In the summer of 1997 I drove with my father from Rhode Island to Washington, D.C. to visit the Vietnam memorial. We left in the middle of the night. I dangled my feet out the passenger side window. My father gave off fumes of whiskey as he drove. We arrived just as the sun was rising over the Capitol and made our way to the Wall.
We stayed for about an hour. Around us, men in motorcycle jackets pressed paper to the wall and delicately traced the names of friends who had not survived the conflict. Standing behind us was a man in an impeccable suit. He wept behind mirrored Ray-Bans.
"Is it an anniversary or something?" I asked.
My father shook his head, disappointed with me. "It never goes away for us, Leah."
On our way back to the car we came across a homeless man. "Anything you got," he said, folding up his cardboard sign to hold out a cup. My father reached into his pockets, digging out a fistful of change. The homeless man looked more closely, wrinkled his forehead, and said, "Kevin?"
My father looked up. "Hey man," he said and held out his hand. They locked fingers for a moment before letting go.
"Who was that?" I asked as we walked away.
"A guy I was in Vietnam with," said my father.
"Seriously?" I asked. It seemed too staged, too unreal.
He fixed that disappointed look on me again. "There but for the grace of God, go I," he said.
My father died a little more than a year later. He was proud of his service, but in his suicide note he listed Vietnam as one of the things that had "ruined his mind." I have thought about this moment in Washington, D.C. many times over the years, particularly when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began. Would one of those soldiers one day panhandle from a former Army buddy? Might one of them one day leave a suicide note for his or her daughter?
And I could not get the memory out of my mind while reading David Philipps' Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home (Palgrave Macmillan). Philipps' exploration of the ravages of PTSD among returning soldiers is a study in the balance of honoring service while recognizing the toll war can take on the human soul.
Philipps, a feature writer for the Colorado Springs Gazette, noticed a disturbing pattern in a series of violent local crimes and murders: they were being committed by young men from the 506th Infantry Regiment, the infamous and heroic "Band of Brothers" Army Unit. Deployed first to the notorious "Sunni Triangle" and then to a devastated Baghdad, they, like their predecessors in Vietnam, fought a war of unseen enemies, a war where the carcass of a dog might contain a powerful explosive, or the enemy might lurk among the local police force. After surviving dozens of IED blasts and the deaths of close friends, many of the soldiers returned to the US physically and psychologically fragile, their new lives marked by unemployment, domestic violence, assault, robbery, and, eventually, murder. In some ways, the most important question posed by Lethal Warriors is how the military code of honor that encouraged bonding among these young men under the most extreme circumstances might later cause them to self-destruct at home in the suburbs.