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.