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Brigid Brett

Brigid Brett

Posted: October 18, 2010 09:50 PM

The Long Shelf of War

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My collection of war books is growing. They spread out on the long shelf behind my dining room table, sandwiched between Alice in Wonderland and the poetry of Robert Frost.

I first heard of Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam at a debriefing of Marines at Camp Pendleton who'd just returned from Iraq. The hall was full of guys who sat there glazed-eyed as Bill Rider of American Combat Veterans of War (ACVOW) explained how hard it was to be back home. He talked about his own experience coming back from Vietnam and how messed up he'd been and how long it took him to get help and how, decades later, he is still learning how to live with his war demons. At the end he recommended the Marines read Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam.

I'm reading it now, three years after the debriefing, shortly after reports that the suicide rate in the Marine Corps has more than doubled over the past three years and now exceeds the rate of civilian suicides.

"Soldiers in combat often hold the lives of their comrades dearer than their own and fear their comrades' deaths more deeply," Shay writes. "Some men often feel such overwhelming guilt after the death of a comrade that they take their lives in a direct and unconcealed manner... others recoil from the stigma of suicide even as they pronounce a death sentence upon themselves."

As I read these words I remember walking with Rider past a row of shimmering new Suzukis and Yamahas at Camp Pendleton. "Some of these devil dogs aren't putting a gun to their heads -- they're loading up on alcohol and getting on their bikes and ending it that way, in a rush of adrenaline -- and it gets called 'an accident'."

Patrick O' Donnell's We Were One helped me understand the sense of loyalty that everyone who has ever been a Marine seems to carry. It also helped me understand why the suicide rate is so high, especially when you realize that for many of the Marines who survived the hand-to-hand, house-to-house combat described so vividly in this book, there were two, three, and often more combat deployments to come.

This book was given to me by Sgt. Colin Archipley, the founder of Archi's Acres, in lieu of having to put into words the what he'd experienced during the invasions of Fallujah and Haditha. For some, it will always be too painful to talk about they had to see and do, so it's a relief to be able to hand over a book and say, "Read this. I was there. This is how it was."

Although it's not actually a war book, Where is the Mango Princess? by Cathy Crimmins addresses the bewildering effects of traumatic brain injury, the "signature injury" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Her description of this invisible injury could not be more apt: TBI is like an incomplete death: you've lost a person or part of a person but he's still there.

Crimmins' book was recommended to me by Amelia Glass whose husband, Army Sgt. William Glass, was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) blast in Iraq in 2006. He wasn't supposed to have still been in Iraq on the day of that blast, but the Army had extended his second tour there. As Amelia says, Will had been "stop-lossed and blown up."

Two years later, while Will was going through rehab at the VA Polytrauma Center in Palo Alto, Amelia and I had lunch at a nearby Olive Garden. Between spoonfuls of all-you-can-eat minestrone soup she showed me photos she'd taken of Will with her cell phone at Bethesda Navy hospital after his injury. It was the first time she'd seen him since he'd left for Iraq, a tall, elegant guy with fair skin and bright blue eyes.

Nobody at the hospital had prepared the 21-year-old University of Oregon psychology student for what her husband now looked like: his purplish skin, his bandaged face and hands (he lost an eye and his hands were mangled in the blast), and his brain literally swelling out of his skull.

"I didn't know at the time but it was a good thing they removed the top of his skull, if they hadn't his brain injury would have been much worse," Amelia said. Two years later they were both trying to navigate a new way of being -- individually and as a couple.

You will hear the RPG coming for you. Not so the roadside bomb are lines in Brian Turner's poem, "What Every Soldier Should Know" in his book Here, Bullet. As in his other poems, this verse from "Curfew" juxtaposes shreds of beauty against the horror.

There were no bombs, no panic in the streets.

Sgt. Gutierrez didn't comfort an injured man

who cupped pieces of his friend's brain

in his hands; instead today,

white birds rose from the Tigris.

It reminds me of a recent conversation with a young veteran who described night in Iraq: "The sky is so pretty at night, so filled with stars." And then, without missing a beat, he talked about watching his interpreter being blown up just a few yards away from him.

I stumbled upon April Morning by Howard Fast at the used bookstore at my library. It's about a single day -- April 19th, 1775 -- in the life of 15-year Adam Cooper after he signed the muster roll of the Lexington militia.

"How did I come to be here, grown with a gun in my hands? Fear began. I felt it prickle on my spine. I felt it like a weight in my belly. I felt it like a sickness around my heart, and its accompaniment was the steady, increasing roll of the redcoat drums."

Grown, with a gun in my hands. I think of those words when I meet some of the young men and women who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and who are still a few years away from being legally able to walk into a bar and buy a beer. Their brains haven't yet finished forming and they are being prescribed medications with warnings of suicide if taken by those under 18.

Chrissy Decaprio, a gunner with the 2nd Military Police Battalion, and other women warriors are the focus in Kirsten Holmsted's Band of Sisters. They are Marine gunnery sergeants, Navy lieutenants and Army captains who carry guns, fly Kiowa Warrior helicopters and locate IED's. (Women now represent 20 percent of all new recruits, 15 percent of active-duty military and more than 11 percent of the forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.)

"The first time an Iraqi insurgent shot at DeCaprio, she was standing in the turret of a scout vehicle. Beside her was a .50 caliber, automatic belt-fed, recoil-served, air-cooled, crew-operated machine gun," writes Holmsted. "It was a gun that DeCaprio not only knew how to shoot, but loved to shoot."

Tammy Duckworth, Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Illinois, wrote the forward to Band of Sisters. A major in the Illinois National Guard, Duckworth served in Iraq and flew combat missions as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. During a mission in 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter she was co-piloting and she lost both of her legs and partial use of one arm. Since her recovery at Walter Reed, Duckworth has served as a national veteran's advocate.

"I will always place the mission first. I will never quit. I will never accept defeat. I will never leave a fallen comrade. These statements are portions of the Soldier's Creed....They are gender neutral statements that get at the heart of what it means to be an American Soldier today," she writes. "I am not a big fan of being identified as a woman anything. I worked so hard not to be different from the other Soldiers for most of my career."

I find her words poignant, having learned that one in three women have experienced sexual assault while in the military. It was Eli Painted Crow, who served in the Army for 22 years and helped form Service Women's Action Network, who first told me that a woman in Iraq had to have "a battle buddy" if she wanted to go to the latrine at night. "The risk of assault or rape from a male soldier is too high," she said. "Female soldiers need to stick together at night."

The Endless Journey Home: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms and Resources by Specialist Joe Collins, Army Reserves, is just a booklet, but it tells a painfully honest story and contains a wealth of resources in its 23 pages. You can order it on the website of the non-profit Veterans' Families United.

Joe was 19 years old when he left for Iraq in January 2003, in the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The following February he returned home for his first leave, then went back to Iraq and completed his duty in April 2004. "When he got off the plane he looked as healthy as I've ever seen him," his mother Cynde Collins Clark, writes. "Strong, muscular and walking with confidence as people stopped to shake his hand and thank him for his duty to our country. It appeared that he had weathered the storm well."

He found work. He purchased his own home. Then he began "to notice something was wrong." By April 2005 he'd become so ill that he couldn't go to work. Since then, Joe has been 100% disabled with PTSD and major depression. He lives with his parents. He isolates in his room. Some days he is "Joe" and some days he is anxious, reclusive and distant, his mother says. It was Joe who made me aware of the hues of pain many veterans are living with.

"The fact is that pain comes in many 'colors'," writes Derek McGinnis in his book Exit Wounds: A Survival Guide to Pain Management for Returning Veterans and their Families. "It can be sharp, dull, burning, shooting, throbbing, easy to locate or diffuse... Chronic pain often leads to sleep disorders, emotional distress, anxiety, and depression." He adds that although chronic pain is not the sole source of suicide, it can be a critical factor in the tailspin that can precedes it.

McGinnis served in the Navy as a Corpsman and was severely wounded in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. He was employed as a Program Support Assistant at the VA in Palo Alto prior to becoming the Amputee Advocate for the American Pain Foundation.

"Life is difficult and many of the symptoms of chronic pain blur and bleed into each other," he writes. "A good example is depression, which can lead to drinking, which can deepen the depression and the experience of pain, which can lead to the breakup of a relationship, which can lead to more depression... You get the picture."

A recent study of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers enrolled in VA Polytrauma Centers showed that more than 90 percent have chronic pain, most have pain in more than one part of the body and pain is the most common symptom in returning members of the military.

McGinnis talks about pain becoming "hardwired" in the body, becoming a disease unto itself. As he emphasizes the urgency of getting help as quickly as possible, all I can think of are the faces of the men and women I've met whose suffering increases with each day of having to wait for that elusive appointment at the VA.

Pain and poetry, love and suicide -- they're all there on my bookshelf. And the collection keeps growing.