Why they talked, and what they want
By Bill Murphy Jr.
web posted November 3, 2008
A great gulf exists between American military and civilian societies. But paradoxically, it's can be hard to tell young veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from their peers who haven't served. As I wrote a book about West Point recently, I would visit with vets who had left the Army and were attending some of America's most prestigious universities. I was struck that the veterans were often the ones walking around campus with the longest hair, and the most stylish clothes. Spot a guy with a high-and-tight haircut and a wardrobe looking straight out of the AAFES at Fort Bragg -- odds are he's a wannabe who reads too many Tom Clancy novels and never served a day in the military.
But soldiers and veterans want to be noticed. That's not to say they want to be singled out, but I found over and over as I wrote my book that they want civilians to pay attention to their collective service. Soldiers talked with me for thousands of hours, and even gave me access to their diaries, their letters, the "sent mail" folders of their yahoo and gmail accounts. They know their stories are worth telling. And what's more, they recognize that the rest of us need to know. We need to understand.
I did more than six hundred interviews for In a Time of War. I recorded most of them, and paid people to write transcripts. Here's a sample of what I heard:
Joe DaSilva was assigned to lead a platoon of soldiers in Kuwait just days before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"I pulled everyone in that night, and I told them, look . . . I'm not going to lie. I don't know what awaits us on the other side of that berm. I have no idea but I'll tell you this . . . [I]f I have to give my life for any of you I would do that in a heartbeat . . .
"And I had soldiers after that come up to me and telling me that they don't know why but just hearing that from their lieutenant made them feel better. I knew they weren't B.S.-ing me because months down the road we would talk about how they felt when I took over . . . They were brutal. They were talking about tying [me] up in the back of a humvee . . . Some of the other platoons were joking with them, saying, You guys are going to die! You guys are going to die!"
Drew Sloan was nearly killed when his humvee was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. He turned down a medical discharge, endured a year of surgeries, and recovered to go to Iraq. When an IED went off right in front of his humvee, he was surprised by his own reaction. He smiled broadly and reached out to bump fists with a sergeant in the front seat.
"Having a bomb go off close by to you can't help but remind you about your own mortality," he explained later. "And being reminded of that makes you feel really alive."
Eric Huss served an intense Iraq tour, taking over for a lieutenant who had been killed in action. I interviewed Eric and his wife, Julie, in a brew pub in Denver, just after he got off active duty.
"I didn't let him drive for a while when I was in the car," Julie explained. "And his short term memory was non-existent."
"I talked to a lot of different guys," Eric said. "It's about a year before your short term memory comes back."
"I haven't heard that," I replied.
"I've been trying to, like, psychoanalyze it, and here's what some friends and I have come up with. You're doing a job. It's kind of a crappy job. You go through a lot of stress on many different levels. Regardless of the stress you face you still have to get up the next day and do the same missions over and over again, whether it be a different patrol, a different IED, a different guard shift -- whatever the case may be. Regardless of who shot at you the day before, whether you got mortared the day before, you know, etc., etc. And as a defense mechanism in order to help you cope, we figure that over time you start to basically, automatically, kind of forget a lot of what just recently happened to you, so you can kind of cope and live in the present . . . [W]hatever happened to you that day or the day before, you still have to continue on that mission regardless. As a result, you act, react, and then dismiss it and try not to dwell on it. Because otherwise it'd be so hard to get out of bed the next day and do the same damn thing."
War is a horrible thing, and not all of the real-life characters in my book survived Iraq. I interviewed Jen Bryant, the widow of Lieutenant Todd Bryant, about the day she learned his fate.
"I was in my classroom waiting for all my students to come back up from lunch, and the assistant principal came in and said to me there's somebody in the office. We need you in the office. My whole chest caught . . . And so I walk in the office and for a split second I was relieved because I didn't see any officers. And I thought it's okay. And I just looked around for someone to tell me what was going on. And one of my students was in there, and she's like, ‘Oh, they're in there,' pointing to the principal's office in back . . . I saw my principal standing there, and I just looked to my right, and there's four or five officers standing, wearing their class As. And one of them was one of the generals at Fort Riley.
"I just hit my knees and I started saying, No, no, no. Don't tell me. Don't tell me. And I remember General Kearney, like, kneeling down beside me. And he took my hand. He just kept holding my hand. And I screamed. I kept saying, No! No! No!"
About one and a half million Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. They want us to notice them. It's disturbing, to say the least, to come home from a war only to find that nobody notices anymore. The opposite of love isn't hate; it's apathy.
We owe these veterans quite a bit. But before all else, we owe them the duty to pay attention. And to listen.
Bill Murphy Jr. is the author of In a Time of War: The Proud & Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002. He worked as Bob Woodward's research assistant on the bestselling State of Denial. A lawyer and former Army Reserve officer, he lives in Washington, DC. Please check out his website at http:/www.inatimeofwar.com and http://billmurphyjr.wordpress.com/. ©2008 Bill Murphy Jr.