The Colonel, the Veteran and the Caregiver
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones. Excerpted from They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars—The Untold Story (Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books).
An unexpected blizzard roars out of the night sky to whiten the land and sink the margin between highway and field under a deepening slough of snow. Peering from the motel window at first light, I think, “We’re not going anywhere.” I’m traveling with a colonel from the Pentagon whose job it is to canvass the country and visit loyal but perhaps disheartened Americans who want to raise money and start organizations to “support our troops.” He checks them out, pats them on the back, looks into their funding, tries to get them more and offers words of encouragement about the importance of their mission. He gives the same talk everywhere, like a presidential candidate, in a tight-lipped, fast-paced monotone with an urgent edge to it that warns listeners not to interrupt. It’s not a conversation, it’s a talk—and it provokes a complicated response. It makes you feel sorry for wounded warriors yet secretly glad to be an American who is not a wounded warrior or related to one, and at the same time ashamed of yourself and the folly of your country and painfully sick at heart and sad.
The colonel seems to be a nice guy, which is kind of surprising because he has been through more than enough to make a man seriously angry and depressed, and that’s what his talk is about. He commanded troops in Iraq and lost 110 men by his own count, which may be some kind of a record and more than enough to bury a person in guilt, though guilt is not a word he uses. Many of his men were blown up, as he was, too, suffering twenty-five concussions, he says, and enough evident TBI (that is, traumatic brain injury) to make you wonder how many other ranking officers damaged in the field have been ushered upstairs at the Pentagon to wander its endless halls—17.5 miles of them—until released by retirement with full benefits. He was rewarded first for his performance in Iraq with a high-level job in the Pentagon, but he found the work meaningless.
After two years of grim “bullshit” duty and medication, he had packed on forty pounds. His kids asked why he never smiled. One day his wife of many years laid her hand gently on his and said, “Where are you? I just don’t get you anymore.” He made no pretense about the way the war had warped his brain, but took pride in being one among thousands of wounded warriors. “This is the new normal,” he would say proudly in his public performances. “You’re looking at it.” But his wife’s remark convinced him that only soldiers could truly understand soldiers, the bond between men in the field being greater than that of any other relationship on earth, including apparently his own with his wife and children.
He took to skipping out of the Pentagon to spend his days at Walter Reed hospital talking to injured soldiers. Then he decided duty called him to take wounded and depressed warriors back to Iraq to receive firsthand the thanks of the liberated Iraqi people. This he did, escorting six vets back to a base in Iraq where American soldiers cheered them and one Iraqi spokesman delivered a grateful speech. The colonel might have made a career of such therapeutic tourism, if the Pentagon had not given him his current job, traveling all fifty states, almost nonstop, to persuade citizens to take up the slack for the Defense Department and “support our troops.” They gave him an assistant to make sure he didn’t go astray. He was the Pentagon’s official good-will ambassador riding the crest of what he and the Pentagon imagined to be a great wash of gratitude Americans wished to bestow upon our warriors for giving us our freedoms and safeguarding our democracy. He had found his survivor’s mission.
On the road he gets calls from his wife, asking him to say something of a disciplinary nature to their teenage sons, but it seems as if he can’t, or won’t, go home. Not right now. Not while he still has duties to do for his men and his country. His jolted brain falls back on what it knows best: military rules, regulations and protocol. Later that day, greeted with outstretched hand by the president of a state university, the colonel will announce, “I have lost a button,” and plunge out into the winter storm to return to the parking garage, extract his sewing kit from his bag and sew a new brass button on the jacket of his Marine dress uniform. Only then, properly attired, will he return through the drifts to wipe the snow from his slick black shoes and attend to the university president and his duties of the day.
Now, determined to get there, he takes the wheel of a rented SUV and speeds down the middle of an empty interstate highway, snapping his eyes left and right on the lookout perhaps for IEDs, snipers and squads of terrorists. He grips the steering wheel, white-knuckled, red-faced. Winds carry sheets of white snow across the empty highway, across the windshield. The storm is what I learned as a child in the Midwest to recognize as a whiteout and a sure sign that the school bus would not be coming. “It’s just like Iraq,” the colonel says, scanning from side to side across the broad flat land that might, in fact, be taken for a desert in the early light. Then he lets out a strange sound, something like a cackle that explodes into a snort. He tightens his grip on the steering wheel and puts his foot to the gas pedal. He is enjoying himself. He is at war.
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