The handsome young man walked into my office and sat down. As I recall, his grandfather had brought him to the newspaper thinking it would somehow be therapeutic to talk about his time in Afghanistan with me.
I was surprised how easy it was to get him to talk. But he was from a family that was social and maybe that was part of it. I would like to think that I listened well.
He told me about terrible things he had seen while serving in the Afghan War. Friends of his, killed in the most horrible ways you could imagine. Well, maybe not if your imagination about such things is greater than my own.
In any event, this young fellow had seen a lot of bloodshed and returned home alive. Alive, but not whole.
He went to therapy sessions that were supposed to help with post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is the cool-sounding shorthand we have given to the nightmares of war that continue to haunt our young soldiers long after they have left the battlefield.
The eyes of the young man who sat across from me didn’t seem focused. I imagined it was the 1,000-yard stare I had read about in novels about combat, an unfocused, dazed expression, as if he were seeing a projection screen on the wall of my office that wasn’t actually there.
He might have been watching heads exploding, bowels leaking out of their cavities, who knows? I am guessing there was some stuff he couldn’t talk about. But we talked about an awful lot that day.
All the while his leg was tapping out a secret morse code. I doubt he was aware of it. His hands shook and occasionally he seemed to spot them moving out of the corner of his eye and used one to steady the other. But the movement would soon return.
The leader of his group therapy unit back home was a decorated combat veteran, a sergeant, who had been through a lot of stuff. He was their guiding light. Things could get better they believed because he had seen it all and made it. They respected him. They loved him.
One night, at the very end of their therapy sessions, it may have been their unofficial graduation, he called some of the fellows over to his apartment for a drink.
As they sat talking, with no warning, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He blew his brains out right in front of them.
We hardly ever talk about stuff like this on Veterans Day, or any day.
That interview was years ago. And I was told by the soldier’s family it was actually cathartic for him in some way. He told me he was going to get a job as a first responder, and he has. He is devoted to public service.
I am also told he has fallen in love and is a very happy man.
No one deserves it more. I wish we would think about this stuff more before we send our soldiers into combat. I wish we would consider it at all. But we don’t and that may be good.
Could any sane society send people off to such a fate if they clearly understood what they were doing to them?
When I think of Veterans Day, I often think of the young man in my office and the others like him.
My brother, who served in Vietnam, asked to be laid to rest in Lincoln National Cemetery. There was a kinship there, he said, for soldiers. A final place where they could find peace together. Those of us who had not served would never understand.
I stare at the monuments sometimes and try.