Monday, July 2, 2007

In Praise of Mike: Love the Soldier, Hate the war

The Army has a new ad aimed at parents of young men, telling them to listen to their kids rather than discourage them from enlisting to go to the Middle East. In this diary I challenge them – and you – to listen to Mike’s story in honor of vets on Independence Day:

You’d think living between Walter Reed, Fort Belvoir and Fort Meade, I’d have met more returned vets. I have met only a few. Mike has a compelling story to tell, if only enough people would only listen to him.

Mike was seated on a stool in my favorite Irish pub. A pint of Harp and a shotglass of Rumplemintz were in front of him, and the only two other empty barstools were on his right. As soon as we pulled up to the chairs, and he leaned over to introduce himself, smile, and to shake our hands.
Mike’s head was shaved, and his biceps were a little out of proportion to his forearms. He had that unmistakable look of a sturdy young military man. But something wasn’t right. It was his speech, or the way he balanced off-center on the bar stool. Perhaps it was the Rumplemintz chaser warming his tongue and making him unsteady in his seat. He asked me where I lived and worked, and I told him. I asked him the same. He was stationed at Walter Reed, living near there, but tonight he would walk back to his girlfriend’s apartment. “She wanted to stay in tonight,” he said. “I wanted to go out.”

His tour would finish up in about a year, and doing the math I guessed he signed up in late 2001. “Yeah,” he said with a crooked grin that made his answer sheepish. He said he left Ohio to join the 101st airborne. “I took the proficiency test, and got my second choice” as a medic. He went to Kuwait, he said, then Mosul, Iraq. Now, no longer able to be a medic, he has a new assignment in Washington, DC while he finished his physical therapy and got ready for a new assignment in New England.

As he ordered another round, and then another, he drew back to the past, not the future. He saw lots of damage. “They can make an IED out of anything,” he shook his head in amazement. “Coke bottles; batteries.” He said he saw blasted arms and legs, and a soldier with half a pelvis.

The day of his injury involved a rocket-propelled grenade and his convoy. Shrapnel tore into his leg, fracturing his femur into pieces. I knew that a lot of damage from explosions comes from the energy waves. Without a trace, the energy can twist bowels, flip stomachs, and steal hearing. And the brain--the neurons in the brain disconnect from one another in the blast, and the spiraling falls that follow. The electric messages the brain tries to send within itself, to organs, to eyes, and mouth, hang there between cells, waiting for a lift to the next cell that never comes.

Mike didn't seem worried about himself. He didn't complain. Physical Therapy is not easy – if it doesn’t hurt, he says, you’re not doing it right. His injury was not one of those that blissfully sends nerves reeling, hiding out, waiting till it’s safe to return. “Did it hurt?” “Hell, yeah,” Mike said. “But there were five other guys in that convoy,” he said. His eyes started to glisten. “I was their medic.” Despite his torn leg, he crawled over to the most badly wounded of the comrades. “He had shrapnel in his neck. It’s not like I could take it out. He died. He died in my arms.”

“I think it’s time to talk about something else,” he said, ordering a round for all of us.

“Hey,” I said, “you’ve already given us freedom and liberty. You don’t need to give us a drink, too. Let us buy.” But he knew Emily, the bartender, and told her not to let us pay.

Mike has about a year left in the Army. He’s already thinking of re-enlisting. “But I want kids,” he said. “I’m not sure I can do both. My Dad is a disabled vet. I don’t want to be a disabled vet for my kids. Do you have kids?

“Oh, sorry, that’s too personal,” he apologized before I could answer.

“That’s alright. No, we’ve had no luck there. But it turned out all right for us anyway,” I said.

“I want to reenlist,” he said. “I love the army. I just hate this war.”

A slim woman with long hair, older than Mike, came up behind him and bumped his shoulder. “You are so busted,” she said.

I apologized for Mike. “We kept him talking to us,” I explained.

She softened. “Thanks for taking care of Mike,” she said.

“I don’t need anyone to take care of me,” he said, meaning it.

She linked Mike’s arm, and helped him off his stool and toward the door. She turned. She mouthed, “Thanks for taking of Mike.”
MOSUL, Iraq - Two 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) soldiers were killed and two were wounded in an improvised explosive device attack in Mosul at approximately 7:30 a.m. Nov.1, according to U.S. Central Command officials.

No comments: