A few months before I got out of the Marines, I got a call from a friend who had gotten out a short while ago, and he and another veteran friend were going to come down for a visit. He tried to warn me what to expect.
“Just a heads up,” he told me. “Kyle’s isn’t in the best of shape, and I don’t want you to be shocked or anything when you see him.”
I assured him that I’d be just fine, and we’d have a grand time. I was looking forward to seeing him. I’d been to Iraq and back since I last saw him, and I figure any friend of his would be a friend of mine.
When John introduced me to a buddy from his platoon, I was taken aback – despite his warnings. This buddy, when he was hit by an IED [improvised explosive device], was virtually shredded. His scalp was peeled back, his skill fractured, face shattered, limbs mangled, and organs eviscerated into his lap. And he lived – with significant injuries.
Three years after this incident, when I first met Kyle, he had no eyes, an immobile and mangled hand, walked with a limp, and his skull was held together by at least one large plate. One eye socket was sewn shut, and the other was fitted with a jewel-encrusted false eye.
They had both come down to visit me and a few of their other friends – relive the “gory” days, and perhaps partially because they both missed it. My friend had brought his blind buddy.
Typically, any event involving young Marines devolves into a cussing and shoving match as each vies to out-shout, out-cuss, or even out-offend the others. They’re rowdy. These two: my friend and his blind buddy, were not.
John had served during his first tour with Kyle, during which Kyle was so badly mangled that they didn’t think he’d make it at all. The corpsman had tried to delicately preserve his entrails hanging out, but they figured that, like so many other guys with injuries as extensive as his, he wouldn’t even make it back to the hospital. They said goodbye to him. But he did survive, and made a remarkable recovery – with what’s left to recover.
I met the two of them at their hotel and we were going to go out and get dinner at some place. I hadn’t met Kyle before, and though I wasn’t going to pry into how he was doing, I was still curious to see how he was handling being half lame, totally blind, and dependent on others for most of his needs.
As we walked to the car, John would walk a half pace in front of Kyle so Kyle could rest a hand on John’s shoulder and guide him along. He warned him about steps, narrow doorways, and a host of other obstacles that lay between us and the car. I unlocked the door and opened it for him, and he struggled in, collapsed his cane, tucked it next to the seat, and I started driving down the road.
“So where you guys wanna eat?”
Kyle wanted a steak. Jacksonville, NC is replete with steakhouses, so I asked if he had any preference. He told me.
“Um, I actually don’t know where that one is.”
Based off of nothing but memory before he lost his sight three years prior, he told me how to get there – accurately. He knew Jacksonville better than I did, and he couldn’t see anything.
We ate well that night, and John respectfully guided Kyle’s hands to his silverware, drink and I think he even told him where everything was on his plate so he didn’t have to touch anything to check. During dinner, a girl a couple of booths away came over, sat next to him, and introduced herself. She was actually a Marine, too, and particularly gorgeous.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
He would permit that. And, without cue, explained what she would never ask, but still wanted to know – how he wound up blind, crippled, and stitched back together with modern medicine. He recounted it graphically – while eating. She listened in silence, all but forgetting that a number of people at her table were staring at her uncomfortably.
But after going through all this, tell us, he’s doing pretty well. He’s still sport shoots, is licensed to and carries a concealed handgun, and I think he was also studying in college. And living alone. And judging by how the conversation was going with the female Marine now sitting next to him, he still maintained a robust social life.
I was guilty that I had eyes.
After the meal, we hung out for awhile, and then I drove them back to the hotel room. Kyle drank too much, so he was getting talkative. And referring to himself constantly as an IED detection device. Maybe it’s how he deals with it. When we walked back inside, John repeated the process of walking in front and guiding him down the hall back to the room. Kyle, in case we had forgotten, gave us the room number. When he got inside, he spent the next several minutes arguing on the phone with a woman I presume was his girlfriend. I tried not to pay attention, but I think she was mad that he wasn’t terribly devoted to her.
I’ve never known Marines to be particularly tender people, even when they’re not playing Marine. They’re still fairly firm with their kids, probably yell too much, and perhaps expect them to exhibit the instant obedience to orders that they observe in their troops. This isn’t to say they’re necessarily bad parents, but they’re pretty strict.
The younger the Marine, the more likely he is to be rough, garish, and macho – especially the single ones. But war changed that.
Every other time I’ve gone out with a bunch of Marines, there’s a feeling of reverie about us. Celebrating, eating good food and drinking too much, telling stories, and continuing the conversations to the car and back to the rooms. Lots of laughing, smiles, and horrid jokes. But that night, none of it. We were quiet as we walked, so Kyle could hear John’s direction, and really because there wasn’t a damn thing funny about the situation. There was a lot to think about: guilt, grief, and in at least some of our minds, gratitude for surviving in once piece.
Every day, I forget how nice it is to have legs that work and eyes that see. Every day that Kyle lives, he remembers blowing up. He told us that. And I don’t know if he’s glad he survived.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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