I received the text earlier this week, at 1404h, Central Daylight Time, Tuesday, July 2, 2013, a picture.
He looked great, wearing what appeared to be a simple, black suit/tux, sporting with it a white, pointed-collar shirt, well-starched, and a formal black tie, half-Windsor knotted. I suspect the picture had originally been taken at his older brother’s wedding not long ago. He had that certain “brother of the groom” air about him, after all: slightly annoyed to be all decked out on a day that wasn’t exactly his, yet pleased well enough all the same, knowing full well, of course, that he looked mighty fine in these trappings, if he did say so himself.
In the background was an American flag and the unmistakable emblem of the United States Marine Corps. He would, undoubtedly, have been far more proud of those than he would have of his handsome mugshot.
I have finally made the move to Nashville. I have finally found the time to sit quietly with my cup of Tazo Zen tea. I have finally found the courage to announce, again with the permission of his family, that on Friday, July 5, 2013, another fine young man whom I had the honor to serve was laid to rest.
He died early in the morning hours of my final day of service at the VA in Indianapolis. I learned of his passing late that afternoon. As had been Ethan’s death (Reporting for Duty, Sir), his had not appeared to have been self-inflicted, and it had come without warning. He had spoken to family and to his best friend mere hours before, in good spirits, looking forward to his and my final meeting together before my move, even more looking forward to plans for treatment and for a new chance at a life perhaps less pain-filled, definitely more hope-filled.
He was buried in a community far both from my former home and my new one. I had a couple chances to speak with his mother. I asked her to convey my sincerest condolences to his father, his brother, his grandfather, and all those whom he had loved and who had loved him.
I did not, therefore, hear “Taps” a third time in as many months. Yet as I sit here, watching the Cumberland River quietly drift by me, ferrying branches big and small toward destinations perhaps just around the bend, perhaps miles away, with the occasional speed boat barreling by, ferrying revelers trying to swig down one last Miller Lite before heading back to post-Fourth of July reality, I can so easily imagine a bugler standing on the shore opposite me, looking me directly in the eye, nodding, lifting his instrument to his lips to announce not only to me but to anyone else within earshot that another who tried the best he could to do the best he could has departed us, only then, after the fading of the last note, lowering that instrument, tucking it under his left arm, raising his right hand in that four-count salute rendered only to those who deserve it, holding it, lowering his arm in another four counts, then looking up at me, nodding, and finally with a sharp about-face, turning to walk away from the bank, into the trees, into the memory and the imagination from which he had come.
My patient—let’s call him “Kurt”—came from a successful family of international entrepreneurs, his father’s lineage Dutch, his mother’s, Hispanic. He’d attended the finest of schools as a boy, a teenager. Easily he could have attended the finest of universities after that. He was smart, multilingual, bearishly handsome, affable, after all: Cambridge, New Haven, New York, Princeton, all would have gladly welcomed him, no questions asked.
But this boy had an energy that only the Marines could handle.
He was so proud of his unit. He had given me a copy of its insignia, all ready to be mounted on my rear window should I have so desired (and with his full permission, I might add, implying that such would have been enough to get me through any subsequent interrogations by fellow Marines as to why I might have been claiming the right to be lollying around town with such an honored accouterment). He was a Marine’s Marine.
Thus, he never forgave himself for the training incident the week prior to his deployment, the one during which his right arm was so shattered, he finally had to lose one bone altogether in order to preserve whatever function allowed to him, the one after which he was separated permanently from the other two men on his team whom he’d come to love more than Life itself . . .
From the other two men who—along with Kurt’s replacement, less prepared than Kurt had been—died only weeks later in an IED explosion that Kurt, to his final moments, I’m certain, believed with his every living cell that he could have avoided had he been there or, at the very least, he could have endured with his friends together, one final time.
From that point on, Kurt’s life was embedded within pain. He had to take pain medications at levels that still cause me to tremble at the very thought. He endured constant nightmares of a vicious home invasion he had survived as a youth—with night after night after night of such nightmares ending with his escaping (which, in real life, he had), while his Marine buddies, captured in the dream, were slaughtered by the intruders, over and over and over again.
Yet, there was not always pain between us.
The day had not started out well, almost two years ago, now. His pain had been so acute, he was considering suicide. He refused to stay in the hospital. I refused to let him leave. It was tense, to say the least. Finally I had to call the VA Police to stand watch outside my office as I arranged the admission in the secretary’s office next door.
Then I heard it.
“Hey, Doc!” came the policeman’s voice, not exactly panicked, but not exactly calm either.
Good God, I could only think.
“Uh, sir . . . I’m not quite sure how to tell you this, but your patient just jumped out your office window.”
I kid you not.
Now, fortunately, it was a first-floor office. Yet it was still a good six-foot drop.
I had barely turned around before seeing said policeman zoom around the corner, heading toward the front door of the building, the words he’d been shouting into his walkie-talkie lingering behind him like an ether cloud, as sound apparently could not travel as fast as that man was moving. I’ll never forget walking up to my office, by this point all alone (since all others within fifty feet had made similar dashes around said corner), only to see my office window wide open.
I’d not even had a clue that the window could have been opened.
But that’s not the best part.
Within five minutes, Kurt marched right back in, now accompanied by three policemen and a host of other witnesses, with that same nonchalant look that, come to think of it, he’d shown in that picture from his brother’s wedding.
“What happened?” I asked (a stupid question, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say).
“I needed a cigarette,” he told me, as calmly as all get-out. “The cop said I couldn’t go out to get one, and I knew I couldn’t smoke upstairs in the hospital, so I just decided I’d find me a way to get one more cigarette while I still could.”
I do so wish there had a been a picture of my face at the moment, given that my memory of his face was that he was still struggling to figure out what all the big deal was about.
“Are you kidding me?” was all I could say, standing there, as I was, in front of a good half the Hospital’s police force, along with God and all Nature, to boot.
“He’s not,” the original policeman chimed in. “Really. By the time we got out there, he was just standing there, putting his lighter back in his pocket, taking a few puffs, asking us why we were all so upset.”
Kurt just smiled. “I told ’em I just wanted to smoke a cigarette. I guess they didn’t believe me.”
I repeat: kid you not.
I swear to God, also: by the next day I had so many environmental engineers swarming into that office, I’d have died hermetically-sealed in said room should any disaster have struck thereafter, nuclear or otherwise. I wonder if, now that I”m gone, Homeland Security is using it as a holding cell for those too dangerous for Gitmo.
One of my other patients, a former Marine officer, had heard the “Legend of the Jumping Marine” somewhere along the way (who hadn’t?), and I’ll never forget the smile as wide as the nearby White River when he spoke to me about said affaire mémorable.
“Now that’s a Marine, I tell you. You tell them to go take that hill, and they ask you ‘How many times, Sir?’ You gotta love ’em.”
Indeed, you do.
So I sit here, now sipping San Pellegrino, and I ask myself, “What can I say?” How can I honor him in the same way that phantom bugler did only a short time ago, disturbing the peacefulness of the river in my mind’s eye not so as to upset, but rather so as to remind, to call me to remember what it means for some men and women to choose to accept a life that they were not forced to accept, to choose to face risks that many of us would have preferred that they not have faced, whether for reasons of love or for those of ideology
I can only do so at this moment, I believe, by honoring his pain, honoring it so that others may know the depth of his suffering, honoring it so that others, perhaps, can begin to know something of the sufferings of many, many of his brothers and sisters who have served in combat, who entered War and left War with a capacity for emotional power that few had allowed themselves to realize before, let alone even to accept now.
With each passing day, with each troop or veteran I meet, I become more convinced that many, many civilians simply cannot begin to fathom the physicality of the warrior’s emotions, whether that warrior be a man or a woman. Granted, there are some civilians (more than a few, I might add) who are “warriors in spirit,” who can indeed find themselves caught up, sometimes quite frequently, in similar depths. Yet most civilians, I assert with solid confidence, must learn the following formula and apply it, whether they think they should have to or not:
Take whatever emotion you have ever felt in your life—joy, curiosity, grief, rage, anxiety, sensuality, shame, whatever—localize it in your body, and then imagine it now crashing down into your gut with a force that draws your every inner organ into it like some whirlpool out of Hell. Then repeat, shoving all of it down into that whirlpool even more deeply. Then repeat. Eight more times.
By the time you hit Whirlpool Ten, you’ll be close to the emotional experience of the Warrior. Not there. But close.
I have yet to meet a troop or a veteran who has not known, full well with bells on his/her toes, that he or she was going to have to “Move On” from his/her wounds of the extremities, of the brain, of the soul. That’s never the issue, no matter how many times, no matter who adds the adverb just to that phrase, as if somehow the person uttering such nonsense were finally giving said troop or veteran the psychological equivalent of a reminder that s/he could have also had a V-8.
It’s never about “moving on.” It’s about what one has to drag along, from the very depths of one’s soul, whenever one does move on.
Everyone has experienced gut-wrenching emotions. Not everyone has had to experience such emotions every single time that door marked “Emotions” is opened, even when one is desperately, desperately hoping that the last five loads of psychic lumber with which you’d tried to nail that door shut will hold, please, dear God, please.
I sometimes read “pain experts” pontificate about the “psychological overlay” of pain as if they were finally giving us the news that we’d never considered and that will now finally open all of us to the Promised Land of the cognitive. I know about all the evidence. I know about all the good intentions of all who have so published in the journals, opined in the op-ed pieces, spoken to the cameras in the well-orchestrated segments of the latest news show, the latest radio spot.
Yet Kurt’s grief over his fallen buddies, his shame over his injuries, his anxiety over his future: they so Hurt with a capital H, so overran his biological pain receptors with the same ferocity, the same violence with which those intruders had once overran his boyhood home, he had to sweat with psychic blood every ounce of hope that he was able to earn. Hope, for him, was a hill that made Iwo Jima look like Kiddieland.
But he always asked me the same thing, every time, every time: “How many times do you want me to take it, Sir?”
How many times.
Until the day you have been able to imagine your whole body being wracked with an emotion so powerful that it brings you to your knees, always figuratively, often literally, with each sunrise; until the day you have been able to imagine the courage it takes to rise up, under such circumstances, and walk ten miles or, maybe, just take the dog out; until the day you can feel your most powerful emotion in your most painful of spots and can then say to yourself, “Oh, my God: do you mean it can feel worse than this?” and know that there are men and women out there in their teens, in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and beyond who can answer a resounding “Yes!” while trying not to relive, yet never to forget horrors and truths that, hopefully, you’ll never even have to imagine imagining—until then, please, please, please: never speak to a troop or a combat veteran the equivalent of the English words, “Move on.”
My title, of course, is a polyglot admixture, the Dutch goed with the Spanish hombre, the admixture of “A Good Man,” the admixture that was Kurt, the admixture that could have taken a much easier road, but whohad refused to do so, the admixture who so many times had wanted to give up on that hill called Hope, so far from Bill Clinton’s Arkansas hometown of the same name, the admixture who had many, many times stumbled and fallen as he’d tried to take that hill, the admixture who had nevertheless kept trying, kept trying, semper fidelis to the end.
As with Porthos, as with Ethan, I have not earned the right to salute you, Kurt, my friend, as that bugler did in my mind mere minutes ago. So I can only give you what I gave them, unfortunately only in the Spanish of your lengua maternal and not also in the Dutch of your paternal tongue.
But do know that if I could have spoken both languages, I would have. As always, Kurt. As always.
El dolor ha pasado, Kurt. Duerme siempre en paz.
The pain is over, Kurt, hallelujah. Rest in peace.
Oh, Damn! That sucks! (Deep breath) And here I was, excited to read another uplifting note. As sad as it is (and truly, beyond any shadow, it is sad), it bouyed my spirit. For that I thank you.
I wanted to come on and share with you something good, cheerful, happy. Now, it seems almost crass to do so, but…well, I just gotta, Doc. I gotta tell you something that I hope will bring a little bit of a smile to your face.
I know a fellow warrior, I’ll call him WheelieB. He’s been wheelchair bound for three years. Lost half of one leg, and was seemingly paralyzed from the waist down. About three months ago, WheelieB dared me to punch his thigh. I looked at him askance, but he bugged me to do it unitl I did. Then, he yelled “Ow! Damn, that hurt!” I almost fainted. Then, he smiled…He said that it’s the first thing he’s felt so intensely in that leg since he came home. All was good. Slowly, the tinglings have led to genuine feeling, last month, he kicked me. Yes – KICKED me. Again, I was shocked and nearly decked him for it. (We have a loveya/hateya thing going.) Last week, he begged and pleaded for all of us to have a party on July 3rd, and he wanted to do it in the PT room. Odd as he hates parties almost as much as he hates PT. Our group got permission and showed up with balloons, cake, and the like. We all suspected what he wanted to show us, but we still held our breaths as he rolled up to the parallel bars. Then, he stood up with all the pride he could muster. It wasn’t ramrod straight, but I’m sure it would have been could he have done it. He grasped the bars with confidence. And, for the first time in three years, took an unaided step.
We all screamed, cheered, and wept like a bunch of fools. This man..this warrior… the one who not so long ago begged me to push his chair off a cliff at the park… this young man who has no family, few friends, and most of the time no one to talk to but the nurses and the docs at the VA. This brave Marine didn’t give up, he fought the battle of his life, and he climbed the next mountain and found the dawn that he so wanted to see.
I spent the last year burying far too many loved ones, fellow warriors, friends, and neighbors (83 funerals within 9 months time). Far too much pain, far too much suffering. I came home often praying for him, worried that he’d take that last journey west. Right this minute, I’m still finding it hard to express the joy of seeing him walk those 6 very shakey, very unsteady steps. How my heart lurched right along with him, remembering what it was like to learn to walk again myself. Knowing what an accomplishment it was.
I don’t want to diminish your pain, Doc. I do want to send you some virtual care and hope. It bites to lose someone. It really does. That makes us want to cling to and appreciate the little joys that much more. I like your bugler on the riverside. I hope you see him again, but hope that this time he’s playing revielle for a new day. (hugs) Buffy
Buffy, I simply cannot thank you enough. What a wonderful story, what a brave man. Leave it to a Marine–and leave it to you! Keep the faith (for what else do we often have, eh?)
As you know, faith will sustain us when all else fails.
Thanks for this article. I took your explanation of the pain we feel and included it in today’s Soldier Heart posting on Facebook.
As always, thanks so much, Mike!
It is so hard to explain the pain. I don’t remember what happened to make it, but I know that what you described is what I avoid. I think I have made exposure to WP5. Or maybe I have just dipped my toe in the water and it feels like a 5. Hard to calibrate the pain to numbers. For the first time in my life I am feeling some peace about it.