The Twenty Percent

I’m looking at a blank screen, and the cursor’s blinking. Why is that?

I’m looking at a blank screen, with this blinking cursor, because I’m looking at the deep end of the pool, and, like any deep end, it’s just a tiny bit scary. I’ll be the first one to tell you that what you’re about to read is long and digressive, so make yourself at home.

What brought this on, you ask? Very simple. First you need to take a glance at this post by Kate Sheppard at TAPPED, where she notes that a RAND study just showed that something like 20% of all returning servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan (some 300,000 men and women) suffer from depression or PTSD.

Back already? Great, because now you need to take a seat. Make yourself comfortable, because I’m about to make those numbers just a bit more real for you.

You see that sidebar over there — the one that has my biography? Take a quick glance. I’m a veteran. And not just any veteran — I’m a veteran of the Iraq War.

That 20% — that returning fifth, you could say, that is afflicted with depression? I’m part of it.

The unexamined life is not worth living, a wise man once said. Part of the reason why I decided to pick up writing again, after so much time away from it (well on three-and-a-half years, really, since I wrote consistently) is because I decided that I had something to say once more.

If I’m going to live a public life in this blog, though, then, to the degree that I can, I need to tie my life, such as it is, to the larger issues of the day.

Think of it this way — we’re spending $720 million a day in Iraq. That number is incomprehensible to you and to me. Hell, I’m not going to likely see $720 million in my lifetime, even if I lived it twice over, and neither are you, most likely.

What if, though, I were to tell you, that for the cost of what we spend in 17 hours in Iraq — $510 million — we could pay for full-tuition scholarships for every single servicemember who’s served in active-duty since 9-11?

I’m serious — full tuition! I mean, you still have to pay room & board, but still. Can you conceive of that? And that’s just with what we spend there in less than a day.

Now, you see that 20% figure of depressed soldiers, and you think, wow, that’s a lot. Lot of sad faces there, lots of sad guys. Unless you know someone who’s served in uniform, let alone over there, there’s not much more you can say, really — it’s kind of an abstract thing, out there with other things that you really can’t quantify.

Me telling you that I’m one of that afflicted fifth — that changes things, though, even if only a little bit. Maybe you’ve been reading my stuff, maybe you’ve been exchanging emails with me, heck, maybe we’ve met somewhere along the trail in person — and so now that changes things, because that number becomes just a tiny bit more real for you.

But still, you’re thinking, depression, really, what’s that? I mean, really, so you’re a little sad now and then, but, really, what’s the big deal, man? Buck up! Here, take a little pill — the Zoloft/Effexor/Prozac/Paxil will make the blues go way! Put a smile on your face, and a spring in your step!

To which my response is:

Ever been depressed? I’m not talking about “feeling down” or “having the blues”…I’m talking about being depressed. If you have, then you know what I’m talking about.

If not, I’m about to tell you — but after you read this, you need to get the book Darkness Visible, by William Styron. Styron, who was a phenomenal writer (he wrote Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, among other works) wrote what I think is one of the most eloquent disquisitions on the nature of depression ever, and what I’m about to write borrows a bit from that.

Depression is such a wimpy word for the condition. It sucks, it blows, and it does it such a great disservice. Were it up to me (and Bill Styron) I wouldn’t call it that. I’d call it something else:

Brainstorm.

Because that’s what it is. It’s a freakin’ brainstorm. When you’re depressed, your brain, in some ways, simply ceases to function. You feel like you’re moving through the most impenetrable miasma.

The most simple, basic functions of day-to-day life are rendered as monumental a task as climbing Mt. McKinley. Rising from bed, eating a meal — all these tasks are made well-nigh impossible when laboring under the throes of depression.

Now, that’s just one side of the coin. Really, it is. And I’m about to tell you the other side of the coin that me and other veterans deal with.

I asked you earlier if you’d been out and about. Been to the mall lately? I work in one, so I might have seen you. Or, take this — have you turned on the TV lately? Watched the evening news?

Great, now tell me this: how many minutes and seconds of Iraq coverage did you see?

You wouldn’t be wrong if you said 90 seconds, or two minutes — if that.

Now, imagine you’re getting on a plane.

You’re on that plane, and you’ve got your kit with you. You spend 18-20 hours on that plane, and all you can think is, I’m coming home. I’m coming home. I’m coming the fuck home. I’m coming home!

Then you start thinking about the kind of welcome that you’re going to get, and the things that you’re going to do. You’re going to get your party on, you’re going to buy this, you’re going to buy that (because there’s nothing to really spend your money on in Iraq, so you have a decent amount saved up, if you’re smart).

You think about the food you’re going to eat — I’m gonna eat some Chinese, some Mexican, man, I want some Taco Bell now! — you think about the beer you’re going to drink.

You think about 10,000 things, and all these thoughts are racing through your mind. And they’re only amped by the things that your platoon sergeant is telling you, the things that your first sergeant is telling you, hell, the things that you and your friends are telling each other!

Mostly, though, you’re just happy you’re on that damn airplane. You might take a moment to think about the guys that died over there — Lopez, Santiago, Jones, Wang, and all the rest — but mostly, you’re just glad you made it.

You get off the plane, you hurry through your inprocessing at the station, and then, just like that, you’re free on a four-day pass.

And then…and then…and then, nothing, fool. You’ve got no family to greet you home, ‘cause you’re single, man.

You might have had a girlfriend when you left, but somewhere along the way, she ditched you, maybe because there’s really no glamour in having a boyfriend who’s a soldier, but, really, mostly it’s because you weren’t around and you were gone for a year, and hell, there’s no guarantee that you were going to come back anyway — so she ditched your ass for someone who was at least there and willing to listen to her. I mean, being an Army girlfriend is tough — you don’t know anything about anything, and if anything happens to you, you’re not likely to find out until way after the fact.

Your mom and dad might be there, but then again, unless they live near Killeen or Colorado Springs or Lawton or, indeed, any of the other dusty, solitary garrison towns (the Springs being a rare exception) that house our military bases, they may not be there to welcome you home.

So it’s like that — you’re all alone. But, hey, at least you made it home!

So you go to your barracks room, dump your stuff, then you head to the PX so you can get some civilian clothes to go out on the town.

You shower. You eat. Then, you go out.

And…and…and nothing. You head to the mall, for lack of something better to do, and you see the people milling around — and it’s like nothing ever changed. If you didn’t tell them, they wouldn’t know you’re a soldier, they wouldn’t know we’re at war, and they wouldn’t know that you just got back.

Don’t get me wrong — they’re not ungrateful. They’ll thank you, they’ll congratulate you…and then, they’ll go on their lives and you’ll go on with yours.

Except for this: the whole time you were in Ar Ramadi or Balad or Tuz Khurmatu, your platoon leader and your company commander and various VIPs were telling you that you were the only thing standing between America and the massed hordes of Osama bin Laden. We were fighting them in some godforsaken shithole in Ad Dawr because the other option was kicking their ass in Aurora or Hilliard or Prestonsburg.

Or you were helping the Iraqis win their freedom — fuck it, we’re making their livesbetter — see that kid, over there, Jalal? We hooked his family up…kid had a cleft palate, we helped rebuild his dad’s car garage so he could fix old beaters up. We did some good, we did!

But none of this matters to the folks out at Nordstrom’s or JCPenney’s or Bed, Bath & Beyond. They’re just regular folks, they just want to do their thing.

You turn on the news…nothing. The very thing that was at the center of your life for a whole year…you might see it get 90 seconds in the regular news. And when I say a whole year — I mean it: I lived my life day to day. I was grateful to see the dawn — the end of my tour snuck up on my ass like a thief in the night. There’s really no way to describe the centrality of existence to someone who hasn’t been there.

Given all that…how would you react? How would you feel? What kind of emotions would be roiling inside you?

Some guys get pissed. I’m not talking regular angry — I’m talking pissed, like Incredible Hulk you-wouldn’t-want-to-see-me-when-I’m-angry. I was one of those guys. Hell, I’m still one of those guys, though a lot less now than I was four years ago, when I got back.

You see pictures of me from back then — even my smile looks, really, frighteningly, like a snarl. A look into my eyes reveals a glimpse into a world where death walked in the afternoon, or morning, or really, any time he damn well felt like walking. A glance at the words that I wrote reveals the tension of a man trying maximally to keep the shards of his world from falling apart.

And then…and then, they did. All came undone.

My marriage fell apart. It fell apart as I unleashed the hurricane strength of my anger and indignation upon my wife. My wife, who had had the simple common decency to stand by me while I was gone and try, superhumanly, to care for me once I returned, was no match for the fury that I felt at having had to quietly withstand the dead simple savagery of war in a distant land, only to find that people back home simply didn’t give a good goddamn whether I lived or whether I died.

One night, after finding out that instead of spending a well-earned weekend with her, I would have to once more take up duty on post, I lost it. I became so titanically enraged that she thought I would either do harm to her or to myself…and that ended up being the final straw.

One month later, she packed up her things, and just like that, she was gone. I have only seen her once since, while she was traveling to another job. She spent the night at my apartment, sleeping on my couch as I slumbered in my bed, only friends, nothing more.

I got cancer for the first time. Slowly, the headaches and slurred speech that led some to think that I was either malingering or drinking too much became cause for concern for more than one person when I started stumbling at work, and forgetting the names of the men that I served with.

I got an MRI, which revealed four small tumors in my brain. These were promptly excised and obliterated by a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. The MRIs that I took also served, a year later, to piece together the fact that what was causing the vast majority of the symptoms wasn’t my cancer, but rather multiple sclerosis.

Things got so bad that, for Thanksgiving dinner that year I had three hot dogs. That’s it. Seriously. I’m not kidding! Before you think that was something that I was reduced to, it wasn’t.

What it was was that I was so depressed that I didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving with anyone…it’s a holiday that you supposed to spend with family, and mine was shattered beyond repair. And for my birthday, a week later, I received not a single gift.

I’m digressing now…you get the picture. And lest you think that this is all in the past, it’s not.

I’m still dealing with the bottomless well of my despair and my disillusion — every day. I’ve lost one job because of it, and it’s kept me from going back to school and finishing my degree, because I find it inordinately difficult to harness my will and deal with the drudgery of school. I’ve gone in debt to friends, and found it ineffably difficult to maintain deep relationships with people, because I wonder of what they would think if they knew the shadow that labored behind my brilliant smile and the warm clasp of my hand.

There have been days — hell, there have been weeks — when I sat at my desk after a hard day’s labor, and wondered why the the hell I was still around, why the hell I even bothered. It’s so simple, really…you pick up the instrument, and you push, and just like that, it all blinks out. No more pain, no more sorrow. I stare into that abyss, and I wonder, what if? What if I were to take just one more step…would anything really change? Would it really make a difference, one way or the other?

Let’s go…just one…more…step.

And then, I think, there’s a reason why I’m here and not, say, Lopez or Mulligan or Minh. There’s a reason why I’m writing this, and you’re reading this, and it has nothing to do with the politics of this war.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter with me now. It really doesn’t, because, if in the end, you walk away from reading this and that tormented fifth now has a face and a name and a smile and a tear on it, then that’s all right, because it means that we’ve seen each other at the end.

Two roads diverged on a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In the end, that’s the difference. And so, at last, I’m not afraid anymore, and I’m happy — if only for a small while — at last.

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