“Weep, darling. Weep…and then, tomorrow, we shall make something strong of this sorrow.” –Lorraine Hansberry, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”
If you were to ask him why he joined the Marine Corps, Brett would probably tell you that he didn’t really know–or that he joined because it sounded cool or because he didn’t know what else he could to do with his life. He told me once that he only got the idea after he saw a commercial on TV.
I think, however, that under the surface there was much more to his decision than that.
There seems to be this narrative on the right that our troops join the military because they have an undying need to lay their lives on the line in service to their country. And on the left, there seems to be this narrative that our troops are tricked into serving. Brett has shown me that neither of these narratives are accurate.
Serving his country wasn’t necessarily something closely tied with his way of life, but was more something that was necessary for him to pass through and not around. Once it was over, Brett could rest easy knowing that “it” did not need to be done again.
The “it” is that something inside us all that demands we do something special.
One thing remains with Marines, no matter what ultimately happens to them: Each of them has a sense of being highly select and of belonging to a highly select group.
In January 2007, Brett volunteered to deploy to Iraq for a seven-month tour. As he recalls, he was in the barracks and an officer came to enlist volunteers to serve as combat replacements. You could smell the testosterone and adrenaline flowing–“Who has the biggest balls?” the officer asked.
That night, Brett made two phone calls, one to his brother and one to Whitney. His brother understood why he had volunteered to go. Whitney, his high school sweetheart, had a harder time with it.
“Whitney just didn’t understand what it was like to actually want to go to war.”
“This was going to be my defining moment.”
In the fall of 2009, after marrying Whitney, Brett was deployed one last time–to Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
Up until a couple of years ago, Afghanistan’s brutal weather during that time of year largely afforded coalition forces a respite from much of the war’s violence. Things were different, however, in the winter of 2010 for Brett and the Marines of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
On January 9th, a 23-year-old Marine and an embedded journalist were killed (six others were severely wounded) when their MRAP (shorthand for “Mine Resistant Ambush Protected”) armored vehicle was nearly cut in half and tossed 35 feet by 300 pounds of explosives buried in the road near Nawa, in southern Afghanistan.
The 40-ton personnel carrier lay crumpled on the side of the road–as if it were beaten to its knees–as Brett and the corpsman he was riding with (whose vehicle passed over the explosives moments before they were remotely detonated), sprinted toward the wreckage.
After pulling the vehicle commander from his seat on the passenger side, Brett was able to shimmy himself back into the passenger area. “The seats were ripped off their brackets and thrown across the compartment. And there were bodies lying everywhere, in a contorted and barely recognizable heap.”
Like many of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11th, 2001, Brett found that his trip home was only the beginning of his journey.
For most combat veterans there is an awkward period after they return home, during which they begin the process of readjusting to life outside of a combat zone.
For some combat veterans, the challenges of readjusting bleed into something else entirely. They may, for example, find themselves drinking too much, unable to sleep, or lashing out at friends and family. The may struggle so profoundly that they are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Over the next few months, Brett and I will be writing about the stories of war and coming home he has shared with me. They are as often humorous as they are sad. For Brett, his time at war was one of the highlights of his life, even as it admittedly “fucked him up” and marked a period of separation between the “before” and “after” in his life.
In telling Brett’s story, I will leave in the parts that too often get skimmed over in war movies:
- How Brett came to be a combat infantryman,
- The experiences of those he left at home, and
- The struggles of dealing with a war that followed Brett home.
It is, after all, impossible to better understand the experience of going to war and coming home without first understanding the richness of life going on around it.