Once the Grill Cools Down

In his book The Greatest Generation Speaks, former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw wrote of sharing with a friend stories about those who had struggled through World War II.  The friend spoke a truth many of us would rather not have repeated in polite company:

You hear something like that and you’re resolved to keep it in your mind forever, but twenty minutes later you’re wondering what’s for lunch.

Memorial Day weekend in the United States is now past—dare I say long past, given the pace of today’s news cycle.  It’s Wednesday, after all. If you don’t heat those leftover burgers up in the microwave soon, you’re just going to have to stuff them down the disposal, and then all that money spent for what, right?  Might as well have picked up a couple of Whoppers and been done with it.

I have to say: I’m not so critical of us civilians for our ease in moving on from the stories of War. Believe me: no combat veterans actually want others to hold the memories they hold, no matter how angry at the world those veterans might be.

I’m more critical that we civilians are mostly unwilling to move even within ten feet of those stories in the first place, sit with them for more than the hour-long special on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, or whatever other station we pause upon between Netflix binges.  Perhaps if we were more willing to do that, all of us could get to lunch more quickly.

Perhaps, even, enjoy it.

Roll Call

Late yesterday I read two pieces:  a short story by United States Army veteran David Abrams, “Roll Call,” from the book Fire and Forget:  Short Stories from the Long War, and an essay from the 30 August 2010 Esquire, The Things That Carried Him,” by Chris Jones.  Both are accounts of remembering the dead, the first one short, staccato, the second one long, more largo than legato.

Abrams’ story tells of a memorial gathering miles away from me, literally and figuratively, of a fictional group of soldiers remembering the dead in the midst of Death, reciting among themselves a list of names that almost certainly was not yet complete, for the next time outside the wire was yet to come, then the next and the next.

Jones’ story, on the other hand, tells of an actual memorial that once happened just down Interstate 65 from me, starting in a small southern Indiana town where the story of a young sergeant’s body ended; ending, via a backwards timeline, at a beginning in far-off Mesopotamia, the beginning that had seen the young man’s spiritual/psychological end with the triggering of an improvised explosive device (IED).

Then, today, I went back to work, and I heard stories from several men who had struggled this weekend, seeing lists of names in social media and news pieces, remembering their own lists of names from their pasts, calling roll and knowing exactly who would say “Here!” in their hearts and who would not, some silent because of War, some because of War’s aftermath.

Remembering the Dead of War is always a complicated matter.  It will always be, in some ways, a political matter.  What could be more political than War, after all.

But, like all politics, War is also so very, very personal. As a psychiatrist, my days are spent with the personal, whether in reading a fictional narrative or listening to a tale told sometimes sadly, sometimes blankly, by a man or woman only feet away from me.

Whether the name is one or the names are twenty, the silence in the roll call is always jolting.  I owe it to them whose names are called, indeed, to feel the jolt.

Even more, perhaps, I owe it to them to keep listening to those who seek some hope of a more fond remembering that will allow the living, if not with gusto, then at least with peace, to speak their own answer at the call of their names:  “Here!”

In Memoriam

In memoriam, not in memoria.  Into memory, not in it. Motion, not place.

Soon it will be two years, JD.   Today, I once again move you, from my heart, into my mind.   Just as I do many, many days.

Rest in peace.

Hodie in cordem ingredior, ut in memoriam te portem. Semper animae tuae meminero, quia in corde permanebis.

Requiescas in pace, mi amice.

The Trauma Hero

Late last night I finished combat-veteran Roy Scranton‘s War Porn.  Memorable title. Even more memorable book.

I’d warn the faint-of-heart to be prepared.  Not for the reasons they might imagine, though.

Professor Scranton is no stranger to controversy, whether in book titles, book content—or literary reflection. Anyone who has read his 2015 piece in The Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to ‘Redeployment’ and ‘American Sniper’” knows exactly whereof I speak.

For in the essay he asks us, after all, to question whether our “war literature” should embrace the “wounded warrior” more than the ones whom the warrior wounds.

Trust me:  in War Porn, he practices what he preaches.

As a psychiatrist, my job is to experience the story that walks through my office door. My job is not to be overwhelmed by that story (easier said than done, some days). My job is not to script it (although, granted, I have more than a few colleagues who might disagree with that). My job is to experience it, and not just its words, but its sounds, its muscle twitches, its eyes, sometimes even its smell. I’m charged with taking those experiences and translating them into a language (and, sometimes, a neurochemistry) that is supposed to ease Life’s motion forward.

Again, often, too often, easier said than done (although, again, often and, yes, too often, I have more than a few colleagues who might disagree with that).

Don’t for a moment think that everyone who walks through my door is traumatized.  A few who drop by wouldn’t even mind heading back and doing a bit more traumatizing if they could, truth be told.  Not most, by a long shot.  But a few. Power has its allures.

Plus destruction has certainty to it, after all.  At the end of the day, there’s always a record somewhere out there in the physical world, fragmented and motionless, such that it is.

Life and certainty, on the other hand…

I’m not one of those mental-health types who guides people toward what to tell me (again, more disagreements…) I’ve always had enough to do just with what they’ve willingly told me. I’ve never found it rare to encounter veterans who have been more than willing to allude to darkness in their souls.  Real darkness, nothing the veteran or I would quibble over.

After all, the painful physiology of darkness is part of what I’m there for.

We do so love our reason and cognition, though, don’t we?  Thank God for the Greeks who bore us those gifts.  Words, words, and more words.

Yet just like the Trojans, again and again we finds ourselves surprised by the chemical-spiritual forces hidden within those concepts.

For us humans, War colonizes what is within us, what is between us, what is among us. Just as I must remember that I will only hear askew those who have been traumatized, so will I only hear askew those who have also traumatized.

Equally, however, I must hold within me that I am, not could be, both Traumatizer and Traumatized. Otherwise I’m just playing a cruel hoax on everyone who does walk through that office door. After all, I just have the good fortune of brandishing the plausible deniability of my having never wielded a literally-lethal weapon in my hands.  That’s all.

My words, on the other hand…

The good professor reminds me that I must always be willing to be created by the stories told me, even if I don’t like the resulting product. He also reminds me of my obligation, in just such cases, to create something more human in return.

Easier said, yet still must be done.  No disagreements.


Moving Day

My eldest got married last fall, and until today she and her husband had been house sitting for a couple who has been spending the past school year in South America.  Today, however, was moving day, into a place of their own, finally.

Dad (in-law) only had to supply an old SUV for transportation, so I was able to enjoy watching my kids’ friends in action, all while remembering younger years when similar friends, now old like Dad, filled cars and trucks, eked sofas around treacherous corners, chowed on pizza and beer in later celebration.  I’m glad that their future is ahead of them.  I’m glad that, at least for some adventures, my past is behind me.

On the way to and from their house I continued to listen to Roy Scranton‘s War Porn.  People are also on the move in that narrative, in Iraq, in the United States.  So far, they’re not faring as well.  I’m doubtful for much reprieve.

I sit on the back porch and ask myself:  why am I reading this today, this weekend, Memorial Day weekend in the US?  Why not relax, perhaps remember War in a quieter state of mind?

Good question.

Yet so many combat veterans have to reflect this weekend on Life’s realities and live within them:  reflect and live successful moves, yes, perhaps, topped off by a slice of meat-lovers’ and a cold, microbrewery pale ale.

Yet also, perhaps, reflect and relive death and destruction long ago or just months ago, experienced for reasons that—that what?

A burger on the grill here, an anger-filled/tear-filled/empty-filled midnight walk there.  Life, Death, now, then, back, forth, hour after hour.

I at least get to enjoy my sunset today with a glass of Malbec.  I need to be thankful. I am.  For my family.  For my life.

And I owe it to the living and the dead to be only so relaxed.  Moved, maybe.  Yes, moved.

It’s the least I can do.

Listening to War

Well, for the faithful few:  I’m back.

I guess this would be what my kids would call 2.0.

If you’re an old friend, first of all: thank you.  Truly.

Second of all, though: you can see that quite a bit has changed.  Welcome to Listening to War:  Reflections on Words Heard Only Askew.  For a fuller explanation, see the Paving the Road Back tab above, or click here.

If you’re a new friend:  good to meet you.  On my new Twitter account (@deaton_rod), I advertise myself as “just a country psychiatrist trying to make a living by listening, reading, and thinking.”

Welcome to just that.

Recently I’ve been listening to Roy Scranton‘s debut novel, War Porn.  Good way through it, at this point.  The ugly stuff is ramping up.  I suspect that Professor Scranton, who teaches down the street from me at Notre Dame, might argue that, well, that’s War for you.

This morning, though, I heard the Audible narrator read former President George W. Bush’s speech to the United States at the time of the initiation of the fighting in Iraq.  The narrator gave a nice rendition of the President’s twang.  I had to admire it as I pulled into the parking lot of my clinic.

I parked the car.  I listened to the speech. I turned the book off. But not the car.  Not yet.

Fourteen years it’s been since that speech.  At the time I was working out of a nondescript office in downtown Indianapolis, occasionally walking down to the local Starbucks on Mass Ave to enjoy a latte in the corner of the store, staring at the latest in the window of the toy store across the street.

But this morning, some two and half hours away from that cafe, miles and miles away within my soul, I heard words I must have heard some time around then, must have, spoken in my native tongue, assuring me that all would be…

Yes.  Would be.

I turned off the car and headed into work.  Too many words ahead of me to think anymore about those words.  Too many words, too many lives since those were first spoken.

I’m a much older man now.  So is Professor Scranton.  So are we all, men, women, the then-infants who are now leaving middle school.

If only would be were not still is.

But it is.

My American Adieu

With today’s entry, I am bringing the blog to an indefinite pause. I am not taking it down. In fact, over the coming days and weeks, I hope to reorganize it into an archive that might be worth an interested party’s future, casual perusal. In addition, I will give (most likely in the About Me page) a full accounting of the thoughts that have led to this decision.

Yet while I had been planning this action for a while now,  before this morning I had certainly not planned on doing so in the way I am about to do. Call it Divine touch, call it serendipity (it’s your theology or no, you choose), a “random” checking of an iPhone alert changed it all.

That alert brought me to the following story in The New York Times: “Refugees Detained at U.S. Airports, Prompting Legal Challenges to Trump’s Immigration Order.”  The article caught my eye and afterwards delivered big-time with the following words:

The lawyers said that one of the Iraqis detained at Kennedy Airport, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had worked on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq for 10 years. The other, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, was coming to the United States to join his wife, who had worked for a U.S. contractor, and young son, the lawyers said. They said both men were detained at the airport Friday night after arriving on separate flights.

The attorneys said they were not allowed to meet with their clients, and there were tense moments as they tried to reach them.

“Who is the person we need to talk to?” asked one of the lawyers, Mark Doss, supervising attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“Mr. President,” said a Customs and Border Protection agent, who declined to identify himself. “Call Mr. Trump.”

Well, they did.

The detentions prompted legal challenges as lawyers representing two Iraqi refugees held at Kennedy Airport filed a writ of habeas corpus early Saturday in the Eastern District of New York seeking to have their clients released. At the same time, they filed a motion for class certification, in an effort to represent all refugees and immigrants who they said were being unlawfully detained at ports of entry.

Habeas corpus is, loosely translated, Latin for  “Show me the body!” Think of it this way: the writ is the next best thing to having the President’s new cell phone number.

A case, a narrative—a mere human story—is now before a federal court.  Now it’s time for the common law tradition to get to work.

At this moment, I am so proud to call myself lawyer.  And just as proudly, I call myself psychiatrist, the keeper of stories.

I’m so proud to be an American, where even a President has to answer to a judiciary.  True, it’s a judiciary over which he has some power of initial appointment. But that’s the President’s one shot. After that, even the President has to live with the decisions of that judiciary. Just like the rest of us.

I could say, “So now, let the Games begin!”  Instead, I say, “Let the Law begin!” And all of us, including the President and I, will have to live with the consequences.

I will state it directly: I, personally, writing on behalf of no one except myself, will not be happy if the President “wins” this particular case.  However, as long as the judiciary, in declaring that “win,” at least not-so-subtly warns the President that “one day will come a day when you will not ‘win,’ so prepare yourselves, Mr. President and Mr. Bannon,” then, yes, while I’ll be anything but happy, I’ll live with that decision.

Yet for me, personally, writing on behalf of no one except myself, if indeed a judge of the Federal District Court of the Eastern District of New York, judges from the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeal, and justices of the United States Supreme Court send a faithful United States government servant and the spouse of a faithful United-States-government-supporting servant back to their deaths, then the new Washington Gaslights will have indeed dimmed the world sufficiently to darken my very soul.  Even as they assure me that those very lights have never been brighter.

So this is how I bring Paving the Road Back to its pause. For now I must take a break from telling the stories of others.  But I do have one final story to relate, a story that has been told to me, far more than once.

If the federal judiciary fails my hopes in these cases, dashes them, there will be other battles on other days. Yet two men whom I will never know, their images, coupled with the emotional traces of images I have within me of many of their fallen countrymen and women, images related to me and formed within me by combat veterans with tears in their eyes, those images will bring a tear to my eye as well.

It won’t be the first time for such a tear, nor will it be the last.

I know nothing of War via my eyes, my limbs, my nose, my taste buds. But as this blog has shown (I hope), I do know something of War with my ears.

If I can brag about one thing (if I may), if I may be so grateful to God for the one gift I can willingly bring each hour, each veteran whom I meet? Every day, I do all I can to keep open the passage from my ears to my soul.

Many, many days, for many, many of the combat veterans I have had the privilege of serving, such a gift is not only the best I can give, but also, sadly, all that I can give.

But a gift—for them, for me—it is.

My own political views are not relevant here.  I have them, of course.  Most readers will be able to guess them, of course.  My only (admittedly fiendish joy and) desire is to leave my faithful readers, leave you, the reader of this final entry, with a question: “So what’s this Mennonite, who actually used to work for the United States Army 101st Airborne Division, doing here?”

Yes, the United States Army 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, USA (upon whose behalf I do not write).  This United States Army 101st Airborne Division:

Mr. Darweesh worked as an interpreter for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad and Mosul starting shortly after the invasion of Iraq on April 1, 2003. The filing said he had been directly targeted twice for working with the American military.

What, indeed.

I’ve always been a believer in the oft-maligned adage, “All politics is personal.” Thus I’ve never (really) questioned an analogous one:  “All Law is personal.”

Yet I also have to remind myself that personal need not describe solely the individual, but also the corporate, the group.  Us.  We must speak Law. We must evaluate Law’s debates. We must engage the “personal” I’s to whom we have given the power to speak Law for us.

And not only for us.

For example, also for that Iraqi interpreter who was willing to take a chance that, perhaps, those “Christian invaders”—or at least some of them—might actually mean what they say, might mean it when they say “Let’s try to make life better for all of us,” who say, “Really, we’re not just a bunch of terrified bullies who will do whatever we must to keep our gas tanks full.”

For that Iraqi man—who has a name, Hameed Khalid Darweesh—who was willing to believe those assertions and risk his life for them,

For those American and Coalition Forces men and woman—all of whom have names, trust me, I remember many of them—who believed those assertions as they were making them and were willing to risk their lives for them,

For those American soldiers of the United States Army 101st Airborne Division, of the United States Army Special Operations Aviation Regiment, of the United States Army Fifth Special Forces Group, for those men and women who sat in my United States Army office on the Kentucky-Tennessee border and cried tears of anguish for the interpreters who stayed with them through thick and thin, who did not betray them (even though a few others did), who were willing to die—who, many, willingly died—so that bad men would stop torturing and killing good people,

For that American Law, that crazy law of the personal story, the case.

May that Law, that Law of which, as lawyer and psychiatrist, I so genuinely, even tearfully—if not some days angrily—am proud, that Law to which I gratefully declare my support today,

May that Law preserve you Hameed, Haider, my Iraqi friends,

May that Law preserve you, Hameed, my Iraqi friend of those invulnerable, yet so linguistically and culturally vulnerable Americans of the 101st Airborne Division,

May that Law keep you both safe.

May that Law, may Life itself, keep us all safe, safe to tell and to live out all our stories, another day.

With this, I bring this blog to an indefinite close.  Not my work of Paving the Road Back, though. Not at all.  Monday will come, and the stories of the lives of more combat veterans will again—sometimes loudly, often hesitantly—inch their way through the air between us, give a quiet nod of acknowledgement of my hearing apparatus as they quickly pass through, then head straightway to their final destination, the only destination they ever sought:  my soul.

And there get to the work that those stories intended to accomplish in the first place.

To all the men and women whom I have had the honor to date to serve, to all those whom I will serve in the future, truly:  Thank you for your Service.

And to all of you, whether any blog entry ever appears again or not:

Á Dieu.  God speed, and Godspeed.  Adieu.

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