Just spent the last few hours talking to a combat vet from Iraq...
It's hard to put into words what that experience is like for me - which is nowhere near what the daily and nightly experience is for them. I'm staying with a buddy of mine, and we're working on a tour program for combat veterans from our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's not about waving a flag and proving some sort of showy patriotism... and it's definitely not about the money - though there's big money in military history/patriotism, for sure.
No, it's a much deeper level of interest and comradeship that drives us both to do this, and tonight was a complete and utter validation of that mission. My friend Jack has been deeply and heavily involved in dealing with combat wounded from his time in the Marine Corps and then onto where he has continued to work with the Wounded Warrior Project, helping guys pull out of the tailspin that can haunt, hinder, and harass them when they come home or face a very different life as an amputee or with a disfigured face that will never let them forget what they experienced... They are either adrenaline junkies - knowing the world will never be as intense or full of purpose again, or souls who've had theirs battered with stories, sights, and suffering that they simply can't shake out of their heads.
There have been many times when I have hated the depths to which my brain has gone. I guess in retrospect, I wouldn't advise any kid to develop a reading habit with first person, non-fiction accounts of combat, but I got hooked early and hard living in Europe and being surrounded by military history. It has certainly colored my view of the world, and it can give the strongest of souls a very fatalistic view on life and loss.
Hanging out with this veteran, who is younger than Jack, yet looks ten years his senior, brought so much of what I have read and heard up close back to life... I remember working for HBO on "Band of Brothers" and meeting and spending time with so many of those great men who are no longer with us... It was HEAVY. It wasn't a big rah-rah parade or a shiny chest of medals. It was in their eyes and the way they were connected - in a manner that most Western civilians will never even begin to comprehend. When you see businessmen, husbands, fathers, and grandfathers still place the highest value on a rag-tag bunch of guys who they only spent three and a half years of their lives with - out of 80+ years, then you begin to grasp the intense bond that exists between combat veterans of a unit. You begin to get an inkling of an idea that they've seen things and have shared losses that you'll never be able to relate to or fully understand. You'll find yourself envying such a bond - and at the same time rejoicing that you know no such level of loss and darkness.
When I left that reunion of the BoB veterans in Colorado during my research days with Tom Hanks, I sat on the plane and wrote out several pages of thoughts and impressions, as tears poured down my face. For a kid who idolized, read, and studied these great men, it was the most intense experience I've ever had to share that bond with them and feel that energy in the room which was palpable and profound like no other audience I've known. Hero? Hollywood turns that into a big show too easily. Nah, the heroes I saw were men who held onto their sanity after seeing more and giving up more than any of us would ever care to experience...
The veteran I spoke to tonight has some demons alright, but all of that reading and heaviness I have carried in me from learning and knowing so much immediately put me in company with him. And as a Marine who joined to be part of that brotherhood, it meant the world to show him nothing but complete understanding and empathy. He is struggling mightily with his return to civilian life, as many of them are. It's quite difficult to go from such intense highs and lows to a much more sedate and seemingly empty existence. That problem is greatly exacerbated by the ghosts of lost friends and traumatic incidents they witnessed or were a part of which inevitably come bubbling back up with a dream or news of another brother in arms taking his life or losing it on some sandy stretch of road far away from here.
And as the fanfare dies down on Iraq and Afghanistan, the general public will be tempted to marginalize their experience and expect them to simply shake it off and move on - as they so likely will do. Some veterans have and will emerge stronger than ever and face civilian life calmly and confidently. Others don't or won't hold it together well at all and will end up taking their lives through drink or a well aimed bullet. In the middle is a sea of souls who are trying to find their way.
This mission that Jack and I have to take warriors to Europe to walk the battlefields and gain that amazing sight of perspective is such a needed one. We want them to talk. We want them to open up. We want them to be in a cocoon of understanding and comradeship that lets them know that all of that mess tumbling inside of them is perfectly normal. Hell, I HATE that word post-traumatic stress disorder. DISORDER? You patrol streets in fear for your well-being and life every single day on a 12 month tour. You pick bits of your best friend off of your flak jacket and boots after a kid runs up to him with an IED and blows them both into pieces of flesh...I get to sleep and wake up from a full night's sleep, with only the trivial worries of work, dating, and other such simple, common pursuits. But these guys carry a burden that is much greater - and it is a process for them I can only imagine can be a real monster. Most of them lose REM sleep... and many of them dread when it happens, because that's when the dreams start coming back - and my god can they be vivid. I can't even imagine what that's like, going to bed and wondering how I'll wake up in the morning... to what horrid episode of combat, to what loss of life or limb, knowing they've got to face the day and choke that monster back down inside and walk around pretending all is well with the world.
Our goal is to get them to open up and find solace in the pages of history.
I know the value of writing and getting such poison and pain out in the open, too. While working for Stephen Ambrose, I read one too many war books: "With the Old Breed," by E.B. Sledge. This book is the non-fiction account of a 19 year old Alabama farm boy who served in two of the most brutal military campaigns in the modern era. When I finished that book, I simply ached inside. It certainly does get to you, you know? Your faith, your outlook, your innocence.
There is a way out, however. There is this thing called giving back... and using your own pain to help others through theirs. To go it alone means entering the waters along the edge of a giant whirlpool. What these guys have experienced can pull them in past a point of even knowing how to say, "help."
This was my paltry attempt at writing, but it did me a great deal of good at the time.
The Hope of Man
My mind and soul have wandered
across the fields of time,
in search of understanding
the presence of Divine.
On lofty mountain ledges,
from sea to shining sea,
I've glowed in Nature's beauty.
This presence, it must be.
I've seen great feats, inventions,
exposure of the mind
to different thoughts and races:
a love of Humankind.
The sound of children's laughter,
a loving mother's touch,
are reasons sound and plenty
to think Divine is such.
Yet through our storied history
a cancer's been aroused.
On fields of bloody battle
this bitterness is housed.
Young lads marched off in happy cheer
to serve their noble cause:
a lie their leaders sold to them.
This God has giv'n us flaws.
The Hope of Man, Divine inspired,
out here is hard to find.
On shattered soil, lie shredded sons:
the waste of warfare's grind.
At Stalingrad, along the Somme,
Antietam's Bloody Lane,
the ground has gulped the blood of men
who'll never march again,
Nor build a house, nor hold their Love,
nor see their mother's face.
Divinity, where are you now?
These promises - disgraced.
Your bird of Hope has flown the coop,
abandoning the tried.
In genocidal ovens' flames
Divinity has died.
And yet we persevere in life,
no bitterness can show.
We must prevail with blinded hope:
He "loves me, this I know."
He loves you, yes,
I'm sure He does.
Believe it in your heart.
Be safe in what you do not know
of lives war tore apart.