One or both parents of each of the children on this plane is dead because they chose to protect and defend our Nation. The plane is only one of fifteen chartered aircraft that this past Christmas flew more than 1,000 Gold-Star children and their caregivers to Disneyworld thanks to actor Gary Sinise and his foundation.
The essay that follows reveals the all-too-true experiences of a combat wounded United States Marine trying to make it after deployment. “Ari” and other persons used to tell these truths are not in themselves actual persons. Rather, they are composites of actual service persons, military families, etc. That said, there is nothing that happens in this essay which has not already been reported by open-source media all too often but never enough.
“The Veteran” is one in a series of short works by this civilian researcher which use plain English to demonstrate some of the reasons that folks end up sleeping rough and what their lives and those of their children are often like. Author penned this particular series of essays in the late Spring of 2017 as he was wrapping up four years of service at the Primavera Foundation in Tucson, Arizona. A previous version of this essay released 2 September 2017 on LinkedIn/Pulse included a section that gave readers a walking tour through a structurally defective assessment instrument.
Ari served three tours in Iraq, the last of them in al-Anbar Province as part of a U.S. Marine EOD unit assigned to disable the ubiquitous IEDs. Improvised explosive devices that cost a few hundred dollars in parts and often look like a junior high workshop project, their triggering devices made of wood and wire. A hidden nemesis that threatened indiscriminately anyone who came too close. It didn’t matter that one was a combatant, a civilian, or a four-ton piece of military hardware. When on patrol, each Marine knew that the next step might be the last. For Ari every stride carried with it a new need to hope, to pray that whatever this Marine had ever done, either in uniform or not, was something that didn’t damage someone else. His wife. Their three young children. His mom, who was widowed when Ari was nine. His great aunt and uncle, who took them in after his father died so that Ari’s mom could finish graduate school.
A cloak of anxiety shrouded Ari’s unit for each turn of the hour glass during its deployment. Each Marine knew what these IEDs had done to those who came before. What they had done to mothers and young children not much different from those who waited for them back home. But it was all a lot worse by the time of Ari’s third tour. Bomb disposal teams like his received urgent calls every hour of the military’s 24-hour clock. There were more bombs than before. Those trying to kill them remained invisible, imbedded in the civilian population. And stepping exactly as trained wasn’t good enough anymore. Their enemies now detonated IEDs with cellphones and garage-door openers.
And the scythe swings quick. During one mission, the two Marines ahead of Ari – a man and woman, one of them from a town just 14 miles from the one where Ari had gone to summer camp for years, may have taken the wrong steps. Nobody knew anymore. The IED separated her trunk and helmeted head just a moment before her head turned toward Ari and yelled, “Shit. Fuck.” She sprayed a noxious cocktail of explosive and blood and dirt and burned meat onto his face. Ari’s ears felt as if a demon had thrust metal rods into his skull, and chemicals set his nose afire.
The Marine ahead of her was shredded and diced far quicker than Ari ever imagined possible during the first hours of his ordnance training. That should have been him, Ari thought. The only reason this part of the unit was out of order was because Ari took a few seconds too long to tighten a strap on his gear before they started out.
Ari’s father had been a rabbi. And because Ari was young when his father died, he carried with him, today strapped to his combat utility uniform, an oversized pouch of abandonment and rejection that snapped shut with an eternal question of whether his father would be proud of him.
Ari didn’t have an answer to that question. He knew his mother cried when she learned that he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Ari was her only child, and her fear of loss was uncontrollable. Had the family lived in Israel like his cousins, there would be no question that he would serve. Almost every adult Israeli citizen who lived squeezed into that little stretch of land between history and myth understood that the IDF defended far more than just the constantly challenged borders of the State of Israel. Israeli Defense Forces defended a people who as far back as their ancient scriptures go, had been on the losing end of too many conflicts. And for Ari’s small family, had he been able to serve in the IDF, It would have been his responsibility to defend the promises of a god who used lamb’s blood to spare his people’s first born and who led them out of their slavery in Egypt.
But Ari’s family didn’t live in Israel. And so Ari’s enlistment tormented his mother more than he thought it should. But his wife knew the game. When she and Ari met, she was already the widow of a Navy SEAL and had been left to raise their young triplets. Ari committed himself from day one to care and love those three children. Not just to act as if they were his own but to make them his own. But even as the new couple stood together under the chuppah to take their vows, they knew Ari would be deployed before long.
Traumatic brain injury from the concussion of one too many IED blasts sent Ari back home sooner than he expected. And what he packed and took back in his seabag were severe headaches, depression, irritability and rage. Terrors must have climbed into the bag at the last minute because once the Marine returned to his wife’s bed and turned out the light each night, they came to chew and gnaw on each inch of Ari’s soul. A subsequent PTSD diagnosis led to therapy and groups and psych meds before Ari eventually earned some time with state-of-the art virtual reality therapy.
But it just wasn’t enough. And each night that Ari tried to put his fears aside and sleep, it wasn’t just the horrors of what he had seen and done in Iraq that came after him. And it wasn’t just the new and malevolent monster that those memories gave birth to.
Ari’s dead father, the rabbi, began to visit him in the deep of the night. Three or four times each week. And during each visit, Ari finally learned again and again what his father thought of him. For his father would draw close to him in the dim light of dreams. And he would come close to Ari’s eyes, with a conflicted expression. An expression that told Ari nothing.
And his dad would just stand there, saying nothing. But then the rabbi made under his breath a sound like some make when they’re disgusted at something. Then the rabbi said to Ari the same thing he told him every night he came to visit: “Failure. Ashamed of you. You should have been a man of peace.”
Then the rabbi vanished as if a ghost, leaving Ari alone with his own demons until it was time for his father’s next visit. On the nights when his father didn’t come to visit, Ari fought the sheets and slipped in and out of sleep. And at each gap he repeated into the suffocating air above his darkened marriage bed a mantra that always told the truth. That were it not for him – had he been faster with his gear that day – those two Marines would have lived.
But there were too many explosive rages, too many fresh holes in the wall of the family home. An omnipresent divide that his wife tried again and again to cross but just couldn’t, left the couple with little to say to each other. On those few times when Ari was offered forgiveness sex, he failed. And eventually, the widowed woman whom Ari loved more than life itself but was too wounded to show her, took herself and the young children – who gave Ari some measure of purpose – and moved to her sister’s home in Louisiana.
It wasn’t long before Ari joined those veterans who call the national veterans suicide crisis line 17,000 times a day. But he cut his call short when it seemed that the woman at the hotline was repeating the same questions she already asked him, just in different ways. Stalling. Killing time so the cops or crisis team could get to him before he killed himself. So Ari hung up the phone and applied for an open slot among the 500 U.S. veterans who kill themselves each month.
Ari failed at killing himself. But it didn’t matter because it was time for a different kind of death. Ari lost his wife and children altogether. The couple had planned for Ari to adopt the triplets when he returned from Iraq. But their marriage imploded before that happened. So now he had no right ever to see the children he loved again, either.
A few months later, Ari’s mother began to show signs of dementia and before too long didn’t know who he was. Ari abandoned the apartment that he had shared with his wife and children. It was too close to a commuter train stop. A place of loud, startling sounds that always took him back to al-Anbar Province. Demons had moved into the space his family vacated. And each night they kicked in his door before punching and taunting him for hours. Even the psych meds that worked at first didn’t seem to make any difference now. So he stopped taking them.
Ari stopped everything. He stopped seeing his therapist at the VA. He stopped showing up for the veterans’ PTSD support group. And it had been a long time since the neighborhood guys had seen Ari at the gym.
Despite the bloodshed Ari read in the Tanakh from earliest years, he had long viewed those stories as truthful myth. But no truths, no teachings, nothing in Ari’s world prepared him for what he saw when he got to Iraq.
He tried but couldn’t find a way to reconcile his commanding officer’s repeated refrain that the Marines were there to win the “hearts and minds” with those times when the Marines fired RPGs into structures that clearly housed or taught young children. Or when fear tightened itself so tight on a fellow Marine – and they all saw it coming – that he launched a scream through an acrid haze of urban dust and cruel heat and explosive effluent toward whatever god abandoned that Marine last.Then he’d squeeze the trigger on his M16 and fire off a few rounds.
And if one of those rounds found a mother, a grandmother, a child, the rest of his unit just turned away from the carnage. Everybody knew that if they were back in the States, what that Marine just did would be a crime that would send him to prison for years. But here, in this murky no-man’s-land between truth and lies, you just didn’t know anymore. So Ari and God parted ways in Iraq. And after he returned stateside, Ari saw no use for temple anymore. What kind of a god lets people do that shit to each other?
Ari finally found an abandoned warehouse in an industrial district that he soon called home. After months of pointless travel and tortured sleep along the disinterested streets of this city, Ari he had found a small room with thick, concrete walls and a striped, mildewed mattress in the dark corner of an abandoned munitions storehose. And the banging sounds of the trains and the taxis and the local buses finally left him alone there.
Ari’s disappointed father found him, though. And no matter how many times Ari begged him not to, the rabbi insisted on dropping by to see his son from time to time. And each time he did, he reminded Ari that he should have been a man of peace.
But Ari was a man of war. And he doubted he could ever again be anything else.
But the Marine wished to God that he could, even if just for one night, be allowed to be a man at peace.