As Times Goes By

As I walked through the outpatient waiting area, I passed one of the young guys in the civilian program, I thought, communing with his smart phone. Upon reaching the nurses’ station, though, I realized my error, walked back, and for a few moments stared at the soldier unobserved, at his stocking cap with the chic, mirrored sunglasses perched thereon, sunset orange, at his technicolor tennis shoes facing no visual competition from the all-gray track suit that most likely cost a fraction of the shoes’ price, from Target, likely.

Texting completed, he looked up and smiled. “Hey!”

“Good holidays?” I asked.

Shifting to a frown that spoke volumes, “We need to talk,” he said.

Marital tensions, again. Similar ones had brought him to me only weeks ago with a near-suicide story worthy of the name. Today, though, he was only angry, willing to keep trying, but only for so much longer.

In the ensuing weeks, you see, he’d begun to forgive himself for imagined errors and real deaths. No longer was he feeling unworthy of happiness because he’d happened to have decent-enough numbers in War’s lottery.

“I’m not a bad man,” he said to me. “I deserve better.”

Music to my ears, my young friend, to my ears.

Dark Shadows

‘Twas The New York Post, (ah, venerable news source), that published the review of Demon Camp, the story of a combat veteran who sought to rid himself of War’s demons—the “Destroyer,” shadow of Death—via a husband-wife exorcism team in eastern Georgia. The book’s author postulates that whatever good the soldier experienced must have resulted from a mental “virtual exposure therapy” that still allows him to fight his demons and “always win.”

Perhaps.

I write with no interest in exorcisms. In an age of statistics, pills, and cognitive techniques, though, I sometimes wonder how many of my colleagues believe that their words, printed or spoken, adequately contain the horror of even the metaphorically demonic, confident that by exclaiming “Prefrontal Cortex!” in lieu of “Be Healed!” they have given superior succor to a war-tortured soul.

How many, I can only wonder, have abandoned words long enough to allow their own prefrontal cortices to absorb the limbic horrors of the veterans before them, enough so that the dark shadows of soldiers’ nights invade them just enough to feel in their depths, even momentarily, one whispered word: “Die!”

Talk about cognitive restructuring.

The Vet Whisperers

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

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

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

Brainspotting

After thirty years as a psychiatrist, I have come to a certain detente with my field. Experts smarter-than-I gladly inform me, in press or in person, of what constitutes adequate “evidence” for the identification of maladies, the efficacy of treatments, the title of “best practices.”

Oh, so lucky am I.

I always look forward to the day when a combat veteran first encounters “Brainspotting,” a trauma recovery technique so unworthy of notice by the scientifically rigorous. How can a patient’s gaze at a pointer, stalled at a particular point in the visual field, lead to anything but a feel-good parlor trick, after all?

“What was that Houdini s*** she just did with me?” my patient asks, a mere hour after his session with my colleague. “How can just looking at a particular spot cause my mind, finally, to stop racing down godforsaken alleys?”

Just yesterday he sobbed before me, despairing that Life could get better. Now he flashes a smile that seems both to fear and to dare Fate’s vengeance for his hopeful hubris.

“So many meds, so much therapy, all these years—and after two hours, I feel a calm I’ve not felt in years. Seriously?”

Nothing up my sleeve, I only reply, also smiling, “Seriously.”

Grand Opening

I still recall Dr. Hook’s The Cover of the “Rolling Stone,” my generation’s lament over what it takes to get noticed around these parts. What lyrics might have been spawned had BuzzFeed, The Daily Kos, and YouTube then been available?

Sean Azzariti, cannabis activist, twice-deployed Marine with PTSD, got his notice as he made his purchase of Colorado’s finest Bubba Kush yesterday, before God and all news outlets, as the cries of hurrah and humbug began wafting their way around the globe.

If only I could decide which way to waft.

Intoxicants are dangerous. There are successful PTSD treatments.

Yet the existence of treatments does not entail their availability. Sadly, even the available is sometimes the incompetent.

“Bird’s ready to land, green light’s on,” the soldier tells me. “You see it in each other’s eyes, no need to talk, the fear, Death. I still see them, those eyes.”

No hymn to weed here. But I see those eyes, too, of the so-called living.

So many eyes. So much to be done.

1K a Day

So much has changed in the past year. There could have been so many words.

So how about a challenge to myself: although I will continue to write longer essays, each day I will try to write no more than 1000 characters about my life, my thoughts, my emotions concerning the men and women whom I have the privilege to serve. Perhaps I will reflect on a particular person, a blog post, an article, a news item, who knows.

“Talking around Robin Hood’s barn” was what my father always used to call it, i.e., my propensity for prolixity. Great word, prolixity. My wife just rolls her eyes, kindly reads what I write, and then hits the Like button on Facebook. God bless her.

There is a time for prolixity. There is a time for conciseness. Many of the soldiers I serve are persons of few words. Perhaps it’s time I give their way a try. After all, there’s always tomorrow.

736 characters. Not bad for a start.

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

Veteran’s Day 2013

Last year on Veteran’s Day, I posted the following. Sadly I can only add to it this year, names of veterans I have known only by their impact on others (Dr. Peter Linnerooth, Clay Hunt), names of veterans I have known deeply by their impact on me (Porthos, Ethan, Kurt) .

Yet with deepest respect, I can only say it all again. Gladly:

I’ve said it many times before: there are much easier ways to get an education than by going through boot camp, a statement as true in times of peace as in times of war. In basic training one learns—body, heart, and mind-—that one may have not only to kill, but also to die, and furthermore that one may have to do both precisely because one is not the center of the universe, because one has chosen to become part of a group that has volunteered to defend a larger group from those who would harm the innocent.

Some persons in this world will voluntarily choose martyrdom to promote the cause of peace, i.e., will choose their own deaths rather than inflict death on another.

Many, if not most persons, however, feel no need whatsoever to make a similar choice. Those who choose to serve in the military take up a different calling, therefore: they choose to serve the “many” such persons, if necessary, unto death so that the innocent will not have to be forced into martyrdom–or, perhaps better put, will not have to be slaughtered.

Every veteran knows that and can look another veteran in the eye and know that the other veteran knows that as well.

And so today is November 11. Because of this blog, however, because of the men and women I have been privileged to serve, this year I remembered Veterans’ Day early, on November 4, three days after November 1, All Saints Day.

We in the Mennonite tradition are more of the “Low Church” ilk, meaning that we have, through our history, tended not to take much notice of such “High Church” occasions  as Advent, Lent, Epiphany, etc. At our Indianapolis congregation, however, we have for several years now chosen the Sunday after All Saints Day to remember those in our congregation and in our lives who have, in the words of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, joined our “great . . . cloud of witnesses.”

In recent years we have done so in a visually striking way: at the front of the sanctuary, on a table before the pulpit, small, flat votive candles are floated in glass bowls filled with water. Initially, as a member of our pastoral staff reads off the names of all members of the congregation who have died during our church’s nearly sixty years of existence, another staff member lights a candle as each name is read. Afterwards, we in the congregation are invited to come forward as we would like to light a candle for those whom we remember and whom we honor.

This year, as the members of the congregation came up front, the rest of us sang a song from the Taizé Community of France with the words, “Within our darkest night, You kindle the fire that never dies away,” a simple melody accompanied by organ, a solo flute, and a solo violin, the congregation and the instruments performing a canon of sorts again and again until all had lit their candles.

As I sat there, four names came to my mind: Danny, TJ, Mike, and Donald, the names of the best friends of four of the men I’ve had the honor to serve. All four men died in front of the men whom I’ve come to know. All four of the men I’ve come to know pause at the mention of these names, no matter how often, no matter when.

I walked up to the table and took the long, fireplace match from the women who had been standing in front of me. The match had burned down about a third of the way, still quite afire, ready. I lowered the flame down to one of the white votives floating in the water. It bobbed ever so slightly, requiring that I hold the match steadily, right at the tip of the wick, to await the few seconds until the flame recreated itself, fire one more time symbolizing lives engulfed, spirits rekindled, light continued.

For a moment I stood there, match now burned nearly halfway down, still alighted, nonetheless, both flames, match’s and candle’s, reflecting in the water below.

I lifted the match near my lips and blew. The carbon remains fell into the water, not scattering, merely floating, remnants, reminders that none of these four men ever reached his twenty-second birthday.

It was time to go back to my seat. Others were awaiting their turn. Death waits for no one.

Tonight I see that floating candle in my mind. Yet on this Veterans’ Day I also recall that life waits for no one as well. The dead float in our souls not simply to be remembered, but even more to be revived, reborn, remade. Life goes on for each of the men whom I continue to serve. Danny’s buddy struggles to keep his emotions under control long enough to feel a future. TJ’s buddy is coming closer every day to accepting that he must take time to grieve so that he will find the time to rebuild. Mike’s buddy is taking that time even as we speak. And Donald’s buddy finally got his old job back.

Thankfully, though death and life do not, hope waits for us all.

If we only dare hope that it will.

To Danny, TJ, Mike, Donald, and now well over two thousand men and women from OEF/OIF/OND, I say “thank you.” To my Uncle Raymond and those who died in Europe and the South Pacific over half a century ago, I say “thank you.” To the best buddy of Danny’s father and those who died with him in Southeast Asia now almost a half century ago, I say “thank you.”

And to all of you who survive, “thank you.” No matter whether one agrees with the wisdom of violence, we all agree to its existence, and on this day that was supposed to have marked the end of the “War to End All Wars,” I thank those who wish to find meaning in protection, even protection unto death. War may or may not ever be justified, ever be wise. War is never a good. Yet its end has not come, nor, sadly, will it.

Thank you to all those who have been and are still willing to live faithfully in light of that.

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

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