CAMP HURRICANE POINT Ar Ramadi, Iraq (July 13, 2005) – a food service specialist with Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, serves a Marine at the mess hall here during lunch.
There is one subject on all of American TV [and one movie: “Brothers”, featuring Tobey Maguire as a Marine captain suffering from PTSD] that would make me break into tears; despite the time of day, the company I’m in or context. It’s “our boys in the military”, as they call them: American Men and women fighting and dying abroad in the service of their country.
My ex-husband Chris used to be a Marine shortly before I met him. So short, infact, his crewcut [“medium fade”, I discovered it was called later] hasn’t grown back to normal the first time he came to visit me. He made a point of making his bed the minute he got up. Shaved clean every morning. And fold his clothes in tiny rolls, for space saving.
He took pride in the smallest job he can get. Sat outside for hours to hear the neighbourhood kids play and ate everything that was given him with wonderment. What he didn’t do was sleep much. He had a back-pain that he got from a basketball game in Camp Lejeune. He has fallen on his shoulder and broken a bone there, but it was located in a place where the touching of it may mess up his whole vertebrae. So the doctors told him they would have to either operate on him and risk paralyzing him for life. Or prescribe him pills to help him curb the pain.
When it came to sleeping, the pills didn’t help much. Two to three hours a night was the best he could get, if that. It wasn’t unusual for me to see his face brightened by the light from his computer screen when going to sleep, and find him glued to the same screen when I wake up in the morning. If he has fallen asleep on the couch sometime in the night, the TV would have to still be on; showing an early morning weight-loss commercial or jewelry collections from the home-shopping network.
I used to try giving him back massages, nag him to buy pillows that would put less stress on his shoulder, and wonder why he takes his sweet time about checking mail every evening. I never saw signs of depressions on him. He didn’t like talking about his past, true. But was always cheerful and willing to lend a hand. Easy to laugh. Hesitant to judge. Averse to confrontation. Everything, in short, that I wasn’t. Knowing what a tough life he had, I thought it took a super-human strength to accomplish what he did. And said as much. Here was a man who not only served in the military, in the business of stepping on explosions and dealing with flying limbs; but been discharged with Honor. Has then gone to school, working 3 jobs at times. Graduated in Computer Programming. Gotten himself a job as a Junior Programmer with a publishing house that was 4 blocks from where we lived. Within 2 years of moving back to America, he’s petitioned his wife successfully, then rented us a one bedroom apartment at the cushiest part of Escondido. We had breakfasts together on Sundays. And could afford to go to the movies once a week. His parents lived on a walking distance. He hang out with sister every once in a while. And his brother drove over from San Francisco every other month. I could understand his not being able to sleep for more than 2 hours in the 9 months he spend in Ethiopia; among people who didn’t speak his language and whose culture he didn’t understand. But what else can a man want?!
I learned the error of my assumption after discovering his marijuana stash one night while he was out “checking mail”. When I wept for like half an hour, saying that i wasn’t going to be married to a man who may not live long enough to have a future with me; he poured the whole thing in the toilet and called me over to see it go down the drain. Then he sat me down, held my hand and told me, with red hot tears burning his eyes, why he felt the need to hide his marijuana dependence to me. How it wasn’t the back pain keeping him up half the night. But what he saw back there! And the “nightmares”. And the “ghosts”. Nightmares, ghosts and stories he can’t bring himself to talk about.
I have tried to ask him once, ofcourse, the first time we met. I have said, with an embarrassing eagerness, “So you were in the military. Have you killed anybody?”. He was doing his British Sailor accent and making me cackle like a young chick. When I asked that question, his body become tense and I felt the air between us freeze. “I don’t wanna talk about it”, he said quietly. And we never really did.
His friends have, ofcouse, came up. Life in the barracks. Meal time at the mess halls [the military dining room]. Age and ethnic diversity. Once, when talking about 9/11, which was the reason why he enlisted the second time, he said how his older brother gave him a hug when coming to see him off and said, in a tearful voice, something like “thank you for defending our country”. I’ve never seen Chris look more grave or mature than I saw him then. “People”, he chuckled bitterly, “Have no fucking clue. They hear all this crap on TV and think…”.
He’s told me how most men and women in the military don’t feel like heroes. How their days are haunted by the life they have gotten themselves into and the things they have left back home. How harsh weather and living arrangements; stern military rules [a life of servitude – of saying “Yes Sir” and “No Sir” to superiors who only adress you using your rank], extreme punishments for doing something simple as over-sleeping and the barrack [social] life they are forced to be a part of, were the least of their problems.
When they aren’t being shot at, blown to pieces or walking among natives they are there to liberate who hate their very existence, they fret about their families back home. Even a hint of something going wrong in a beloved’s voice sends them into weeks of dark depression. School suddenly becomes this most important thing in their lives. They spend, every moment of their free time, talking about what they were gonne do when they git done: Go to school. Get a job. Marry their girlfriend. Go shooting hoops with their kid. Live in a place where all you hear is nature sounds and can eat off the fruit of the land.
He’s mentioned, mournfully, how ill-prepared most are for the life that awaited them there. How mistakes and regrets eat their sanities alive. How devastating betrayal is. And how unbearable life gets when they come home and realize the country they gave their lives [and sanity] for hasn’t got a place for them. Or worse, wants to brush them aside and forget about them. How he understands why most eventually end up where they do: the streets. Mental institutions. As latest victim of suicide on a coroner’s report sheet.
And so.. this Veterans day.. I’d like to support the American troops. I hope they bring their boys back home. Soon.