I found out a few days ago that one of the Marines I served with died. A year ago. His old squad leader, Jay, told me after he DMed me. Actually, he didn’t tell me right off. He said, “Hey do you, remember…?” I’ve been at this long enough to know that a message like that is never good news. I remembered… by the way. He was the kid with the first gen digi boonie, those big floppy ones that looked ridiculous. I can see him in that thing plain as if he was right in front of me. Isn’t it funny that even though we’ve all been out however long, we remember each other as we were on active duty? I digress.
So this Marine died a year ago and none of us knew. Which means none of us were at his funeral. And as Jay and I talked, that’s the thing that rubbed us wrong. How could we not know? Why weren’t we there for him? Why couldn’t we save him? I guess it makes it worse that the kid OD’d. This isn’t the first time a Marine I knew has OD’d. Probably won’t be the last. And maybe what’s weirder is that I say “knew” someone so often but I’m not old. I know I’m not alone in this. Just last year a friend of mine, a Marine student in my department, told me he was all fucked up because he’d just found out a friend of his—one of his teammates—killed himself three years ago. And I sat with him in silence as he struggled to process the grief, the not knowing, the where was I. Here this Marine was trying to get an education, trying to mature and better himself after the war, and just when he sees some success, a kick in the dick.
The weirdest part or rather the hardest to swallow about all this is that I’m doing well. In fact, before I found out about… I had been telling my Iraq vet wife that we we’ve made the jump. We are a success. We both have jobs we love. We get to mentor vets, some who are struggling and some who aren’t, and we get to reassure them that there is life after the boom. Our kids are grown and functioning. The anger and the rage of surviving our friends and mentors and the listlessness and lostness from being out have more or less subsided. And then out of nowhere someone else from my youth is dead. It makes me wonder, why was I able to move on and have some successes, but not them. I’m not special, no better than him. But here we are. Was there something I could have done?
In my head, I know that life is all about choices. Some of us make good ones. Some of us make poor ones. But it’s my heart that needs convincing. When we were together all those years ago we walked around chest out on our way to fuck your bitch. But now? We are Shades of those men and days gone by. I think that’s why I hate going to the VA hospital in my town. I see these vets, and they look so…beaten. It’s depressing to witness so many guys who used to walk bow-legged from being big-balled sit there head down, chest sunken in, sullen, barely living. If I’m being honest, it makes me angry and disgusted, too. I want to shout at them to remember who they were. To remind them to have a little pride in their appearance, their bearing. But I never do. Am I wrong for not reminding my brother who he was?
I don’t think so.
Still, though, I am conscious that that could be me. I remember seeing this one homeless vet in New York City six months or a year before I EASed. He was from my war. He was about my age. And while I was contemplating getting out and going back to school or staying in and going back to war, here was this soldier hunched over, sitting on the sidewalk with that broken look in his eye holding up a help, I’m homeless sign. I didn’t understand how he’d gotten there. I remembered then that my brother was homeless when he got out. I knew right then that kid could be me and I have to tell you I was terrified. I didn’t look at it, of course. I didn’t say anything to anyone. But inside? When I got out, I always wondered if I’d be that homeless kid in front of the Duane Reed trying to get home.
And getting home wasn’t easy. My wife and I struggled. It was a long and sometimes difficult road. But we made it. So when I hear about a brother from the past who survived the war only to come home and die of an overdose or get murdered or hit by a truck or kill himself I go right to why them and not me.
Asking why them and not me is just as fruitless to the right of the boom as it was when we were all on active duty. But the human in me wants to make sense of it all. Even if there isn’t any. But I will say, I think the thing that kills is isolation. We spend so much time together and then we EAS and poof it’s all gone. We’re all gone and so is our support network that we didn’t think we needed.
I had a civilian acquaintance—a war journalist, actually—ask me if I thought it was funny how all of us think we are badasses but then we get out and fail at the slightest bit of adversity and how we can’t survive without the structure and support. I did not think it was funny. I still don’t. But I do think we still need to try and be there for one another.
I think we need to keep on keeping on. I think that maturing, getting degrees, starting businesses, letting people choose whom they grieve for, letting civilians enjoy holidays and sales are all good things. But I wonder if we can remind each other to stay the course, if we can pick up the phone to check in. I wonder if we should be ready and willing tell someone they need to get their shit together and quit fucking up, too. I wonder then if some of the bad news DMs and phone calls will get fewer and more of us will get to enjoy the after.