Saturday, November 28, 2009

Now What?

*Retold with permission.

Years ago, somebody working for the Veterans Affairs Administration told me that if we had a combat action ribbon, we automatically rated 10% disability for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Apparently the mere act of being in such a life-threatening situation meant we were certifiably crazy – well, 10% crazy. Even though I certainly have that ribbon, earned multiple times over, I never asked for my 10%. It seemed embarrassing, not only because I don’t consider myself nuts, but because other men from other wars had been through far worse and still come out in the other side of it just fine – or at least seem to be so.

Besides that, I expected many of the tragedies of war. I expected to see bodies. I expected to see blood. I expected that some of us would get hurt. Sometimes, I was convinced it would be me. Occasionally, I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to make it at all. I distinctly remember sitting in the humvee with my feet as far apart on the floorboards as I could get them. That way, if the shrapnel came through, maybe I’d only lose one leg and not both. Or one arm. I’d practiced putting on a tourniquet with one hand in the event that I’d lost the other. That part of it was expected, though I hesitate to call it fun.

I know a lot of guys absolutely hate the “did you kill anybody” question, but I’m going to be honest about it. Yes. How did that make me feel? Truthfully, it was remarkably uneventful. It was necessary at the time, and the alternative – potentially losing people because I hesitated – was far less appealing. Am I guilty about it? No. I did the right thing. The only troubling part is hindsight; I, singlehandedly, made the decision and took action to terminate the life of another human being. It’s not guilt, but wonderment.

Recently, I met a girl who shot an aggressor as he attempted to force his way through her window into the bedroom. I told her I thought it was pretty badass, and she confessed that it was most powerful she’d felt in her entire life. I think we feel that way in the military, too, but don’t talk about it. If we were to say it, people would assume we’re warmongers, which we are not. We just volunteered for an ugly business – knowing full well and agreeing that it’s ugly. Nobody hates war more than those fighting it. But it didn’t make us crazy.

All the flurry in the news about veteran suicide is bothersome, since they almost always blame it on PTSD, or us being crazy. I don’t think that’s it at all. If it were, then why didn’t previous generations of veterans kill themselves more frequently? God knows many of them saw more friends die in front of them, saw their own violent demise as a near-certainty, and lost countless friends along the way. There are plenty of veterans from my generation who genuinely have PTSD, but their situations are excusable. I know what many of them went through. I also don’t believe it’s why many of them take their own lives. There are other reasons for that.

It wasn’t killing people. That, perhaps horrifyingly so, was fairly easy. Identify the target, make a decision, and then respond accordingly. More often than not, the aggressor was hidden, or elusive. Fire a shot and leave. Detonate the IED and run. It was infuriating. We WANTED to shoot something, but there was nobody there to shoot. They’d inflicted their damage and flee, leaving us bleeding, dying, and angry.

It wasn’t being gone for months on end, either. Sure, it’s miserably, lonely, and stressful, but those are the dominant emotions of a deployment. Go away, lose a few people (or a lot of people), and then come back demoralized. With the deployment schedules being what they were, we’d come back and start training to leave again in a matter of months. After a time, you get used to it, watch the calendar closely, and eagerly look forward to being done with it all; or out of the military. Being overseas didn’t kill us; it just burned us out, broke our spirits, and made many of us rue the day we joined.

It wasn’t the living conditions, either. Those were total exasperations while we were enduring them, however. All the days sitting in the mud and trying to keep the mosquitoes from eating us – they were over soon enough. All the night mission chainsmoking to stay awake or punching yourself in the head trying to keep from slumping over the steering wheel, they’re great stories for the grandkids someday. Besides that, I take some pride in having gone through all of it and not completely shut down. I’m proud of my intestinal fortitude, self-discipline and endurance. Plenty of other guys didn’t do so well. Even still, I had my days. During one tour, I wasted away to a zombie from stress and lack of sleep. But none of this makes me want to kill myself.

Why do so many want to? I wish I knew specifically, because then I’d make every effort to help them. Though the specifics are still a mystery to me, I have a few ideas. It was purpose; more specifically, the total loss of it.

Throughout boot camp, we’re inundated with stories of heroism, dedication and patriotism. Before we were ordered to jump into our racks [beds] at the position of attention, we were required to scream out, “honor, courage, commitment,” at the top of our lungs. From the very beginning, we were told what we were doing was honorable. Even now, I sincerely believe that it is.

Whenever we went out somewhere in uniform, we always attracted attention – even the ugliest among us. Something about the uniform drew people. Women would naturally forget that we’re morons and gush about how dashing we looked. Men would come up and tell us about how their friends served, or they served, or how a distant cousin was in the Navy and I guess somehow they felt a connection with us. We were quasi-superheroes or something, or at least we garnered a lot of attention. Many civilian guys didn’t like us because we automatically had a leg up when we hit on girls. But when we lost the uniform, we lost everything that went with it. We were suddenly just like everybody else.

Whenever we ran out of things to say in a conversation, we could always tell a war story, or one from training, and people would listen with rapt attention. It was a foreign world to them; far off places, imminent danger, guns and explosions. If we were good talkers, we could dominate every conversation. Even when people said something awful to us, they were usually so much in the minority that people immediately sided with us, defended us, felt sorry for us, and then hung around even closer when we vented about how we’d been wronged. This, too, helped us hit on the girls. We were special. When we left the ranks, it stopped abruptly.

Whenever we were overseas, strangers from all across the United States would send us letters, pray for us, and inundate us with packages full of things that they wouldn’t normally buy even a close friend or relative. We were rock stars. They thanked us for keeping them safe, for volunteering to do miserably difficult things on behalf of strangers, and then thanked us on behalf of a grateful nation. We were heroes in their eyes, though few of us felt like it. Still, though, it was great to be put on a pedestal. Our service wasn’t just a dirty job; it was an identity. We lost it when we were discharged.

At first the discharge was freedom – almost the end of a prison sentence, but that changed. In reality, it was also a discharge from the reality we’d been living in, as well as the unique identity that went with it. What once set us apart from everybody else was now completely, irrevocably gone (unless we got so desperate that we elected to go back in). We didn’t just lose a uniform, but also a job, a calling, an elevated status, and direction. We poured our hearts into earning the mantle of warrior, but promptly extinguished our hearts when we left it all behind. We walked away with nothing. Without purpose and completely adrift.

And that, I think, is why many so quickly give up. That’s why they kill themselves – they see life as over. They’re jobless, they’ve lost their purpose, their motivation, and everything that once categorized them as worthy of respect. They try to keep telling war stories, but people lose interest quickly. They’re just the ramblings of a washed-up veteran. They’re told to move on.

They go off to college, but it seems a waste of time. Listening to kids and professors with no clue about the world pontificating how stupid and evil war is, but none of them has ever seen the face somebody who truly wanted to kill them simply because they were different. Besides this, it’s not purposeful. Instead, it’s an endless stream of boring information, mostly forgotten, and far less interesting than doing patrols and carrying a rifle.

What profession, pastime or hobby can come close to the respectability that they earned in the military? Law enforcement? Hardly. Academia? Not really. Besides, few of them ever end up in positions if great importance. They’ve put aside an adventure and picked up monotony. After the military, “normal life” is boring. Nothing seems meaningful.

And so, with the best behind them and blinded to the hope that the future might offer something equally rewarding, they flounder, turn inside themselves and see life as mostly over. The remainder is survival, not living. With a total lack of hope, why bother to keep trying? What’s the point? At best, it’s all less interesting, adventurous, and meaningful. Life, as they know it, is over.

They never prepared us for this in training, either. They spend months readying us to go fight, live in filth and get by on little to no sleep, but then they do virtually nothing to see us off. And I’m not even sure it’s their fault, anyway. We all made the voluntary decision to go in, so it seems appropriate that we also make the voluntary decision to do something great after we get out, too. What I wish they DID do, however, is help us see beyond the patriotism, beyond the service, and beyond the identity of warrior.

Even for the guys that do 20 years and retire, there’s still more living on the outside, and that’s what none of us were ready to face. Having exhausted our hearts becoming warriors, there’s little energy left for much else. Life isn’t over, but living seems to be. And with our greatest achievements behind us, why keep struggling? A quick end seems almost merciful, saving us years of futility. It’s not the war that kills us, or the PTSD, the sights and horrors; it’s the end of the war and the end of purpose. We gave the military our all, and now there’s nothing left.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meeting In The Rain

For mid-autumn, the weather was typical. The skies were grey and the clouds low – alternating between irritating drizzle, gentle rain, and short pauses before the next insult. It was arthritically cold and everyone’s joints hurt. As they walked, their feet turned sodden in the wet, perfectly-kempt grass. A number regretted not bringing umbrellas. It was fitting for the funeral. It was awful.

Half of those gathered were his “blood” family, and the other half the family with whom he bled, in uniform. Grief read on all their faces, manifested as total devastation on many, yet tempered with anger, guilt and disbelief on most of the veterans. In some way, though unquantifiably so, they felt they owned this. All grieved yet another brother who, after years of honorable service, took his own life.

Well-intentioned public figures are always eager to provide data that proves the military and veterans “aren’t that bad off,” but they must not know anybody who has endured a miserable deployment or struggled to regain their footing after transitioning out of the service. To me, their expositions do little more than demonstrate how little they care. They must not know the people I know, either. If they did, they would be unable to NOT grieve.

Since 2003, my Marine battalion has sustained well over forty combat fatalities in Iraq. At least twelve of those were from a single friendly fire incident. Back in the states, the same battalion has lost half a dozen in training accidents such as vehicle rollovers or “runaway guns.” Nearly that many have been lost to liberty incidents – mostly automobile crashes. They have also lost almost a dozen to suicide, and these are just the numbers I’ve been told about. Already, I struggle to remember their names, which embarrasses me.

Even those who have survived their service still seem to be doing poorly. Among those I knew the vast majority of their marriages have failed. Others have since begun relationships and watched them deteriorate, too. I know of few couples who are doing undeniably well.

Amongst my peers, college has become a default – the free option awaiting them when they left the ranks, but remarkably few seem to approach it with any ambition. It’s not preparation for greater dreams, but a way to prolong the inevitable. Real life is fast approaching, and none of it looks enjoyable. Physically, they’re falling apart. Mentally, they may not be far behind.

Those who elected to stay in the Marines are now regretting doing so. Despite their optimism, it hasn’t improved for them. One recently noted that, “it’s just not fun being a Marine anymore.” Those that moved into other branches of the military are also questioning their decisions. It’s turning out to just be more of the same.

And nor can I overlook the dozens from my battalion who have been discharged for medical reasons. They frequently stood right next to those who were killed, and somehow managed to survive – but barely. They’re missing legs and fingers, eyesight, or hearing. They’ve lost mobility, or are still waiting for shrapnel to migrate out from under their skin. Several grapple with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs), loss of memory, radically adjusted personalities, and a host of other side effects. One of my own Marines, struck several times by IEDs, confessed to me that he can’t remember his own father’s funeral. He knows he was there, but can’t remember where it was, or anything about it. His girlfriend left him because she didn’t like who he’d become.

Nobody, as near as I can tell, is remotely happy. One friend announced with conviction that his greatest achievements in life are behind him and now he looks forward to a miserable life without meaning or purpose. People keep insisting that most veterans get out and thrive, but I’m not seeing it. Not the guys I know.

More than I can count are still reeling from some sort of emotional injury – and these are the ones who I have the most trouble understanding. We were infantry, so we expected to lose some in combat. None of us liked it, but such is the nature of war. Fewer always come home. We did not expect to lose any more, though. We did not anticipate an internal war. It’s one we don’t know how to fight; one with staggering casualty figures. In 2005 alone, for example, more than 6,100 veterans took their own lives in the states. To put that in perspective, approximately 5,000 servicemembers have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. But in the states, more than that died by their own hands in one year.

Several of my surviving friends wonder what they could have done differently. They mull over what warning signs they should have seen. They soul-search for how they could have made themselves more available, or approachable, or attentive. They’re angry with themselves for what they see as a failure on their part. They’re angry with the departed for not talking to them, because they would have gladly helped. They’re haunted. We are haunted. “I just talked with him, and now he’s gone.”

They say the wars may be ending soon, but I fear the casualties are just beginning to mount. For the majority of veterans I know, to include myself, there is a pervasive feeling of discontent, desperation, and protracted misery. Statistics keep insisting that we’re mostly okay, but I see differently. I see men and women caught in a slow and lonesome death. I see defeated warriors. And I see little being done about it.

The US Army recently admitted that they have no idea what to do about the epidemic of suicides within their ranks. Nor have their aggressive ad campaigns done anything to reduce the numbers. Similarly, the VA has seen only marginal success – a sad realization considering the thousands of mental health professionals they have recently hired. In some regards, it’s as if the war has chewed up a generation of young men and women and permitted them do great and terrible things, but then spit them back into society alone, unprepared, and unsupported. I have no great solutions. I wish I did.

If I knew what else I should be doing, I would do it. Just as it is for my brothers, I see this as personal failure. More than perhaps ever before, we need this nation’s help. Yet more than perhaps ever before, we don’t know what to ask for. Instead, there is a growing generation of complete screw-ups. Something changed in us, and we have no clue how to reverse it. Something died, and many are simply waiting for the rest of their beings to follow.

We were all trained to be leaders. We were trained to be problem-solvers and to rationally overcome any situation even in midst of total chaos. The enemy was tangible, and easy. The one that consistently slays us, however, is nebulous, evasive, and clever. We’re fighting demons; a battle for which we’re gravely unprepared. But trained leaders and problem-solvers are loath to ask for help. They suffer, wage war, and frequently lose in silence. Even at my worst, I never sought any help. It seemed an exhibition of weakness.

There will be more rain-soaked cemeteries with assemblies of grieving parents and angry, guilty, devastated veterans. There will be more haunting questions about how we’ve failed our brothers. There will be more self-doubting and discontent. There will be more struggling, and there will be more defeat. We’ll stand there quietly and not know what to say, and we’ll walk away not knowing what to do differently next time. Who will the next assembly be for? A close friend? Us? The training never addressed this kind of battle. For as much as we struggle to put our war behind us, we keep being pulled back into it. Men, our brothers, our friends, our subordinates and leaders, still keep disappearing from the ranks. Helplessly, we watch them fall.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Return 1

*The below is fiction. Maybe...

Hall remembered when he liked being called insane. By his interpretation of the accusation, people were impressed that he was willing to do creative things, but they were entirely too weenie to try such things themselves. It invariably took them too far from the comforts of their suburban neighborhoods with neglected little lawns, overweight and emotionally disengaged husbands yelling at a football games on TV, and their disillusioned wives attempting to keep the kids from climbing the walls while they struggled to cook dinner. He enjoyed not being like that. But now, the prospect of drinking his cheap beer, watching his game, and disliking his frantic wife seemed appealing.

Absently grinding the curved magazine of his AK—47 into the top ledge of the mortared half wall, he looked behind him to confirm if Tucker was asleep. As expected, he was. Despite frequent eminent danger, Tucker still considered any lull as a superb opportunity to catch up sleep – a puzzling trait considering that he never appeared to exert more than the very minimum required energy to stand from his bed in the morning, eat something, drink a strong coffee, and drift back to sleep. Hall had more than once accused him of being a waste of carbon.

He flicked his still-lit cigarette back towards Tucker, hitting the low wall above his head. In the dark, red embers showered onto his head and shoulders and he stirred, eventually lifting his head to stare groggily at Hall.

“They coming?” he managed to ask around a yawn.


“They why’d you wake me up?” He vigorously brushed cigarette ash from his hair.

“Because if I have to be alert up here, so do you.”

Tucker stood with monumental effort, slung his rifle on his shoulder like a shovel, and shrugged. He remained silent, unwilling to concede that Hall was right.

He peered off the roof into the dark. “Anything to see out there?”

“Just jackals. I haven’t heard anything else, and no car’s come near for an hour, but they could be walking in this time.”

“We’ll see, I guess. Hand me a smoke, will you?”

In silence, they looked out into the desert, listening to jackals bicker over which one owned what piece of empty desert. Hall thought about the suburbs again and realized with irony that he was doing exactly the same thing the jackals were doing – only with guns. Being insane had disadvantages.


It had begun as a barroom joke years before. US commanders often made shabby attempts at humor when addressing their troops. “I’ve been here so long, I ought to buy real estate and build a house.” Nobody would laugh, afraid to give them any license to continue. It was true, though. They’d ALL been there too long.

Hall and Tucker, along with five other escapees from the infantry ranks, had repeated the joke over drinks one evening in Oceanside, California and wondered if maybe the commanders’ jokes were more reasonable than they had previously been willing to admit. Tucker thought it would be funny – the ultimate middle finger to a country he had visited repeatedly, never liked, but strangely would be willing to visit again. Hall considered it an adventure. Burr, always eager to horrify people, thought it was a splendid opportunity to wear a “man dress” and get away with it. The rest, judgment blurred by varying quantities of beer and discontent at the prospect of living in their parents’ basements and attending community college, quickly agreed. It could be done, maybe, with the proper funding, careful planning, and a certain death wish.

“Why?” was the question they were asked with incredulity when they tried to explain their reasoning. “Why not?” however, was the best response they could summon. It satisfied them, but not “normal people.” They always seemed enthusiastic to provide a long list of reasons why it was a stupid idea. Most of them were valid, too. If they were so enthusiastic about visiting the sandbox again, why not stay in the military? Each quickly fired off his own reasons for getting out. After Hall mentioned his intentions to one friend, who looked at him with incredulity, he determined it was better to simply not talk about it. He’d wait until he’d done it, grew bored of it, and came back home. He was eager to further distance himself from the weenies.

They concluded that the logistics would be bloody awful. To anybody’s knowledge, no US servicemembers had ever decided to return to Iraq as residents. Tourists had traveled through the relative safety of Kurdistan, yes, but nowhere else – at least not without securing large compounds, hiring enormous guard forces, driving exorbitantly expensive armored vehicles, and living in terror. One American guy had tried to motorcycle the country, but he’d been arrested by Iraqi forces, handed over to the US military, and quickly deported. He was clearly insane, and not in a good, adventurous way. This would be more calculated, and methodical – and still seemed absurdly dangerous. But, that was part of the thrill.

It would take years to research and execute, obviously. Not so much because it was difficult to visit a dangerous area of the world, but because certain things needed to transpire first. The conflict as a whole, specifically as it pertained to US presence, needed to change first. Very simply, the longer they waited, the less likely it would be that they were marching blithely to their own deaths. Time would change the situation on the ground, no doubt, and give them ample opportunity to prepare. Something as complex as this deserved a little forethought. With refilled glasses and even dimmer thinking, they toasted to their health, their success in future exploits, and to hell with everybody else.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Glory Days

Over the course of the Marine Corps Birthday (Nov. 10th) and Veterans’ Day on November 11th, I, and millions of other veterans did what they seem to do best: occupy poorly-lit, smoke-filled bars, buy drinks for strangers and poison ourselves. Amid all the conversations, all the speeches about honor and service, all the toasts to friends who never made it home, and the poorly-remembered second and third lines of the Marine Corps hymn, it was one Vietnam veteran who I most noticed. Despite the blur of alcohol, whenever something meaningful was said, he adjusted his campaign cover (drill instructor hat), snapped to the position of attention, and executed a sharp salute. His behavior loosed a cascade of difficult questions I don’t particularly want to address. Do I want to be like him in thirty years?

For how long can we look back on our service as the most meaningful, memorable experience of our lives and remain uninterested in other memories? For how many years is it acceptable to introduce ourselves as veterans and not simply by our names? When will something else be more important?

How many free drinks can we accept from strangers and older veterans before we drop the title of returned heroes and become the ones buying drinks for others? How long is it appropriate for us to live each day like our last and drink ourselves into a stupor? How much longer will people excuse us for it because we’re veterans and deserve to live a little after all we’ve lived through over the past few years?

How long can we legitimately be angry about at leadership decisions that we’re convinced killed our friends, or bitter at a government that really seemed to have little idea how to properly employ us? For how many more years will we visit the gravesites of fallen comrades before our obligation and guilt fades? For how much longer can we reminisce about out glory days at war and sincerely believe that we’re fundamentally different and don’t want to fit in again? How many more nights can we get away with puking ourselves or wetting the bed? How many more mornings can we justify reeking of booze?

When will we stop devoting all our time to news stories about the war before we grow tired of it and conclude that there are other things happening in the world that deserve attention? How much longer will we watch war movies even though they take us to places we don’t particularly want to be? When will we drop the military jargon and acronyms and make an attempt to speak like everybody else? When will we grow tired of wearing paraphernalia from our uniforms and dress like those around us?

How long will it be before we can no longer hide the secret that we actually enjoy peoples’ sympathy, as much as we may insist we don’t want it? When will we stop telling people we’re deaf because of IEDs and machine guns and simply lean in a little closer? When will we throw away all our old uniforms or stop putting military bumper stickers on our cars? When will we quit limiting our closest friends to veterans and grow comfortable speaking with those who haven’t served? When will we stop wearing combat boots? When will we no longer want to be different?

How much longer will we sputter, “I’m a combat veteran” whenever we’re insulted and conclude that most people really don’t care? When will we grow tired of muttering, “fucking civilians” and remember that we, too, are civilians? When will we stop missing the military? When will we lose interest in being identified by our rank? When will we stop trying to explain?

When will we determine that our short years of service aren’t who or what we are, but instead something adventurous that we did? When will we be interested in seeking out other adventures? When will people no longer ask us our opinions on the war? When will we no longer want to talk about it? When will our stories be about other things? When will we grow our hair back out to normal lengths?

How much longer can we ride the wave of quasi-fame because we’re veterans and instead set out for greater things? When will our service evolve into a memory and cease being an identity? When will we no longer try to defend ourselves when somebody accuses us of being warmongers? When will we move forward? When will we stop abusing ourselves? When will we stop killing ourselves? When will we awaken?

When we are older? When we are old? Tomorrow? Next year? When there is another war underway? When we accept defeat? When we acknowledge smallness? When nobody cares anymore? When we have other things to occupy our thoughts? When we hit rock bottom?

Inarguably, many of these changes, both good and bad, are irreversible. It is impossible to simply forget participation in a war. It’s just hard to see other things. I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but one thing is certain. For us, the generation of warriors who are prone to self destruction, time is definitely running out.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 8, 2009

For All It's Thrill

After months of fabricating an image of what home would be like, long hours forgetting every one of its unappealing aspects, and sufficient time to develop its anticipation to an unrealistic fever pitch, it is no surprise that, at least on some level, I found arriving home a disappointment. My expectations were absurdly unrealistic.

With each passing day in Iraq, home had slowly transformed into the antithesis of a combat zone. In my mind’s eye, whatever being deployed was (even as a writer), home was distinctly NOT. If a combat zone was dangerous, I remembered home as peaceful. If the desert was unbearably loud with the roar of generators and trucks, home was beautifully quiet. If Iraq was miserably lonely, home was immeasurably good company. If my deployed life was complicated, home was simple. But fantasies, just like the best-laid battle plans, never survive first contact. Home is just as complex, just as chaotic, and just as tragic and incomprehensible as a combat zone. I just don’t understand it as well as I understand tactical operations; there aren’t any manuals. But still, it has been good to see my family, catch up with old friends, and make a few new ones.

Nationwide, a hundred thousand husbands return from a deployment to discover that their wives have frequently done quite well in their absence. What was once a mutual partnership to raise a family and maintain a home was successfully handled by only one of them. And marriages, those that survive deployments, are forever different. For many troops, single or otherwise, there’s the initial excitement at your return, but then life continues – without your inclusion. Nobody’s a hero at home, but the guy who cleans the gutters, or the one who’s asked to discipline the children. They’ll go back to taking out the garbage and doing household chores. After leading troops in a combat situation, preparing intelligence briefs, or repairing multi-million dollar pieces of tactical equipment, the return home often seems a permanent descent into obscurity. There are plenty of calamities, but they seem simultaneously trivial and inexplicably unmanageable. We were once making history, yet now we’re only viewing it pass us by.

A few weeks prior to his return, a servicemember was briefing subtle changes in the Rules of Engagement to his Soldiers or preparing weapon systems and vehicles for combat operations. Now, however, he’s arguing with his wife over bills. Loving people proves far more involved than dearly missing them from afar. To their alarm, many find themselves missing the simplicity of a combat zone: conduct the mission, lead troops, stay alive, eat, and sleep when able. Back home, relationships are hard, traffic is awful, and people are generally rude, and seemingly always in the way. Friends are still dying, too – overseas and at home – all under horrible circumstances.

A number will depart the military and smoothly move forward with life – relegating their service to stories for the grandchildren. A number more will stay in and begin preparing for their next tour in six to eighteen months time. None will ever be the same, but a few will become inherently self-destructive, reclusive, or simply go adrift. In staggering numbers, they’ll take their own lives.

Now that they’re home, people will ask questions that they still don’t know how to answer. Most are good questions, but it’s difficult to see beyond the anger, personal loss, total frustration, and culture shock of returning. It’s easier to not talk to anybody, or wile away the evenings in bars talking (and thinking) about as little as possible. Nothing makes sense, and despite the distance from a combat zone, clarity is rare. Truthfully, the combat zone is never that far away at all.

For myself, I still can’t tell you what I think about Iraq. Four tours have simply afforded an increasingly complex jumble of information, disconnected facts, and observations that are nearly impossible to explain to others. I’m embarrassed that I’m avoiding people who ask me challenging questions and ignoring incoming phone calls. I’m still frustrated. Before God I swear that if I knew a way to change how the war has settled with me, I would. But thus far the solution evades me. Perhaps I am in the minority.

Of the dozens of things I planned to do when I returned, I’ve still done none of them. Home is nice, but I don't particularly want to be here. My thoughts are far, far way.

They’re immersed in a very interesting, complicated story; more than one, actually. One is the past decade of my life, which has seen me on four separate continents and scrambling to pull the right currency from my wallet and not confuse languages. Sometimes I held a rifle; other times a pencil. There's a strange draw to deserts of all sorts, and dislike of rain on every continent.

There's the story of a two-front war which continues to occupy billions of taxpayers' dollars and nearly a quarter million US troops. There's the simultaneous absurdity and critical nature of the war. There’s the tragedy of war itself, the adventure of combat, the fear of being the one who never sees his family again, and the general belief that the leaders of this country have committed the US armed forces to a mission the policymakers didn’t clearly understand. There are the individual stories of the hundreds of friends I still have out there.

There is the chaos of being home, the complication of human interaction. There is a total lack of the peace and refreshment which I so desperately sought. I’ve told people I’m ready to leave again, which no doubt horrifies them. Yet how much of this is a calling, and how much of it is running? I wish I knew the answer. Prayers have thus far produced little response. I will keep praying. It changes me - which can't be a bad thing.

If I had to distill everything, I would say that choosing the path I have has alienated me from a great deal of what most people consider "normal." I don't regret taking it, but I confess that I don't particularly like walking it alone. I am not in the military anymore, yet I am not exactly a civilian either. I am both, and none, and something in between. A bridge perhaps? A link? A misfit? An adventurer? A wayward? My answer depends on my demeanor, and the weather, and how much sunlight I've seen. And the rain. I miss combat boots. A lot of vets never stop wearing them.

When I pulled into a gas station three day ago, the first thing I noticed about the car in front of me was the Marine Corps sticker on the back window. The second thing was a young guy stepping from the passenger’s seat. The third thing was the USMC tattoo on his arm. In talking with him, I learned he’s home on pre-deployment leave – a month away from his first combat deployment. In short order, his unit will be patrolling lonely territory in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.

For all my eagerness to return to the United States, as much as I missed my family and detest the heartbreaking worry I’ve caused them and others, as lonely as I have been, as little as I like living out of a bag and wearing the added weight of body armor, for all the danger, misery and tragedy of a combat zone, and despite the fact that I will make friends only to lose some of them, I still miss it. As we stood in the gas station parking lot talking, there was only one thing I wanted to tell that young Marine: “Take me with you, brother; I’m ready to go. I’ll absolutely hate it, but I love you guys.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 2, 2009

Watch Closely

“You know why I feel so close to this war? It’s because of two guys we had come through a while back.

“They were both in town for treatment at the hospital – they’d been blown up pretty badly. Since they couldn’t drive anywhere, we took care of it and drove them around when they needed it. We also brought them down here to the VFW, gave them free memberships, and bought ‘em a couple beers. They were the nicest guys you could imagine.

“One of them brought his laptop with him, and he had live footage of some of the firefights and IEDs he’d gone through. Hell, I guess some guy had recorded the mission where he got blown up, too. Just riding along, and all the sudden the humvee’s lost in a mushroom cloud and he’s tossed into the ditch like a ragdoll.

“He had another video where they were doing a foot patrol, too. As it was playing, he said, ‘watch closely here. This is where my friend gets blown away.’ A moment later, a sniper round takes off the head of the guy in front of him, and then all hell breaks loose.

“Some of the folks in here couldn’t even watch it; it was too disturbing for them. But I watched it over and over. These are the images playing through this guy’s mind all the time.

“He told me that when he got home, the first thing he did was go to his friend’s parents’ house and sit down to tell them how their son had died. He figured they had a right to know. He said they cursed at him at first, but later on they thanked him.

“He said that whenever he finished treatment for his brain injury he was planning to get married, but I don’t know if it ever happened. He was still messed up pretty bad. He’d be talking normally for awhile, but then he’d start repeating himself, over and over. Can’t say I blame him, either. Those images keep playing in my mind, too.

“After what he’s gone through, I don’t know how he’s going to fit back in; him or the others. Especially if all he can think about is getting blown out of his goddam humvee or watching the poor sonofabitch in front of him have his head taken off by a sniper.

“I wish I knew how to help these guys, but I really don’t. Right now, I just want them all to come home.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved
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