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The Colonel, the Veteran and the Caregiver | The Nation

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The Colonel, the Veteran and the Caregiver

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Soldier

A soldier ascends the steps of the cargo plane that will carry him home (Credit: Ann Jones)

Sherry had no chance to speak to the colonel about what she calls the “ripple effects” of the damaged veteran, but later she spoke with me about it on the phone. Once, not many years ago, she was named Mother of the Year in her state, and now when she travels the state to speak to women—to mothers and wives and sisters—it’s those ripple effects she talks about. But “ripple” is too soft a word for what she wants to describe: Charlie’s sister torn between horror at what has become of him and fury that he consumes the mother she needs, too; Charlie’s stepbrother, who opposed the wars, but neglected his own work to build Sherry’s website and help other parents struggling with the strange sons and daughters shipped home to them; Sherry’s second husband, John, always there for her, though the time they once spent together on adventurous road trips now belongs to Charlie; the troubled high school kids who had grown so much under her care, now abandoned and shuffled off to someone else.

Charlie’s presence had swollen, like his body, like some infernal creeping blob in an old horror movie, to overwhelm everyone in his path—even the boys who had been his companions in high school. They had welcomed him home and come to his new house to hang out and help him settle in. One day, not long after Charlie’s return, they were all together, washing cars in his driveway, when a couple of the guys went into the kitchen to get a beer and came out laughing to say there was a bird inside. Charlie marched in, grabbed a rifle, shot up his kitchen, killed the songbird and returned to polishing his car without noticing that everyone and everything had changed.

The colonel’s office never did come up with funding sources for the modest veterans’ center Sherry Cooper proposed, but she went on caring for her son and trying to find clues to what had caused his terrible transformation. She was, after all, a professional psychotherapist, trained to work with troubled youngsters. To me she said, “I know my son Charlie is gone forever. But I have to do everything I can to help this young man who came home in his stead. He tries so hard himself. He gets up now and gets dressed. He can drive. He can keep his own checkbook.” After someone advised her to read the work of Martin Luther King, she copied out in an e-mail to me a long passage from his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, written in the last years of his life. The passage had spoken to her, she said.

In it, Dr. King cited another extraordinary book, historian Kenneth M. Stampp’s study of slavery in America, The Peculiar Institution. Stampp had used manuals and other documents produced by slave owners to spell out their surefire techniques for remaking a man or woman as a slave. King cited many of Stampp’s examples in a long paragraph impossible to read without recognizing the very model of modern military basic training. He summed up the methodology this way: “Here, then, was the way to produce a perfect slave. Accustom him to rigid discipline, demand from him unconditional submission, impress upon him a sense of his innate inferiority, develop in him a paralyzing fear of white men [read: officers], train him to adopt the master’s code of good behavior, and instill in him a sense of complete dependence.”

Current basic training gives the formula one significant twist: while impressing upon the soldier his inferiority to his military masters, it swells his sense of superiority over others—women, weaker men, “lesser” races, designated enemies, civilians. But everything else in the description is strictly by the drill sergeant’s book. That’s what Sherry saw: the ”system of abusive domination” that had remodeled her child.

But there was more. She sent me a story called “The Chamber,” which Charlie had written for a college English course he took before he deployed to Iraq. It was about an episode near the end of his basic training. The trainees were awakened at 2 am and marched eight kilometers to a CS gas chamber. (Exposure to CS, the most common form of tear gas, is required of all military trainees.) There they were ordered to march single file through the chamber, inhaling trace gases left over from a previous exercise, just enough to inflame their skin and the fear that had been gathering in them for weeks. Charlie wrote, “It felt like we were being herded like cattle. It was as if I had no control, no choice but to do what I was told.” Then they were ordered to put on their chemical suits and gas masks. An officer threw a gas grenade into the chamber. The first group of soldiers were ordered inside, then ordered to remove their masks. Outside, Charlie and the others in the second group could hear their buddies screaming. Charlie could see a battle buddy clawing the walls as he tried to escape, and hear the drill sergeants laughing as they pulled him back. “Everyone outside began to panic. It felt like we were waiting for our own execution, and that there was nothing that we could do to stop it.” 

When the second group was ordered into the chamber, Charlie marched in with the rest. When ordered to remove his mask, he did. “It felt like acid was pouring on my face. I wasn’t able to think clearly. I didn’t realize that I was coughing out all of my air. I gasped for air as I was falling to my knees. I thought I was dying.” But of course he didn’t die. When ordered to stand up and march out, he did. Then he fell to his knees again, “sick and confused” but thinking: “I had made it. If I could make it through that, then I could make it through anything.” But you see how deceptive this training is, and how very wrong he was.

Still searching for explanations, Sherry recalled an incident she had put out of her mind. When Charlie was ordered to report to that distant base for evaluation, she flew there with him because he was “barely functional” and rented a car to take him to the medical center. On the way they stopped for lunch. Sherry wrote, “He was sitting across from me in kind of a dissociative state, and we were eating, and all of a sudden he said, ‘Don’t make me ever tell you what happened there. I will never tell anyone.’ Out of the clear blue. I was taken aback, and I said, ‘Son, I will never ask you to tell me anything, but it may be helpful for you to tell your counselor or best friend. It is just too much to hold alone.’ Then he said, ‘I will never tell anyone. Too many innocent people will be hurt that had no choice. Don’t make me tell.’” To this day, Sherry says, she doesn’t know what happened, but of course she suspects the worst. She suspects an atrocity. That incident in the restaurant happened years ago, and they never spoke of it again. 

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So much we need to know about the cost of war lies right there, in the things that parents and their soldier kids, or wives and their soldier husbands, or men and their soldier wives don’t speak about. Veterans say they can’t or won’t tell, and parents and spouses don’t ask. In retrospect, it often comes as a surprise to families who lose a soldier to suicide to find that he left hints all over the place, like so many notes in a code nobody could crack. Yet again, when they think about it, they find they actually were decoding all along but simply couldn’t believe the message.

It’s a perfect conspiracy of silence, arising from basic training and love and fear and confusion and the terrible yearning to do what is right. It arises, too, from a failure of language: an inability to use plain English to name what happens in war when we’re so well trained to speak of war in the elevated locutions of patriotism, heroism and godliness that have little or nothing to do with the thing itself. The worst we can say of war is that it is “unspeakable,” which in fact it is not. But we don’t speak of it, because that would involve so many nasty words we don’t want to use and elicit so many things we don’t want to know, so many things we think we can’t do anything about now that the government answers only to the powerful few, and the incidental damage to the soul of the soldiers who fight “our” wars has been thoroughly medicalized and placed in the hands of professionals who know how to listen behind closed doors and, more important, how to keep a secret.

Ann Jones tallies the cost of American-style war, in “Encounters With the American Military in Afghanistan” (originally on TomDispatch.com).

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