The Killing Floor

You’ve got to give credit where it’s due: I didn’t see this one coming, no way, no how.

The veteran and I had been “introduced” long before he’d known it.  I had been on back-up call for our service, and I had received a page from the resident on-call about a man whom she had just seen in our emergency room, a veteran a few years out of his last deployment who was “not doing too well” (his words).  She told me that he had been working closely with the Chief of our Chaplain Service, as well as with one of my colleagues who specializes in treating combat trauma.  According to the resident, both my colleagues had been urging the veteran to consider a brief hospitalization for stabilization.  Finally, that night, the veteran had decided he was in agreement.

The problem was: because of staffing issues, our inpatient service was “full,” and the veteran would have had to have been referred to another VA hospital in our area.  The resident doubted he would go for that–and I doubted that the referral would have been helpful in the least.  I know both his treaters well and trust their judgments implicitly: if they thought the veteran could benefit from an inpatient stay, he could benefit from an inpatient stay, period–but only at the one where these well-trusted treaters worked.

I won’t bore you with details.  Let’s just say that “full” can be a relative term, and although there was, shall we say, dissent within the ranks, the veteran was eventually admitted.

I have my ways.

And an M.D. behind my name.

Then what do you know: the next day there I was, minding my own business, when lo and behold, a new guy showed up in a group that I’m attending that is being run by the Chief Chaplain.  The group is geared for Iraq/Afghanistan veterans who are struggling with their spiritual identity and beliefs.  When he introduced himself, I knew exactly who he was.  After all, the embers of the controversy I’d sparked in his honor were still glowing on the other side of the hospital, as far as I knew.

He was strikingly handsome, in a certain, young Brad Pitt kind of way, although unlike Mr. Brangelina, his hair was dark and graying–albeit a very Pitt-esque graying, if you know what I mean.  He wore a baseball cap as if he’d been born with it, and his intensity marched right from the entry of our clinic into the entry of our group room like Caesar taking Gaul, all three parts.

And he was in pain.  A lot of it.  He couldn’t have hidden that had God come down and ordered him to.

Today, a week later, he came in and took his place around the table.  There was a bit of a riled edge to him, but nothing drastic, and without much effort he bantered with the other men of the group until the festivities began.  Soon after that beginning, however, he asked us all a question.

“Do you guys mind if I tell you the words of a song I’ve written?  I play the guitar, and it helps me cope, and, I, well . . . it’s been a bad week.  The worst, really.  Would you be willing to hear it?”

We all said yes, of course–out of curiosity, true, but also, admittedly, out of a certain kindhearted tolerance, you know how that goes.

So without skipping a beat, he recited the words to us, just a touch out of breath, yet slowly and clearly, with a cadence worthy of the meter, never sing-song, always with a distant gaze that seemed to place him somewhere between Indianapolis and Baghdad, if I had to take a guess.

I didn’t see it coming until it came.  His lyrics.  Him.

When he finished, the room was silent.  All I can remember is sitting there like a fool, my mouth hanging open, looking directly at the Chaplain, who was sitting there like a fool, his mouth hanging open, looking at me.  Our eyes spoke in unison to each other:  Oh, my God.

Oh my God.

He went on to talk a fair amount today.  He was a bit embarrassed at how much he spoke, yet never did he monopolize the group.  His heart was simply pouring forth his pain, his confusion, his anger at a world that should be far more reliable than it is.  The other guys nodded in agreement, murmured in assent, freely added their thoughts, their elaborations.

I don’t think any of them noticed the tear streaking down my right cheek.

When the group was over, I asked him if I could publish the lyrics in my blog.  I promised him that I would read him the text of the entry.  He seemed genuinely touched, excited even.

“I wrote it for the regular soldier, the guy trying to do the right thing, trying to stay alive.  I’d really like to make a video of it, you know?  Share it with other soldiers, like a gift, all of us trying to make sense of it all.”

I was about to give him my e-mail address when I realized that he was getting a piece of paper so that I could write down the lyrics as he dictated them to me.  Clearly he was wanting to speak the words to me again.

His delivery was a bit slower, in deference to my aging hearing, I suppose, yet just as intense, just as desirous of a listener–any listener–to get it, please, get it.  Please, sir.  Please.

The Killing Floor

Driving through the sand
In an 1114,
My men and I are true killing machines,
50 cal and a Mark 19.
We can take out anything.

Death is near,
I can feel it in my bones.
Contact right, coming over my headphones.
I look to the right, and what do I see?
I see this Iraqi man staring right back at me.
He raised his weapon, I had to blow him away.

I still think about him every day.

Was he a father, or was he a son?
I wonder if he’d ever even held a gun.

What are we fighting this war for?
It’s a one-man show on the killing floor.
The killing floor is what you need.
The killing floor is what you believe.

Have you ever heard a mother’s cry?
Have you ever seen a father’s tear?
Who are we kidding,
We’re killing children here.

Have you ever seen that father’s tear?
Or have you ever heard that mother’s cry?
That will tear you up from within.
Then I look at the killing floor again.

Beauty is within the selfless sacrifice.
Have you ever seen a dead soldier’s eyes?

What are we fighting this war for?
It’s a one-man show on the killing floor.
The killing floor is what you need.
The killing floor is what you believe.

He stopped, smiled sheepishly, just barely.  Then he started to pick up his things as if to make a quick exit.

In theory, I needed to go.  I had a private patient about to arrive soon.  But I just sat there.

He stopped again and looked at me.

“Do you . . . can you talk a bit more?”

I paused.

“Let’s go down to my office.”

I opened the door and asked him to take a seat while I made a call.  I left my private patient a voice mail and sent her a text.  “I need to stay at the VA.  There’s a guy I need to keep talking with.  I’m really sorry.  I’ll call you when I can.”

By the time I got back to my office and to him, I had my text reply.  “Don’t worry.  I’m glad you’re there for him.”  The woman’s a straight-shooter.  She says what she means.  I appreciated those words.  Still do.

We ended up speaking about fifteen minutes more.  It had indeed been a, what, eventful week for him, with a capital E.  He knew that he’d been the cause of a lot of his problems.  He was not shirking one microgram of responsibility.  But still, he was feeling betrayed.  He was wondering why he’d put his life on the line for this.  He was wondering why he had lost the men he loved for this.  He was wondering why there were Iraqis dead by his hand for this.  For life in the America of the marketing campaign, where your every move at Target is studied.

For this.

“You just can’t go to war, you know, as if you had nothing better to do.  We veterans have got to make people understand that.  We’ve got to communicate.  I thought combat was going to be some . . . well, I don’t know what.  I was gung-ho, though, all the way.  Then I saw the kids.  They were everywhere, asking for food, for candy.  There was this one girl.  I always gave her muffins.  It was like her whole world had been made by me, just for some muffins.  And then one day she never came back.”

He paused, his eyes tethered to the ground, as if trying to dig his way back to a doorway in the Middle East.

“I think about her every day.”

Slowly he looked up at me, his eyes moist.

“I’m a good man, really.  I never got into trouble in high school–oh yeah, maybe a cigarette here and there, every once in a while some weed.  But I made good grades, and I wanted to be a soldier.  I went to basic the summer before my senior year, while everybody else was just goofing off.  And then 9/11 came, and I knew: I had to go over there.  I had to.”

I could see him in my mind, the sophomore, the junior, playing baseball, knocking off home runs to impress the girls.  In rural Indiana, of all places.

“I was the only one to carry on the family name,” he barely whispered.  “Now I have a son to carry it on.  I take that stuff seriously, really seriously.  I want to be an honorable man.  Sometimes my morals and my orders crossed.  I . . . I just want my son to know that deep down, I was once a kind man.  I think I’m still good.  I think.  I hope I am.  For his sake–I hope I am.”

Good God, I can only think, even now: where did this guy come from?  A field somewhere east of town?  Seriously?

Yes.  Seriously.

You know what his favorite word is?  Perspective.  I kid you not.  Perspective.  He wants to understand, to “wrap his head around . . .”  Around what?

The killing floor.

And a name.  Borne faithfully from father to son.

The name of a good man.

17 responses

  1. Thank you so much for writing this about my brother. It means so much……………..email me back I have some important info concerning the lyrics….

    • Tessa,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I did speak with your brother today, and he was very glad to have me post the comment and respond. I will plan to be in touch. Clearly the two of you care very deeply for each other. How good that is.

  2. Pingback: A new "perspective" - Honda Fury Forums: Honda Chopper Forum

  3. What an amazing writer you are!I could really see my son in your story.Thank you so much. It is refreshing to me for someone else outside our family to really get him..I hope and pray that this group starts his path to healing..I know that he is feeling betrayed by me right now but my hope is that someday he will see that all I do I do for his well being..Your story left me in tears and has given me hope thank you again!

  4. I am the mother of a Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2003. I was so moved by The Killing Floor that I am sending it to several of my son’s buddies in the Corps. I want the soldier who wrote the song that his words will be heard by many.

    • Ms. Evnin,

      Thank you so very much. I will make sure he knows. Thank you for your son, for his honor, for his willingness to do whatever it took, to give what it did take. May his buddies honor him in their hearts and, even more, in their lives. My best to you and your family.

  5. A brief time in my life I personally was connected to this man through a family member of his. I fully support him in the steps of taking care of his pain. He is a great dad and has a beautiful son that he gives so much to. It will be a difficulty journey, but it is and will be the best thing for him to give to himself and his son. If only my father had made those choices. I lost so many years with him because he has been trying to shut his pain out by alcohol. It wasn’t till I was older that I could understand, that ill never understand his pain. My job now is to love him where he is at and be the best daughter I can be.
    I know the past is the past, but this man will rise from the pain, we can’t understand everything in life, good or bad, but we can still make it if we try. Keep trying. 🙂

  6. Thank you, Dr. for posting this blog. That is my battle buddy right there. I wish I’d been able to be around for him a lot more. Everytime I’m down visiting, we while away the hours trying to make sense of any of it. I have some mild guilt for being able to carry on with life like nothing ever happened when he and I aren’t around each other. I’ve never known what else I could do for him; but then, I’m not sure I coped with my experiences in any more of a constructive way.
    I’m glad he found you/you found him, and ecstatic that you fought on his behalf. Not a lot of people have. At least not in a way he recognized. I’m as guilty as anyone of that.
    If even a few other Veteran’s can see this, it helps to let them know that no matter how much it feels like no one cares, no one gets it…someone does…someone knows. And none of us will ever forget. Just possibly learn to cope. Thanks again for doing this for him. And for all of us.

  7. Having an understanding of PTSD, living with it 24/7 sucks. I am a Vietnam vet, everything in my life has been touched by the damage done to my mind. The scars that have hurt every woman that has tried to live with me, the hurt both my sons have experienced, haunts me. I wish the VA was equipped to handle the damaged soldiers coming home to a hostile America that spit on us as we came home.

    • Godspeed Dwight and I, as Jason’s mom,am trying to
      understand your plight…I hope we have learned over the years not to treat our soldiers with disrespect like the Viet Nam vets endured…sigh and in the future we try and help these soldiers like you and my son with the resources you need!!!!!!

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