Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Meeting In The Rain

For mid-autumn, the weather was typical. The skies were grey and the clouds low – alternating between irritating drizzle, gentle rain, and short pauses before the next insult. It was arthritically cold and everyone’s joints hurt. As they walked, their feet turned sodden in the wet, perfectly-kempt grass. A number regretted not bringing umbrellas. It was fitting for the funeral. It was awful.

Half of those gathered were his “blood” family, and the other half the family with whom he bled, in uniform. Grief read on all their faces, manifested as total devastation on many, yet tempered with anger, guilt and disbelief on most of the veterans. In some way, though unquantifiably so, they felt they owned this. All grieved yet another brother who, after years of honorable service, took his own life.

Well-intentioned public figures are always eager to provide data that proves the military and veterans “aren’t that bad off,” but they must not know anybody who has endured a miserable deployment or struggled to regain their footing after transitioning out of the service. To me, their expositions do little more than demonstrate how little they care. They must not know the people I know, either. If they did, they would be unable to NOT grieve.

Since 2003, my Marine battalion has sustained well over forty combat fatalities in Iraq. At least twelve of those were from a single friendly fire incident. Back in the states, the same battalion has lost half a dozen in training accidents such as vehicle rollovers or “runaway guns.” Nearly that many have been lost to liberty incidents – mostly automobile crashes. They have also lost almost a dozen to suicide, and these are just the numbers I’ve been told about. Already, I struggle to remember their names, which embarrasses me.

Even those who have survived their service still seem to be doing poorly. Among those I knew the vast majority of their marriages have failed. Others have since begun relationships and watched them deteriorate, too. I know of few couples who are doing undeniably well.

Amongst my peers, college has become a default – the free option awaiting them when they left the ranks, but remarkably few seem to approach it with any ambition. It’s not preparation for greater dreams, but a way to prolong the inevitable. Real life is fast approaching, and none of it looks enjoyable. Physically, they’re falling apart. Mentally, they may not be far behind.

Those who elected to stay in the Marines are now regretting doing so. Despite their optimism, it hasn’t improved for them. One recently noted that, “it’s just not fun being a Marine anymore.” Those that moved into other branches of the military are also questioning their decisions. It’s turning out to just be more of the same.

And nor can I overlook the dozens from my battalion who have been discharged for medical reasons. They frequently stood right next to those who were killed, and somehow managed to survive – but barely. They’re missing legs and fingers, eyesight, or hearing. They’ve lost mobility, or are still waiting for shrapnel to migrate out from under their skin. Several grapple with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs), loss of memory, radically adjusted personalities, and a host of other side effects. One of my own Marines, struck several times by IEDs, confessed to me that he can’t remember his own father’s funeral. He knows he was there, but can’t remember where it was, or anything about it. His girlfriend left him because she didn’t like who he’d become.

Nobody, as near as I can tell, is remotely happy. One friend announced with conviction that his greatest achievements in life are behind him and now he looks forward to a miserable life without meaning or purpose. People keep insisting that most veterans get out and thrive, but I’m not seeing it. Not the guys I know.

More than I can count are still reeling from some sort of emotional injury – and these are the ones who I have the most trouble understanding. We were infantry, so we expected to lose some in combat. None of us liked it, but such is the nature of war. Fewer always come home. We did not expect to lose any more, though. We did not anticipate an internal war. It’s one we don’t know how to fight; one with staggering casualty figures. In 2005 alone, for example, more than 6,100 veterans took their own lives in the states. To put that in perspective, approximately 5,000 servicemembers have died in either Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001. But in the states, more than that died by their own hands in one year.

Several of my surviving friends wonder what they could have done differently. They mull over what warning signs they should have seen. They soul-search for how they could have made themselves more available, or approachable, or attentive. They’re angry with themselves for what they see as a failure on their part. They’re angry with the departed for not talking to them, because they would have gladly helped. They’re haunted. We are haunted. “I just talked with him, and now he’s gone.”

They say the wars may be ending soon, but I fear the casualties are just beginning to mount. For the majority of veterans I know, to include myself, there is a pervasive feeling of discontent, desperation, and protracted misery. Statistics keep insisting that we’re mostly okay, but I see differently. I see men and women caught in a slow and lonesome death. I see defeated warriors. And I see little being done about it.

The US Army recently admitted that they have no idea what to do about the epidemic of suicides within their ranks. Nor have their aggressive ad campaigns done anything to reduce the numbers. Similarly, the VA has seen only marginal success – a sad realization considering the thousands of mental health professionals they have recently hired. In some regards, it’s as if the war has chewed up a generation of young men and women and permitted them do great and terrible things, but then spit them back into society alone, unprepared, and unsupported. I have no great solutions. I wish I did.

If I knew what else I should be doing, I would do it. Just as it is for my brothers, I see this as personal failure. More than perhaps ever before, we need this nation’s help. Yet more than perhaps ever before, we don’t know what to ask for. Instead, there is a growing generation of complete screw-ups. Something changed in us, and we have no clue how to reverse it. Something died, and many are simply waiting for the rest of their beings to follow.

We were all trained to be leaders. We were trained to be problem-solvers and to rationally overcome any situation even in midst of total chaos. The enemy was tangible, and easy. The one that consistently slays us, however, is nebulous, evasive, and clever. We’re fighting demons; a battle for which we’re gravely unprepared. But trained leaders and problem-solvers are loath to ask for help. They suffer, wage war, and frequently lose in silence. Even at my worst, I never sought any help. It seemed an exhibition of weakness.

There will be more rain-soaked cemeteries with assemblies of grieving parents and angry, guilty, devastated veterans. There will be more haunting questions about how we’ve failed our brothers. There will be more self-doubting and discontent. There will be more struggling, and there will be more defeat. We’ll stand there quietly and not know what to say, and we’ll walk away not knowing what to do differently next time. Who will the next assembly be for? A close friend? Us? The training never addressed this kind of battle. For as much as we struggle to put our war behind us, we keep being pulled back into it. Men, our brothers, our friends, our subordinates and leaders, still keep disappearing from the ranks. Helplessly, we watch them fall.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. These are the words that came to mind from reading this - touching, moving, saddening and very relatable.

    Thank you for writing such a wonderful piece of literature!

  2. One problem with good writing, is the reader comes to expect that each following piece will be as good or better than the last.

    The first two paragraphs are arguably the best you have ever written.