Reporting for Duty, Sir

With the permission of his family, I report, with much sadness, that another young veteran whom I have had the honor to serve died this past week. The cause of his death remains unclear, but all agree that it was not self-inflicted, and it does appear that he died suddenly and without suffering.

Ethan (not his real name) first came to my office a couple years ago. He was not in good shape. He had suffered a significant traumatic brain injury (TBI) from an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion while having served in the Middle East, and he had subsequently become hooked on opiates (painkillers). When I first met him, he was gaunt of body and of gaze. He had the distractibility that I have often seen in veterans who are struggling with the consequences of TBI, but his had a desperate edge to it, an irritation that appeared to be heading nowhere, targeting no one in particular.

How good it was, then, that he found Suboxone (an opiate-substitution medication) to be so hope-restoring for him. He filled out in body and in soul, and a smile took up permanent residence on the lower half of his much-less-lined face, a puckish one, I guess I’d say. Great word, puckish. Great smile.

He grew up in a semi-rural area south of Indianapolis. He once told me how to get there, and I realized that I had often passed the requisite landmark on Indiana State Road 37 during my many trips through the years down to Indiana University in Bloomington, where I had taught an undergraduate class. In fact, he was still in high school when I first began making that trek. It was a well familiar one to me, in other words, by the time his mother, who lived not far from that landmark, had already begun praying every morning, every night for his safe return home.

He did return home. But he was not whole. He knew it. His family knew it. Everyone knew it.

Ethan was working with two of our finest therapists at the Indianapolis VA when he came to see me, so he never had a need to share with me any of the worst aspects of his combat experiences. He did hint at them, though. I needed no more than that. His experiences of the War—both of what he saw and of what he had to do—haunted him daily.

Yet as time progressed—and even more, as he worked with his therapists—those haunting experiences receded in prominence, leaving in their wake the far-less-easy-to-treat symptoms of his TBI. Day-to-day detail often confused him far more readily than it had before deployment. Often he forgot where he was to be and when he was to be there—appointments, for example. Family did their best to help him keep track of everything, a challenge for them all. How many times did Ethan come into my office, once more apologizing for having forgotten something, sometimes an important something, sometimes not.

Then he met Robin.

Robin had had her shares of struggles also, but together they went on to make a life that, while not without its challenges, was nonetheless even more with its hopes, saturated with a love that kept a certain puppy-dog air about it, even as they faced together, head-on, all the Shakespearean “slings and arrows” that Life can bring any of us. They got married. They made plans to buy a home. Those plans fell through. They kept looking, envisioning for themselves a family that would be as safe as they could make it, as secure as they could love it.

Still, Ethan suffered, suffered from War like so many other thoughtful, good-hearted men and women with whom he had flown on that plane to Kuwait, with whom he had ridden into extremely-hot, extremely-volatile territories in vehicles that were, in spite of their advanced technology and their construction, still all-too vulnerable.

He knew that he suffered. Robin knew that. His family knew that. His therapists knew that. I knew that. Everyone knew that.

He continued to find Walmarts nerve-wracking. He still had to have a seat in full view of the door, wherever, whenever. He still had nightmares. He still had became leery of unseen powers in government, in society that could, at a moment’s notice—perhaps, just perhaps—take away from him all whom he loved, all that he had worked for.

Yet in spite of all that, recently he had been coming into my office with all the fervor of a country boy ready to start yapping away on a Saturday morning with a bunch of men, old and young, spread out in the back corner of the local McDonalds, solving the world’s problems over large cups of rapidly-cooling java.

It was his smile, though, puckish. Got me every time. It reminded me of the smile, the “I’m so tickled” demeanor of a fellow Hoosier from long before his time, one who had reigned over Tuesday nights on CBS at my house all my growing-up years: Red Skelton. Like Skelton, Ethan always looked as if he was just so taken with the punch line of the joke he was about to tell, he could barely contain his guffaws long enough to spit out the first words without being stopped by a string of giggles that would bring the audience—and even more, him—long past the verge of tear-stained laughter.

He was a good man, a young man. He had the heart of a Boy Scout rushing to walk the old lady across the street. He had the sense of honor, of duty of a soldier who, while still trying to be good, would learn how to harm, how to kill, if necessary, to protect those whom he loved, whether miles away or right next to him.

We had our regular appointment this past Wednesday. Without any notice, he, quite willingly, came and spoke to a group of my colleagues about his experiences as a patient at our VA. He was articulate. He was honest about his past struggles, his current memory problems, his hopes for a better future. My colleagues applauded him at the end of the discussion. After we had shaken hands after the meeting, he walked away with a smile about twice the size of the some of the country fields he must have run through when he was a boy.

He died the next day.

I had a chance to speak with his mother on Saturday. In her grief and complete disbelief that he was, indeed, gone, she still spoke of how excited Ethan had been becoming about Life, even as he had continued to struggle with the combat-related anxieties of the day-to-day. They had been planning for a family gathering on the day that he had died. In the preceding weeks and months, she had begun hearing in his voice a certain quality, a certain youthfulness that she had feared would never, ever return.

“So you were getting your boy back?” I said.

Her tears answered me.

Then she told me something quite extraordinary.

“You know,” she said. “Ethan had been telling Robin a lot recently that his dreams had been changing. He kept on having these dreams, these feelings that he was to become a guardian angel.”

You can’t make these things up.

Ethan was not an imposing man, yet neither was he a reticent one. Even as he displayed that puckish smile over and again, he also displayed a certain resolve, a certain protector-warrior sense, even if only in glimpses, that reminded us all—that reminded him—that he was still ready for duty, ready to assume a role that he loved, ready to face again, if necessary, a violence that would perhaps destroy him, but that would not—would not—destroy those whom he loved.

War, with its horrors and realities, did try to destroy his tender heart. It did leave its wound in that heart, its permanent reminder of what had been lost, of who had been lost. Yet along with a tender heart, War found a determined heart. That, War could not take away, in spite of the nightmares it had implanted in him, in spite of the memory and the focus it had robbed him of.

I leave it to everyone else to decide as to whether there is indeed some Heaven somewhere that serves as a place of further, dutiful service for one who had so faithfully tried to fulfill such service in this life. All I can say is this: if anyone—anyone—had the heart of an angel and the resolve of a guardian, it was Ethan. If he has indeed reported for duty, God has indeed already sent him out on his first of many, many missions.

May he rest in peace.

70 responses

  1. I’m with him on the Walmart thing. That place can make the most stalwart constitution run screaming for the door. They should add a paragraph to all brochures and manuals on PSTD: avoid Walmart for at least five years after going off any and all medication.

  2. Interesting read. I hope there is something beyond this life and maybe Ethan was ready, even at a young age, to serve in that afterlife. Hopefully, someone here on earth will reap the rewards of his future service. War is harsh and these Americans who run off to fight it are just boys and girls sometimes. There’s nothing “special” about them normally that makes them more equipped to be a soldier than you or me, outside of the training they receive. To not return from a war a changed person would be impossible. God bless our soldiers. I hope they all find peace and happiness in their post war lives.

  3. This young man may have returned home missing pieces of his spirit, displaced in the chaos and destruction of war, but he is remembered in your words and memory completely. May we all live in a way that when we come to the end of our story others are similarly touched by the fullness of our experiences. Beautiful.

  4. Rod, there is nothing I can say that would adequately convey how this makes me feel. It’s a great blog entry, Rod. Amazing. Write me when you get a chance!!

  5. I met you today at his funeral. Thank you for coming and sharing with us. Words escape me at this moment, but know that you gave comfort today.

  6. i liked your writing but i’m confused by your analysis. i was 14 and at war on the street, with virus and other disease. we all face death and it’s a gift from our parents that they don’t or are unable to face because it’s about their sexual desire. are you claiming that one conflict has a greater meaning than another. write the essay i’ll read it.
    slayerwulfe cave

  7. Another great piece of writing that Freshly Pressed has allowed me to read. Kudos and props to you and WordPress for getting this story out to other bloggers like myself. Thank you and God Bless.

  8. beautiful and powerful article…. “He still had became leery of unseen powers in government, in society that could, at a moment’s notice—perhaps, just perhaps—take away from him all whom he loved, all that he had worked for.”……. how do you live or war with that….?

  9. As an army wife I routinely hear from soldiers, both those still in the fight and those who are retired. It is great to know there are passionate caregivers such as you out there.

  10. this is so touching – the story speaks for itself, but when a writer can convey it so well, it becomes something truly special. im sorry for your loss; for his family, friends and his robin. my heart just breaks for all of them. i was raised catholic and while im not currently practicing, given my mom’s experiences with similar type spiritual dreams, i truly believe in them. i hope there is some comfort for his family knowing he is their guardian angel and in the process has been relieved of his strife. thank you for sharing this and for telling it so beautifully.

  11. Powerful words, thank you for sharing them with us. You provided us with just a glimpse into that world – one we might not see otherwise. Thank you. Friends and family are lifted in prayer.

  12. I would like to say thank you so very much for writing this piece for him and for our family. I was the one that just kept bumping u as it came time for us to take our seats as the funeral was starting which I am very sorry for. I just wanted to say that you described him in very best way that makes us all so very proud of him. The smile he had could light up the night sky and once again I just want to say thank you so much for takin the time with my nephew and the time to write this and describe him exactly as he was

  13. What you did here was amazing and thoughtful. I tell as many people I can every single day to pray for American troops. I never mustered up and joined, and I regret it. I work in law enforcement and help that way, but nothing like what troops do for us.Thank you!

  14. Thankyou for writing this as it is truly inspiring and makes me remember not to take things for granted as you often do when your 13. I believe there is an afterlife and when you die it’s because god wants you there by his side, yet that may just be my view and as a child that view softens the harsh sound of death a bit. I think what you did for Ethan and his family by writing this is brilliant and heart warming.

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  29. What a beautifully written piece. I am so sorry to hear of the loss of Ethan, my prayers and best wishes with his family and friends. My brother just returned from the Middle East (he is a Marine) and I have noticed changes in him since his deployment, but nonetheless am happy to have him back home.

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  41. Thank you for sharing such a well written story about what I believe is one of most important and least acknowledged struggle in US society. I hope that in the future all young men and women affected by war will be able to access such care to aid in their recovery.

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