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Patricia Zohn

Patricia Zohn

Posted: May 10, 2006 12:22 AM

Coming Home: A Soldier Returns to a Family He Didn't Leave Behind (Part 3 of 4)

Part III: RJ Becomes a Civilian
(Read Part I and Part II.)

I thought somehow, RJ might eventually feel differently about the war once he'd had time for reflection so when the Kerry campaign teetered towards its own crash and burn, I reverted to type: I offered to pay for him and his combat buddies to travel to a swing state to help campaign. Hearing his politely confused reply, I realized he was in no shape yet to test his belief system about the job he had just finished doing.

Instead, I watched silently as RJ traded one door-to-door gig for another. Carless and low on cash reserves, he became a salesman for a company that marketed everything from baseball tickets to restaurants. Though my father had also gone into sales -- the career with perpetual upside for self-starting veterans -- I worried that RJ's employers were part of a Ponzi scheme. I was relieved when very soon, restless with the dubious opportunities for advancement, he moved on to his next career as a quality controller for a hardscape firm making "presence patrols" to construction sites. And not long after, when the thrill of the truck perk had worn off, he left and became part of a tsunami of mortgage wrestlers who are taking homeowners by the lapels and shaking them into submitting to our overheated, low-interest economy.

I joke that he's gone from being the aggressor of innocent civilians to the aggressor of innocent civilians. But we're already at risk of going against the grain with each other so I resist running my hand backwards through his shaved head, the way I used to, when my boys got buzz cuts at the beginning of football and basketball season and giving him advice about going back to school and finally taking advantage of the education the military promised to provide, because he says he can't afford not to work. I try to keep from being the big butt-insky I normally am, micromanaging my children into irate and vengeful beings.

Though heightened awareness is often a hallmark of post-traumatic stress, RJ isn't skittish or jumpy. Yet, though he's unfailingly sweet-tempered around me, I get the feeling that drop-shipped into a hostile environment, he could be easily provoked. He admits to getting "a little stressed if I'm in a big crowd of people... A guy blew himself up three feet away from me so I'm very much aware of what's around me... I feel like there's always something lurking behind the scenes." And when his new company dispatches him to northern California and his building is heavily populated with Muslims, he confesses to "having general anger toward Muslim people." I am mournful but not surprised, even though RJ says he's "ashamed to have those feelings." This is exactly what I fear the soldiers are bringing home -- one more layer of fear and racism to add to the already potent mix.

When RJ looks back on his service, one of the few measurable accomplishments he can point to was the capture of Saddam Hussein and the death of both of his sons. "The rest of the time, I'm concerned by what happened," he finally confesses. This concern is what I've really been waiting for him to acknowledge. Doubts about the mission of creating an Iraqi army bedeviled the troops right away; RJ thought it was "so far-fetched...bettering the lives of the Iraqis was just a joke...they couldn't even get their produce across the street." For now, this admission is as far as RJ goes. He says he has no regrets about having enlisted, but that at least four of his good buddies have died and he did feel guilty about not "being there...with all my friends" when they had to return to Iraq for their second tour. But he never feels sorry for himself. "I've never been a poor me... I made great buddies and that experience I went through -- I've done everything I've wanted to do....[I] toughed it out and served [my] country."

Joey is proud that during the war his "mind didn't cease to be fertile." He hopes to go back to Harvard for a joint degree from the Kennedy School of Government and the Business School. Though he avers that the army wants soldiers to be an extension of the political will, I'm confident he will find a way to incorporate his military service without it being at the expense of his personal beliefs. He is the extremely rare exception to the class disparity of our troops and we will be lucky to have this hybrid polymath as a leader whether he runs for office or stays in the private sector.

I know they both have a kind of maturity my sons may never achieve. When RJ came to live with us, my eldest had dropped out of school and was still suffering with his own post-traumatic stress: he lived in a dorm adjacent to the World Trade Center on 9/11. The youngest was in rehab for a major surgery on his pitching arm after a troubled freshman year at college. RJ saw my solicitous ministrations to them during these and other important but not at all life-threatening moments and seemed not to bear them any ill will. When I ask him point blank if he's resentful he says no, he's proud they're "enjoying this freedom of our country." He says that even as a child after he'd spent the day with wealthier friends at their pool, he was grateful for "a glimpse," that it added to his character and the "good feeling within [himself]." At a wedding reception he attended not long ago, one drunken guest was imitating Vince Vaughn's Wedding Crashers veteran rap as he put the moves on a pretty girl at the table. As the parody veered towards real hostility, RJ could feel himself getting agitated. But the hothead in him seems to have had his fill of strife: in his place is a wise young man who just got up and walked away.

A recent study by the Walter Reed hospital stated that 35% of the Iraqi war veterans have sought counseling, 12% have had some kind of trauma, and many believe they have fought in a senseless war and that we should get out.

So far, RJ is not among them.

Though casualty figures for our troops are slightly down, as the civil war has blossomed in Iraq, they are up for almost everybody else. And now there is no mystery that our mission is deeply flawed, its entire raison d'etre in doubt. The front pages of almost every newspaper have been filled with the graphic images of post-war repatriation, severed limbs and bloody shrapnel holes marking forever the bodies and souls of the vets and permanently scarring the vision of the rest of us.

But the ability to have no regrets, to look forward, to be optimistic, kept RJ alive in Iraq and keeps him productive and neurosis-free back home. I'm continually astonished at how well-adjusted he is. He and I have experienced this war so differently: I find his ability to move on both admirable and disturbing. As news about our missteps has come closer to home, I sense that RJ is willing to give peace a chance at least on one front: by playing at John and Yoko with Camilla in the big bed in the guest room.

Thus even though the two women who welcome him home aren't the ones who sent him off, we've risen to the occasion.