Conical Combat Linkages

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.”

“What happens?”

“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–”

“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?

Really?

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.

Saint Crispin’s Kindergarteners

In yesterday’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks wrote a fascinating piece entitled Honor Code, and even at the writing of this post, almost twenty-four hours later, it remains the most e-mailed article of the day for the paper.

Using an ingenious example, King Henry V of England, or rather his literary embodiment, Henry V, as immortalized by Shakespeare–ingenious on Brooks’ part, in that Shakespeare had already given his audiences a glimpse of a much younger Henry in two earlier plays, Henry IV, Parts I and Part 2, as the, shall we say, wild “Prince Harry,” or (as he’s more affectionately known by his portly, somewhat wayward, older friend, Falstaff) “Hal”–Brooks makes a passionate argument that modern education (and perhaps even modern social mores) takes passionate boys and turns many of them into angry, confused, and self-loathing “problems” (or as we in the mental health field might say, “clients”).

The guy pulls no punches.  We in the medical and mental health fields take our customary hits, given our semi-acquiescence in the apparent outbreak of attention deficit disorder (ADD) among our young, especially the boys.  In truth, he provides a succinct, quite plausible narrative that had Henry indeed been raised in the finest schools of modern America, he might easily have become a male poster child for my well-Googled bugaboo, Cluster B Traits.

One can easily argue that Brooks overgeneralizes, and I suspect even he would admit that on occasion he leads his argument down a more showman’s path.  ADD, for example, does exist, and I can provide you the references on request.  Yet the article ain’t Number One for nothing–and I tell you, if you work daily with combat veterans, you know exactly why it is.

I’ve discussed this topic already in a several earlier posts, most recently Buddy, Got the Time? and Quite the Handful.   Brooks, however, through Henry, adds an interesting embellishment, quite appropriately using the word people, and thus describing passionate boys and passionate girls.  He writes:

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

For those of you who might be a bit rusty on either your British history or your Shakespeare, wild young Prince Hal grew up to be thoughtful, charismatic, and brave King Henry, leading a relatively small “band of brothers” (hmm, combat vets, sound familiar?) to an amazing victory over the French at Agincourt on St. Crispin’s Day.  In the play, he agonizes over the role of the king, of the one who himself is only a man, yet who must make decisions that will affect the lives of many men.  Finally he stands before those men, all vastly outnumbered by the French forces, and Shakespeare has him speak the words that so many actors have endeavored to inhabit with passion for hundreds of years:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.

Some today indeed see those words as glorifying the bellicose, the worst of the human spirit.  Perhaps they are right.  Some see today’s emphasis on the mutual, the ordered as finally attaining the humane, the best of the human spirit.  Again, perhaps they are right.

Yet every day I sit with men–and women–who desire peace in the world, in their lives, but who are anything but “peaceful” by nature.  They have a warrior’s energy.  They had a warrior’s energy in kindergarten.  They didn’t do circle time well.  They were often the outsiders, the problems.

Indeed many of them do feel that they are still “outsiders” in a world, a nation that tells them to live mutual, ordered lives after training them impeccably well in the bellicose, taking complete advantage of their passion and fire when necessary, demanding complete extinguishing of both when later deemed “necessary.”  They are more than aware that they’ve had to turn in the title “soldier” upon arrival onto US soil and then head off to the next debriefing station to pick up their new title:  “client.”

Brooks has an excellent point, one made not only by him, but by others: in a globally-interrelated, technological world, the mutual and the ordered may indeed flourish.

Yet, friends and neighbors: we have warriors in our midst.  Many of them were made to feel “problematic” as children.  Many finally found that life could have coherence and even meaning when their warrior nature flourished in the military.  They did not want to kill, but they did so if they had to, not for sport, but for the protection of those they loved.  They grieve those who died unnecessarily.  Warrior certainly does not equal monster.  It shouldn’t even necessarily have to equal client.  End of story.

So I get passionate when I think that we are taking one percent of the population, a percent that we allowed to volunteer and fight, exposing them to horrors on our behalf (and don’t you dare give me that “not my behalf” bit: did you give up lattes and/or Bud Light to stand against George or Barack?), with our then now doing nothing to find a way for them to fit into our society.  Talk about the ultimate bait and switch: You’re a problem!  No, wait, you’re a hero!  No, sorry, you’re a problem again.

Brooks is right.  We do have to rethink “problematic” boys–and girls.  We do have to rethink problematic combat veterans.

For many of us, then, we have to keep writing, keep pounding on doors, keep shouting.

His Majesty, Henry the Fifth of England, would have done no less.

And, boy, when he was a kid?  Let me tell you. . .

Independence Day

Life takes interesting turns.

Just a year ago, I had no idea at all that I’d be working full-time at the VA or that I would be writing a blog about my experiences.  I had not met many of the very fine people I have had the opportunity to meet through the blog and other social networking outlets.

I certainly did not think about Independence Day in the way that I do now.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m not patriotic in the usual sense of the word.  I remain very distrustful of the Nation-State as a whole, and while I have no problems with the notion that leaders, whether civilian or military, might be decent people as individuals, I cannot similarly say that they always act decently when they act together “for our benefit.”  I simply cannot muster excitement for “The United States” as an abstraction–and therefore as an abstraction symbolized by a flag passing in front of me or a song, ridiculously difficult to sing, no matter what your voice, one only passably accessible for a bass-baritone in the key of A flat.

Yet that same flag, that same song as symbols of concrete realities, of real men and women with real histories, real tragedies, triumphs, hopes, men and women not proud of aggression, but not ashamed of it either, men and women who leave behind “Just In Case” letters for spouses, children, parents, just in case, facing at the ages of eighteen, twenty-five, thirty-five, even forty-five the reality that each of us hopes will remain existential for the foreseeable future, thank you, the reality, however, that they can no longer afford to hand a number and then tell it to take a seat and wait its turn along with graduation gifts, wedding cakes, baby blankets, and anniversaries silver and golden?

As some of you who have been following the blog may remember, on Memorial Day–on Decoration Day–I placed a flag at the grave of the father of one of my patients, the grave of a man of a different era who did believe in an abstraction, but who also lived out the actual ideals of that abstraction in his concrete life, no matter how imperfectly, no matter how simply.  Today I think of names–Danny, TJ, Mike–and I imagine flag-draped coffins, nothing abstract whatsoever, folded, delivered, held.

Today I also remember my son playing his oboe, standing out on a football field (yes, I know, oboes and football fields don’t jive, but trust me), having memorized the song indeed in A flat, glad that the flutes will double him in case he misses a note or two in the parts when the brass take a rest.  I remember standing in a corner of the grandstands, just a few people around me, mainly band parents (it was a junior varsity game, after all), as the de rigeur drum roll began, three beats and then come in on four.

And I remember thinking of Danny, TJ, and Mike, the fallen comrades–no, soulmates–of three of the men I’m privileged still to listen to, to serve.

The musical progression is well known, thanks, in no small part, to basketball and rising flags at Olympic Games:  E flat, C, A flat–a low note for many people, yet quite comfortable in my range–a dotted eighth note, sixteenth note, quarter note, all followed then right up by the major chord, do, mi, sol, do.

What I cannot remember is the last time before this one that I had sung the National Anthem.

You must understand: I am a better-than-average singer.  I’ve done my time in the choruses of Turandot and Tales of Hoffman for our Indianapolis Opera Company.  If I sing just at half voice in your average crowd, I’m noticeable.

While I did not sing full voice (it wasn’t about me, after all), I didn’t whisper.  I couldn’t.  I had just remembered Danny, TJ, and Mike.

At that point the politics just didn’t matter to me, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George Bush, Barak Obama, Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton, none of them.

I was not unaware of the song’s militarism.  I was not unaware of the suffering of the Iraqi and Afghan people.

And I was aware of six young men, three dead, three alive, three of whom never saw their twenty-fifth birthdays, three of whom have yet even to reach their thirtieth.

All I have to do is keep the back of my throat open and imagine the sound rising to the top of my head, and I can take that E flat at the end of the land of the free, more with a short i sound than a long e one, and hold it out four counts, no need to push the volume, just fill the head with air and relax.  It’s that simple.

And the home of the brave.

Yes, each of those six men were.  Three still are.

The standard applause and semi-whooping done, I started to walk down the steps toward my son’s pick-up point.  As I passed, the woman just to my left, two rows down, looked right at me.

“Wow,” she said.  “And you knew all the words and everything.”

We live in a complex world, filled with children who die unnecessarily, no matter where the nation, men and women who grieve a life partner, whether only of a few months or of many, many years, men and women barely out of adolescence–or long, long past it–who grieve a guy from Dubuque, a woman from Tallahassee.

I can only plant a flag for a kind, often sad father.

And sing.  As well as I can.  For Danny.  For TJ.  For Mike.

Combat Vet Seeking Outlet, References Available Upon Request

Yesterday I had the opportunity to speak again with a combat vet I have come to know, care about, and respect.  He was heavily involved in the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and he was profoundly affected by it, not only by the horrors he witnessed, but also by some of the ways of the military, where, unlike Don Corleone in The Godfather, it’s always personal and just business.  In our discussion, he reminded me of two “truths” I often need to remind combat vets of, ones that I frequently discuss in person and periodically discuss in the blog.

First, this man needed to be reminded how strong he was and is.  As a combat veteran struggling with Posttraumatic Stress Injury, he, like most of his fellow veterans, often finds himself feeling confused, unsure of himself, and utterly weak.  He’s a guy, and he’s a miltary guy, i.e., a traditional guy with those traditional male hang-ups like, you know, having it all under control 24/7, never sweating, always sporting a rakish smile, with a devil-may-care wink, the usual.  Therefore if any of the above qualities is not present in spades at all times, he’s a loser, plain and simple.

What this combat veteran often fails to recall is that the same bravery, the same chutzpah, the same determination to get the job done, no matter, still resides in him now, just as much as it did when he wore a uniform, barreling down those Iraqi roads, wanting to do what’s right, although never quite sure what “right” was at any given moment.

Combat veterans need to understand something: not everybody makes it through traumatic experiences.  I’m not talking suicide here, although that risk of course remains high (see the DoD’s recently published data).  Some people did not enter their trauma with anything close to the inner drive, the focus that combat veterans absolutely must have if they are to hope to stay alive.  Consequently, such individuals leave their trauma almost decimated beyond recognition, barely functioning, if at all, sometimes psychotic, sometimes so dissociative they cannot even begin to experience anything that for a moment could be labeled coherence.

I fully understand that many combat veterans feel that way, but feeling that way does not mean that they are that way.  Yes, most feel that their self was shattered somewhere in the middle of the desert, in ungodly heat, surrounded by the epitome of ungodliness.  Yes, some even imagine that the man or woman who had had that drive, that spirit perished somewhere outside of Tikrit or Kandahar.

But that strength, that drive is still there, and in the deepest recesses of their heart, they do still feel it.  They just fear that it will get them nowhere, that it’s a piece of their shattered soul that they’d have best left languishing in a Middle Eastern alley somewhere.

That’s where we, as civilians, need to come in.

For the second matter the combat veteran and I discussed was what happens when that strength, that drive does not have adequate outlet, when it demands to be experienced even if the veteran is scrambling like the dickens to tell himself or herself that it is no longer there.  The physics of the matter is quite simple, really: if strength, drive is thwarted in its attempt to find a place in the world out there, it will simply double bac k on itself and search for a place in the world in here, inside the veteran himself or herself.  The thing about strength, about drive, you see?  It zooms forward.  It attacks.  In the real world, that saves lives and, yes, destroys them.  In the inner world, however?  It only destroys.  One life.  The veteran’s.

I’ll say it straight out: I am appalled at how we civilians are doing essentially nada to find honor-worthy, respect-worthy outlets for the energies and hopes of our combat veterans.  As I’ve more than ranted in the past, some of us even seem to have the crazy notion in our noggins that these young men and women who were so driven, who were so willing to risk their lives to do what they thought was right (whether you, reader, agree that it was right or not)–they actually want to collect disability just to coast through the remaining, what, sixty or so years of their lives?  Yes, record numbers are seeking disability from the VA.  But don’t you ever for a moment believe that more than one per cent of them are seeking a handout.  (And if you believe the number’s higher, you need to reconsider working with combat veterans, for that belief says more about your world view than it does about combat veterans’ reality, end of story.)

Depression is a real physical illness, one with real physical consequences and, thankfully, real possibilities for physical relief through both psychological and pharmacologic methods.  However, we cannot expect combat veterans to sit around happy as clams when every day they are feeling that the strength, the drive that had once so defined them, had once made them feel so proud to be alive, is now nothing more than a a recipe for self-immolation, a cruel hoax perpetrated by Nature and the civilian society that is so unwilling to accept that Nature has not given all its human subjects the innate ability to sit in front of a computer all day and type memos.

I often want to ask my civilian colleagues, friends: do you realize that these young men and women, who volunteered their lives in a time of conflict, actually weren’t looking for a good time to shoot me some biiiiig guns and drive around in biiiiiig, hot-shot armored cars?  Do you realize that they were looking for something, someone to give them meaning in their lives?  Do you realize that they did recognize that not all Muslims are enemy combatants, that they saw men just trying to eke out a living, women who were afraid to speak their hearts needs, let alone their greatest fears, children who just wanted to get a few extra Hershey bars for my two brothers and my sister?  Do you think that now that they’re back home in this wonderful place we call Western society, they’re hoping to get a round of golf in every morning before they catch the latest edition of  The View?  (All right, Sean Hannity, I know, I know . . .)

And we wonder why they’re depressed and can’t think of a good reason to get out of bed in the morning, especially since they’ve already had the pleasure of driving down the streets of Fallujah over and over again in their sweet dreams of the night?

These men and women don’t only need jobs.  They need a way–a socially-recognized way–of experiencing their intensity and drive and energy as a source of pride, not as a source for shame-filled apologies.  Naturally, I have no thoughts absolutely whatsoever that most of the West is going to take this call anywhere as seriously as they should.  But I certainly don’t have to make my civilian colleagues and friends feel good about that.

I have no plans to.

I’ll be more than glad to supply a reference.  You know how to get in touch with me.

The Mockingjay, Revisited

Recently I had a very thoughtful–and thought-provoking–comment to my page The End Games, the page in which I shared my thoughts about the role of combat trauma in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  I felt the comment deserved a more prominent place on the blog, and I wanted to spend some time in response.  Kirstin, the author of the comment, caused me to think again of the role of honor, shame, and love in combat–and in its aftermath.  I suspect that she and I might end up in different positions about the relationship between the combat veteran and the Nation-State, but I do believe that each of us sees the message of the trilogy similarly:  that no matter how painful life may become, meaning–and hope–can one day be made.  Be aware, spoilers abound, but for those who have finished the books, or who have read The End Games page notwithstanding, I hope you enjoy Kirstin’s and my conversation in Peace and War, War and Peace, located in the Thoughts section above.

Kilroy Wasn’t Here

For the past several years I have taught a weekly class at Indiana University in Bloomington, which is about an hour south of Indianapolis.  Bloomington is the prototypical college town, with great food, fun places to eat it–and even a bookstore or two left in which to hang around and peruse everything from postmodernism to true crime.  We had a warm winter and spring this year, so even in March I could leave my evening class on campus and pass through quite the high life at the restaurants, bars, and ice cream shops that are everywhere, in every flavor of every nationality.  Twenty-somethings (and even early-thirty-somethings): Btown is the place to be, hands down, no questions asked.

One of the more hot of the hotspots is a bar (actually a couple of bars) named Kilroy’s.  Lots of booze, lots of munchies, and lots of the hottest of the hot, well-gathered in large groups of very-laughing seas of cream and crimson sportwear (or depending on the weather, less): alums can feel young, undergraduates can feel old, I mean, this is America, right?

I wonder how many who gather there have a clue as to the story behind the mascot, I guess you’d call him:  Kilroy himself.  Truthfully, I’m on the young end to have much of a clue.  I suspect I heard the infamous line somewhere in a cartoon I caught back in the Sixties, who knows, maybe Rocky and Bullwinkle?

“Kilroy was here.”

Kilroy was here.  One of the low-brow cultural icons of World War II, graffiti’d around Europe, domesticated in the US on walls and bathroom stalls from Ogunquit to Santa Barbara:  Kilroy was here.  The symbol of the soldier, the simple guy passing through wherever, just trying to stay out of trouble (or not get caught at it), an ersatz painter’s version of “Hey, Ma, look at me!”

 

Kilroy and soldiers.

He moved to Indiana with his wife, who had been accepted to an excellent graduate program (not in Bloomington).  Neither of them knew a soul there, but soon she was immersed in her studies, making friends.  He would meet them on occasion, do his best to be pleasant, supportive.  But mostly he stayed home, not doing much of anything.

He had been a combat medic.

I have to admit: my heart skips a beat when I learn that the man or woman in front of me was a combat medic.  First, I know that he is sharp as the proverbial tack.  I know that she is proud of her service, of what she was able to learn, to make work on the fly, to respond to no matter when, no matter what.

I know what horror they’ve seen, not only with their fellow soldiers and Marines, but with Iraqi soldiers, Afghan villagers, pregnant women, toddlers, old men in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They did their job for all of them, for that was their job, and they did it well.  Theirs were sometimes–no, I’m sorry, often–the last eyes persons gazed into.

He was no exception.

He’s not gone into much detail with me.  He hasn’t had to.  One memory haunts him most, a memory I now share with him: the guy who should have known better than to jump where he did, the guy without the legs, the tourniquets, God, now, please make it stop, all the blood, there’s no more time, please.  The tourniquets.

Long before he hit the Hoosier state he’d been having the nightmares.  The flashbacks had gotten somewhat better.  But everything came back with a vengeance with the move, with his being away from anyone he might possibly know, from anybody even remotely military.

He is older than most of the undergraduates.  But not the graduate students.  And there are a lot of them in his neck of the woods, catching the latest NBA game at the local version of Kilroy’s, laughing over a beer and joke that’s only funny because it’s the third beer, cursing like a sailor–or should we say, a soldier.  Over nachos.

“I so rarely get out of the house during the day or evening,” he tells me.  “But whenever I do, it’s so hard to see them.  Part of me just wants to go up and introduce myself.  I could have played softball with those guys, dated some of those girls in high school.  But I can’t, I . . . I don’t know what to say.  I’ve seen too much.  I don’t want to be like this.  I don’t blame them, really I don’t.  But I just don’t know what to say.  When people find out that I went to the war and was a medic, they get all weird.  They . . . they try to be nice, but they don’t even know how.  They say dumb things, or they get embarrassed when they say dumb things, or . . . they just don’t say anything at all.”

He’s not crying.  He’s not staring off in the distance.  He’s simply relating his life to me, as if he’s not quite sure what even to say, as if he’s somehow looking for approval to say anything at all, as if he doesn’t want to be too much of a bother, really.  I’m almost expecting to hear him say “Permission to speak, sir.”  Or maybe “Mother, may I?”

He’s not a vulnerable-looking guy.  He’s stocky, still with good military posture, even if his eyes tend to wander downward.

Yet he looks so sad, sad as if he doesn’t want to bother me with how sad he is, sad as if that’s just the way it is, you know, just the way it is.  Sad.

I want to say to him that there have to be men and women in that town who will be willing just to hang out, not to talk about anything big or little, down a Killians or even a Bud Light with him (no need to be hoity-toit, after all), pontificate about the Pacers, the Lakers, the Hooterville High-Toppers, the guy across the street who shouldn’t be embarrassing himself in front of the whole world on that ridiculous skateboard of his.

But I know better.  He knows better.  The guys he played softball with, the girls he dated, the guy on the skateboard, the grad students debating Nietzsche or Warren Buffet:  they all know better.  His has been the gaze upon which people have last fixated, young people, old people, strong people, weak people.

God, I want to fix it all for him, arrange a few play dates, make sure they don’t run out of chips and salsa.

But I’ve seen his eyes.  The eyes that have seen.  And it’s just not that easy.

The Killing Floor (Audio Version)

On April 18, 2012, I posted The Killing Floor, in which I described my encounter with a soldier who had written a song about his experiences in Iraq.  Since that day, the post has had, as of this writing, 889 hits.  The soldier’s words are direct, vivid–and tough.  Few have been able to read them without experiencing their power quite strongly.

Two days ago, this soldier sent me a copy of the audio of the song, and I gladly agreed to share it on the blog.  I have added it to the original blog, but given how many people have already found his written words so moving, I wanted to make sure that all would have an equal chance to hear them as they were meant to be heard.

If you thought you were affected by the words in print, then prepare yourself.  We’re moving to a whole other level.

In his truly amazing book, On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes the following:

“I [once] discussed some of the psychological theories concerning the trauma of combat with one crusty old segeant.  He laughed scornfully and said, ‘Those bastards don’t know anything about it.  They’re like a world of virgins studying sex, and they got nothing to go on but porno movies.  And it is just like sex, ’cause the people who really do it just don’t talk about it.’

” . . . Killing is a private, intimate occurrence of tremendous intensity, in which the destructive act becomes psychologically very much like the procreative act.  For those who have never experienced it, the depiction of battle that Hollywood has given us, and the cultural mythology that Hollywood is based upon, appear to be about as useful in understanding killing as pornograhic movies would be in trying to understand the intimacy of a sexual relationship.  A virgin observer might get the mechanics of sex right by watching an X-rated movie, but he or she could never hope to understand the intimcacy and intensity of the procreative experience.”  (emphasis in original)

This soldier understands Grossman down to his bones.  When you hear the song, you will know what I mean.

In re-posting the song, I do so for all the men who are in the spirituality group that I attend with the Chaplain here at our VA.  In just the few weeks I have come to know these men (including the writer of this song), I have been deeply moved by their honesty, their willingness to speak whatever truth they need to speak, their nearly-palpable desire to find meaning again in this world.  It is an honor to be part of their lives, and I have come to care deeply about each of them.  So in their honor–and in honor of those whom they loved, but could not bring back with them–I present you again:

The Killing Floor

Driving through the sand
In an 1114,
My men and I are true killing machines,
50 cal and a Mark 19.
We can take out anything.

Death is near,
I can feel it in my bones.
Contact right, coming over my headphones.
I look to the right, and what do I see?
I see this Iraqi man staring right back at me.
He raised his weapon, I had to blow him away.

I still think about him every day.

Was he a father, or was he a son?
I wonder if he’d ever even held a gun.

What are we fighting this war for?
It’s a one-man show on the killing floor.
The killing floor is what you need.
The killing floor is what you believe.

Have you ever heard a mother’s cry?
Have you ever seen a father’s tear?
Who are we kidding,
We’re killing children here.

Have you ever seen that father’s tear?
Or have you ever heard that mother’s cry?
That will tear you up from within.
Then I look at the killing floor again.

Beauty is within the selfless sacrifice.
Have you ever seen a dead soldier’s eyes?

What are we fighting this war for?
It’s a one-man show on the killing floor.
The killing floor is what you need.
The killing floor is what you believe.

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