There is a blog I have been reading for well over a year now, whose author is the subject of my reflections today. I should say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have tears running down my face as I write this.
He is a young Marine (younger than 30) who was catastrophically wounded in Iraq, the sole survivor of his patrol. The others all died. His injuries encompass not only his trunk, limbs and face, but his brain. He is half deaf. He spent a year in the hospital and is now at home with his family, in a rural part of the country. They are an extraordinary group of people –each one deserves his or her own posting--, and luckily well off enough to provide him with space and access to various kinds of rehabilitation help.
He is also gay, something he had a very hard time dealing with and still finds problematic in some ways. In the hospital, he met another badly wounded Marine, and they fell in love. Today they both live together with his family. It is not easy; both of them have demons.
This man is a compulsive writer, a keeper of journals his whole life. He would not be winning the national spelling bee these days –as I said, his brain was involved in his wounding—but he is rawly articulate, as well as rudely funny. He is an ambush writer, who can string you along with a story or banter or a rant, and then without warning drop an image or word on you that stuns you to silence or tears or awe or a smile.
I have not mentioned the name of his blog and have been purposefully vaguer than he is, because he has an ambivalent attitude about it. His family resisted the idea, fearing for their and his privacy, even safety. This is one of the great ironies of this new mode of communication, open to anyone on the planet and yet still so intimate. What he writes is sometimes so private and revealing that I feel –despite his assurances to the contrary—that I have stepped into a room where I have no right to be. I contacted him a few months ago and have both made regular comments on his blog and have had email correspondence with him.
When I posted angrily about the San Francisco school board's shutting down of JROTC in November and pointed out the bitter irony that when the earthquake comes, those very same people will want the despised military to keep order for their worthless selves, he wrote, "We'd come anyway". How do you describe how you feel about someone like this, given the odd kind of relationship ---so distant and yet so immediate—that the internet makes possible? "We'd come anyway". Semper fi.
We have never met in person, or talked by phone, and likely never will. I don’t know his last name or the town where he lives or what he looks like (except that he’s tall and kinda skinny these days). Yet he has become a part of my heart.
I lived through the Vietnam years and would have fled the country had I been drafted. Although I was raised by a military father, I felt both anxiety and distaste for the military most of my life. So my reversed feelings now have the tincture of idealization which comes from a need to make atonement. My basic attitude toward soldiers, and I am really talking about American soldiers here, is almost embarrassingly reverent. To be honest, they define for me what manhood is. And this is especially true of the man I am writing about today.
What provoked this was a posting he wrote last night, elegantly and poetically entitled, “Fuck it”. There are themes there I have heard before, both in his posts and in his emails to me, but reading it was heart-breaking. He wants to die. That’s the long and the short of it. He wants to die.
I do not have the words to express how much I honor what he has done. I truly don’t. Nor to express how I mourn what he suffers. Maybe that’s why the tears are there instead.
Most of me initially looks for ways to make him feel better, to want to live, to recognize what life still holds for him. Given what wounded veterans have had to live through in the past, and what many still live through now, he is a strikingly fortunate man. But given what he has lost and, more than that, who he lost…I know that in his place, I would want to die as well. As much as it would grieve me…and it would, for a long time…a part of me wants him to have peace, finally, wants him not to suffer anymore.
I cannot say that to him. I do make a point of letting him know that I hear what he says, without pushing it aside or trying to talk him out of his feelings or cheer him up. But I can’t bring myself to say to him what I just wrote here.
He is not the man he was. That man, he says, died in Iraq. Once a proud Marine sergeant, now he does not know who he is: dependent, unreliable, unpredictable, hobbled, moody, sometimes out of control, a dead man walking. And above all he carries the guilt of having survived while his brothers died, a sense of unworthiness, failure, responsibility. That, I suspect, is the worst of all, the soldier's ultimate nightmare come true.
In a way, he is trapped in life by love. A brother died many years ago, and he writes that it was only to prevent his mother losing another child that he fought to stay alive. She sat by his bed every day for a year and even now has to navigate his rages and his terrors. His uncle –an amazing man whom I would love to take out for a drink—has opened and indeed remodeled his home in order to make a place for his nephew and his lover. His father, remarried and with a new family in another part of the country, provides support and visits often, at great cost, it seems. His dedicated "shrink", even his physical therapist. And there is this man, his fellow warrior, who reached out to him, who now shares his life, who falls asleep next to him each night. And maybe people like me, as well, a little. As much as he wants to flee his life, the care of all these people keeps him chained to it.
I have been an unwavering supporter of our invasion of the Middle East. My reasons for that are not mainstream and maybe I will explain them some other time. But I have never been cavalier about the cost. And especially now that it has all become so personalized in the life of this young man.
This is a world shot through with tragedy, with pain and loss that seems quite unredeemed. But this is what I want, and it may be impossible. I want the President and the Congress, I want whoever has power over decisions, to make choices and to take actions there that will save my friend from feeling that what happened to him was a tragic waste. I suspect that this campaign is the first of many more. We are in a long war, once again, with Islam, the ancient enemy of Christendom and the West. Quick and clear victories are unlikely. But, please, for the love of God, do not let his sacrifice be in vain.
It's selfish, but... I don't want him to die.