Veterans Day 2016

In the past, I’ve waxed more eloquent on Veterans Day, but today, I speak a more simple truth, one about the men and women I have the honor to serve, one about me.

As I have returned to listening to the stories of combat veterans of all ages, more and more I have felt both the long-hidden youth of the older ones and the early-endured aging of the younger ones. Yet for both, I have heard men and women who simply wanted to do right, whether or not they were fully convinced at any particular moment of the rightness of their actions.

I hear man and women who still want to do right, whether or not they have a clue what rightness might mean in this particular moment.

I see men whom I once could have watched on a high school football field when I was an elementary school child, a pre-teen, a peer. I see men and women whom, in another life, I could have held in my younger arms, watched them head off to kindergarten, heard them squeak their first clarinet or stubbornly try another basketball lay-up, then another.

I see them. I see me. I see Life.

And I see what War can do to Life.

And I hope that by really listening to War in their lives, I can accompany them adequately as they create meaningful post-war Life.

To all the men and women, for their having desired to do right by their brothers-  and sisters-in-arms, to do right by those at home whom they loved and pledged to defend, to do right by those abroad whom they pledged to protect—thank you.

Simply put, a simple truth: thank you.

 

“‘Taps’ and the Last Musketeer” (Encore)

It has now been nearly two months since I last posted.  So much for “until tomorrow.”

I’m more than glad to report that my life has, indeed, been busy, colorful, hectic, the usual mea culpa‘s for not having written.  All are true.

And all are, of course, beside the point.

One of the occupational hazards of being a psychiatrist—certainly for those of us with a more psychotherapeutic bent to our trainings and practices—is that you can never quite take even your own excuses too seriously.

Another, again for those of us cursed to take listening as a task worth doing, is memory: memory not only of words and events, but of emotions and feelings that allow themselves expression only in the deepest, embodied repositories of experiences past.

Not that some things are necessarily that hard to remember, mind you. All things considered, modern psychiatry, especially as practiced in the United States, is relatively straightforward. Given the focus in my field on biologic interventions, I’m happy to report that, in spite of all the hope-filled research that keeps gushing out of our journals with the most esoteric of statistics therein dissolved, the formulary we have available to us to treat mental disorders is, practically speaking, not that hard to master and, therefore, not that taxing to the brain to apply.

Granted, one can lose oneself to one’s heart’s content in the symptomatic litanies of the DSM, arguing the finer nuances of serotonin versus dopamine for the most efficacious treatment of any particular syndromal consubstantiation of eternal, mental-health truths.   Also, there are the endless, prescribed combos of this-‘n-that-medicines that would probably serve as bases for the next set of O.W.L. Potions exams in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world.  Everybody’s got his or her favorite, after all.

But there you have it.

After that, all you have are a few medical records, body, soul—and memory.

Three years it has been since Porthos died. I have heard “Taps” played since then. Sadly, I will almost certainly hear it one day again.

A mere cut and paste, and the embodied memories of 2013 become the entries of 2016. If only life could be as easily dispatched by a mere Control/Command C and V.

Procrastination in deed, procrastination in wordy preambles. To remember is to honor. To honor is to feel: sounds, images, words in Latin, words in English, death, life, and the connections that made—and make—it all worthwhile.

From 05 April 2013, just over three years to the day, comes “‘Taps’ and the Last Musketeer.” 

It’s time to get this written.

Spring has slowly been intimating its way into Indiana these past several days, although, admittedly, I’m being kind in giving it this much due. Still, the snow is gone, and temperatures are edging toward their becoming worthy of some notice beyond “scorn.” Yet while the thermometer has only been cooperating begrudgingly, the barometer has been anything but: beautiful, nearly cloudless skies have been ours to enjoy.

Funny, isn’t it, how the living prefer sunshine for funerals.

As I have noted in previous posts (Goodbye, My Friend and In Memoriam: Porthos, 1985-2013), my patient, Porthos, a combat veteran of two deployments to Iraq, age twenty-seven, died in an auto accident a little over a week ago. He had grown up in a town that had once had the decency to be out in the boondocks, but which has, over the years, become another bedroom community for Indianapolis. It’s quite a hike, nevertheless, from my house, so I headed out in plenty of time, ostensibly so that I could secure an adequate parking spot.

In reality, I was just needing the time to myself.

All the way down there, I couldn’t stop thinking about a topic so near and dear to so many therapists’ hearts, minds, and critiques: boundaries. Truly, I’m not sure what some therapists would do if they weren’t policing not only their own, but everyone else’s, twenty-four seven, usually with, if I may so say, a certain self-satisfied, ethical purity.

Yet in spite of my snarkiness, the topic is indeed a critically important one, signifying as it does the question of how much should the personal and the professional be allowed to co-mingle in a therapeutic relationship. Certain answers to that question are easy, of course: no sexual favors, no financial manipulation, for example. Others plague all young therapists and many older ones: when, if ever, does one accept a nominal gift from a client/patient? How much does one reveal about one’s personal life, one’s experiences, one’s disappointments?

Or . . .

Does one embrace a patient’s grieving father, his grieving mother, his grieving brother—his grieving best friend who also has medicine bottles in his bathroom cabinet that have printed upon them my name?

As the traffic thinned out, as the several lanes merged into two, I had to wonder: for whom was I going down there? For Porthos? His family? My other patient, his battle buddy through both deployments, Athos?

For me?

After thirty years in this business, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to all such questions is E, i.e., “all of the above.” I can live with that. I have learned that these things have a way of working themselves out.

I pulled into the lot of the funeral home with more than enough time to spare before the service, dutifully then backing into my parking spot as I was instructed, my purple “Funeral” flaglet well-perched on the roof above me.

Men and women were already there, though, even more dutifully standing guard along the sidewalk leading to the entry door, all clearly my senior, most dressed in leather, many with the familiar POW-MIA emblem from the Vietnam era emblazoned on their backs, holding the United States flags that so readily were flapping in the cool breeze, their Harleys parked only feet away, ready to be mounted, to be driven at the head of a procession to the cemetery, in a silence that not even the loudest of mufflers could pierce.

About ten minutes later, Athos and his fiancée arrived in their SUV. After backing the car in almost directly across from me, he turned off the engine and, in moments, was looking directly at me. The smile of recognition was there on his face, yet he knew it as well as I did: neither of us wanted to be seeing each other at that moment. He zipped an open palm past his face, once, in that muted “Hi” so often seen in old home movies when a person has that ridiculous light glaring into his or her face, hoping against hope that Uncle Maury will just move on to the next relative and leave me the heck alone.

I got out of my car first, only then to watch him somewhat pour himself out of his, almost as if he were maple sap reluctantly exiting through that spigot in the trunk of the tree during a sub-zero winter. Yet door shut, he turned to me in his suit, dark shirt, dark tie, a little too slender, true (as countless maternal types had reminded him at the viewing the night before), yet still ready for his Jos. A Bank’s photo shoot. He smiled again at me, adjusted his tie as he did his obligatory “look both ways,” so well learned in first grade, and then began to walk across the driveway toward me.

He marched right up to me, eyes refusing to let anything even approaching a tear to leak out, trying to maintain some semblance of a smile. His beard was well-trimmed. His hair was neatly cut, longer than military, definitely, yet still a certain “short chic.” Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway was back, in other words, at your service. Preparing to bury Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby.

For a second or so, we just looked at each other.

“Thanks for coming, Doc,” he finally said, a certain hesitancy more than apparent.

This was it. I knew it. The boundary decision.

So I made it.

I opened my arms wide.

His eyes saw their chance, and for just a few seconds they forced his entire facial musculature to contract in response, both giving in to tears and refusing to do so, as he nearly fell into me, wrapping his arms around my upper body, his head in an instant buried at my neck, his body seeking my ballast to help steady those eyes and get those partners back in line, buddy-boy, and I mean, right now.

“I don’t know if I can get through this, Doc” he whispered, quickly, desperately, right into my ear.

“I know you don’t,” I whispered back into his. “You don’t have to think you will. You just will. You’ll do it, and you’ll have no clue how. For his family. For him.”

For a few seconds, nothing, then another whisper entered my ear. “Thank you, Doc.”

Just as quickly we separated and looked at each other. His smile was trying to weasel its way back into place.

“I’ve got to go in and see his folks. You’re coming to the cemetery, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I replied.

He cleared his throat, adjusted his tie one more time, and then his sunglasses. “OK, great, I’ll . . . I guess I’ll see you inside?”

“Of course.”

The smile having reasserted itself, he was gone with the nod of a head.

Several minutes later I entered the funeral home myself, making my way to the large room where just the night before I’d walked in to see at the end a large wooden casket, carved and stained in such a way as to remind any onlooker of a life that had been honorably, even beautifully lived. A United States flag, well-folded into its triangular form, lay on top of one end of the casket, various pictures and a sports jersey on the other.

As I took my seat in the far back corner, by all the pictures that had been assembled and displayed along the back of the room, I looked down to see on the table next to me a five by seven of two very young-appearing men, stocky, I think, more because of all the outfit and combat gear each was sporting than because of any good, home-cooked meals out in the desert. Each had a “go ahead, cross me, I dare you” look chiseled on his face. I had both to smile and to bite my lip.

Porthos and Athos, bodies so proud, yet eyes already having begun to be transformed by War.

In Central Indiana, it usually seems as if all funeral homes are constantly jockeying for the title of “Most Gaudily Edwardian.” Fortunately, this one had bowed out of competition at a more respectable moment. I was quite glad, in fact, that as the music began to be piped in, it was not the usual, top-ten hits of nineteenth-century, Methodist hymns being played far too slowly and far too cheesily on a Hammond, draw-bar spinet.

Quite the contrary. It made me smile without any lip-biting.

It was Josh Groban.

All I could think: Porthos, a veteran of many a barroom scuffle brought on by some unsuspecting, churlish drunk who’d made the poor decision to “dis” or threaten one of Porthos’ buddies; Porthos, the guy who’d argue a point with you well into near-absurdity just to prove to you that you couldn’t run over him . . .

Porthos, the man who, after being awakened one more time by the terrors of nightmares that had left him drenched in sweat, would calm himself by watching Harry Potter movies, over and over again, so often that he could quote entire scenes by heart . . .

Of course, Josh Groban. Of course.

Soon the room was packed not just with the usual cadre of retired individuals who apparently plan their golf schedules around funeral services, but also—even mostly—with dozens of young men, still well-built as their hairlines were receding, and dozens of young women, still with sensuous smiles after having put on that extra pound or so after their last pregnancy. Some were dressed to the nines. Some were wearing T-shirts and jeans. All would embrace over and over, smiles radiating “It’s been too long,” yet voices soft enough not to remind any of them that one of their gang, though still in the room in body, was now quiet, quiet as he’d never been in high school, never in the Army, never in life.

At some point, Porthos’ mother saw me, came over, hugged me, and said “Thanks for coming.” My reply was as it had been to Athos: “Of course.” We looked briefly at each other, two parents of different children, yet both parents nonetheless. We both knew there was nothing more to say. We left it at that.

Eventually his older brother and his girlfriend made it toward the front of the room, then his younger brother and his husband. His younger brother, D’Artagnan, caught my eye. He smiled, waved sheepishly, as did I in return. Once more, we left it at that.

Finally, as Porthos’ mother took her place next to her youngest son, his heartbroken father walked in and took his place on her other side, the college professor dressed for a no-nonsense lecture, ready to see his son off with the honor the younger man deserved.

Athos and his fiancée were barely a few seats away from them.

As the service progressed, as the National Guard chaplain whom Porthos had so deeply admired spoke, as Indiana’s Adjutant General looked on, as both his father and his younger brother tearfully remembered him, admired him as their hero, as the quintet of friends apparently from high school sang in Appalachian open harmony, quite in tune, a song drenched in country-western fervor, yet universal in sentiment, I could only think: my God, what if I hadn’t come?

Boundaries, schmoundaries.

I have to wonder: if more of my VA colleagues across the nation were to attend just such services, feel the lives of the men and women we have served, absorb the sadness and the futility of lives cut off far too soon, whether in battle, in the accidents of those who had always imagined themselves indestructible, in the self-destructions of those who could no longer imagine a future without excruciating pain of body and soul—what then? Who would we be? To whom, to how many in this country could we then announce, scream, pontificate, plead to not forget, not abandon, not leave these same men and women worrying one more day about where their next meal will come from, about whether they will have a roof over their heads?

The service over, I was one of the first to be escorted up front. For a couple seconds, I stood before the casket, not even sure I was wanting to have the wherewithal to understand the import of the moment. Just as quickly I turned to meet the eyes of his younger brother, to embrace him and hear him say “Thank you,” to hear myself once again saying “Of course.” Then it was his mother, same.

Then it was his father.

For a moment we looked at each other, Dad to Dad. As we embraced, his voice broke ever so softly. “Thanks for helping him talk about what he needed to talk about.”

This time, my “Of course” served more as my defense against the breaking of my own voice.

I shook the hand of his older brother, and then I turned to see Athos sitting there, head down, quickly batting at his eye. He looked up at me, and then in an instant was standing, and one more time, boundaries were . . . well, I don’t know, they just were.

Another firm embrace. Another “Thank you” whispered into my ear. Another “Of course” whispered into his.

The cemetery was not that far from the funeral home, though it wasn’t a stone’s throw either. It was quite a line of cars making its way down the divided highway, led by the police car and a pack of very loud, very silent Harley-Davidsons. Interesting, I thought: out in this more rural area, cars were stopping as the procession went by, even when they were going the opposite direction on a divided highway. You’d never see that in Indianapolis.

We wound our way to the rear of the cemetery—to the burial ground of soldiers from all the way back to the Civil War. His was a beautiful spot, right next to an ancient tree. The family sat down in the tent. The rest of us gathered along the sides. Across from us were the two rows of marksmen (and women), standing at attention, ready. To the far right, a lone man stood, also at attention, a bugle tucked underneath his arm.

Men and women in uniform gathered to the left of us, all ages, each falling into a respectful parade-rest. Six men then came to full attention and, in well-orchestrated fashion, marched their way to the back of the hearse. With a series of precise, right-angle turns, one of them made his way to the door and opened it.

There he was, Porthos, casket draped in the flag that he had more than once told me that, in spite of all his suffering, he would serve under again and again.

Ever so precisely the men maneuvered the casket out of the hearse. Ever so precisely they carried it to the grave site. Ever so precisely they rolled it into place. Ever so precisely they stood back, turned, marched off.

The chaplain spoke a few words. The crowd recited the Lord’s Prayer. A few more words from the chaplain, and then another man in uniform precisely made his way to the casket, precisely and respectfully requested that all stand.

From across the way the commands were barked.

Rifles clicked. Fired.

Clicked. Fired.

To the right, men and women stood at full attention, their white-gloved right hands slowly making their way to a salute as the bugler slowly, precisely brought the instrument to his lips.

Ever so slowly, ever so precisely, ever so, dare I say, musically, he made his way up the major chord, each note clarion-like and yet not, both forceful, yet haunting.

He hit the final high sol easily, sustaining it just long enough, then made his way down the octave, perfect interval by perfect interval, until the final do filled the air, no vibrato, just tone, a good eight counts.

Porthos would have loved it.

As the guns were firing, the salutes lifting, the bugle playing, one uniformed soldier stood at the head of the casket, a second at its foot. As the final note of the song faded, the two men clicked into action, lifted the flag draping the casket, and ever so slowly, ever so precisely began to fold it, in half, in half again, then right triangle by right triangle.

Finally only one of the two men was left standing there, holding the folded flag, as Indiana’s highest-ranking National Guard officer walked slowly up to him. The man handed the General the flag, then saluted. He walked off.

And then it happened.

From behind the family, Athos stood and walked toward the General. At full attention, he put out his hands, and slowly the General lowered the flag into his, ending with a salute, older man to younger, both living and dead.

Athos then turned and made his way to stand in front of Porthos’ parents, to be met there by Porthos’ Uncle Jack, a Vietnam veteran whom Porthos had often spoken to me lovingly about, his inspiration for taking his energy, his mind, his body to serve, even knowing that death could result, by his hand, to his dearest friend, to himself.

Athos handed Jack the flag. And he saluted.

Jack nodded, turned, knelt down, and handed the folded flag finally to Porthos’ mother, his father right beside her.

Minutes later, the service was over.

People began to walk around, speak softly, hug. I looked over to see Athos embracing his fiancée, whom I’d only met for the first time the night before, a woman who’d been Porthos’ childhood buddy, the girl he’d taken to Prom “just because,” the woman who’d have never known Athos, whom Athos would have never known, would have never found comfort with, had it not been for that wisecracking charmer from Indiana.

Eventually I made my way over to him. He was standing next to Aramis’ brother-in-law: Aramis, the first of the Musketeers to die, in battle, the kid from the big family in Maryland, the man whose body Athos had lovingly guarded to his final resting place (Taking Him On Home).

Athos looked at me and swallowed. For a few seconds we stood there. The tear was trickling down his cheek. I think one was trickling down mine as well. I can’t quite remember.

Slowly he walked toward me, and once again boundaries evaporated. This time, though, I could feel the shaking of tears in his chest as he embraced me, not sobbing, just . . . tears.

“I’m not ready to let him go,” he finally whispered into my ear.

“I know,” I replied.

Slowly he pulled back. As we looked at each other, we both knew there was nothing left to say. He nodded, as did I. Then he turned away.

I wondered whether he was going to finish what he had to finish.

He did.

He’d told me the night before. “The last salute. That’s what’s going to be the hardest.”

I watched him as he went over to another man, his age, in full uniform. Briefly they spoke. Then, together, they walked up to the casket. People continued to walk around, speak softly, hug.

The two men assumed full attention. They looked down at the casket. Then, in a fashion just as the men and women had assumed at the sounding of “Taps,” just as the General had done to the flag and to him, Athos and his friend slowly began to raise their right hands to their foreheads, the entire journey from chest to brow extending over four, slow beats, at the end of which their hands stood still, as did Time, one last time.

Although not in heart, but at least in body, the last Musketeer had done it: had let his second brother go, had saluted him one last time at a casket, had taken his place, unwillingly, yet bravely, as the last one standing.

Slowly both men lowered their hands. Slowly they turned away—and then embraced.

About five minutes later, I turned to find him standing in front of me.

“You still in the hospital this week?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Maybe I could come by on Friday?”

“Of course.”

I think we both attempted something like a smile. That may be the best either of us can hope for. For a while.

Eventually it was time for me to go. I walked over to the casket and lowered the tips of the fingers of my right hand down onto it.

I, of course, had not earned to right to salute.

And so I thought what I needed to think, whispered what I needed to whisper.

Words that I now must write.

For I, too, don’t want to let Porthos go. And I, too, like Athos, must find a way to begin to do just that.

And so I type what I whispered to his body—perhaps, I hope, in some way even now whisper to him. Even though I could not salute him, I could say something, something that perhaps as his psychiatrist—and even more, as his somewhat boundary-bending friend—only I could say.

You see, I was by no means the only one to whom he bared the terrors and grief of his soul. He did to Athos. He did to his chaplain. He did to a few other buddies. Yet I do know that even with them, he’d only been able to graze against the guilt in his soul, the grief in his heart, the suffering in his mind.

With me, however, he had honored me enough with his trust to allow me to watch him begin to grasp those demons more firmly, to take the risk with him that everything could blow up, to have the faith that it wouldn’t, to feel together what never should have been felt by him in the first place.

Perhaps, then, there are words that only I can pronounce, not as some sort of blessing—far from it—but rather as a statement of fact, a “performative” utterance, as the literary critics are wont to say, words that by their very speaking both acknowledge what “is” and bring that “is”into being.

I have to laugh, actually. Porthos gave me no end of grief about being a “Harvard hot-shot.” He, more than anyone, would have enjoyed the ridiculousness of some Westside Indianapolis boy acting as if he could spout off some highfalutin’ Latin nonsense in the tradition of the Lux et Veritas so proudly displayed on anything Harvardian one can buy at the Coop in Cambridge.

Yet at the same time, sometimes I would wake up in the morning to find that he had texted me in the middle of the night to tell me that another nightmare had awakened him, shook him to the core, but that he was “going to be OK, Doc. I’m feeling a little better.” Why?

Because he’d watched a couple Harry Potter movies.

It was J. K. Rowling, of course, who helped make Latin fashionable again, with her spells, curses, and family names that hearken back to the language of Rome. How Porthos would have so appreciated, then, at least one word in the phrases, that wizarding word for a curse that could, if left unchecked, destroy both body and soul of any man or woman who had to endure it.

He knew something of that process, after all.

Yet, thankfully, he also knew of other processes as well. He knew, like Harry, that ultimately what saves us all is simply faithfulness and love.

I only hope that well within boundaries, yet well not constrained by them, he learned something of the latter two from me, enough so that I can say what I have to say, perhaps the only good I can see arising out the sadness sounded in that bugle’s call, in that beloved brother-in-arm’s salute.

And so one last time, now with fingertips touching wood only in spirit, I let you go, Porthos. As your doctor, I give you the final diagnosis to set you free.

Cruciatus consumptus est, Porthos. Requiesce in pace.

Indeed, the torment is over, Porthos. Rest in peace. Amen.

Amen.

 

An Infamous Day

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

And Living On, In Spite Of

I show my age, of course, remembering that today is Pearl Harbor Day. Post 9/11, post 7/7, now post 13/11 (i.e., November 13, just last month), days of infamy pile up one upon another, reminders of wars that persistently force us to recall that War never ends.

If days of remembrance bring to mind only nationalism, however, then I must admit to each of you: I cannot join those celebrations. Through the years, I have come to be impressed that, in the long run, to remember attacks solely to uphold ideas, no matter how ennobling those ideas may be, is only to court the danger itself of those very, never-ending wars.

If days of remembrance remind us, though, that our fellow citizens, going about the day-to-day of their lives, can sometimes die for no reason other than their having happened to have been associated, at least at that deadly moment, with a particular nation-state: then for those days, I will always pause to remember.

Sailors who were doing their day-to-day duties at 0800h on the USS Arizona may have signed up to defend a nation, but at that “infamous” moment, they were simply doing their jobs, no aggression in mind or in body. Officer and enlisted alike, they died because of who they were, not because of what they were doing at that moment. They couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be blamed for the actions of a government miles away any more so than could and should secretaries taking messages on the 90th floor of a New York building or twenty-somethings chowing down on Southeast Asian delicacies on a Parisian backstreet.

Secretaries and twenty-somethings, after all, can be formidable street fighters if, under the right circumstances, they choose to become so.

Remember: we all participate in the aggressions (perceived or real) of our nation-states by our very willingness to go about those days-to-days without perpetual resistance. Some are indeed willing to live lives of perpetual resistance, true. To them, I grant a reprieve from our corporate blame. To the rest of us, sorry.

On days such as today, we remember that War destroys lives. We remember that, at that moment, it could have been any of us. We remember that, at any moment, it still could be any of us.

We remember because we have loved, because we love, and because we will continue to love, in spite of War and all wars past, present, and future.

To the crews of the Arizona and its sister vessels, therefore, seventy-four years afterwards: for your service, for your lives, I remember, and I say, “Thank you.”

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Returning on All Souls Day: A Memorium for a Fallen Friend

It has now been ten months since I last posted, ten months of challenge and of growth, times for renewal, then and now.

For a while I have been planning my return to regular blogging, and soon (truly) I will be doing so. Yet, sadly, today I return with an entry I wish did not press itself into my heart, demanding I open up the laptop one more time to remember, to grieve, to honor.

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On Friday, 30 October, 2015,  mere days ago, my Facebook friends received the following post:

Yesterday, I lost a soldier and a friend, SFC Jonathan Downing (Ret). His son, Dylan, requested that those who knew him place this photo in profile. I am honored to do so.

JD so often got a twinkle in his eye when he would show off to me his command of Afghani Persian. And how many times did I hear him say to me, “Good to hear your voice, Doc.”

So, my friend, my voice speaks to you one last time.

Today, with a more clouded eye, yet with an eye that will soon twinkle again at your memory, I bid you farewell in another warrior language, one that the Romans carried with them from the edges of North Africa to the edges of Scotland, the language of your SF motto, yet…

…also the language once of a Church that, for over a thousand years, kept within it the hope of a faith that might otherwise have passed away, a language of less-than-perfect, yet faithful men who—perhaps much like young soldiers today, equally less-than-perfect, yet equally faithful—sought to preserve what they knew, for all our sakes, had to be preserved.

Cruciatus consumptus est,
Mi amice iuvenis.
Miles, frater armis, filius, maritus, pater,
Fidelis in vita et in morte:
In aeternatem
Requiesce in pace,
O Vir Bone!

The torment is over,
My young friend. 
Soldier, brother-in-arms, son, husband, father,
Faithful in life and in death,
Into eternity
Rest in peace,
O Good Man.

Amen

JD and I never spoke much together about this blog, given that my time these past many months had been consumed in other matters. Yet he always did say that I had a way with words—as did he.

So if my voice has spoken its last, let this blog entry be our final words together, his to me and mine to him.

JD,

You wouldn’t recognize me if I didn’t go “professor” on you one more time, my friend. Yet today, 2 November, is the day that the Church has, through the centuries, remembered those who have gone before us, All Souls Day. I had had no plans of honoring this day with words to you, that is true. But that day came, and this day is here.

I also hope you didn’t mind my getting all Latin-y on you, within a Facebook post at that.  “Kinda overkill, Doc,” that’s what you would have told me. I know.

For you never were one to mince words with me, were you. While you ever valued the service that you gave, you were never one to stomach much of the over-valued ‘thank you’s” some of us stateside were too willing to give you. As a Special Forces soldier, you knew War up close and personal. I saw it in your eyes, eyes that would twinkle, yes, yet often, at least when we were together, could not afford to do so. There were too many stories for those eyes to tell, given how words, as they so often did, failed in all ways to do so.  

I do hope that I heard those stories as well as I could. I promise you: I will do my best never to romanticize them. You took them too seriously for that.

And yes, my friend, I know that there was one conclusion upon which you and I could never fully agree. O Vir Bone! I just wrote. How much more you would have wisecracked about the English word “bone” than you would have accepted the Latin word for “good” spoken to a man who, I always asserted to you, deserved its attribution as much as any man I have known. 

Spoken to you.

Yes, those eyes tried to convince me otherwise so many times, convince me that a man who had to act in War in ways that you had to act to protect innocent civilians and well-loved brothers-in-arms should never, would never be worthy of the word “redemption.” 

Your eyes always shouted, even when they whispered, whether in joy or in pain.

But, my young friend, ” mi amice iuvenis,” I am glad to report that if my own whispering shouts, my words that tried to speak the truth to those eyes, if they did not get the last laugh, they at least got the last smile today, this day of remembrance.

You see, JD, many cultures tell stories of redemption, in whatever language. But on this day celebrated by a Church, in its various forms, whose faith you and I shared, I remind you of a story passed on to us in the Gospel According to St. Luke, 23:42, the story of a man who quite clearly, by anyone’s measure, was not ‘”worthy” of redemption by anyone, let alone by Him who, whether facetiously or not, was labeled “King of the Jews” in three languages, right above His head.

Scholars will debate the truth of the story ad aeternum—or better, as you would have said, until the cows come home. No matter. The “Thief on the Cross,” the only name we have allowed him, took a chance at that moment that has stood for the chance that all of us have taken ever since. In making his request that Jesus “remember” him, he spoke of a hope that all of us, no matter what Wars or wars we have fought, hold deeply inside us.

JD, some will say that in my writing to you today I am merely writing to myself, one more wishful exercise that is the product of grief. Perhaps they are correct.

But perhaps they’re not.

And precisely because the older I get and the more I suspect they’re not, I smile.

For now you know.

I suspect that a good old Southern  guy such as yourself might not have heard much about the Taizé Community in France, where an international community comes together to sing quiet songs of sadness and of hope. I can’t hold that against you, guy. I’m the professor, after all, not you.

So as my parting words I leave a song, one that has always touched me, one that I hope will touch all those who loved you. And I smile. For if you would have heard it in life, I suspect you would have doubted that the plea to “remember you” would ever have been heard by Him Whom the Church remembers most this day.

But now, of course, you know.

He did.

Goodbye, my young friend. Rest in peace.

Doc

Amicus Optimus

“Diamonds Will Safeguard the Next Generation of US Soldiers,” Mashable announced on my Facebook page, assuring me, as only the “top resource” of “digital culture” can, that (at least for now) we may have the “upper hand” in the battle over our soldiers’ bodies. The subtitle said it all: “Looks like diamonds aren’t only a girl’s best friend anymore.”

I hope so.

“He was my best friend,” the soldier told me today through his tears, he who had nearly sacrificed his own life to save his buddy’s, only to find himself too late, yet right on time for the grenade that should have killed him as well.

But didn’t.

“I hear their cries, Doc,” he whispered to me, “his, the other guys’. I should have gone down with them. It’s not right, Doc, not right.”

Will War no longer penetrate soldiers now, sixty years after Marilyn cooed her way through that bevy of tuxedo-clad charmers, or will otherwise gentle men (and women) prefer not blondes, but rather one more chance, please, God, to get to him, to her in time?

I keep scrolling down my Facebook page and can only pray that Hope is more than a gem in the Smithsonian or a barrier for bullets, that hope will whisper a soldier comfort tonight in the voice of his best friend.

1K a Day

So much has changed in the past year. There could have been so many words.

So how about a challenge to myself: although I will continue to write longer essays, each day I will try to write no more than 1000 characters about my life, my thoughts, my emotions concerning the men and women whom I have the privilege to serve. Perhaps I will reflect on a particular person, a blog post, an article, a news item, who knows.

“Talking around Robin Hood’s barn” was what my father always used to call it, i.e., my propensity for prolixity. Great word, prolixity. My wife just rolls her eyes, kindly reads what I write, and then hits the Like button on Facebook. God bless her.

There is a time for prolixity. There is a time for conciseness. Many of the soldiers I serve are persons of few words. Perhaps it’s time I give their way a try. After all, there’s always tomorrow.

736 characters. Not bad for a start.

Editors’ Pick of the Year 2013, Best of WordPress: Thank You!

Yesterday afternoon, I received an email referring to the following blog post:

This week, our editors dove into the archives to find and rediscover notable posts published this year on WordPress.com, from nonfiction to poetry, and photography to illustration. These posts have been especially resonant to us and the community, and represent the diversity of voices of our users all over the world. . .

Even as he displayed that puckish smile over and again, he also displayed a certain resolve, a certain protector-warrior sense, even if only in glimpses, that reminded us all—that reminded him—that he was still ready for duty, ready to assume a role that he loved, ready to face again, if necessary, a violence that would perhaps destroy him, but that would not—would not—destroy those whom he loved.

Rod Deaton is a psychiatrist with an extensive background working with military troops and combat veterans. His blog, Paving the Road Back, offers a glimpse into the work he does, as well as the lives of the brave men and women who’ve served the US military. Always crafted with care, his stores are poignant, like this post on “Ethan,” who became hooked on opiates after suffering a traumatic brain injury while serving in the Middle East.

To the editors, to my readers, and especially to the men and women I have the privilege  of serving: all I can say is “Thank you.” At the end of the day, writing is simply the opportunity to relish in words those at whom I continue to marvel—those whom I honor—in deed every day: combat veterans who were willing to face the unforgiving ambiguities of War not for some abstract idea of the  Nation-State,  but rather for those whom they loved, those at home and those at their very sides.

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