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.
The details here are grisly at times, and Philipps, in showing us how these young men came to be killers, spares us nothing. One young soldier, Kenneth Eastridge, convicted as an accessory in the stateside murder of another Iraqi war vet, finds himself sickened and faint after witnessing his mentor killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. Steadying himself on a crumbling wall, his hand sinks into a piece of human flesh. Another soldier, John Needham, accused of beating his girlfriend to death in his bedroom, documented the atrocities he witnessed in Iraq in a series of gruesome photos. One picture shows a soldier pulling the brains from an Iraqi body on the hood of a Humvee.
Philipps does not argue that all soldiers will become afflicted with PTSD, nor does he make the case that those soldiers who do suffer from the disorder will become violent criminals. Rather he suggests that for a long time, military policy has ignored an important aspect of a soldier's life—what happens when you return home from war.
I was born years after the last US soldier had officially left Vietnam, but, growing up, the specter of the war was constantly at my back. It rode with us in the car on bright days that might erupt into a sudden summer storm, turning my father's mood black and edgy because it reminded him of the jungle. It was ever present on the nights when my dad, drunk and brooding, sat me on his lap and recounted his killing of a Vietnamese teenager. The problem of lasting trauma is perhaps best stated in Lethal Warriors by General Mark Graham who says, "PTSD is like a hurricane. If you're in the path, it doesn't matter who you are, it hits you."
While combat missions in Iraq have ceased, the war in Afghanistan grinds on and soldiers continue to return home learning to grapple with their battle scars, both physical and mental. Lethal Warriors shows the destruction wrought upon former soldiers, and in turn their families and communities, in the interest of finding a way to work through it. Because beyond politics and policy, there but for the grace of God, we all go.
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