THE BLOG
03/31/2013 05:35 pm ET Updated May 31, 2013

The Returners

"A bear fight," Darl says, leaning towards me conspiratorially in my office, (he pronounces it somewhere between "bear" and "bar" in his thick South Carolina accent, so I'm not at all sure where this is going, in fact I'm thinking to myself, did he just say bear fight?) "is a car bomb (a shot of Jameson and Bailey's dropped in a Guinness) followed by a Jäger bomb (Jägermeister and Red Bull). So called because when you wake up the next morning, you feel like you just fought a bear!" He laughs uproariously, the kind of booming laugh that makes you glad to hear it, revealing dimples and two rows of perfectly straight, white teeth.

Darl is not his real name, but I began calling him that, in my thoughts, months ago. He is showing me pictures of his puppy and his burgeoning pot plant. My eyes flick over to my open door, and are relieved to see that my nearest neighbor's door is closed. "Not to sell," Darl says, reassuring me, "but just so I don't have to deal with drug dealers."

"Good idea," I say, one ear patrolling the hall. Of course, technically Darl is no longer my student. He has taken a medical leave of absence from school, as he waits to get on disability, and has self-prescribed a steady diet of marijuana for his PTSD. This is the happiest I've ever seen him.

In the first week of class, my composition students do presentations to introduce themselves. When it was Darl's turn, he listed some of his favorite musicians, as many had done, and then played a video of the exact moment when his mine-resistant vehicle was blown up by an IED in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan, leaving him permanently wounded and earning him a purple heart.

Darl is one of what I call "The Returners," a population of veteran students at Clemson University. Clemson has many resources in place to support them, including its own Veterans Resource Center, making it an attractive choice for those on the GI Bill. Still, they tend to stand out: They are a handful of years older than the graduating seniors, and unlike many of their peers, they are punctual. They often dress as if still in the military: khaki cargo pants, high and tight haircuts. Some of them are fairly well-adjusted, preparing for law school, careers in teaching. Others talk in hushed tones about their "invisible disability," by which they mean, I gather, that they can't sleep without having nightmares, that the only respite they get from their memories comes in the nightly blackouts they urge on.

Darl is a special case, as I learned the first time he came to my office hours and earned his name: "No matter what I do, every paper I write, whether it's for English or economics, always ends up being about Faulkner's As I Lay Dying." I was intrigued.

In William Faulkner's novel As I Lay Dying, the character named Darl is a mad, maladjusted veteran of the first world war. "Darl" comes to my office hours weekly and every conversation we have has a way of wending back to the novel, the way rivers find their way to the sea. At Sloan Street Tavern, the veterans' group meets routinely to decompress over pitchers of PBR and talk about the challenges facing them as they re-acclimate, not just to civilian life, but to student life, trying to rejoin their peer group as if nothing has happened -- as if they haven't seen, first hand, the kind of violence the others are exposed to only in video-games.

Lit with the light of cheap beer, as they all are, Darl monologues about As I Lay Dying to a group of bleary-eyed veteran students. They've clearly heard this rant before. He is talking about what kind of statement Faulkner's Darl was making when he burned down the barn -- "a piece of Capital" he emphasizes -- and the "abject nakedness" of truth revealed, and the pathos of the Bundren family dragging their mother's corpse across Mississippi. He explains that Darl burned down the barn in an act of rebellion. He quotes the book, which he has read eight times, from memory: "No man is pure sane or pure crazy until the balance of us talks him that-a-way."

I say: "You're haunted by this book."

Of course, it is not really the book that is haunting Darl. Once, he said to me, "You blow up a bunch of people in a building in Oklahoma, or you kill innocent Afghanis. What, really, morally, is the difference?"

I learn that when Darl talks about Faulkner, this is what he is really trying to say: If you have a justification for violence, destruction, murder, like a political statement, like war, does that make it right? Or does thinking it's right make you crazy?

I don't have an answer for him. But I understand one thing about these students: they're walking around our campuses like they just fought a bear. And the rest of us have no idea what that feels like.

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