I’ve been reading through old emails this morning, looking for some details from my time in Japan back in 2012. I came across the following email, describing a meeting I had earlier in the day. While in Japan, my job was to actually meet with people all day long, whereas here in the states I typically only see their paperwork. During that temporary job assignment, I was reminded that I have a gift of being able to connect to people. I can put them at ease even when they have to talk about something difficult. That gift was finally put to use during my 2012 tour. This story is an example of why it is an honor to be able to serve my customers.
“Sometimes my job socks me in the gut. It’s the side effect of working with military people. There are some real, live, fucking heroes out there, and never an adequate way to say thanks. In this case, acknowledging the Sergeant Major would have been the worst possible thing to do. So I nodded, and said, “Uh huh. Ok.” and scribbled on my pad of paper. And I told myself to hold it together. Hold it together. Stop thinking. Turn your head to what you need to help this man. Facts. Law. Explanation of procedure. Acknowledgement. Respect. Confirmation and affirmation for him. Total brutal coldness and move on…
I had asked a question I always ask when I see in their medical records a Pre- or Post-Deployment health assessment. I asked the intentionally vague question, “Did anything happen during your deployment?” It’s in the context of making a list of health problems. I have all kinds of tricks to get people to remember stuff that’s bothering them. Sit somebody in a room, say “List all your health concerns,” and they’ll come up with about half of them. So I help. Deployments are a good one, because they’ll go “Oh, yeah, there was that time I banged my head on the turret without a helmet on,” or whatever.
He stutters just a little. “Well, a lot happened.” I can tell he’s answering me in a totally different way than I expected him to answer. He’s answering me literally. “I lost a lot of people. There were so many of my guys… I mean, you don’t want to hear this probably,” he looks at me to see if I want to shut him down, and I keep my face completely blank. He looks at the floor, “Well. It was bad.”
Sergeant Major was in Afghanistan and lost or sent home injured 70 men. Seventy. He said he wrote it all in a journal, to help himself deal with it. He told me he wrote their names in his journal, and wrote what happened, and what it meant to him at the time. He downplayed himself as though he wasn’t even there. Brought up his Combat Action Ribbon (major award) as though he was forced to mention it in order to explain something else. What he was explaining was this one time he was in a convoy and one of his kids – he stops to explain, “My kids. I call them my boys…the Marines under me, not my own kid.” – stepped on an IED. But he was lucky,” he tells me. “He only lost his leg. He was lucky.” I ask casually, “how far away were you from the blast?” “8 meters.” (fucking close) “And, did you have any loss of consciousness? Bang your head or anything?” He laughs, “Oh no, I’m fine. I was fine. Good body armor. I felt the concussion waves. Everyone did. But there was no damage. Yeah. It’s not like I earned the Combat Action Ribbon. The paperwork was done, and I had so much going on, I just accepted it.”
Fuck. I am reeling as he’s telling me this. Eight meters from an IED blast. He watches his own guy get his leg blown off. He loves them so much he calls them his kids.
The meeting goes on as we discuss other health concerns. He doesn’t sleep at night. Can’t explain it. “I get around 4 hours of sleep a night, but it’s not all together. It’s ok. It’s been going on so long I’m used to it now. I think the Marine Corps teaches a man how to live on less sleep. It’s not like anything’s wrong.” And his wife tells him he’s lost his interest in things he used to like. “Japan‘s a really safe country, as you know,” he says. “But even though I know that, I can’t help it but get uncomfortable in a narrow alley. I know it’s safe, but there are windows sliding open, with rifles coming through. It’s just not safe.” He lapsed seamlessly from Japan to Afghanistan as he was talking.
“When you’re over there, you’ve got to turn it off,” he tells me. “It’s the only way to survive. It’s the only way you can do it. Turn it all off. Then when you come back to the states, and …well, normal things aren’t normal anymore. Nothing makes sense. Does that make sense? A guy here on base steps off a curb wrong, hurts his ankle, and there are 7 different documents written up on him, the incident, and I’m like, ‘Really? We’re spending our time worrying about stuff that small? Stuff that doesn’t even matter?’ It’s also a factor of coming from Camp Lejeune, say, it’s a ground base, where everybody is on the ground. The ‘real Marines.’ And now I’m here at an airbase, and it isn’t the same. The people here don’t… Their mindset isn’t… This is not Afghanistan.”
He isn’t being eloquent, though this is a very intelligent and eloquent man. And yet, I feel as though I know exactly what he’s saying to me. I tell him he is describing classic PTSD to me. He blinks and looks away. “I’ve made peace with that. I’ve made peace with the idea that it’s probably PTSD. I’m not asking for anything.”
The way I deal with it is I flip through the pages of his medical records, I bring up something else, “Here it says there was an abrasion to your eye?” and distract the conversation. Let it cool down, then I pull it back later for an important detail. “So you did receive a Combat Action Ribbon? That will be reflected on your DD-214?” I pull out more details from Afghanistan, talk about something else for awhile, then pull it back to the repercussions of the desert. What’s going on now that he is not quite linking to his heinous deployment yet.
It’s worse because he’s in charge here. The Colonel’s right hand man. Sergeant Major is in control here, and I’m listening to him tell me what a mess he is inside. And I know he’s going to suffer from it his whole life. He’s young, handsome, has been married a good long time and his youngest is a senior in high school. He should be looking forward to retirement, and I won’t tell him his retirement could very well undo him. At least…from what I’ve seen in other people’s medical records.
Then I get reassurance that being cold was the right move, when he tells me once he went to talk to a doctor here on base about his symptoms of anxiety and trouble sleeping. He started to tell her about Afghanistan, “And she just got all upset, and started crying, and she left the room! She just left. I’m thinking, ‘you’re supposed to be my rock, and you leave.’ So then I found this other doctor over here. He was in Vietnam. He knows. I guess he’s the kind of guy who tells it like it is. I don’t think everybody tells the truth. This doctor said, ‘It’s never going to go away. You’ll always have those memories. What we have to do is figure out a way for you to live with it.’ All the other people tell me ‘It’s gonna get better. It’ll all be ok.’ But I think… I think I’ll have to believe the doctor. He was in Vietnam.”
I think about what he said for several seconds, trying to decide where to go with that. “I have no medical training,” I start with. “All I can say is what I see in the medical records I read. And when people are young like you, it’s easier to manage. But when you’re 65, or 72, you are at a higher risk for having a harder time dealing with these symptoms. I don’t know why, but it seems to be harder for older people.” “Funny you should mention that,” he says. And tells me what his step-father told him just a little while ago. Another Vietnam vet. Never had a problem at all till he turned 55 when suddenly his Vietnam memories start bothering him. I try to give Sergeant Major hope instead of despair, “Well, look. I also see the opposite. I see guys who find themselves a distraction. A hobby. For example, a guy takes up fly fishing and he can stay happy.” “Well, I took up drinking,” he says. “That was my hobby. But I had to stop. My wife begged me.” I let out some air, disguised as a laugh, “Yeah, that’s the wrong hobby. Pick a different one.”
Anyway. He takes off. I address some email. Pack up my gear. At 4:30 I head home, and halfway back to my room I started crying. I knew immediately what it was. When those guys are in the desert, they have to turn it off 24 hours a day. They have to turn it off till they come home. But me, when I get to my room, I’m safe. So I only need to turn it off during business hours.
I’m sad. I’m aching for him. I want so badly to talk for six hours and give him hope, give him tools, tell him how grateful I am that people like him are out there having their lives ruined on my behalf. I want to talk to his wife, and tell her some things to help her understand, to help her have patience and to be strong. And tell the kids too. He’s a powerful, self-confident, fucking baddass war hero, and he was in my office scared. Scared of the future. Of what his mind is going to do to him. That sucks.
I’m still crying. Sometimes my days are like this in the VA. I am glad it’s so real for me. The war is never far away from me because of this. I’m just more used to seeing it in typed records and handwritten letters, not looking into a man’s eyes as he tells me how he wrote the names of his kids in his journal when they died.”