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.
* * *
Later, the colonel sits in an armchair opposite a trim blond woman in the comfortable living room of her ranch-style home on the fringe of a sizable city. The storm has passed, and bright afternoon sunlight streams in from windows overlooking a field of glittering snow. The colonel is calling on Sherry Cooper because her son Charlie is a distressed veteran of the Iraq War, and Sherry, his caregiver for six years, has sent a proposal to the colonel’s office at the Pentagon, asking for funds to support a local center to offer practical and psychological counseling to returning soldiers. Sherry is a psychologist and was a full-time counselor for at-risk youth at an inner-city high school.
The colonel has come here to discuss Sherry’s modest, sensible proposal, but that’s not what happens. Sherry first wants to introduce her son. She tells the colonel about how Charlie came home from Iraq in 2004 and seemed just fine.
He got a good job in state government, and with what he had saved from his military salary, he bought a house and a car. He seemed to be on his way until a few months later, when Sherry got a call from Charlie’s boss, who said he was not coming to work. He had plunged into a paralyzing depression that finally sent him home to his mother’s house. He lay for three years in his childhood bedroom, rising only for appointments with doctors who seemed unable to help him. Officers in Charlie’s unit told Sherry to get him to a VA hospital, but they didn’t seem to know whom she should talk to when she got there or even whom to call. The VA website didn’t work. The phones were busy all the time—until an operator finally answered and said, not unkindly, “I have fourteen calls waiting. I can’t help you.”
Over the next several months, Sherry managed to make a series of appointments for Charlie, but he was unable to keep them. At last his sergeant major took him to the VA. An evaluator diagnosed PTSD and asked if Charlie had any “suicidal thoughts.” Charlie said no. How about homicidal thoughts? No. Well, then he couldn’t be admitted to the VA hospital. Instead, he was offered a support group of newly returned soldiers, one of whom exploded in such a terrifying rage at the first meeting that Charlie seemed traumatized all over again and went back to bed. His body grew bloated yet remained on constant alert, so that even after three years of bed rest his muscles were tense and hard as rock. The doctors could not explain why his body was becoming so acidic that it began to destroy itself. They removed his gall bladder. Then his teeth crumbled, dissolved in acid. The dental bill was $30,000. He was always exhausted and unaware of passing time. His mother says, “He lived in a kind of twilight.”
She helped Charlie apply for a medical discharge, and he was summoned to a military hospital on a base in a distant city for evaluation. The Pentagon, strapped for soldiers, wanted to know if he was fit for service, and wouldn’t accept the VA’s diagnosis of PTSD. She took him there and heard the grilling he got from the military psychiatrist, who asked him to describe all his disturbing memories. Charlie told him about something he couldn’t get out of his head, something that happened during the invasion of Iraq. He was seated in the back of a vehicle, rolling along a highway, and a little Iraqi boy ran up beside him waving an American flag. Charlie was smiling at him when an onrushing truck crushed the child under its wheels. He could still see the blood and hear the screams of the boy’s mother. That unfortunate accident, the psychiatrist said, didn’t “qualify” as a “traumatic event.” Nor did any of the other memories Charlie dredged up with increasing distress.
Unqualified for a diagnosis of PTSD, Charlie was diagnosed instead with MDD: major depressive disorder. So Charlie went home to bed again with a second diagnosis but no treatment, and Sherry turned for help to private doctors and private counselors, paying them herself. Now, in her calm, kindly way, she says to the colonel, “I have three graduate degrees, a fully equipped home office and a very smart, supportive husband, and I could not find a way into the systems of care. How do you think it is for families without my advantages?”
As Sherry told the story, Charlie sat in silence, sheltered in a big wing chair with his back to the sunlit windows. He seemed exceptionally large, not fat but swollen as if he had been artificially inflated, like the Michelin Man. His head was a mass of thick black hair, his face hidden by a dark beard. He wore a shapeless gray sweat suit that amplified the expanse of his body. Now Sherry was apologizing for consuming the colonel’s precious time and holding out to him a prospectus for the small veterans’ center she proposed for her city. He passed it abruptly to his assistant, who stuffed it into her briefcase without a glance as the colonel launched into his usual talk.
It took close to ten minutes. At the end, he turned slightly in his chair and seemed for the first time to look at the great globular mass of Charlie. The colonel stared and drew in his breath. Then, as in the case of the missing button, he visibly took command of himself and the momentary crisis. “Charlie,” he said, “I came here to tell you that none of this has any impact on your capacity for greatness.” He paused with that pronouncement hanging in the air, and then continued crisply. “You may not fit in here. We all have trust issues with civilians. They can’t understand. We know that.”
I looked over at Sherry, to whom the military had delivered a semi-comatose child and now sent a deeply damaged emissary to blame “civilians” for the fact that even after six years of intensive family and professional care he didn’t seem to “fit in.” Sherry was gazing at her son, as if to gauge his response, and smiling with gratitude that the eminent colonel had come all this way to address a personal message to the big boy in the big chair who was nothing at all like the boy she had raised. “Never forget,” the colonel said, riveting Charlie with a manic stare, “never forget that you still have the capacity for greatness.” Then he was on his feet and very quickly out the door, while his assistant curtly handled the civilian ceremonies of goodbye. The colonel raced through the snow toward the vehicle, anxious now to get back in the driver’s seat. “Jesus,” he said. “Jee-zuz!”
* * *
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.
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 ).