Andersen: The man who was a telephone
When is a man a telephone? When his children only know him through one. This revelation emerged from a three-day trip in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness two weeks ago. It came from a combat veteran of the Iraq War.
We were sitting out a light rain near the summit of Mount Yeckel at 12,000 feet. There were eight combat vets from Iraq and Afghanistan and my staff of five. We had sought shelter in a stand of spruce and fir below the peak and were discussing what it means to be a soldier.
Our assigned reading for this conversation was the St. Crispin’s Day speech by Shakespeare, a rousing call to arms and honor in which Henry V rallies his men for an attack against a walled French city.
“The fewer men, the greater share of honor!” exults Henry, suggesting that the travails in the upcoming battle are a blessing, not a curse. “God’s will I pray thee, wish not one man more. … If it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending man alive.”
Most combat vets are not likely to discuss Shakespeare, but they latched onto the common experience of soldiers from 600 years ago. They also did justice to the notebook of other historical, philosophical and poetic readings pertaining to wilderness that gave context to this unusual wilderness experience.
This was the inaugural run of my Huts for Vets program, which takes veterans into the wilderness at the 10th Mountain huts. I was heartened by the way these vets engaged in frank and honest conversations with comrades-at-arms they hadn’t known the day before.
While putting together the readings books, I was warned that veterans would not read assigned materials, especially challenging literature. Some vets didn’t do the readings, but once the conversations got going, they joined in with amazing insights into combat and personal experiences.
It took a few discussions to warm up to Shakespeare, but once the St. Crispin’s speech translated into real experience, they began to speak from their minds and hearts. They offered deep perceptions that revealed the life of today’s combat soldiers and the difficulties of returning to civilian life. This is where the telephone story emerged.
“When I got home from Iraq,” explained one vet, “my kids thought ‘Daddy’ was the telephone. When I had called from Iraq, my wife held out the phone and said, ‘Talk to Daddy.’ So when I got home and she said, ‘Talk to Daddy,’ they went to the telephone, not to me.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that,” another vet said.
When comparing themselves to soldiers of past wars, these vets explained that it was painful to be in such fast, easy contact with their families at home.
“You could be out for a day in 112-degree weather,” a stocky Marine said, “and you could see a whole family killed. When you got back to the base, you could talk to your wife and hear her complain about the trash service or the kids’ day care center. There was no way of explaining what my life was like, so I just kept it inside.”
Coming home was another jolt. In World Wars I and II, soldiers traveled back to the States in troop transport ships that could take weeks to cross the ocean. Then there were trains that took days.
“There was time for those soldiers to adjust,” one vet said. “They could slowly re-enter. Now you can be in combat one day, and 24 hours later, you’re stepping off a plane in the States.”
The most brutal experience was coming back a changed person, often with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Your wife gets to know you again and realizes you’ve changed,” an Army sergeant explained. “She says, ‘You’re not the same person I married. What’s wrong with you?’”
That night in the hut, around the dinner table, the jokes started coming, then the kidding, then the laughter. I watched as these eight soldiers became fast friends. They laughed, long and deep, wiping away tears. That laughter was the most meaningful expression of all.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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