Returning on All Souls Day: A Memorium for a Fallen Friend

It has now been ten months since I last posted, ten months of challenge and of growth, times for renewal, then and now.

For a while I have been planning my return to regular blogging, and soon (truly) I will be doing so. Yet, sadly, today I return with an entry I wish did not press itself into my heart, demanding I open up the laptop one more time to remember, to grieve, to honor.

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On Friday, 30 October, 2015,  mere days ago, my Facebook friends received the following post:

Yesterday, I lost a soldier and a friend, SFC Jonathan Downing (Ret). His son, Dylan, requested that those who knew him place this photo in profile. I am honored to do so.

JD so often got a twinkle in his eye when he would show off to me his command of Afghani Persian. And how many times did I hear him say to me, “Good to hear your voice, Doc.”

So, my friend, my voice speaks to you one last time.

Today, with a more clouded eye, yet with an eye that will soon twinkle again at your memory, I bid you farewell in another warrior language, one that the Romans carried with them from the edges of North Africa to the edges of Scotland, the language of your SF motto, yet…

…also the language once of a Church that, for over a thousand years, kept within it the hope of a faith that might otherwise have passed away, a language of less-than-perfect, yet faithful men who—perhaps much like young soldiers today, equally less-than-perfect, yet equally faithful—sought to preserve what they knew, for all our sakes, had to be preserved.

Cruciatus consumptus est,
Mi amice iuvenis.
Miles, frater armis, filius, maritus, pater,
Fidelis in vita et in morte:
In aeternatem
Requiesce in pace,
O Vir Bone!

The torment is over,
My young friend. 
Soldier, brother-in-arms, son, husband, father,
Faithful in life and in death,
Into eternity
Rest in peace,
O Good Man.

Amen

JD and I never spoke much together about this blog, given that my time these past many months had been consumed in other matters. Yet he always did say that I had a way with words—as did he.

So if my voice has spoken its last, let this blog entry be our final words together, his to me and mine to him.

JD,

You wouldn’t recognize me if I didn’t go “professor” on you one more time, my friend. Yet today, 2 November, is the day that the Church has, through the centuries, remembered those who have gone before us, All Souls Day. I had had no plans of honoring this day with words to you, that is true. But that day came, and this day is here.

I also hope you didn’t mind my getting all Latin-y on you, within a Facebook post at that.  “Kinda overkill, Doc,” that’s what you would have told me. I know.

For you never were one to mince words with me, were you. While you ever valued the service that you gave, you were never one to stomach much of the over-valued ‘thank you’s” some of us stateside were too willing to give you. As a Special Forces soldier, you knew War up close and personal. I saw it in your eyes, eyes that would twinkle, yes, yet often, at least when we were together, could not afford to do so. There were too many stories for those eyes to tell, given how words, as they so often did, failed in all ways to do so.  

I do hope that I heard those stories as well as I could. I promise you: I will do my best never to romanticize them. You took them too seriously for that.

And yes, my friend, I know that there was one conclusion upon which you and I could never fully agree. O Vir Bone! I just wrote. How much more you would have wisecracked about the English word “bone” than you would have accepted the Latin word for “good” spoken to a man who, I always asserted to you, deserved its attribution as much as any man I have known. 

Spoken to you.

Yes, those eyes tried to convince me otherwise so many times, convince me that a man who had to act in War in ways that you had to act to protect innocent civilians and well-loved brothers-in-arms should never, would never be worthy of the word “redemption.” 

Your eyes always shouted, even when they whispered, whether in joy or in pain.

But, my young friend, ” mi amice iuvenis,” I am glad to report that if my own whispering shouts, my words that tried to speak the truth to those eyes, if they did not get the last laugh, they at least got the last smile today, this day of remembrance.

You see, JD, many cultures tell stories of redemption, in whatever language. But on this day celebrated by a Church, in its various forms, whose faith you and I shared, I remind you of a story passed on to us in the Gospel According to St. Luke, 23:42, the story of a man who quite clearly, by anyone’s measure, was not ‘”worthy” of redemption by anyone, let alone by Him who, whether facetiously or not, was labeled “King of the Jews” in three languages, right above His head.

Scholars will debate the truth of the story ad aeternum—or better, as you would have said, until the cows come home. No matter. The “Thief on the Cross,” the only name we have allowed him, took a chance at that moment that has stood for the chance that all of us have taken ever since. In making his request that Jesus “remember” him, he spoke of a hope that all of us, no matter what Wars or wars we have fought, hold deeply inside us.

JD, some will say that in my writing to you today I am merely writing to myself, one more wishful exercise that is the product of grief. Perhaps they are correct.

But perhaps they’re not.

And precisely because the older I get and the more I suspect they’re not, I smile.

For now you know.

I suspect that a good old Southern  guy such as yourself might not have heard much about the Taizé Community in France, where an international community comes together to sing quiet songs of sadness and of hope. I can’t hold that against you, guy. I’m the professor, after all, not you.

So as my parting words I leave a song, one that has always touched me, one that I hope will touch all those who loved you. And I smile. For if you would have heard it in life, I suspect you would have doubted that the plea to “remember you” would ever have been heard by Him Whom the Church remembers most this day.

But now, of course, you know.

He did.

Goodbye, my young friend. Rest in peace.

Doc

Editors’ Pick of the Year 2013, Best of WordPress: Thank You!

Yesterday afternoon, I received an email referring to the following blog post:

This week, our editors dove into the archives to find and rediscover notable posts published this year on WordPress.com, from nonfiction to poetry, and photography to illustration. These posts have been especially resonant to us and the community, and represent the diversity of voices of our users all over the world. . .

Even as he displayed that puckish smile over and again, he also displayed a certain resolve, a certain protector-warrior sense, even if only in glimpses, that reminded us all—that reminded him—that he was still ready for duty, ready to assume a role that he loved, ready to face again, if necessary, a violence that would perhaps destroy him, but that would not—would not—destroy those whom he loved.

Rod Deaton is a psychiatrist with an extensive background working with military troops and combat veterans. His blog, Paving the Road Back, offers a glimpse into the work he does, as well as the lives of the brave men and women who’ve served the US military. Always crafted with care, his stores are poignant, like this post on “Ethan,” who became hooked on opiates after suffering a traumatic brain injury while serving in the Middle East.

To the editors, to my readers, and especially to the men and women I have the privilege  of serving: all I can say is “Thank you.” At the end of the day, writing is simply the opportunity to relish in words those at whom I continue to marvel—those whom I honor—in deed every day: combat veterans who were willing to face the unforgiving ambiguities of War not for some abstract idea of the  Nation-State,  but rather for those whom they loved, those at home and those at their very sides.

By Bombs and Brainspotting Blindsided

“It’s finished, over. Everyone knows now. I’m a drunk, that’s it, face it, nothing more. I’ve lost everything.”

I can’t say this was the first time that I had heard such an opening line from a patient. Such regrets are pro forma among addicts who have, at least for the day, come to the end of the line. Sometimes everything changes with such statements, à la The Hallmark Channel, sometimes not. It’s the stuff 12-step meetings and skid rows are made of.

Granted, this particular soldier had “hit bottom” (as the AA folks are wont to say) in a particularly, shall we say, noteworthy way. He’d hidden his alcohol dependence well for years, even from those closest to him. He’d never done anything small his whole life, though, so why not expose oneself as grandly as one can? Would we still be talking of Icarus had he not taken that selfsame route?

Right around the time my patient and I met, the Irish actor Peter O’Toole died. His obituary in the New York Times was a fitting tribute to Life lived intensely and hard, a life in which one works hard to reframe regrets as opportunities—and woe to anyone who dares intimate they might be otherwise. It would be a stretch to claim that my patient resembled the man who made T.E. Lawrence alluring enough to fill a Cinerama screen for four hours, intermission notwithstanding. Yet in spirit, they could have been brothers: success, booze, the whole bit.

Who knows, perhaps I was thinking of the Shakespearean actor O’Toole as I was listening to the opening lines of my patient. To steal inelegantly from Queen Gertrude, I found myself musing, “The man doth confess too much, methinks.”

“You started out in the Marines, didn’t you?” I asked him.

“Yeah, but then I got out. When 9/11 hit, I had to get back in, but the Marines wouldn’t take me. The Army would, though. The rest is history.”

That much of history, I had already known, and thence my Hamlet-ian suspicion. For I had known that he had been involved in the initial fighting in Iraq, the “Shock and Awe” that did so much more than both for all those involved at that time, civilian or military.

You were in the initial invasion, correct?”

Still wrapped in his shame—not wallowing, mind you, just wrapped—he scarcely seemed to register the question.

“Yes.”

“Quite the time, eh?” I asked.

That, he registered. He looked directly at me, not with hostility, nor with anguish, but more with the detached empathy of a good 60 Minutes interview by Scott Pelley.

“It was hell,” he replied. “But we did what we had to. I don’t let it bother me that much.”

The Bard in me continued wondering.

“Did you drink this much before the War?”

For a couple seconds, he just stared at me, as if I’d just said something to him in Ukrainian, or Armenian, maybe. Then his eyes darted to the right, his head tilted ever so slightly, sort of like that puzzled dog you see looking at the gramophone in the old RCA Victor ads.

“Come to think of it,” he said as he looked back at me, “I guess not. I mean, I had my problems, but . . .”

“Nothing like that,” I filled in.

Another pause, his eyes apparently scanning the entire library of his frontal lobe one last time, just to make sure.

“No,” he answered, his eyes returning to mine empty-handed. “I guess not.”

I decided to go for it.

“So how do you know whether the War’s been bothering you or not? You basically haven’t been sober since you hit stateside some ten years or so ago.”

In a matter of seconds, that brought another eyes-darting, head-tilting to the right, not one this time of canine puzzlement, though, but rather one far more familiar to me from my past few years of working with combat veterans: the long look down a road marked “To Baghdad.”

“All I remember is a blast,” he said softly, to no one in particular, or so it seemed. “It was meant for me, you know. I was all hot-shot, gung-ho. I had the military experience, so my Command used me to help gather information from locals. I was always at the same spot, every day, and that day I just happened to turn back to check on something, wasn’t where I should have been, where I always was, right across from where that car bomb went off. I . . . I shouldn’t be here.”

He looked back at me, almost as if he were trying to refocus his eyes after having stared at the sun.

“God, so . . . so much happened.”

“You ain’t been soused all these years for nothing, eh?” I said, meaning it just as pointedly as I had said it.

As reality set in, he shook his head, just slightly.

“No one knew, my wife, my Command, nobody. I can’t believe I’ve hidden it all these years, the drinking. I . . . I just couldn’t take it any longer.”

I leaned forward. “It’s not just the drinking, you know. It’s the drinking and the War. You’ve got to face them both. No either-or here.”

For a few seconds, he didn’t even breathe, staring.  “How do I do that?” he finally said, quite genuinely, poised as if he dare not ask.

I looked  into his eyes. More often than not, the gaze of those who are coming off alcohol has a certain cloudiness to it, as if the entire brain behind it were stuck in a perpetual state of “Huh?” Not his, though: coordinated, focused, driven he still appeared, with the look that his Command must have seen so many years ago, the same look that somehow, through all the leftover remnants of the booze from the nights before, Command must still have been seeing day in, day out since.

“I want you to talk to my colleague tomorrow,” I answered. “She works with a form of treatment called Brainspotting. It’s an off-shoot of something they call EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. You might have heard of that one. It’ll sound totally wacko, Brainspotting, I’ll warn you: it’s based on the idea of presenting the brain with alternating stimuli via hearing, touch, while having you find a spot in your visual field that, believe it or not, does seem to be almost a nodal point for the body’s experience of emotion. Most of the soldiers around here are skeptical as all get out about it—until after they’ve done it once. Give it a chance. With your detoxing, I’m not sure you’re ready for it, but we’ll see what she says.”

He gave me the smile of someone waiting for the punch line.

“This something like voodoo hypnosis?” he asked.

“Talk to her,” was all I replied. “See for yourself.”

When I spoke with him the next evening, after he had worked for a couple hours with my colleague, he had neither the clouded look of the alcoholic nor the steely look of the up-and-coming sergeant. It was a look well-familiar to me since I have been working here at the unit in Nashville: the look of someone who’s just ridden the park’s meanest roller coaster ten times and somehow, in some way is actually feeling . . . calm.  Exhausted. But calm.

“So how was it?” I asked, barely able to keep the “I told you so” off my face.

“My God,” he stage-whispered, just tired enough not to have the energy to slap that look off my face, just with-it enough to let me know how lucky I therefore was. “What was that? I mean, she had me dredge up stuff I hadn’t thought of in years, and . . .”

“And you’re OK enough with it,” I replied, well familiar with this conversation. “Not ‘OK’ in that you’re fine and dandy, but OK enough, exhausted, but OK.”

Apparently after my words had found their correct spots in his cortex, delayed a bit more than usual by some routing neurons that were still shaking their heads at each other and asking “What the hell . . .?” he simply said, “Yeah.”

I love that moment.

“You’re going to need to put together a solid recovery plan,” I said to him, “and you’re going to have to keep talking to her—and then keep talking to someone after you leave here. It’s both, not one or the other. You’re not ‘just an alcoholic.’  You’re not just another veteran with PTSD.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, even though you’ll find a few who’ll try.”

After a few seconds, neurons apparently having decided to get back to work, he leaned forward. “So there’s hope?” he asked.

“Sounds as if your body is saying so,” I replied.

He half-smiled, half-grimaced. “My body is telling me to get some sleep.”

I love that moment as well.

“Sounds like a good idea,” was all I could say.

Techniques aside, established or controversial, we all now respect the brain for what it is: in the words of Dr. Samuel Wang from Princeton, it’s a “survival machine, not a computer.” It does what it needs to do in order to keep us doing what we hope to keep trying to do, day in, day out. It will lead us down one path of destruction if by doing so it senses that it can avoid what, to it, appears to be an even worse path. Our brains and our bodies are efficient, not necessarily wise. Sometimes we don’t know a good path until it’s laid out before us in neon chartreuse, long after we’ve exhausted every other, even blatantly ludicrous alternative.

Thank goodness we sometimes can be hit from our blind side, whether having been previously blinded by the light of an explosion or the darkness of an addiction.  Thank goodness that some Icarus’s can learn, can take the risk of flying just a bit lower than their energy might otherwise take them, for a while, for a purpose, until an AA sponsor can be found, until certain memories can be processed with words and without, until a body can find more internal order, until a life can create more external order, until such Icarus’s can land on a safer shore, only then to take off one more time, not as a desperate escape, but simply as a way to get to the next challenge. And the next.

JD/rjsd

Yes, Mama, Yes, Ma’am

When I asked her if she would be interested in my writing a blog entry about our work together, she at first appeared pleased, but then turned wary, ever so slightly.

“I’d talk about your mother,” I assured her.

With that, the smile I had come to admire beamed like the proverbial spotlight.

“Well, OK, then,” she replied, her whole head-to-toe demeanor practically shouting in addition, “And, Lord, won’t that be a hoot . . .”

How true, how true.

My patient is the first woman combat veteran I have written about.

I have received some criticisms for not having written previously about the women combat veterans I’ve had the honor to serve, some intimations of misogyny, even. Until now, I’ve not known quite how to express my challenge.

Thankfully, she’s changed all that.

My challenge has been one all too familiar to those who work with women combat veterans, one all too rarely addressed even remotely adequately: many, if not most, of the women combat veterans I’ve served were, at some point in their careers, sexually traumatized by the men with whom—and even worse, often under whom—they had been serving.

As the months have gone on, I’ve come to write this blog as a sort of memoir, reflections rendered in the form of “I remember So-and-So,” glimpses (I hope) of men whom I’ve served as filtered through how they have impacted my own experiences, my own understandings of what it means to be both incredibly powerful and yet incredibly vulnerable in the world. I have always strived to assume that I have no idea as to the men’s actual sufferings, but rather, through my inklings of those sufferings, to consider that I can nevertheless find a way to fathom what little of those sufferings I can fathom and then to respect them for all that must (thankfully) remain unfathomable to me (at least so far in my life, thanks be to God).

With military sexual trauma, however, whether perpetrated on women or on men, I have been loath to make any assumptions whatsoever.

How often we hear platitudes such as “War is war,” or, in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, “Stuff happens.” Behind them is that most questionable, yet rarely-questioned of “truths”: even if the violence of War feels personal, nine times out of ten, it’s not. You don’t get shot at, in other words, because you’re you, but rather because you’re American or Afghan or in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc., etc.

Not so, sexual trauma, the zenith of the personal, even among strangers, let alone so-called friends.

As a man, I’ve had occasion to know (again) an inkling of the feeling of imagining myself powerful when, all of sudden, I am anything but. As a man, however, I have never grown up in a world where the power differentials between me and the other fifty per cent of civilization have confronted me day in, day out, where my deepest desires can be, at any moment, hijacked and obliterated without an intelligible word being spoken. I have never had to find a way to redefine myself in such a fundamental way vis-à-vis the other men and/or women—other humans—in my life such that I have had to decide whether today is a day worth surviving.

I have never had to face how someone who is supposedly on my side of the “Good vs. Bad” continuum can force me to redefine not only me, even after years of faithful military service, but even more those very words good and bad that have formed me.

As I have no inkling, I have believed that I dare not even intimate that I have a right to reflect on such—here unquestionable—truths.

My patient, however, reminded me that the treatment of trauma is not always about trauma, and certainly not just about trauma. It can be, should be about Life itself.

Fortunately I have a wise, dynamic, deeply empathetic psychologist colleague at my current job who just happens to be female in addition, and she and my patient found together the words that needed to be found to deal with, as well as could be dealt with, all that needed to be spoken, at least for now. I was, at first, glad simply to be the medication consultant, a man willing to listen, a man willing to face that my very being could itself be traumatizing. My patient and I did the best we could. She soldiered on. She began to feel better.

Then one day I overheard a conversation on the phone. “No, Mama, you can’t bring all your friends down here with you.”  A pause, then “It’s a hospital, Mama. Visiting is for family.” Another pause, and then, “Well, Mama, I know you don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”

We spoke together a few minutes later.

“Was that your Mom?” I asked.

Even though our previous conversations had mainly been marked by few words and even fewer emotions, she gave me the semblance of a half-smile, sort of.

“Oh, yeah,” she replied.

“Sounds as if she’s got quite the mind of her own,” I quipped, careful not to put too much emotion into my end, either.

That provoked a three-quarters-smile.

“You can say that again.”

“She wanting to bring half the church with her or something?”

Seven-eighths, now, with even a shake of the head.

“Don’t tempt her.”

We were on a roll, so I thought, why not?

“Pack up the church bus and maybe the van, too?”

This time she even leaned forward slightly, the asymptotic smile approaching, approaching . . .

“You’ve met my Mama?”

I gave in to the first chuckle.

“You know, there’s that old heliport out there that they’re not using. They could set up a meeting, bring a musician and a keyboard, have themselves a whole service, wave at you during the greeting time, the whole bit.”

Apparently, with that, asymptote reached, laugh achieved.

“I told you,” she grinned, “don’t tempt her.”

Thus began our own continuing rendition of “I Remember Mama.”

“I’m somehow suspecting that nobody had better cross your Mama,” I remarked later that week.

“Just let ’em try,” she answered, the smile by then so much easier to appear, the demeanor so much less tense. “My Mama might not be tall, but you’d never know it. She still tells me, ‘Girl,’ and I hop to. Why, I’d once been out one night when I was a kid—just one night, mind you—and I sure learned never to do that again, I tell you. It wasn’t more than a couple of weeks later I walked upstairs from the basement, looked at her, she looked at me, and then she gave me this little swat, just like that. I asked her, ‘What did I do?’ all self-righteous, you know? And she just looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘You looked like you were about ready to do something.'”

At that, my patient paused and gave me, I think, her first of many full-faced, eyes-twinkling smiles.

“She was probably right,” was all she said.

My, how the stories went on.

I finally had a chance to meet her mother a few weeks later. In front of me indeed was a woman who may not have been that tall, but I sure didn’t know it. She was decked out in what they used to call a “pant suit,” and I mean it was a pant suit, bought full retail, no doubt, for no self-respecting outfit like that would last long enough in the store to make it to the sale rack. And did she know how to accessorize, let me tell you, not too much, not too little, without old-lady shoes to boot. My patient had once told me that her mother always flies, thank you, never drives to Nashville or anywhere else her kids might be.

Seeing the lady in front of me, I had no doubt of that whatsoever.

“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” I said, offering her my hand.

Her posture perfect, her head tilted slightly, she offered me her hand in return, not regally, for that would be too stiff, too formal, just pleasantly and confidently. Imagine the Queen Mother with a pinch of attitude.

“Nice to meet you, too, Doctor,” she replied.

“Doing my best to keep her honest,” I said, my head nodding toward her daughter.

As she let go of my hand, she turned her own head toward her, gave her one of those looks, and then she turned back to me to give me the selfsame. “Good luck with that,” she muttered, her wry smile telling the rest of the story.

I looked at my patient. She looked at me. What else could she say but, “Yes, Mama.”  What else could I say but “Yes, Ma’am.”

There is no tidy way to wrap up a trauma narrative, sexual or otherwise. All of us bring givens, histories to our every encounter that shape what can or cannot, should or should not be said. Sometimes all I can do as a therapist is watch and hope that this other human being before me can re-find and redefine all that he was, all that she will become.

Other times, though, I catch a break. I get to meet women who have served faithfully, suffered as they must, and never let go, no matter what. I get to see strength cross a generational divide and infuse both sides not only with hope, but with a smile. And I get to learn, once again, that some stories are best told in their subplots, down in the deep streams of human connection that just flow on, baby, just flow on.

At least you can get a good laugh out of it every now and then. And believe you me, if anyone is good for a laugh, it’s Mama.

Yes, ma’am.  And thank you.

 

JD/rjsd

To Err Is Human, To Forgive Is Gary Cooper

I’m not sure that even now he fully understands the impact of his presence, this soldier, notwithstanding our having discussed it several times. Of average height and very strong build, he, to be fair, would not necessarily stand out on an Army base filled with men of such description, if all you were to do were to view him in a still pose, standing or sitting.

It’s how he moves.

I’ll never forget first seeing him walk, sit down, lean forward, fold his hands, bend his head downward. He was not the first burdened soldier I’d met, not by a long shot. Yet there was something so measured about him, so willing to accept the load, no matter how heavy. It was as if Atlas had volunteered to Zeus to bear the weight of the heavens so that no one else would be so encumbered, no hint of martyrdom anywhere, simply duty and faithfulness.

Unfortunately for him, though, he had taken on weight that had been unfairly farmed out to the innocent, whether by the questionable decisions of superiors or by Life. As a veteran of four Middle East deployments, he had had more than his share of opportunities to do that.

Only then to return home and to discover that Life does not cease to provide such opportunities once you’ve hopped a plane back stateside.

More pertinent to this tale, moreover: true to form, to his character, he was even willing to bear such a weight for me.

It was probably our second, maybe third time speaking together. Already, in just those short encounters, I had come so to admire him, even as I had also come to feel so much sadness at his recurring assumption that if someone was going to have to take the “hit” for Life’s cruelties, it might as well be him.

The conversation that day took an innocent enough turn, in retrospect, a discussion of possible future options, as I recall, tossed out as one scenario among many.

I said what I said.

He didn’t respond as he could have. As I babbled on, he simply nodded his head in that most soldierly of manner, the ever-ready “Roger that, sir,” I’m sure, right there on his lips.

It was I who had to stop in mid-sentence, smacked in the psychic face by the import of the words I had just spoken to him.

You see, I had just “tossed out” an option that would have been impossible precisely because of something that had happened to him, something about which he had felt the greatest of blame, even though there had been none for him “realistically” to take on. For a moment, I had acted as if what had most rent his heart had never happened at all. I might as well have been talking to Atlas about that oversized beach ball on his shoulders.

This was not the first time this had happened to me, of course, although fortunately a mistake of this gravity is a rare one. Once I realized my mistake, I think I must have just sat there open-mouthed, wide-eyed, the whole bit. All I can remember is his face, a single swallow, a deep breath with his mouth closed, in and out, no change in countenance whatsoever, followed by that look of being willing to take the hit one more time and then to listen attentively to whatever my next words might have been.

“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry,” was all I could utter. I then spoke my mistake out loud.

“That’s all right,” he whispered, although the quick catch in his voice revealed that it had been anything but.

“No, it’s not,” I shot back, quite aware of my need to allow him, even urge him to put blame where blame was due. “You deserve better than your doctor even momentarily forgetting what I forgot.”

His discomfort was crescendoing. “Really, sir, it’s OK. I forget things all the time. No big deal, really.”

This was a hard decision point for me. On the one hand, I needn’t—and what’s more, shouldn’t—keep harping on something that a soldier has no desire to rehash. He or she has the right to request that we just let it go, already.

Yet somehow I knew that this was not one of those times.

For a few frantic microseconds, I dove inward, trying to interrogate every neuron I possibly could: “Why did I do that?”  Only one thought, more image than language, came to me: I was already experiencing him as the strong, good, fulfilled man that he could and can be.  I was, in other words, already experiencing him as having moved forward.

“You know,” I finally said. “I have no clue as to whether this will make things better or worse, but I do want you to know: I think at that moment I was experiencing you as the strong man you are, even though I realize that you’re feeling anything but that. Even though I know full well that you are struggling, I still think of you, feel you as the man who I know you want to become.”

For a few seconds, he stared at me, still not angry, but less anxious as well. He then looked down and even, for an instant, smiled, more out of recognition than out of anything approaching levity.

“You know, one of the other soldiers told me that exact thing, just yesterday, that I’m exactly the kind of guy he sees himself wanting to become. It . . . it helped.”

I leaned forward.

“You appear to be having no problem forgiving me for my blunder, am I right?”

He looked back at me. “Absolutely.”

“Then, maybe,” I replied, “could you see how all the rest of us, whether alive or not, would have no problem forgiving you—if in fact there were actually something to forgive? The hardest person on you is you.”

He dropped his head back down. “It’s always been that way.”

“Do you see, then,” I went on, “how because of what just happened, we proved together at least one instance of something that you’ve doubted much of your life: that words can make a difference, that trying to work something out is more than half the answer to whatever it is that comes between two people? All your life you’ve felt that words really don’t make a difference, so just soldier on. Sure, you’ve been to War four times: so you know that’s very often the case, the only case. But it’s not always the case, especially between two people who are trying to understand each other. Good intentions may not always lead to good results, but sometimes they’re all we have—and they really are at least better than silence.”

It took only him only a few seconds to look back at me with both that same “what do you know” smile and the words that I’d been expecting all along: “Roger that, sir. Roger that.”

Gary Cooper was certainly a complex man in real life, but on the silver screen he came to stand for all men of few words, yet of deep feeling. I’m not so sure that the sheriff in High Noon was ultimately that interested in forgiveness, truthfully. So I’m glad his counterpart in my life turned out to be more amenable to the notion.

The soldier has worked hard to understand himself, to give himself over to what cannot be changed, to begin to change what can. He’d have always been the type to live the Serenity Prayer more than say it, truth be told, though I’m sure he’d not be against it. Wise men, young ones included, are willing to give even the standardized a shot.

He’s still frustrated, no doubt of that, sad as well. But together we discovered that words can make at least the beginning of a difference when said sincerely by two persons trying to make Life better. The old analysts always said that there is no such thing as a “mistake.” It’s never random when we disappoint one another. I’m afraid they’re probably right.

Thank goodness that in spite of that, my Sergeant Cooper was willing to give voice to at a least a few more words than “yup,” “nope,” and “can’t rightly say.”

I am indeed most fortunate.

 

JD/rjsd

I’ll Fly Away

“My wife read your blog. She loved it.”

He surprised me, this handsome fly-boy, with his mentioning the blog. Since my move to Nashville earlier this summer, I’d been wondering how to proceed with it, given my new circumstances, i.e., an inpatient unit from which soldiers could be far more easily identified were I to write of them. It was not only my grief (strong word, but apt) over my leaving the VA that was blocking the writer, in other words, or perhaps taunting him, rather.

“Thank you,” I replied. “Coming from an English teacher, I take that as the highest compliment.”

He was looking at me quite expectantly, with a smile on his face both reserved and a mile-wide.

“How long have you been doing it?” he asked.

“Just under two years. It’s been a bit sparse this year, though, what with my move down here and all.”

He nodded quite amiably, like the good warrant officer he was, well seasoned in the fine art of making senior officers feel as if they’d just said something worth listening to.  I was half-expecting a “Roger, that” at any moment.

“It’d be fine if you wanted to write about me, you know. I wouldn’t mind,” he replied instead, without a hint of hesitation.

“A story you’d like to tell?”

Funny: his smile didn’t really change, yet there it appeared on his face, diffused throughout, the seriousness of all that had happened to him.

“Yes, sir.  Yes.”

I looked down to my left, to the floor next to his chair. A handsome German shepherd, appropriately decked out in his “working dog” attire, lay calmly there, at ease, both nodding off and aware, so aware. I was tempted to ask him, “Wirklich?  Should I?”, as if he actually were one of those menacing hounds on Hogan’s Heroes who used to gobble up those fine French delicacies out of the hands of Corporal LeBeau.

Had I done so, I suspect all the dog would have done would have been to shoot me a look that would simply have conveyed the already-obvious:  “Remember: I’m watching.”

How good it had been to see that smile that day, honestly. Only a few weeks before he’d first entered my office, then sans dog, looking for the world like some extra staggering behind Viggo Mortensen in The Road, post-apocalyptic smack-dab in the middle of Music City USA. He was on too many medications, to be sure. His treaters had known that. I knew that.

But that wasn’t just medications glazing those eyes. If only.

He’d started out his career as an enlisted man, impressing the bejeezus out of every senior soldier he ever encountered, yet completely oblivious thereof. After all, all his life he’d always assumed that he was never going to be good enough, that he was going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else to be half as good, that he would always be “almost . . .”

And assume that, he continued to do as he flew figuratively through the ranks into the position of warrant officer, flew so high that eventually he flew literally through Army flight school, rising, rising to the position of instructor, one deployment down, another, another . . .

Others whom he loved, though, his very own Band of Brothers traveling at the speed of sound, were not as fortunate as he, or so he assured me. They nosedived.  Literally.

He was lucky, he kept telling me. Remember, he was twice-as-hard/half-as-good. He got the long end of the chance-stick. That wasn’t fair. He shouldn’t be alive. They should.

Through all his grief, though, all his explanations, all relayed to me in a tone of desperation that made even me think that perhaps the bad guys were just outside my office door, poised, itching for a soon-to-be-relished opportunity, I could sense that he knew what he knew he knew, even though he was doing all in his power not to know it: that while some survivals were indeed dumb luck, others were anything but. He was good at what he did.

And, almost certainly, better, yes, than others had been.

Survivor guilt is hard enough when all you have to show for it is chance. When you’re also carrying competence, the burden grows exponentially.

But the smile did appear, though, thanks to some med changes (nothing spectacular, trust me), a colleague who has turned EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, a trauma-focused treatment) into a quiet, yet explosive tour de force, and—you ready?—Norman Vincent Peale.

How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’m serious here. All your fancy-dancy treatments?  Take that.

I’ll never forget his look when he showed me the life-changing passage, even though, for the life of me, I cannot recall what it said. All I know is that he practically did a 100m sprint to his room to fetch the book, the dog more-than-able to keep the pace, yet clearly unimpressed with the assignment. He beamed as he handed it to me, page dog-eared (sorry, don’t know how to avoid the pun). All I can remember is what he said to me as I looked back up at him after having read the crucial paragraph.

“It’s OK for me to be happy, isn’t it, Doc? It’s really OK.”

What else could I do but beam myself and chuckle?

“Yes, it is. Yes, it is.”

You go, Norm.

And so the day came for him and his fine friend to head back home. It’s such a different experience, this job. At the VA I saw men and women for months at a time, weekly, monthly, you name it. Here I see them daily for a brief while, sit with them at their most painful, work with them to calm at least somewhat the raging storms within them, enough so as to allow them to sleep, perchance not to dream, to find it easier to take the next hill, both literal and figurative.

He flew away. And he didn’t even have to die, hallelujah, by and by.  He could be happy. He could live.

And the dog and I parted friends. I think.

A few days after he left our hospital, I received a note from his wife. She wanted to share with me an essay that she’d written just before my fly-boy had entered our facility, one she’d written solely to put into the words the pain that was tearing her asunder, day after day:

He is a man in a bottle. He sits atop our refrigerator. My husband’s grandfather carved the little figure out of some light-colored wood, balsa maybe. The figurine is a tiny fisherman. Unfortunately, there are no little wooden fish in the bottle with him. He must fish for the pace of mind it brings him, not the thrill of the catch. I wish my husband could find the same peace of mind. He is also in a bottle.

He came home from deployment, but he came home changed. There is a barrier between us now. The glass bottle that shields him from the memories also shields him from life. Anytime he attempts to leave his confinement, he suffers. The memories press in on him, and he retreats again. I miss him; I miss him so much.

I wish I could help, that I could make him better, but it’s his battle to fight, a battle of memories, fear and anxiety, a battle that only he understands. Right now he’s battling it with bottles, the many bottles of medications that crowd his bathroom cabinet. Each bottle, a different form of ammunition against his monsters. To help him sleep, to combat nightmares, to minimize his depression, to bury the anger, to tackle the anxiety, forty pills a day, forty temporary bandaids that cover up the problem, but cannot heal it.

So there he sits, day after day, confined in his bottle . . . out of my reach.

The essay was placed inside a small card, written just the day before. In it, handwritten now, not typed, were the following words:

Thank you so much for all you’ve done for my husband. He’s starting to act like my husband again, and I sure did miss that guy. You helped him find his way back from that dark place, and I hope everything he’s learned from your program helps him stay out of it for good.

I hope so as well. And even though I appreciate the thanks, I do think both she and I need to give thanks where thanks is due: to the good Reverend from Manhattan who, across time and space, reached into the heart of a Nashville pilot and breathed into him the words, “Live, young man. Live.”

Amen to that, Pastor.

And fly away, fly-boy. Fly away.

JD/RJSD

(Note:  By typing these initials, “John/Jane Doe’s” and mine, I am signifying that the soldier about whom the essay is written has approved its content, received a copy, and given written permission for its publication on the blog.)

Adieu, A Dieu

It’s good to be back.

While my two-month delay has had a lot to do with the demands of my new job, I have to be honest: the real reason says far more about the challenges of farewells than it does about the challenges of paperwork.

About three weeks before Memorial Day, I made the decision to cross the therapist’s Rubicon, to go, like Caesar, where I had been told I was not to go, fully aware that my crossing, like his, would be an irrevocable one, an act, even, of rebellion.

I comfort myself now by revealing that my Julian meeting was at least not going to be a secret one: I had discussed it with my wife beforehand, given that I could not guarantee her that I would be home any time before 10:00 AM on that Monday before my second daughter’s high school graduation open house.

My wife had been fine with my going, nonetheless, especially given that my young adult children would most likely not even have been humanoid by that hour anyway, so she had figured that she most likely would still be nursing her Keurig-brewed Starbucks at said hour, channel-surfing in a desperate attempt to find something worth watching on TV after her having bid the day’s farewell to Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning.

Now true, I had told no one at the VA about the proposed meeting, but so it goes . . .

“You going to be free on Memorial Day—early, I mean, like 7:30 or so?” I asked the young veteran on that fateful, “the die is cast” day, both of us seated quite comfortably in my office.

It was an honest question, after all. I knew that he too had had a big event planned for the same day as my daughter’s, so I hadn’t been sure that the woman in his life would be as flexible as she in mine had been.

Brides can be funny about wedding days, after all.

“Why do you ask?” he replied, in a manner both comfortable, yet somewhat guarded, that hallmark of so many of our interactions.

“Well, you know,” I stammered, “in a matter of a few weeks, I won’t be your doctor any more, and you won’t be my patient, or at least officially you won’t be my patient—although some people do say ‘once a patient, always a patient,’ and I guess they have a point, if you think about it, but then—“

“Doc,” he said, his smile a familiar one, his roll of the eyes one that had once been a recurring response to a well-loved battle buddy of his, one still so missed by us both. “Just spit it out, why don’t you?”

I had to smile myself. Step in water. Cross. Step out of water. March.

“I was thinking,” I went on. “Last year on Memorial Day, I went to Crown Point Cemetery and placed a flag at the grave of a patient’s father, and . . . well, this year I was thinking of doing that at Porthos’ grave, you know?”

The young veteran’s smile slowly melted, first into the quizzical and then, dare I say, into the hesitant. Yet he didn’t say a word.

“So I was wondering,” I faltered on, “whether you would have the time or whether you would like to meet me there, at the cemetery, you know. We could . . . get a bit to eat afterwards, maybe. You know? If you’d like, of course. Only . . . if you’d like.”

Thirty years I’ve been a psychiatrist, with well over twenty more years behind me practicing the art of basic communication in the English tongue. One would think I could have come up with something better than that, but there you have it.

Thankfully, a rhetorical critic, Athos, the last Musketeer, is not.

“Of course, Doc,” he whispered, smile back in full force. “I’d love to.”

Apparently my children were not the only ones planning on sleeping in that Monday. I suppose every bride needs her beauty rest.

I bought the flag at the Canteen at the VA about a week before the Holiday, one of those tchotchkes that you always see people waving along the side of the road whenever the President is passing by in his motorcade from the airport to a convention center stage that looks the same in Seattle as it does in Poughkeepsie. I left said flag in the back seat of my Volkswagen, truthfully just so that I wouldn’t forget it and leave it at the hospital, yet also gambling that the sun would be merciful on it for the week’s wait, especially given that the chemical fibers of the flag’s “cloth” (ha-ha) would probably be strong enough to melt the sun itself before the latter would have the audacity to attempt to melt the former.

Monday morning, Memorial Day celebrated, finally came, and at the crack of dawn (i.e., 6:30 AM, same thing at my house on a three-day weekend) I headed south of Indianapolis, not even sure if the gates of my municipal cemetery destination would be unlocked at that time.

At 7:15, aided by the absence on the road of all drivers who had been smart enough to stay in bed that morning, I arrived to find the gates wide open.

It had been almost a good two months since I’d been there that first time. Yet without hesitation I recognized the winding road, visualized the tree by the veterans’ memorial, recalled the casket suspended over its final destination. Within minutes, destination found, I eased the car to a stop, turned off the engine, and just sat there, looking.

As if on cue, my cell phone rang.

“Sorry, Doc,” whispered the voice at the other end, in a tone familiar to anyone who has experienced that profoundest of parental joys, i.e., the waking up of teenagers on the first school day after Christmas vacation. “I overslept.”

No surprise, of course. By his report he’d never been the morning-type, even long before War had made sure that the dawning of a new day would never again spot him a feel-good freebie.

“No problem,” I replied. I remembered a mom-and-pop joint I’d passed by on the way into town. “Is it any good?” I asked. “We could eat before we head over.”

I swear I heard the smile over the phone. “Porthos and I ate there all the time,” he answered.

“See you when you get there,” was all I replied.

OK, so now: think Indiana. Now think of every diner that you’ve ever seen on TV where the show’s protagonists meet for coffee in the morning and where the waitress then walks up and reminds them that it’s Wednesday, so there’s still some peach cobbler left over from the day before, if they want some.

You’re there.

He arrived only about five minutes after I had, barely enough time for my downing two swigs of a coffee that, though not exactly flavorful, was not pitiful either, thank God. As he sat down, his whole demeanor, his whole “him” hit me again, full force. I could only imagine him in my mind’s eye, in some back-street club in Nashville, maybe, clad in a plain T-shirt and a pair of jeans, sitting by himself on a stool on the front stage, a couple of lights highlighting his each side, looking down at his guitar, strumming, quietly singing his soul as the patrons look on, their Miller Lites from the tap half-drunk, joining him in musical reveries of what had been, what might have been, what might still be hoped for.

“You gotta try the fried biscuits,” he said in an excited voice that I just as easily could also have imagined his having used with me had such a dream suddenly turned into a reality, after his having taken a break after the first set, probably, followed then by something akin to “Pretty good crowd tonight, Doc, you think?”

“The ones with the apple butter?” the real me asked. Yes, I’d seen them on the menu, I admit it.

“Porthos loved ’em. He’d practically swallow them whole.”

So of course I got them. Athos settled on biscuits and sausage gravy. What else for a Southern boy, right?

Porthos had known whereof he’d swallowed, it turned out. Lord, that place was so quintessential, I suspect they have one of the original patents on the whole breakfast menu.

We talked, not exactly buddy-talk, but certainly not doctor-patient “dialogue,” either. He was so excited to be getting married, so dyed-in-the-wool jittery. I talked some of my upcoming move, as I recall, as well as something of my daughter’s graduation, I’m sure, or of my son’s looking forward to his new school in Nashville, my wife’s looking forward to our downsizing, perhaps. Honestly I can’t quite remember. We needed only one java refill apiece, though, not that there hadn’t been time for more. I suspect neither of us had at that moment the stomach for more, literally and, yes, figuratively.

“Want to head over?” I finally asked.

For a few seconds he just looked at me, his face not exactly frozen, yet not exactly responsive either. He then looked down at his empty coffee cup, the only distraction available before him, the plate of gobbled-up biscuits long having been cleared away with a rapidity worthy of any waitress named Flo this side of the Mississippi.

“No,” he whispered, only then to bring his eyes back to mine. “But yes.”

As always, an honest man.

When we arrived at the graveside, we were still the lone living among the dearly departed, given the hour, most likely, but perhaps for other reasons as well, who knows. I got out first, shut my door, looked back at him in the car behind me. He was sitting behind the wheel, staring toward the grave. A few seconds later, jolted apparently by some slap across the face of his soul, given the sudden, quasi-violent shake of his head, he looked up at me, smiled (or at least tried to), and got out himself.

The headstone had not yet been placed at the grave, but the latter had certainly not been unattended: some flowers, a small wreath, tributes not having been lavished on any other soldiers’ remains in the entire area.

“His folks?” I asked Athos as soon as we’d reached the spot.

“I suspect so,” he answered.

“You come here any?” I continued, rolling the balsa wood flagpole in my fingers back and forth, back and forth.

He was gazing down toward the flowers and the settling earth before them. He’s a couple inches taller than I am, far more angular in appearance. Given that I was having literally to look up to him, his face somewhat silhouetted by the rising sun, for a moment he struck me as a young Lincoln, believe it or not, far more handsome, most definitely, yet just as burdened, just as sad.

“Every once in a while,” he finally said.

I turned my own gaze downward with him. After a few more moments of silence, I knelt down and inserted the flag into the ground, right next to the flowers. Down on my haunches, I was, for a few seconds at least, aware only of the man whose remains were below me, the man who only months earlier had so proudly assured me that he would get his prescription from the VA pharmacy on that day that he’d left his ID at home (an absolute no-no, of course), the man who’d then sashayed his way back into my office a half-hour later, dangling a sack of medications from his raised right hand, practically purring to me that “she thought I was cute, Doc, I told you. They taught us how to do that in Special Forces training, told you, told you.”

God, I miss him.

As I stood up, I heard a chuckle behind me. I turned to find Athos still staring downward, but smiling to beat the band.

“He’d have been so tickled that you did this, Doc,” he whispered, pausing only a few seconds before looking up at me, the tear trickling down his cheek, I suspect mine mirroring his.

The smile could only last so long.

“I miss him so much,” was all he could then say, clearly lest the single tear be joined by compatriots far too many, far too insistent.

It was only as we embraced right then, however, that our truth, his and mine, was spoken.

“I’m going to miss you so much, too,” he whispered into my ear, for a few moments hugging me even harder, only then to release me, to push himself back, to look down at the ground, to swallow, to look back up at me and then, without pause, to look back down again, his hands inserted into his pockets, his feet shifting, side, to side, to side.

“You know we’re going to stay in touch, don’t you, right?” I said after my own pause. I then moved a few steps toward him, took his face, and pulled it up slightly, bringing us one more time to that spot so familiar, so comfortable, so distressing to us both: eye to eye. “I won’t be able to do anything about the VA or anything like that, no medications, the whole bit. But . . . we’ll still talk. Just like always. Promise.”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the gaze he gave back to me at that moment, the gaze of a man half my age, yet one who had lain by the coffin of Aramis in the belly of an airplane for hours on end, one who had taken Porthos’ folded flag from the hands of the highest-ranking officer of Indiana’s National Guard, only to pass it on to his buddy’s uncle with a solemn salute, the one who had buried his father, his sister. The last one standing.

He was reminding me that he could not afford to forget what I was trying so hard not to acknowledge: that separations matter, that Skype and FaceTime can only save us so much, that “still, just like always” is never either.

“Roger that, Doc” he whispered.

The good soldier, protecting his “superior” to the end.

I’m happy to report that he and I have indeed stayed in touch since my move. But, yes, it’s not just like always.

My last day at the Indianapolis VA was Friday, June 28, 2013. At 0400h (yes, that’s right) on July 1, 2013, my wife and I took my younger two children to the Indianapolis Airport to board a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, where they attended the national convention for the Mennonite Church USA. Only about an hour later, I drove my ridiculously-packed-up, blue Volkswagen away from my father’s house, where we’d been camping out since the sale of our home, after twenty-two years heading out of town one last time, now toward Nashville, Tennessee, toward a very different hospital than the VA, a very different life.

Yet I-65 South toward Louisville, with Nashville beyond, leads past a spot not too far away from a cemetery I’d visited just a month before. I thought of taking a brief detour. Yet I had a meeting to make in about four hours and then, after that, it was to be off to another meeting at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, forty-five minutes northwest of Nashville. No rest for the wicked. Or the weary.

So I drove on by. And remembered.

______________________________

It has been ten days since I penned those last words. I’m still as clueless as to how to wrap up this essay as I was then.

We all so wish we could tidy up our lives’ endings, slap on some aphoristic wisdom and then mosey on down the road to another venue, another opening of another show.

Yet how do I do that, how do I tidily say “goodbye” to young men and women who have known so up-close-and-personally, often time after time after time, those most untidy of Life’s endings? How dare I even think that a nice thought at seventy miles per hour, followed by a sentence fragment penned three months later, could be enough to say to a Musketeer and his battle buddies, both literal and figurative, adieu, let alone claim to say à Dieu, Godspeed.

As I sit in the quiet of my brand-new, far-smaller condo, I almost literally experience faces pass before me, faces of those who have cried who have raged, who have laughed. Unlike the faces of the dead, these do not haunt me, thankfully. They do remind me, though, how much Life matters, how quickly it can change, for good or no, how long it lingers even after it has allegedly moved on.

And so I listen on.

Adieu, mes amis. À Dieu.

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