The Vet Whisperers

Hippotherapy, it’s called: horses that calmly offer the wounded a chance to re-find connection, a mutual gaze, to venture a stroke of a hand across a neck, proposing the possibility of trust once again. In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Straw, a mare once gravely injured herself, offers herself up as equa semper fidelis et parata, always faithful and prepared to engage combat veterans in a silent conversation about what it means to heal, to move forward again.

In War, the soldier at another soldier’s side is not merely a back-up, but rather an extension of one’s very being, a part of one’s self who just happens to be a few steps ahead, behind, a chunk of one’s soul who might, moments from now, be propelled into oblivion, leaving in the wake a crater in land and heart that dares anyone to try to fill it.

When one has a gaping hole in one’s essence, one often does not find comfort in language spoken by any human, no matter how loved she or he may be. Yet a gentle nudge along the edges of the wound by a horse, a dog, can possibly begin its closure, one tail wag, one snort at a time, an unspoken whisper to remind man now, not beast, that peace, even if it never seemed possible again, still perhaps can be.

The Handshake

Finally, I’m back.

The movers have driven away. Much to the relief of our children, my wife and I have returned (somewhat) to the world of the living and semi-human. A very good thing.

Now . . .

First, my thanks. Second, the news. Then, the Marine.

The Thanks

I cannot begin to know how to express adequately my thanks to the editors of WordPress for having spoken well of the blog and specifically of my tribute to my veteran-patient, Ethan, in Reporting for Duty, Sir. Similarly, I’m in the same position thanking all those who have begun to follow the blog as a result. Your encouragement means a great deal to me, and I hope that I can continue to honor the men and women whom I’m privileged to serve through the blog and all those whom it reaches.

The News

With a great deal of mixed emotion, then, both excited and pained, I announce to my blog readers that as of June 28, 2013, I will be leaving my position at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.

First, the excitement.

On July 1 (or some time thereafter, the bureaucratic gods so willing), I will be taking up my new position as the Medical Director of the Warrior Wellness Unit at the TriStar Skyline Madison Campus in Nashville, Tennessee. TriStar Skyline Medical Center, a division of Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), has at its Madison Campus in northern Nashville put together a program for active-duty personnel and veterans that I can only describe as abso-stunning-lutely amazing, offering quite comprehensive behavioral health services for military persons, male and female, current and former. As a private facility, it does depend upon third-party reimbursement for the maintenance of these services, yet the Hospital Administration remains committed to monitoring the implementation of the Health Care Affordability Act over the coming years so that as many persons as possible who have sought honorably to serve in the military might be able to benefit from the Program’s high-level, acute care.

Many of the staff members (RN’s and Masters-Level Counselors) are themselves former military, and in just my few meetings with them so far, I’ve been far-more-than-impressed with their commitment to the highest quality care and treatment of any who are serving or who have served in the Armed Forces.

Nashville is a great town. This is a great job. My wife and I have found a great school for my youngest. We are actually moving into a great place that is reasonable in size and quiet in location. Great.

Now, the pain.

I had had no plans whatsoever to leave the VA system. In spite of my periodic gripes about some bureaucratic meshugaas or another, I have appreciated deeply my colleagues and, even more, have appreciated and cared deeply about the men and women whom I’ve had the opportunity to serve.

My wife and I made our decision to move based on personal, family factors that thankfully meshed well with the professional opportunity that the Warrior Wellness Unit offered. Yet I’m haunted by the feeling—never once validated by any veteran whom I’ve served, I might add—that I’m leaving all the veterans I’ve served behind on the battle field.

As is said colloquially, this is not my first rodeo, so I am quite aware that my haunting does not mean I actually deserve any spectral visitations, whether of the Patroklos kind, the Christmas kind, or any other kind.

And I am also quite aware that simply because the veterans whom I’ve served have not overtly validated those feelings, I cannot therefore blithely assume that there is not at least a part of each of those veterans that feels that I exactly deserve any ghostly chain that might be rattled at me.

Eventually almost all of them—sheepishly—will most likely ‘fess up to the latter. Good for them.

There is much to discuss over the coming days and weeks, not the least of which is how the blog will both change and not change. Yet just as my life with these brave men and women has progressed in the past months and years, so it will progress now: one encounter at a time.

Therefore . . .

The Marine

I haven’t written about him since last fall, when he went off to an intensive treatment program to help with his combat trauma and opiate dependence. To longer-time readers of the blog, however, he is no stranger:

1. Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?
2. Location, Location, Location . . .
3. Youth Remembered, Youth Blown Apart, Youth Renewed
4. 2K, 1 by 1
5. “The Ghost of My Innocence”

We began working together again a few months ago, after he had returned not “cured,” by any means, yet still much better, less tormented.

Until recently, the opiates had remained a problem—but that means, of course, that recently they have not been. Good for him. Very good.

He came in for a scheduled appointment just a couple days after I had published “Taps” and the Last Musketeer, the post in which I had described the funeral of my patient, Porthos, and my interactions with Athos, his battle buddy, the “last one standing.”

“I cried like a baby probably four different times while reading it,” my Marine told me. “One was especially bad.”

“And that one was?” I asked.

He looked both down and off, as if he were conjuring up the screen inside his head, perhaps much more.

“When Athos said to you that he didn’t want to let Porthos go,” he said quietly. “And then when he went over and saluted the casket. I . . . I don’t know. I just didn’t think I could take it, reading it.”

I gave him a few seconds, then “You never got to see their caskets, did you, Mike’s, Keith’s, the other guys’. You were struggling to stay alive after the blast and you didn’t even know they were gone, you in a coma, your body desperately clinging on to your arm, refusing to let it go, just surviving.”

He took his own few seconds, finally raising his head, slowly, looking me directly in the eye.

“You know, Doc, people tell me all the time how grateful I should be to be alive, to have my arm, to be able to use it. And I am. I really am. But somehow, when you’re the only one left, nobody can get it. I stayed alive so that they could stay alive. They stayed alive so that I could stay alive. Now I’m alive, and they’re not, and I . . . I . . .”

His deep sigh, his looking downward said it all.

“Failed?” I finally asked.

“You know,” he said, looking back at me, “I know that’s not true. In my head, I know it’s not. But in my heart? Those were my men, Doc, my men.”

His intensity, his sincerity: they made it both easy and hard to listen to him, take all of him in, his words, yes, but also his breathing, his cadence, his posture.

“In some ways,” I said, “it could be easier to imagine being in the coffin than outside it, couldn’t it, with him, flag-draped, the whole ordeal over, the War, Life, united with them again, somehow, maybe?”

His gaze drifted off. “I don’t know, Doc. I just don’t know.”

Athos and I have had similar conversations since Porthos’ death. The metaphor came quickly to me, so visual.

“It’s as if you’re either in the casket,” I finally said, “or you’re standing guard right next to it, as if it were your very own Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, keeping vigil 24/7, never leaving your man behind, faithful to the end, refusing to leave the casket’s side and live, not only to show your solidarity with all of them, with Mike, Keith, the others, but even more to promise them that you will always—always—hold them in your heart.”

“We knew everything about each other,” he whispered, still looking off. “Absolutely everything, and I . . .”

“And you,” I whispered, “are the last one left to hold them in your heart just as they were in War, with their fears, their bravery, their goofiness, their love, everything, when they were at the most real, in some ways their most alive, right?”

One more time he turned to look at me, without tears, though, as if his eyes, his lacrimal glands were telling me that they just no longer had it in them any more—that I should therefore just fill in the blanks, and I’d get the gist quite fine, thank you.

“You just can’t imagine what it’s like,” he said, “not to be able to punch on them, joke around with them, just . . . just see them there, right in front of me, laughing, cussing, you name it. I . . . I miss them so much.”

It was then that it finally hit me.

My Marine has known for a while that I will be moving. Like many of the men and women whom I serve, he knows my e-mail address, my text number. He knows that I have gladly offered to stay in touch, by Skype, by FaceTime, both of us knowing that even though I will no longer be able to be his “doctor,” I can still be an older friend, willing to listen, even willing to shed a tear or two of my own every now and then, living as we do in these times when The Jetsons is beginning more and more to look like a documentary

But pixilated image does not a body make.

“And now,” I finally said, as calmly as I could, “once again another man leaves you behind, not giving you any choice whatsoever in the matter, this one promising to stay in touch, sure, to go eye-to-eye if necessary, but still, not “there”-there, not . . . embraceable.”

This time the familiar tear returned, the familiar bite of the lip, the familiar look that shouts “I don’t want to deal with this now.”

“I know it’s going to be OK, Doc,” he spit out, scarcely audible. “I know that I’ll see you again, that you’ll only be a few hours away. It’s just . . .”

The swallow took too much effort, took too long to allow the thought to conclude.

“It’s just,” I added, “that it won’t be me, will it, the physical me. All you have to touch now of Mike, Keith, the others are their gravestones. Physically, they are gone, never to return. For me, all you’ll have to touch is a computer screen. Yes, you know that it’s a simple interstate that will separate us, nothing more, no bugles, no folded flags. We may both know that in our heads, but the heart . . . it’s not so sure, is it. It says that this whole ‘moving’ on my part smells an awful lot like another set of forced separations several years ago, ones that closed down any possible Skype connections for good.”

He looked at me for a good ten seconds or so. His question, when it came, was emotion-drenched, sincere, felt in the heart far more than the mere word heartfelt could ever even begin to describe.

“Are we going to make it, Doc?”

I leaned forward, as sure then of my answer as I am now typing it.

“Yes. Yes, we will. Your body will begin eventually to get it, that virtual presence can still be real presence, that the past is not doomed to repeat itself, that two people who care about each other and who work together toward growth will find a way to make it work— not just survive, but really work, finding-some-kind-of-meaning-in-this-crazy-world work.”

He smiled. It was good to see that. “I’ll hold you to that.”

“Roger that,” I replied.

It was only as he eventually got up to leave that I realized, however, that “making it work” was going to have to start right there, right then.

For often at the end of sessions, we have embraced, no big deal, but meaningful (yes, to both of us). Not exactly kosher in the view of many, I readily acknowledge, but for us, it has worked. (You’ll either believe that or you won’t, and I won’t hold either view for you or against you, promise.)

As I looked at him at that moment of imminent departure, though, all my training, all my supervisors’ admonitions began to mosey their way from my frontal lobe and its associational memory circuits down to my limbic system, my emotions, to the place whence all life arises as my day dawns, the place whither all life seems again to return after a solid day’s work.

I didn’t want to say what I knew I had to say. I’m human, after all.

But there you have it.

“You know,” I began, pressed forward by every clinical aphorism traipsing off my neuronal staircase, “given all we’ve talked about today, it probably makes sense . . . not to embrace now, like we often do. If we’re going to work together to learn that sight and sound alone can be enough to make a relationship work, after all, then, I think, well, we should probably start now. You know what I mean?”

So definitive, so decisive. I know. But again, there you have it.

I awaited his response, enduring in my head the countless “I told you so’s” from colleagues and mentors, present and past. Once again, as if on cue, his smile rescued me.

“I think you’re right about that, Doc,”he said, thankfully with at least a bit more definitiveness, more decisiveness than I’d been able to muster. “Why don’t we . . .

He offered me his right hand, a simple motion, forward.

“Why don’t we just shake on it?” he said.

Thank goodness that sometimes in therapy, our patients rescue us at our moments of greatest need.

“Sounds good,” I replied.

And so we did.

Life is full of decisions. Life is full of decisions thrust upon us. Life is full of events that force someone somewhere, perhaps us, perhaps not, to make decisions about something, sometimes again and again.

There was a time in my professional life—and not so long ago, I might add—when the last gesture I would have ever thought of offering a patient would have been, dare I even type the word, a hug. Believe you me, I would not have thought  that simply because of some unwritten rule somewhere, either. I would have thought the action unwise. I would probably still think it unwise.

Most of my veteran patients have been men far younger than I. As veterans who successfully completed their term of service with either an honorable discharge or its equivalent, they had learned to be respectful of older men, even when those men had yelled at them, taunted them, harassed them. They had even found a way to act respectful of the older men who had betrayed them.

They had learned to be deferential to men who had made decisions for them, who had transferred them to parts unknown without warning, who had ordered them to do what some of them had not been sure they ought to have done.

They certainly had learned that life is very, very often not fair, that they could not expect to get what they wanted, not only when they had wanted it, but perhaps ever. They had learned how to say, at the drop of a hat (to avoid the drop of a body to “do fifty”), “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” and “Thank you, sir.” As a result they had learned right down to their bone marrow the lesson that countless young soldiers and Marines have recited to me: it is what it is.

As an older male professional, therefore, I can get away with metaphoric murder with these veterans (and probably could count on them to help me cover up a literal one). I can give them a hug at session’s end and they won’t freak out (just as long as I follow their lead for how long it should be). They will say, “Thank you, sir.”

I can look them in the eye and say, “Sorry, I’m moving two states away in a matter of weeks.” They will say, “Good luck to you, sir.”

After all, many of them know what it is to have the best friend they could ever imagine die right in front of them. They will say, “It is what it is.”

“Sir.”

My job is to know—and to give them the permission both to know and to express directly to me—that it’s all a bit more complicated than that.

The old psychoanalysts did not warn therapists about the physical touching of patients just to be prudes. In fact, they did not warn us just to keep us away from “boundary violations” that can destroy our patients’ lives.

They warned us also because even gestures well-intentioned and well-received can nevertheless have consequences unforeseen, complications that all will have to address. And by “all,” they meant all.

I don’t know if I’ll ever forget that moment that my Marine and I looked at each other and offered each other a hand. In that moment, the ghosts of young men long-departed whispered to us both, reminding us that Life is not always fair, is never predictable, is always to be lived minute by minute. In that moment, two men had to understand both in action and in word that we all hope for a total rescue that nevertheless can only come in bits, can only be achieved imperfectly at best. And in that moment, we both expressed to each other that each of us was going to continue to keep trying to find a way, even when neither of us has a clue whether a way will be available, to acknowledge that it is what it is, to hope, against all hope, that—just maybe—it will be what it will be.

Semper Fi (x 2)

You gotta hand it to Marines: they’re Marines.  Really, what else can you say?

With an amazing amount of accuracy, you should be able to spot one from about twenty feet down the hall.  No one quite walks like a Marine, let’s face it.  Yet worry not: if you miss said Marine at twenty feet, you won’t at five, given that every article of clothing he’s wearing (almost certainly including his boxers) has some permutation of “USMC” emblazoned somewhere thereupon.

And you had better show proper respect for each article thereof, too, if you know what’s good for you.

I met him just this past week.  While probably a bit stockier than he had been right out of San Diego, he was not so by much.  I would have said “Yes, sir” to this guy no matter what my rank.  Every muscle on his face was advertising “resolve” in luminescence just short of neon lights.  He walked into my office with resolve.  He sat down in his chair with resolve.

And it was taking every last bit of his resolve to hold on to his resolve.  For the boy had been jonesin’.  And I ain’t talkin’ a little bit.

He had just made the decision: it was time to stop the pain pills.  They weren’t helping that much anyway, and they were taking over his life.  He’d come too far to let that happen.

And far he had come: he had partipated in engagements that every single one of you who is reading this either a). heard of, or b). had to work really hard not to hear of.  Casualties were many.  He lost men he was so close to, he could finish their sentences.

When he came back home, it was hard, really hard, on his wife as much as on him.  Two girls were born during the time.  He struggled, the usual, the nightmares, the flashbacks, the emotional outburts, the whole bit.

He came to the VA the first time and ended up with a therapist he didn’t find that helpful.  Yet he hung in there.  He’s a Marine, after all, once a Marine, always a Marine, hang-in-there Marine.  She assured him, after all, that if he just stuck with this “prolonged exposure therapy,” he’d feel better.  She knew it.  She’d seen it happen.

Finally he’d had it.  He called it quits.

Soon, however, both he and his wife had had it with how he’d become after he’d “had it” that first time.  So being a Marine, he tried again.

This time it worked.

He has felt understood.  He has felt that he has been taken seriously.  He has felt that he doesn’t need to worry about falling apart every time he walks out of the Clinic door.

The therapist meets with him and his wife.  There have been some challenging encounters.  But he and his wife are together, working together.  He’s even doing more than his fair share of the childcare.

“And you know what?” he said to me.  “I’m not that bad at it.”

Of course not.  He’s a Marine.

True, I know: many will not associate “Marine” with “caretaker,” and they will be right (and often, quite painfully so).  Yet this man is a Marine’s caretaker: he has taken on his daughters as a mission.  He has looked hard at his behavior.  He’s “loosened up”–I won’t say “quite a bit,” but “a bit” isn’t fair either.  He is proud of himself.

He still has bad days.  Certain days of the year are harder than others.  He and his wife still have their struggles.  Nightmares can still come to haunt.  But by his report, he is doing much better.

Day One, he started on Suboxone, the opioid substitution medication.

Day Two, I had a chance to meet his wife and daughters.  His wife is a pleasant no-nonsense, armed with very appropriate questions for me about her husband’s care.  The older girl actually sniffled a bit and crawled into Mommy’s lap upon first meeting me, yet within a good ten minutes, she was–well, not exactly warming up, and not exactly flirting, but more like, what, letting me know that she might give me a chance, but on her timetable, thank you.

And the younger daughter?  If that girl ain’t a general in the Marines by the time she hits retirement, then clearly there is no justice in this world.  She marched into my office, chatting full force, headed straight to the Keurig carousel and demanded to know the difference between Tazo Zen tea and Starbucks French Roast, and right now, buddy, understood?  She then began to inspect my bookshelf.  She was not impressed.  Fortunately a pen, a pencil, and some paper spared me further dressing down à la Full Metal Jacket.

By Day Three, our Marine was feeling much better.  And the General?  She was pooped, so she stayed in her stroller.  But both Papa and I knew that we’d better get our business done and fast, lest the demand for freedom come now, I told you, NOW!

I am indeed coming to the conclusion that Semper Fi has its own nucleotide chain on at least one chromosome.

Semper fidelis, however, “always faithful,” need not apply just to Marines.

I would also like to honor a mulier semper fidelis, i.e., an always-faithful woman: our Marine’s therapist.

While one may complain about the VA ad infinitum, one matter is undisputed: we have a great (and I mean, great) electronic medical record system.  With a few pecks on a keypad, I can get access to a veteran’s medical records from VA’s across the country.  And that is useful because, in this case, our Marine does not usually get his care in Indianapolis.

When I went to his full record, I counted up the number of sessions that our Marine (and sometimes his wife) have had with our faithful therapist.

Over the course of the past year, twenty-seven.

That’s 2-7.

Why, pray tell, you might ask, am I making such a big deal of said number?

Well, the answer is in the therapist’s notes.  For you see, with each note the therapist was assuring me, the reader, that she was performing “evidence-based CPT,” i.e., cognitive processing therapy.  She applied evidence-based CPT at her last session.  She applied it at the session before that.  I can only assume that she will apply evidence-based CPT at her next session (next week), as well as the session after that and the session after that.  I have no reason to assume otherwise (either as to her documentation or as to the fact that she will be seeing him at least three more times).

Let’s have some fun, shall we?  Check out this for link for Wikipedia, that final answer for all matters human.  It is to the article for, you guessed it, Cognitive Processing Therapy.

Read said article now.

Did you notice anything?

Did you notice the number 12 appearing in several places?

Pray tell, to what did said number 12 refer to?

What, you say?  The number of sessions needed to complete a course of said Cognitive Processing Therapy?

Hmm.   12.  27.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but 27 is 2.25x 12.

Am I right?

Hmm.  But the studies say . . .

Ah, the studies.

Let’s have us a little chat about my world at the VA, shall we?

The VA is really into evidence-based therapies.  Really, really, really, really.  (So’s the Department of Defense)

Now, the evidence assures us that 12 sessions of CPT should be quite significant in reducing the symptoms of PTSD.  I do stress reduce, for as we know, there is always an escape clause in every application of a therapy study, i.e., it’s statistical and actual results may vary according to the clinical situation.

I love that.  I mean, as a lawyer, I really love that.  Really, really, really, really.

I mean, give me that clause, and I’m good to go.

Clearly, so is our faithful therapist.

For you see, if we were to be honest here, our therapist is misusing critical human resources in caring for our Marine.  Why, if she were truly following what the evidence shows, by this point she’d have sent two Marines into the world, filled to the brim with new schemata to counteract their maladaptive beliefs, thus allowing them to move forward, beyond their stuck points, now on their own, to apply their newly-formed coping skills to myriad newly-arising life situations.

And furthermore, a third Marine would, even as we speak, be preparing to leave mere psychoeducation to enter into a phase of practice and Socratic dialogue, his or her redemption being assured, naturellement, before Halloween.

OK, here’s where it gets really fun.

Let’s go back to our “clinical situation.”  OK, 27, twenty-seven.  All right, now all we’ve got to do is come up with why we’re still at 27–and counting!

Oh, let’s see, what could we say?  Our Marine did not fully incorporate his learning sufficiently during the first twelve sessions because, oh, what, he didn’t try hard enough?  Oh dear, no, that can’t be it.  He lacked the requisite cognitive capacities needed to do so?  Oh, ditto, shoot.  His clinical situation was more complicated than those who participated in said studies that produced said evidence for said evidence-basis?  What, more of his friends died?  He got knocked around more than the other participants?  His dad beat him senseless every third day as he was growing up?  (Oh, shoot, no, the initial assessment tells us that’s not the case, darn it.)

Well, how about . . . this:

How about, 1).  His therapist knows what to put in the chart to keep the honchos-who-know happy.  OK, check.

Now for 2):

His therapist takes him seriously.  She does help him learn to think more usefully before his emotions get away from him.  She sits with his tears, as long as he needs to cry, no shame whatsoever, knowing that, yes, one day the flow of the tears will slow, that then will be the time to think, and feel, and think, and feel, and maybe not say anything for a few minutes, and then feel, and then . . .

And she’ll do this week after week.  She’ll remind him of the progress he’s made so far.  She will assure him that setbacks are part of the game.  She won’t even think about when Session Eleven becomes Session Twelve becomes Session Thirteen, because at the end of each session he says that it’s been helpful to talk, to get new ideas, just to get all this sh** off his chest, and he looks forward to getting together in a couple of weeks, and then a couple weeks after that, and then after that, because each time they’ll talk, and he’ll get new ideas and will get all this sh**off his chest, and then . . .

Fidelis.  Faithful.  This resolute man, though still struggling, is proud that he has regained some of his resoluteness.  People can still irritate the you-know-what out of him.  He still really can’t handle Target or Wal-Mart, let alone a job in which he actually has to act as if this buffoon he’s working with truly knows his head from a hole in the ground.  But he can talk more with his wife about the “problems of daily living,” as many of my fellow mental health professionals so disdainfully spit out.  He can take some time before bed, pull himself together, and even sleep more nights than not without revisiting Hell one more glorious time.  And if he runs into problems, he’ll talk to his therapist about it in two weeks–wait, no, it’s this week, isn’t it?

Whew.

And he can even manage to take care of the General.  By himself.

Well, what do you know.

I have only one thing to say, to the therapist and to the General:

You go, girl.

Heinous Acts, Homeric and Otherwise

Long ago in a galaxy–or rather, civilization–far, far away . . .

(i.e., ancient Greece)

. . . lived a man named Achilles.   He could have been the ultimate trust-fund baby:  not only was he a king, but he was also the son of a goddess.  Not a bad setup.  Even better, he easily could have lived said trust-fund-baby life quite comfortably, thank you, hidden away in the obscurity of the Grecian hills.

But not Achilles.  Never being one to lounge around and sip manhattans while there was a good time to be had in a battlefield somewhere, he responded to the call to arms made by Agamemnon in the name of his brother Menelaus of Sparta, because . . .well, let’s say it was complicated.  But it did involve a woman.

Now granted, Achilles had always been a bit on the prickly side, but could that boy fight or what, so all the Greeks were willing to put up with the occasional guff and bragging.  One thing about Achilles, though:  don’t dis him.  Unfortunately, Agamemnon thought he’d give that a shot anyway.  He decided to, let’s say, hit on Achilles’ girlfriend.

Achilles did not take it well.

Achilles picked up his toys and, while not going home, went off and sipped some manhattans.  A lot of them.  For a long time.  This was not good for the Greeks.

For you see the Trojans had this guy named Hektor, a decent sort, really, lovely wife, cute kid, crown prince, even a nice enough big brother who hadn’t beaten to a pulp his younger brother Paris for all the trouble Paris had  caused Troy and their father, King Priam, by Paris’ dalliance with . . .well, that woman.  The thousand ships one.

But could that boy, Hektor, fight or what.

This was not good for the Greeks.

Then, however, the story takes a turn.  You see, one of the Greeks was this guy named Patroklos.  He and Achilles were tight–and I mean tight.  Some think they were lovers; some are insulted at that very thought.  No matter.  Patroklos cared deeply about Achilles.   Achilles cared deeply about Patroklos.  Patroklos tried to get Achilles to reconsider his spat.  Achilles refused.

Patroklos cared deeply about Achilles, so he only pushed so far.

But Patroklos was a good man.  He could not tolerate witnessing the rampant destruction of his fellow Greeks.  So he dressed up as Achilles and went into battle, to try to encourage his fellow warriors.  Unfortunately, he tried a little too hard, for eventually Patroklos met Hektor.  In a way that is so foreign to our modern Western sensibilities, Hektor actually considered Patroklos to be a good man.  Hektor then killed him.

News of Patroklos’ death reached Achilles.

Achilles really, really did not take it well.

Patroklos had had Achilles’ back.  Patroklos had stood by him no matter what.  In this band of brothers, there were only two, always two, what-should-have-been-forever two.

No longer is there room for any humor in recounting this tale.

The Scandinavians called it berserk, the frenzied rage of a warrior, no mercy, no stopping.  Patroklos was dead.  Achilles went berserk.

With Trojans dying left and right, Achilles made his way toward his princely target.   That target knew he was coming.  For a brief time, Hektor panicked.  But then he turned to face his fate.  He only asked that Achilles allow his body to go back to Troy, to his father, his mother, his wife and son, to be buried, to be allowed the rites that would grant him access to Hades and to some form of rest.

That was the last thing Achilles was planning to do.

Kill Hektor, he did.  But then he took Hektor’s body, tied it to the back of his chariot, and dragged it around the walls of Troy, in full view of Hektor’s father, his mother, his wife and son, in full view of the Trojans, in full view of the Greeks, in full view of the gods.  Over and over he dragged it.  Over and over.

Hektor’s family wept.  The Trojans went silent.  The Greeks went silent.  The gods went silent.  This was not right.  This was unjust.

Achilles didn’t care.  Patroklos was dead.

Eventually, yes, Achilles acceded to justice, partially through the imploring of Patroklos’ ghost, partially through the intervention of the gods–but, finally, through the imploring of Hektor’s broken, defeated father.  Achilles returned to the world of humanity.  Hektor’s body was returned to a grieving man and a grieving city.  The Iliad ended.

Eventually, so the story goes, the Greeks had their horse and had their day.  They sacked the city of Troy.  Sacked–annihilated, decimated, obliterated.  They threw Hektor’s infant son over the walls of the city.  They ran his father through with a sword as he clung to an altar.  They raped his sister in the temple of the virgin goddess.

The gods noticed.  This was not right.  This was unjust.

They cared.

Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, yes, even Achilles–they and the Greeks with them all paid prices for their hubris, their savagery, their having gone berserk.  The various sequels to the Iliad recount their tragedies.  Simple, happy endings like those of the Star Wars series were not to be found.  Finally their era came to an end.

Unfortunately, the going of berserk in battle (or some derivative thereof), when one has reached one’s limit, when one cannot contain the rage any longer, when grief reaches the point of explosion–that has not yet come to an end.

II.

On January 11, 2012, Luis Martinez of ABC News reported the following:

“The U.S. Marine Corps is investigating a video that surfaced online today in which several Marines appear to urinate on the corpses of suspected Taliban fighters.  The video, which is less than a minute long, appears to show four men in uniform looking around before urinating on three dead bodies, at least one of the men chuckles as they do so.  “Have a great day, buddy,” one of the men is heard saying, apparently to a dead body.  The Marine Corps responded quickly after reports of the video surfaced, calling for a full investigation . . .’While we have not yet verified the origin or authenticity of this video, the actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps.'”

Yesterday, he and colleagues went on to report:

“U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called it ‘deplorable’ and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she felt ‘total dismay’ after hearing the story.  ‘It is absolutely inconsistent with American values, with the standards of behavior that we expect from our military personnel and [that] the vast, vast [number of] military personnel, particularly our Marines, hold themselves to,’ she said Thursday.”

In contrast, conservative commentator Dana Loesch:

“saluted the Marines on her show, even adding that [she] would have been willing to join them.  ‘Can someone explain to me if there is supposed to be a scandal that someone pees on the corpse of a Taliban fighter — someone who as part of an organization murdered over 3,000 Americans,’ she said on her show. ‘I’d drop trou and do it too. That’s me, though…Come on people this is a war.'”

III.

To some, urination is berserk; to others, not so much.  To some, it is desecration, and to others, again, not so much. All will argue their case over and over, usually strongly, sometimes disdainfully, always knowingly.

Every day I talk to young veterans who have committed acts of which they are ashamed.  Sometimes I talk to older veterans who still experience shame after forty years away from the Mekong Delta.  I cannot absolve any of them.

But neither can I condemn any of them.

Oh, I guess I could, i.e., take one side or the other, stand for justice.  I am Mennonite, after all.  My politics are progressive.  There’s a script readily available for that combo, maybe in need of some tinkering here and there, of course, but essentially set for vociferous and self-assured performance.  The fundamentalist-conservatives could read off the opposite script, and we could then have ourselves some good times in a Point-Counterpoint à la Chevy Chase-Jane Curtin (ah, what memories).  Heck, we could probably even take the show on the road.

Yet when I look into the eyes of these veterans, I see myself reflected back.  I know the truth, my truth:  in spite of my theology, in spite of my cable news preferences, had I been there instead of them, wherever they were, doing whatever they were doing?  I would have done the same.  I can’t even assure you that–certainly when I was nineteen, twenty-three–I wouldn’t have urinated.

When it comes to facing the darkness within, combat veterans don’t get a pass.  The Iliad was a song about the anger of Achilles.  But then, what war isn’t the song of some soldier, Marine, sailor, airman whose anger, whose fear, whose fervor demands to be heard?  I make no exonerations, no cheap claims of situational justice, no excuses.  I just speak what I have come to know.

When I look in the eyes of these veterans, what’s done is done.  All I can offer them is my own humanity, my acceptance that both of us–all of us–are hanging onto civilization by a thread.  I see no longer Achilles in those eyes.  I see Patroklos, now having survived, but wondering–really wondering–whether inside him or her is any good.  Others will judge.  Others will praise.  I merely sit, myself a son of mortals, with the children of mortals each day.

If we wish to work with combat veterans, then we don’t get a pass either.  If you feel you need one, if you feel you deserve one, if you feel you’re lucky enough already to have one–may I ask one request of you?  When you hear that call to serve combat veterans?  Just let it ring.

I can’t help but suspect that Homer might have asked you to do the same.

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