“Doc, Monday was probably one of the worst days I’ve had in a long time. A long time.”
I’ve written about this combat veteran several times before, e.g., in Buddy, Got the Time? and Conical Combat Linkages. He’s older than many of the men and women I usually see, a veteran of an earlier conflict, smart, insightful. He’s been doing much better overall, so his statement took me by surprise.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I had some of the worst nightmares I’ve had in I-don’t-know-how-long,” he replied. “And it was as if I just couldn’t get the War out of my head all day, no matter what I tried to do to distract myself.”
“Any idea what brought all that on?”
A brief pause, then “I think some of it may have had to do with the Father’s homily on Sunday about good and evil; for some reason that got to me. But when I asked myself that question, believe it or not, the best answer I could come up with was that it was that Jeep commercial during the Super Bowl.”
Sidebar and true confession: I’m neither pro nor con American football. I was never that much of a fan growing up, and I know only enough about the game to keep myself from gross embarrassment when discussing the topic. Whenever the Indianapolis Colts are doing well, I do feel under a civic obligation to take reasonable notice, but otherwise football season is no different from pre-inventory shopping season at the local Walmart as far as my day-to-day life goes. (Although yes, I confess: as a former Bostonian, I do have to keep up with the New England Patriots every now and then, whether out of nostalgia for the old days or out of the national pastime of hating Tom Brady “just because,” I can’t quite tell.)
Ergo, given that I didn’t have much of a stake in either Baltimore or San Francisco, and given that I find Life moving forward fairly easily whether or not I take note of Beyonce in this world of ours, I was napping during THE Game.
I had seen something somewhere, however, about some commercial featuring Oprah having been THE Super Bowl commercial of 2013. I think it had even registered with me that it had had something to do with veterans.
The week’s news about combat veterans, however, whether mainstream, independent, or blogged, had been almost exclusively about the murder of OEF/OIF combat veteran and renowned sniper, Chris Kyle, by another combat veteran whom he had been trying to help. From the Right, the Left, the Pro, the Con, from all points in-between, it had been all-Texas-shooting, all-PTSD, all the time.
“I’m afraid I didn’t pay that much attention to the game,” I therefore confessed. “What was the commercial?”
“God, it was . . . I’m not really quite sure why it hit me like it did. It was a long commercial, heavy orchestration, the whole bit. It was all from the soldier’s perspective, coming home. But then–I don’t what it was, Doc–but at some point, one of those scenes, the music, everything: I wasn’t in my house. I literally was hearing my son’s footsteps, watching him running toward me, yelling, ‘Daddy, Daddy!’ Back then, when it originally happened, I was standing next to this guy, about my height. Our hair was short, his and mine, about the same color, and both of us were dressed in our fatigues. So for a moment, my son wasn’t quite sure which one of us was his Dad. But then he just grabbed me. Doc, I . . . they were his footsteps I was hearing. His.”
For a few seconds, both of us were silent.
“And then,” he continued, “this commercial started talking about how we’re all in this together, you know, for the veterans, yadda-yadda? And I almost got sick, literally. How many times have I heard that through the years, ‘we’re here for you,’ and then nothing, just talk. It was as if I were in two worlds at the same time, one back then, one now, feeling how important it all was, my son, the military, yet at the same time feeling how ridiculous all those empty promises can be, over and over, sending us off to War, expecting us to be fine afterwards, don’t complain, ‘thank you for your service,’ blah, blah.
“Then Sunday evening, in my own home, all of a sudden this women next to me brought me back to reality, asked me–I’m not kidding you–‘Where are you? You’re not here, are you?’ And I just turned to her, looked at her for a couple of seconds, and said, ‘No. I’m not.’ That was it. And then I was back. And then Monday came.”
He paused, and then he finally said, “I’m so glad that I’m feeling better, Doc. But this PTSD stuff is terrible. I don’t know how else to put it. Terrible.”
After we had finished speaking together, I Googled the commercial and watched it. He’d been right, of course, about the heavy orchestration, perfect for the setting: the violas and cellos leading the way, giving the whole couple minutes of film all the necessary lower-register depth, with the French horns making their entrances at the appropriate times, at least in three parts, sometimes four.
And Oprah was at her best as well, ever dramatic and ever genuinely so. I had no doubt that she spoke every word from her heart, trying to express for “all of us” how we want to be honest, yet hopeful; upbeat, even as we each know that we dare not be that too strongly, lest we dishonor, lest we, even worse, disavow.
I couldn’t help but think of another meeting with another combat veteran, only days earlier: with Porthos, about whom I’d written in my last entry, To Remember, Not Relive. As I always do, I had read with him the entry. About halfway through, he’d stopped me.
“Doc,” he’d said, quietly, yet, as always, intensely, “that’s OK. Really. I want you to publish it, but . . . but I think I’m going to need to read it by myself, later. I . . . I just can’t go back there now. I want you to put it out there, but . . . I need to come back to it later. Thank you. Is that OK?”
Of course it had been.
The next day, Porthos had then texted me: “It was a hard night. I hardly slept. It was your blog, Aramis, everything. Thank you so much for writing it, but it’s just so hard. Please don’t be upset. Thank you for understanding.”
A few days later, I learned from my “statistics guy” that I had, in the previous week, seen sixty-five patients within the course of five days. Thankfully, most of those men and women had been doing fairly well, moving on with their lives now that they are on Suboxone, the opiate substitution regimen.
Some had not been, though. Many had had to change scheduled appointments because their babysitter hadn’t shown up; or because their parent had had to work that day and couldn’t watch their child; or because their boss had changed his mind and had refused to let them off for their appointment, and they can’t afford to lose this job, understand, because it had been so hard to find; or because they had had to get to that job interview and hope that this one will work out, even if the pay is a pittance, because it’s at least something; or because the bus had broken down across town and now they’re going to be late for work if they have to wait for their sister or boyfriend to pick them up after the latter gets off work; or because . . .
But then there had been the guy who had claimed that his meds had been stolen. Now some programs have found it quite easy to manage such situations: if your meds are stolen, too bad, you signed an agreement when you started, and that’s the way it goes, so you’re just going to have to wait until your next scheduled time, so here are some side-effect medications, and be sure not to start using again because then we’ll have to re-look at your whole program, and don’t forget that we know those Suboxones are going for $20 a strip on the street, so how are we so sure that they were really stolen anyway, and . . .
But then, of course, there was also the fact that the guy probably shouldn’t have tried to get back together with his wife, since she had been sleeping with another guy, after all, the one who may in fact have been the father of “their” last child, but since that guy always did have a tendency to smack her around a bit if she stayed around him too long, my guy just couldn’t refuse to take her back, but then he’d had it that night and had put his bag outside the door of the apartment just as he stepped back into the apartment to give his older child a hug, but then his wife started yelling at him again and said the one thing that always sets him off and so he said the one thing always sets her off, and then she screamed for him to get out, but by the time he had turned around the bag was gone, but then why did they live in that junkhouse of an apartment building anyway, you know, right next to the stairs, so couldn’t he have just run after the culprit, like anyone would have who had an ounce of sense, but then she had grabbed his arm as he’d yelled at her to stop and the kid was crying and he knew that she’d call the cops if he tried to pull her off because that was what she was saying that she was going to do if he walked away, but then . . .
But, of course, that all could have been some big lie, because you know how these addicts are, and Suboxone is $20 a strip on the street, and . . . well, everyone knows that I’m too nice, you see. There are no dearth of people who are willing to tell me so, in fact. Sometimes right to my face. Only because they care. About appropriate patient care, of course.
But then, as had been reported to me just the day before, a quote from a psychiatrist in another state about working with military personnel and combat veterans: “they’re all just ‘entitled’ anyway, these guys, as if someone owes them something. So what do you expect?”
Monday-morning quarterbacking: how easily it comes for some. How devastatingly for others.
Sometimes I am amazed at how, even with the best of intentions, whether via stirring commercials, well-meaning blog posts, or anything else, we can both thrill and injure those whom we admire, encourage, care deeply about. Nothing is straightforward about War, of course: before, during, after, no matter who the victor, no matter what the spoils. Even as we remember that, we try to forget, and even as we try to forget, we remember.
I can say this, though, from my Monday-morning armchair, clueless as I am about football, even more clueless as I am about the destruction of property and soul that War brings: all men and women who believe they are called to protect others, even at those moments when it is unclear whether anyone is being protected or even wanting to be protected; all those who are both ready to die for the ones next to them, yet also ready to wonder whether they should hold off just a few more seconds, to make sure that car’s driver is not a “bad guy,” to make sure that what that kid’s pulling out of his pocket is just his hand, not an explosive device; all those who press two fingers to their lips and then press those very fingers onto a computer screen that transmits the images of those fingers across land and sea to a partner, a parent, a child who is doing the same, only in a room that, thankfully, will not be at risk of a mortar attack any time soon–all such men and women are “entitled,” period, end of story: to our respect, whether borne via Jeep or not; to a living wage at an honorable job; to a second chance to get it right, maybe even to a fourth or fifth.
When one has earned what one is due, one is not “entitled,” after all. One is “entitled to.”
Any quarterback can tell you that.
I suspect Ms. Winfrey and I easily–and unashamedly–agree.