On suffering to be good and living in hell

This is from an encounter I had last May – I meant to post about it long ago and never quite finished it –

I walked down the aisle to my assigned seat and it was occupied by a big, bulky young man. Body builder type in plain, clean clothes. I socked him in the shoulder lightly and said “You’re in my seat, bud.” He jumped up and moved over to the center seat, we belted in and the plane took off.

Staff Sargent Chris somebody sat beside me for the four hour plane ride from Houston to Sac. He was lonesome and bored. I got his life history. 35, never been married. Three tours in Iraq, and trying to get back over there. He can’t yet, because he got blown out of his humvee and messed up his shoulder. Got a concussion. Doesn’t matter, he needs to go back over there.  He said that again and again.

He trains new recruits. He said if he doesn’t go over there and watch over them, they’ll all get killed.

He grew up in Ohio, Texas, and Southern California.  Mom raised him singly, but he spent a lot of time with his maternal grandfather. He had a strong bond with this abuelo who taught him to be a man. With a belt. Mom had 11 sisters and two brothers, they all stayed in one place with their father.  There was never enough hot water, so Chris  learned to take fast showers. Good thing, too, because in Iraq the shower water has fecal matter in it, and you can’t get it in your eyes or nose or mouth or you’ll get sick. He was very matter of fact about that. All his random tales of suffering and atrocity were presented in the same way. It is what it is. This is what it’s like. It just is, in a flat voice.

He said Geraldo Rivera took a ride with him and his crew in a humvee to see what it was like. It was supposed to be a three hour tour, but they had to come back in early because Geraldo, completely white-faced,  couldn’t take it anymore and begged to go back. The soldiers in the humvee  were laughing and joking the whole time, but Geraldo just couldn’t take the bullets anymore. They were getting shot at the whole time he was driving around with them. Chris said, “Well, we’re just used to it. Happens every day.”

Chris drank steadily while we talked, and a couple of hours into it he began to sound a little bit scary.  He talked about a man who drove with him, who reached up and caught a bomb that blew his hands off, and how lucky the guy thought he was to be alive and still had arms to hug with.  If he hadn’t done what he did the bomb would have killed everyone in the humvee.  Chris sounded like he truly envied the guy.

He talked about going to his mom’s for Christmas and not knowing how to be part of the family any more.  He just sat off by himself and drank.  He said, ” I don’t know how to feel any more.  I am aware of what’s going on around me, but I can’t relate to it or feel anything about it now. I don’t belong there anymore. ”  He is dreadfully desensitized which is probably why he’s sane, but also why he’s very scary.  I’m 100% certain he could stick a knife in someone’s gut as easily as he was talking to me.  But faster.

He started talking about sex and then started flirting with the flight attendant.  She saw how scary he was and shut him down, albeit nicely.  He said, “I’m so lonely, and the only time I can feel anything is when I’m making love.” It was a good line – who knows if it was true or not.

I told him he sounded like he really needed someone to talk to, and he said he was trying to see a shrink.  I hope he was telling the truth, and I hope the shrink is one of the good ones.

5 thoughts on “On suffering to be good and living in hell

  1. He is scary, and what’s even scarier is the shape of the military medical system at the moment. Wanting to go back to Iraq a fourth time sounds totally suicidal. We are going to be suffering from these wars for decades, just like Vietnam.


  2. bc says:

    I guess the VA is trying hard to get more shrinks into the picture for these traumatized men, but meanwhile these guys are suffering. And yes, he was suicidal. And homicidal. Nice call on my part to sock him in the arm first thing.
    No, really, my reasoning on that was sound and worked. He was sitting like a person who respects his elders and women and authority, and I put that together with some humor to get him to move over. But it also made him open up to me. I don’t know if that was good or bad.


  3. Mair says:

    That’s a sad, sad, sad story. I’ve heard that your chances of surviving a third tour are slim, and surviving a fourth, barely measurable. I used to talk to a gentleman whilst I was walking my six-pound fluff ball, who turned out to be a shrink. He said that he had been in that office for over eight years, but he was leaving the end of the year. He said that the government finally wised up and realized that these men and women need help – a LOT of help – and they hired him, and many others, to work full time with the soldiers. He’ll be stationed at Camp Pendleton.


  4. this is moving and sad. i ran into one of these guys once on a flight from albuquerque. special ops guy. even pulled out some afghani cash, and said “yeah, the guy i got it from sure wasn’t going to need it anymore…”.

    we need to get the hell outta there. sooner is better. and invest in taking care of the folks who did what they volunteered to do for us…


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