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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The stories war tells me

A veteran and parent can’t stop thinking about the war he fought.

I’m here in Chicago, 7,000 miles and 15 years away from Jalalabad, a desolate town in southwestern Afghanistan. Yet sometimes it seems to me as if it were yesterday, or even tomorrow, and anything but thousands of miles distant.

There are moments when it feels like I never left – or maybe I mean, when it feels like it left with me, like Afghanistan and my once-upon-a-time life as a U.S. Army Ranger are all right here, right now, in my unheated garage workshop. Right here, right now, in fact, the sawdust is swirling as I run a two-inch slab of walnut through my lousy Ryobi table saw. The dust and the noise from that saw instantly bring to mind an image of an American helicopter landing in the Afghan countryside, not too far from Jalalabad. It all seems suddenly to flash before my eyes – only the dust in Afghanistan was chalkier and finer than the dust from this walnut slab, which is old, but not Afghanistan old.

Each of those dusts has dry, earthy, almost sugary smells. It’s hard right now for me to tell which is louder, the helicopter still in my head or the table saw in front of me. That helicopter is taking away two Afghan men with sandbags over their heads. It’s dark out, but my night vision goggles make everything seem eerily bright green.

I helped snatch those two men – or were they teenagers? – from a house in the middle of the night. That was in May of 2003 and sometimes, right here in my workshop, I can still hear the screams of the little kids inside that house. They’re louder than the helicopter, louder than the saw. Maybe one of those men had info that would help lead us to Osama bin Laden, then missing in action somewhere, it was believed, in Pakistan – or so we were told anyway. My job wasn’t to ask or understand; it was just to snatch people, sandbag them, and ship them out. Others higher up the chain of command would ask the questions under conditions that we now know – and I guessed then – were anything but pretty.

My own kids are three and five, probably close in age to those terrified children I glimpsed ever so briefly in that house and still can’t get out of my head. My daughter and son couldn’t be sweeter, but they do like to tell me “no” a lot. Sometimes they, too, scream and sometimes, when those screams set me off, I yell back, which is frustrating for me and unnerving for them, as well as my wife.  And so I find myself out in that garage more than she would like and more than I would like, too, since it often means that I’ve taken that endlessly unnerving trip back to Afghanistan.

“Try to remember what it’s like to be the kids’ age and parenting will be easier,” my mom tells me when I complain. Being a parent, I guess, means being a good rememberer. The problem with remembering is that when I do, my mind feels like it’s filled with landmines or maybe I mean IEDs.

So many years later, fragmented memories from my time in Afghanistan still flood my head when I least expect them. Sometimes, I’ll push them out quickly; other times, particularly since my kids were born, they just won’t leave and I end up writing them down. That, at least, gives me the passing feeling of being a little more in control.

I used to have a good memory. As a kid, I remembered everything: phone numbers, names, each play in a baseball game a month later. At forty-one, nearing the decade-and-a-half mark since my time in Afghanistan, my recall leaves something to be desired. I blame it on that war and on the distracting memories I just can’t keep out of my head.

Controlling bad memories particularly at night when I’m trying to go to sleep is important. So I keep my laptop close. It was one thing years ago to get through the workday on no sleep; it’s another to raise two little kids while bleary-eyed and sleepless. It’s not good for them, my wife, or me.

Making a desk in “Afghanistan”

I’d much rather make furniture in my spare time than write or think about Afghanistan: that’s what I think and promptly write down before beginning my search for the tape measure I had in my hand only a few minutes ago. Somehow, I misplaced it as that helicopter landed yet again (and now can’t find it). As the table saw drones on, I discover that Afghanistan is still on my mind, but so many of those memories, too, are cloudy.

I could hardly tell you anyone’s name in my old unit – Pat Tillman aside – or who was with me on the particular night that’s plaguing me right now, or on any of the similar raids that I took part in over the course of my two deployments there. The only exceptions: my two closest military friends with whom I still stay in touch and who are both named Kevin. When we talk, though, it’s strange how rarely we mention Afghanistan.

It bothers me that I can’t remember names or a lot of what happened in that country while standing here in my shop. I wish I had access to more of the details. I’d like to write them down. Somehow, that blank space leaves me feeling vulnerable. You can’t pack away something that’s not immediately there.

It’s in the distant past – so I try to convince myself. No one here seems to know or care about Afghanistan anyhow. How much attention was given to the twenty people who were killed by a suicide bomber at a wrestling club in Kabul in early September, or Brent Taylor, the Utah Mayor and National Guardsman, killed during his fourth tour of duty in an “insider attack” in early November by a man whom U.S. forces were supposed to be training? Or what about the other U.S. personnel killed or wounded in similar ways recently? Or what about the suicide bomber who targeted Afghan election headquarters in Kabul in October?

Washington has spent between $900 billion and $2 trillion in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11 and certainly killed tens of thousands of Afghans in that never-ending war. Yet, just about everything that happens there is generally ignored here. That’s perplexing in a way. After all, we could have paid for the college education of every student in America for the last 25 years with $2 trillion.

Forget it, I tell myself. Focus on the saw blade and the wood. There’s furniture to be made and kids to raise. If I want to be a good parent I have to have a good memory. A good memory makes you more empathetic. That’s what I now say to myself, repeating the words of my mom.

Maybe memories of this sort are easier to control once whatever they’re attached to is officially over and in the past. I grab wood glue off a shelf next to the saw. But faint hope of that! Washington’s Afghan War shows no signs of ending all these years later. American soldiers are still killing and dying there. The country is worse off than it was during my 2003 deployments. Seventeen years after “peace” was declared in Afghanistan at a conference in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, the Taliban controls or is fighting for half the districts in the country. It holds more territory than at any moment since the U.S. invasion.

Being a parent in Chicago and a vet in Afghanistan

I wonder what happened to the men (or were they teenagers?) that we dragged from that house that long-ago night? Did they ever make it home? And what about those screaming kids? Are they tormented by that experience? What do they remember, if they’re still alive? They must be of fighting age today. Are they fighting? And for whom?

And how will my kids turn out? Will there still be an American war in Afghanistan when the older one reaches fighting age in 2030? Given the history of that conflict so far and a Pentagon focused on “infinite” war, that’s easy enough to imagine.

It’s colder than normal on this particular October night. I shut the garage door. I’m making a desk for a friend. The cheap saw blade stammers as I work to keep the wood straight. I try not to think about my hand on that wood slipping into the blade. Too much thinking and I’ll get nervous. Not enough thinking and I’ll get careless. I wish I had a safer saw.

Despite the noise and the blades, making furniture does calm me down, even as it takes me back to Jalalabad. In such a situation, working is better than not working for me. And doing creative work like this is even better.

Everything that needs to be said about my own experience in Afghanistan has already been said. So I tell myself standing over that angry blade as I make another cut, my finger safely a few inches away from it. And that, in its fashion, couldn’t be truer. In the last five years, I’ve written a book and dozens of articles on my time there, the way I turned against and resisted that war while still in uniform, and what happened to me thereafter. And any chance I get, I still talk to high school or college students about all the things military recruiters ignore when it comes to the war on terror. I’ve even been to Japan twice to support that country’s antiwar movement.

As I sweep up the sawdust, I’m reminded of something a psychologist once told me: “The thought will only keep coming out in different ways until you confront it head on… Otherwise, it’s like yelling at your kids.” And that suggestion – not to repress the thoughts that continue to disturb you – stuck with me.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling calmer, it seems selfish to stand in this garage and think mainly about furniture. After all, there’s a war still going on in which, long ago, I hurt families like my own.  Other American soldiers must still be doing the same.

In truth, I just can’t stop thinking about that war, which should have ended 14 years ago for me and never really began for most Americans. Still, there must be an awful lot of ex-soldiers like me in this country who sometimes find themselves in Afghanistan when the rest of the country is anywhere but. Given that 15.7%, or nearly 500,000, of the 2.77 million soldiers deployed to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom are said to have PTSD, the odds seem good.

No matter how much the media (and Americans more generally) choose to ignore that war, if I’m thinking about Afghanistan on this night here in my garage, undoubtedly tens of thousands of vets like me are reflecting on or grappling with their experiences in similar ways. I’m not the only one trying to navigate the contradiction of being a parent and being a vet. Of that I have no doubt.

And what about all those Afghan families on the receiving end of so much American violence over the years? Surely, it’s not over for them either. I can only imagine what it must be like raising a kid or trying to live a normal life once soldiers have stormed your home in the middle of the night. How do you relax after that? How do you deal with screaming kids after that?

Sometimes I wonder whether I shouldn’t tag along with other vets like me on a trip back to increasingly war-torn Afghanistan. I know that members of American organizations like Voices for Creative Nonviolence regularly visit that country’s capital, Kabul. Why not me?

Even at this late date, I remain hopeful that I’ll eventually learn ways to better control the time I mentally give over to that war. I’ve got to figure it out for my kids. I’ve got to figure it out for those other kids, the ones I heard screaming that night. They deserve at least that much from me.

I turn off the lights to go back inside. It’s time to tell my daughter and son some stories – and not war stories, either.

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