. It was not the first time for me to be in such a position, but he was so passionate, truthful, precise. Like so many combat veterans whom I have served, he both despises war and acknowledges its inevitability, even, as is the opinion of many, its necessity. He’s no pacifist, but he’s no warmonger. He believes that what he values can sometimes be insane. He believes sometimes that he is insane to value what he values. Yet that is who he was. That is who he is. That is who he hopes he will always be.
“After war, Doc, nothing connects in a straight line. There’s no direct, uncomplicated connection between you and your spouse, your kids, your family, your coworkers, clients, nobody. It’s almost as if I’m back in engineering class. Life doesn’t develop linearly in any way whatsoever, but almost, what, geometrically. You know, a lot of the guys you see probably wouldn’t put it that way, but that’s really it. Everything multiplies, expands, spins, and the line, it becomes like a cone, a vortex, and you can’t even figure out which end is the tip.”
After a few seconds, he then chuckled.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Maybe you can blog about this one, eh, Doc? What could we call these things? How about ‘conical combat linkages’? We could do CCL for short. Yeah, that’s it. Conical combat linkages. Vortex after vortex after vortex.”
By this point, I’m simply stunned. I haven’t a clue what to say. The word vortex is living out its meaning inside my head, swirling, like the Charybdis that nearly swallowed Odysseus, like the tornadoes that periodically stroll down our Midwest alley.
“I’m so sorry,” I finally say. Stupid. A stupid thing to say. I’m ashamed of myself before the last syllable has the audacity to pass through my vocal chords. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
He’s a good man, though. He actually laughs. I haven’t heard this voice at any point in this conversation so far.
“Doc,” he drawls–and I mean, drawls. “It ain’t your fault, guy.”
I thank him.
And I wonder.
What do I believe about war, about peace, as a citizen of this country, as a Mennonite by choice, as a psychiatrist by trade, as one guy listening to the heart of another guy, that guy’s heart gritting its teeth, letting its jaw drop in incredulity, in exhaustion, left saying nothing? How many times have I said it in this blog–and yet how many times have I truly, truly asked myself: what venti, nonfat lattes did you give up, Rod? This War ain’t your fault, guy?
Maybe it wasn’t such a stupid thing to say after all.
The linkages swirl, between me and this veteran, between him and his ex-wife, his children, his siblings, between me and the next man or woman I’ll interview the next time I step into my office–”next in line, please!”– between me and a nation, between me and a faith tradition, a family tradition, between me and a wife, three children, a world. Conically. Combat half a globe away geometrically expands all my linkages, all our linkages.
The vortices will demand our attention. They’ll get what’s due them. That’s the way of vortices. Even Odysseus found that out. Pay now. Pay later.
Whether or not you eat all your vegetables.