What Can a Civilian Possibly Say to a Wounded Soldier?
“Gotta go, something’s exploding over here.” That’s how Anthony had signed off from our Facebook chat session the last time we had talked. He was deployed in Afghanistan, and we had been typing back and forth about how life was going.
How was life going? It could be better, I told him. I’d been broken up with by a man I loved very much, my parents were selling my childhood home, and I couldn’t get the mold out of my shower. Things weren’t great, but nothing was exploding — not literally.
We didn’t speak for a while after that short chat, and back in New York, my life carried on as usual. I was still a little brokenhearted, and my shower was still disgusting. One day, he emailed me out of the blue to say that he would be in New York for the weekend, and wanted to see me. I was delighted to hear from him, and said we should go have dinner together. I’d take him to a vegan restaurant in the West Village, we could have cupcakes for dessert, and then go to a wine bar for some jazz: a lily-livered coastal liberal elite’s night on the town, I joked.
When he called to confirm our plans for the evening, he said, “I’m not that mobile, because I’m still on crutches.” My heart fell, and I asked, as casually as I dared, “What happened?”
A few weeks after our hasty Facebook chat, while out on a patrol in Kandahar Province, Anthony stepped on an IED. He had been deployed for three months. He lived, but only just. He lost one of his legs below the knee, and has since had god knows how many surgeries to stitch up the other damage that was done that day.
Those of us who don’t come from military families or know many people in the military don’t have a script for conversations like this one. We have scripts for the I’m Engaged! conversation, or the I Got Into Grad School! conversation. We have scripts, too, for less celebratory conversations like the I Got Laid Off or the I’m Pregnant and I Think I’m Having an Abortion conversations. We do not have — I certainly did not have — a script for the I Stepped on an IED and Lost My Right Leg Below the Knee conversation.
When I met Anthony at the restaurant, I improvised. Scriptless, I mostly sat and listened. I asked him questions, trying to be considerate of his feelings without coddling or condescending.
I wasn’t entirely sure how I was supposed to behave in this situation, but before long, one thing was crystal clear: between the operations, the physical therapy, and the post-traumatic stress, this man, this man who is my age, has been to hell and back. He has suffered in ways that my other friends and I, with our break ups and our crappy outer borough apartments, cannot possibly understand.
In her recent bestselling book Drift, Rachel Maddow argues that the process of going to war, of sending troops like my friend into combat, has become far too easy for us as a country. Because we’re so disconnected from what war is like, because it’s so easy to remain ignorant if we so choose, sending troops into armed combat isn’t the wrenching experience it once was.
My parents, who were teenagers during the dying days of the draft, did not have this problem. True, some Americans chose to insulate themselves from the trauma of conscription and war in the Vietnam Era, but most did not, or could not. I cannot condone or call for a return to conscription, but it did have this one advantage: when you were at risk of being sent off to war, you couldn’t choose ignorance and apathy. When the football players you cheered for came home wounded or worse, you couldn’t simply look away. America’s decision to make war hit home, and it hurt.
Now, any understanding that young Americans have of what it’s like to put on your boots and risk life and limb for your country comes from movies or video games. Needless to say, what we see when we watch Top Gun or play Call of Duty bears little resemblance to the reality of the enlisted experience, but that’s really all we get. And too often, men and women in uniform are trotted out as political props, a sea of camo standing behind a politician while he’s filmed and photographed. Our politicians — barring those who fail to mention them in nomination acceptance speeches — talk about them all the time. How many people my age have talked with them? How many people my age have thought about the yawning gap between civilian life and life in the service?
Sitting at dinner that night, talking to Anthony about what he had seen and what he had been through, our wars hit home. With a smile, he told me about how the first thing he did after being hit was check his crotch. “My first thought upon realizing my genitals were still intact was, ‘Ok, it’s still there, I want to live.'”
I laughed, but the conversation hurt. It’s one thing to see a friend suffer. It’s quite another to realize that you haven’t the slightest conception of what that suffering feels like, and it’s still worse to know that that suffering is happening every day, to tens of thousands of people just like him, in your name. And you’ve been complaining about your shower tiles the whole time.
Anthony doesn’t need my pity, or anyone’s. He’s a remarkable man, determined and disciplined in a way that defies my comprehension. That night at dinner, he was just as kind as I remembered him being before he deployed, just as funny and opinionated and, as before, mature beyond his years. And he certainly doesn’t care to be a symbolic catalyst for a sometimes self-centered young woman who needs a little perspective on her trifling complaints.
What he needs, he says, is for more Americans to understand the human cost of decisions made in Washington. That goes for the public as well as the policymakers. “Every time I see packs of drunk students wandering around American University, or listen to a couple young guys talk about the latest girl they got drunk and had sex with,” he tells me, “I wish they knew about the 18-year-olds who are taking off their body armor and jumping into the Arghandab river to save two drowning buddies while under intense close range rifle and mortar fire.” Those two young soldiers, Anthony stresses, refused to be written up for valor, insisting that they were just doing their jobs.
Anthony’s the first to recognize that combat infantrymen aren’t saints. “By and large,” he says, “we are a vicious, violent, uncouth, and rowdy bunch.” But those not-saints are fighting in our name, on the orders of our politicians, and most of us don’t have the first idea of what that existence — with its daily annoyances and its enormous sacrifices — is like.
Anthony is grateful for people like Stephen Colbert, who said in a recent interview with NPR that when he became a prominent persona in political comedy, he had been embarrassed to realize how little he knew about life in the military, and quickly set out to learn more. Anthony is also grateful for the quality of medical care he’s received, and for how helpful and generous people have been since he came home. But, he says, there are a lot of young people out there who, like me, are completely disconnected from the reality of his life.
“I just wish that more Americans knew what we have to do, rather than just giving us all a blanket pat on the back and a thanks for our service.”
Anthony doesn’t want pity or a pat on the back. “Most of us just need more Americans to have some personal investment in what we do, and to understand how we have to live in order to do it,” he says. “Given the choice between me and one of my men getting injured or killed, I’d jump on that pressure plate again every time.” That sentiment, that way of looking at the world, is elementary to Anthony and other people in his line of work. I struggle to wrap my head around it. But for his sake, I try.
Next week, Anthony goes back to Walter Reed for yet another surgery. He’s anxious about it, and I’m anxious for him. I’ll never understand what it is that he went through — and what his unit, stationed and fighting without him, are going through still. But for his sake, for all of our sakes, I’m going to try.