Steve has been home for six months now.
To be more precise, he has been here in the States, staying with various friends and relatives, since he returned from a tour of duty with the Marines in Iraq just before Christmas. Going back to where he was born and raised — the projects of South Jamaica, in the New York City borough of Queens — is not an option, he says.
It’s not physical dangers that are keeping him from his old stomping grounds. After a year in Iraq and a year in Afghanistan (and a class with me between those two tours of duty — oh, my!), Steve can handle himself when there is a threat. Likewise, he is not avoiding his past, I think: Most of his family and friends aren’t in the neighborhood anymore. Equally important, he says, is the fact that he’s "changed."
Although I could see ways in which he’s worked, or is working, through questions about his life and his world, I asked him "How so?"
"I understand now that I don’t owe allegiance to anyone or anything besides my mother, the guys who were there with me, and maybe a couple of other people." Though his pronouncement didn’t surprise me, I was taken aback. To say the least, it is a stunning reversal from the oaths Marines and other members of the armed forces take upon joining. In fact, it flies in the face of just about anything most of us have been taught or have absorbed from our schools, workplaces and nation. To hear those words from someone who just two years ago could not drink legally made them still more jarring, at least for me.
He announced that he wanted "nothing more to do" with any aspect of any military or paramilitary organization, anywhere. He stays in touch with "a couple of buddies" who, like him, came to realize that they were no more fighting for their country — "whatever that is," he sneers — than Fox News is in the business of conveying the truth to the public. (I can only imagine the conversations they have or the e-mails they exchange!) Other than those friendships, he says he wants nothing more from his time in the Marines.
So intent is he on breaking his ties that he won’t avail himself to the psychiatric and medical care the government offers veterans. "Those doctors are the worst," he groans. Family members and friends have urged him to take advantage of those services. "After all, you’re entitled to them," they say. To them, he responds, "Just because you’re entitled to something, that doesn’t mean it’s good for you!" He echoes a belief commonly held among veterans — one for which there is more than anecdotal evidence — that the purpose of military medicine is to "patch up and cover up." The doctors and psychiatrists "only know how to fix someone up enough to get him on the battlefield" and "cover up their mistakes, which they make a lot of."
Fortunately for him, he didn’t suffer any physical injuries beyond a couple of superficial wounds. However, he feels anger at the way he feels his country "abandoned" him and his buddies by sending them into a conflagration sparked by US involvement in the region and continuing by ongoing American presence. To aid the causes of duplicitous plutocrats, he and his buddies were sent through desolate, hostile areas to drive empty, unarmored vans. To protect themselves, they and their families provided them with flack jackets and other gear at their own expense.
And, after paying for his own defense while ostensibly serving in his country’s defense, he is now spending the money he has been earning from various odd jobs for the services of a psychiatric social worker. He plans to return to school, although his goals may differ from those he had when he was my student, he says. In the meantime, he says, "I want to get at the truth and get myself together." To that end, he has read "more than I ever have before," including two books by Vietnam veterans that I recommended: Song of Napalm, a collection of poems by Bruce Weigl, and At Hell’s Gate by Claude Anshin Thomas. I also steered him to a number of anti-war essays and articles, including some that have been published on this site, just to show him how diverse are those who want and work for peace and prosperity.
What has he learned, I asked him. "At the end of the day, there are only people. We only have each other. Sometimes we can depend on them, but we can only be sure of ourselves. And don’t expect any organization — especially any government — to give you what you need or make you whole."
If only I had such understanding when I was his age! Then again, I guess I should count my blessings that I didn’t have to experience what he has in order to gain the wisdom we now share.
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.