An IED on the Rocks, Please, With a Twist

It’s been a long month of starting new jobs, new high schools, new colleges, new furniture settings, along with Lord-alone-knows-what-new-else’s. My wife has sworn on all that is Holy that she will never again gaze upon, let alone touch a Banker’s Box. I have to concur. We’re just hoping against hope that 1-800-GOT-JUNK has a franchisee somewhere within fifty miles of us.

But the blog kept calling, thankfully. Even more, so did the memories of the men and women whom I’ve had the honor to serve.

We weren’t supposed to have met, for example, he and I.

As I was finishing my last couple weeks at the VA in Indianapolis, I had made a pact, I guess you could call it, with the nursing staff not to take on any new patients. It had seemed only fair, after all, given my then lame-duck status. All in all, I kept up my end of the bargain.

Except for this one time.

I’ll blame one of my other colleagues (and why not? I’m gone, you know). He was the one to knock on my door at about 1400h one day to tell me, “Doc, you’ve got to see this guy. I know you’re leaving, but it’s bad.”

When I walked out my door, I saw in the waiting room a young man sitting about twenty feet from me, his hands gripping the sides of his chair for dear life, staring off to his right, my left, God-knows-where, having clearly been doing so for God-knows-how-long, given the tone of his forearm musculature. His shaved head accentuated his angular features, his gymnast’s posture and physique. He was wearing the nondescript dark shirt and dark basketball shorts that so often these days are the “just rolled out of bed” uniform of choice for men his age.

That would, of course, have assumed that he’d slept at all the night before.

“Sure, I’ll see him,” I said.

It’s been a good couple months now since he and I met, so many details have faded in my aging brain. His life had been falling apart, though, pain pills, the usual. His wife had had it. His family had had it. He’d managed, however, to get hold of some Suboxone (the opioid substitution medication) on the street, and he knew that if he could just take it regularly, he wouldn’t wake up every day obsessed with finding the next pill, given that the “next high” had long before been a luxury that had, through the miracle of the body’s ability to adjust to the effects of opiates, faded into distant memory.

He had, in other words, become part of that elite group that uses opiates not for fun, but for survival.

He was doing all he could not to be irritable with me. I assured him I wasn’t offended by his periodic failures in that endeavor. Clearly he was dope sick. At times I could practically map the waves of nausea as they progressed from his gut, cell by excruciating cell, throughout his body.

What I can never forget, though, is one line of his story.

“They called me the ‘IED magnet,’” he told me. “Thing was: I was always the one who lived.”

Many others—and I mean many others—had not been so fortunate.

Neither can I forget his intensity as he told me his tale, an intensity only somewhat heightened by the strength of his withdrawal symptoms. He had the gaze that I’ve come to see so often in many young combat veterans: one both hollow and piercing, as if the ocular orbit out of which these veterans peer seems suddenly to project a rocket-propelled grenade of psyche straight toward my own eyes, no warning, no mercy.

But when I started to talk to him about combat trauma, he could only say, “Please. I’m sick. Can we just talk about that later?”

He agreed to come back a couple days later, although because he was having such difficulties getting along with his family, he was not sure he could find a ride.

But he did.

He returned in garb just as collegiate, but now more appropriate for a grueling one-on-one at the basketball court, rather than for a semi-stupor on the pull-out couch in the living room, sheets not included. His gaze had followed the lead of his garments: more lively, more suave, even.

“This stuff is amazing,” he said to me. “I feel like a human again.”

And, indeed, he was acting like one.

That was not, however, comforting me, I’m afraid.

For again, although the details fail me all these weeks later, the image does not: his sitting there in the chair in my office, one ankle calmly pivoting over the other knee, opining at length about whatever, his child, his failing marriage, the war.

Note: I didn’t just write The War. Just . . . the war.

Similarly, I also cannot forget my own experience at that moment, my sitting there, watching him, listening to him, wondering over and over and over, with his each calm explanation, his each pensive musing: “Wait a minute . . . was I . . . was he . . . am I missing something? Did I overreact the other day? What the . . .?”

Finally, I had to speak it.

“I’m sorry, but . . . I can’t help but notice that you seem to be talking about The War almost as if we were sitting over cocktails in smoking jackets, chatting in British accents about some ‘dreadful little incident, you know, old chap?’ I mean . . . if I hadn’t met you a couple days ago, right here, in this room, if I hadn’t sat in this very chair and felt you say those words—‘IED magnet’—why . . . well, I’d think, ‘This guy’s doing just fine.’ But . . . I know better.”

For a moment, he said nothing. I said nothing. His eyes, however—and I suspect mine as well—picked up all the conversational slack, for how long, I can’t tell you.

“And so do you,” I finally said right to him, intending it just as tersely as I’d said it.

Our eyes continued to speak to each other, although saying what, I couldn’t have told you.

“Am I right?” I eventually asked. “Or am I overblowing all this?”

Ever so slowly his ankle slid off the opposite knee, his leg just as slowly planting its foot back onto terra firma. Not a cell of the remainder of his body moved. Including his eyes.

“Yes,” he finally whispered. “You’re right.”

Another silence.

“You know,” I said (more like stammered), “when you’re like this, you really hide it, the pain that both you and I know is there. I mean, you’re good, really good at that. No one would ever suspect—unless they knew already, of course. But even then . . .”

He assayed a smile, though all other cells, again eyes included, remained motionless.

“I know,” he said. “But I don’t know how else to do it, to say it, whatever ‘it’ is, you know? I . . . I can see that people want to know that it’s all right, that I’m all right, that the past is the past, that it’s done. So . . . I give them what they want.”

“And then they blame you for being a loser drug addict, right?” I replied. “Since they’re assuming you’ve put all that War stuff behind you?”

Slowly the cells began to shift within him, easing him into a sadness that was only slightly perceptible, yet, for any who would dare look for it, readily discernible.

“You do what you have to do,” he finally said. “You protect them, even when they don’t know it. Goes along with the territory.”

I was not about to let him off that easily.

“Your good looks and your charm are your greatest asset and your worst enemy, you know that, don’t you?”

The semi-smile returned as he inched forward in his chair and then slowly stood up.

“You gave me something to think about today, Doc” he said as he offered me his hand. As soon as I’d shaken it, he turned to walk out the door, only to stop, turn back, grab me one more time with those eyes, and simply say, “Not bad, Doctor. Not bad at all.”

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve thought about that man in the intervening weeks, how many times I’ve realized that I’ve met him many times before, in that veteran that one time, in that soldier now. So many civilians have no clue whatsoever how sharp, how perceptive many of these men and women are. So many assume that people go into today’s military to escape rotten childhoods, to find something to do with their lives that are going nowhere, to get three meals and a cot that they’d otherwise not be able to put together enough intelligence and common sense to provide for themselves in any reliable fashion.

How wrong, how utterly wrong they often are.

How often I also hear the “twenty per cent” number thrown around, the “official” estimate of the number of returning OEF/OIF veterans who are suffering from combat trauma/PTSD. Occasionally you’ll see a “thirty” pop up here and there, but just as often you’ll read of very smart people marveling that the “rate” isn’t higher than it is, thank Goodness.

Perhaps they’re right. I’m just a country psychiatrist trying to make a living, after all, as one of my former supervisors used to drawl.

I guess if one never asks to take a sip out of the drinks that others are pouring down their throats, though, one never has to know whether those burns making their way down those esophagi are stings of delight or, shall we say, stings of a much, much different toxicity.

Oh well, what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, right?

I hope that somewhere tonight he is feeling more peaceful.

I wish I could be more hopeful in my hope.

God, be with him.

01.01.2013: Dear Doc

I wrote about him last week, the young man from Empty Chairs, Empty Tables. When he came into my office this week, he sat down and said, “Did you read what I wrote?”

I panicked. Good Lord, did I once again forget to do something that I had promised to do? I hemmed and hawed, only for seconds I’m sure, but long enough, apparently, for his proclivity to rescue to kick in.

“I just left the notebook with your secretary,” he smiled.

I at least had the decency not to break down into a muddled “Thank you.”

“It will be good to read it,” I stammered as I sat down.

“I’ve been looking at your blog,” he then said.

“So you saw the entry last week?”

“The Christmas one?”

I smiled. “So you haven’t seen the one about the movie?”

“No, sir.  What movie?”

So I did what I so often have had the opportunity to do: I pulled up the site, and I read him the post. When I was finished, I looked up to see him staring at me, same smooth features, same big eyes, although with a different countenance now, not distressed, exactly, but not sanguine, either.

He swallowed, and then, without warning, apparently to either of us, the tear crawled out of the corner of his right eye.

“I . . .” He swallowed again. “I had no idea that you heard me. I . . . you listened.”

He was genuinely surprised.

I wasn’t sure what to say. I still find myself surprised when combat veterans tell me that they’re surprised that I’ve heard them. It’s not hard, after all. They talk. I listen. If I don’t interrupt them, they keep talking, I keep listening. Straightforward process, all in all, really.

“Would you . . .” I stammer again. “I’d . . . I’d be glad to go get the notebook if you’d like me to  read what you wrote.”

He smiled, a welcome relief for both of us. “That’d be great.”

So I did. It was a standard-issue, bound, black notebook, the kind we used to use to record lab results in organic chemistry.

“I could only get out a few pages,” he said as I walked back into the room.

“No problem,” I replied as I sat down.

I was scarcely able to crack the cover before he jumped back in. “I . . . I just got so upset when I finished the first one, I had to put it down. But then when I came back later, I  couldn’t get  back into the scene to go on. I was so mad at myself. I guess that’s why I wrote the second one.”

I looked down at the page before me. His printing was sure, yet not overbearing. There were no scratch-outs, no revisions, just line after line, seemingly calling out to prepare myself for a momentum that awaited.

“May I read it aloud?” I asked.

He nodded.

So I did.

As I recall, I paused periodically as I read, occasionally stumbling over a misread word that he had to correct, but far more often simply . . . pausing.

That’s what I did when I finished reading. Paused. Not a short while.

“Is it . . .” he whispered.

I looked back into those eyes, into that facial smoothness that now I knew–knew what I had only intuited before–would never have the opportunity again to claim the trait of softness.

“Is it OK?” he asked.

I saw the apprehension in his features, that terrible fear each of us carries within us, inserted with such self-justified rectitude by some middle-school English teacher, the horror that our words that had tried so hard to express our deepest self just somehow didn’t pass muster. I knew I had to allay that apprehension–and quickly–but . . . well, I just hadn’t quite yet pulled myself back together sufficiently.

“It’s excellent,” I whispered. “Amazing.”

“Really?” he asked, with a single word mocking my very brilliance of having known, with the self-assurance of italics, even, that he could never find “softness” again. For there it was: a soft smile, the kind that inches its way onto a face when one realizes that, wow, you mean everything might be OK after all, really?

“Yes, really,” was all I could answer

That was when the thought hit me. Even at that moment, I questioned my motives, a doubt quite deservedly inserted into me by a generation of teachers who had warned me of the dangers of asking anything out of a patient except for payment for my time (the tab here for which the VA is picking up quite nicely). Still, I thought: this voice needs to be heard.

Yes, it does.

“What would you think,” I began, “if I published this on my blog and then published my response. If you’d like,  you could then respond to my response, and I’d publish that, and the two of us could begin a kind of correspondence together–but again only if you’d like and only for as long as you’d like. You have  a powerful voice, though, and I believe that it is important that people have the chance to hear what you and your fellow combat veterans have to say. If I can help make your voice known to as many people as possible, I’m glad to do that.”

At one point, I might have found it hard to believe that his smile could have become even softer and more surprised. But there it was.

“You mean that?”

“Of course.”

“That . . . that’d be great.”

“You don’t have to wait until we meet next. You can e-mail something to me, or . . .” I paused as I realized what should have been obvious, given what I had just looked at as I had read. “Or you could write it down, too. Does it help to feel it coming out of your pen?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I like to feel it. But I could scan it and e-mail it to you, how about that?”

I’m old enough to have the right to say: what a world we live in.

“Sounds good. So what ‘name’ would you like to have for this correspondence?”

He sat back with the look of someone who’d just been granted an extra wish from the genie.

“Winston,” he eventually replied, quite satisfied with himself, obviously. “I’ve always like that name, Winston.”

I had to smile. What else could I do.

“Then Winston, it is.”

And so, for as long as Winston desires: it begins.


It was hot, the sun glaring down upon the sand. Looking out onto the horizon, the heat causing the air to be thick, boots pound the sand, dust flying all around me, the ground worn from so much war.

People say that sand is golden brown, but not here. It glowed red. All the blood for thousands of years stained the earth, ground into flour, fluffy to the touch. As the day goes by, the sun rotates over my right shoulder, setting off in the distance, as it looks like you can walk up and touch it. The earth breathes as the ground cools.

Water is of gold to this place. People line up for a chance to have cold water. A small boy and his father wait patiently in line. Sweat glitters his forehead like rain on a windshield, his feet cracked and bruised from all the dry hot air, his sandals, sacred to him, as he only owns one pair, his clothes solid white without a stain, the little boy with a deep thought beneath his eyes.

He ponders on how to approach me, at 190 labs, full body armor pressing against my body, my helmet heavy. Black is what he sees when he gazes into my glasses. My knife sits right below my chest, pistol on my hip, my rifle laying across my chest, slip sitting comfortably in the well, brass sets in the chamber, with the round held back by only the pull of the finger. Grenades line my belt, red white and blue on my shoulder. My hands kept tight beneath my gloves. The carbon fiber lays across my knuckles.

Watching as the crowd grows larger, the water almost gone, patience wearing thin with these fucking people, the smell of sweat and shit linger in the air. Standing to my right and left are 12 other guys ready to lay down their lives for me at any given moment, without hesitation.

The little boy tugs at my sleeve and asks me what is my name. As I bend to to tell him, his father’s hand slaps his face, dragging him back into the line. My blood boils as it pumps through my veins, my eyes cross as my fist clinches my weapon. Without a thought the man is laying on the ground as my fists pierce his face, the sound of his bone cracking. Blood pours from his nose. My mind is a fury.

The little boy grabs my arm and says, “Mister, please.” As I pull back my hand and stand up, the little boy stares into my soul. I give him my water, a pencil, and some food. He smiles as his dad pulls him away from the line.


I look back on those days that were so long, sitting in the guard tower, thinking about my life and what it meant. I thought about my wife and daughter and my friends and family, what they were doing, if they were okay. I tried to picture them in places I had been before I left.

I thought to myself that people all over the world have no idea what is going on. Why are we here doing these things? I thought about the first person to bring up the idea of going to war, the stupid fucking selfish lazy fucking dumbass politics. If you asked them to go fight for their country, they would hide like little bitches under their desks. I would like to line them all up and slap the fucking teeth out of their mouths. I hope they all suffer for their arrogant selfish mindless actions.



Thank you, Winston. Back with you as soon as I can.

Again: thank you.

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