Forever Young

I can say with absolute certainty that I never want to be a groundskeeper at Tahoma National Cemetery. Burial sites serve an important societal function and certainly require attention from responsible adults. I just wouldn’t want to work at one, particularly not at Tahoma, where my friend Brian Bradshaw is buried. 

Brian and I served as infantry officers together. We deployed to Afghanistan in separate companies, but we had much in common as people. Not long after he died, I discovered that his mother was the pediatric nurse working night-shift deliveries at Madigan Army Hospital in autumn 1984. I was born on September 28, and while we can’t confirm it, it is entirely likely that Brian’s mom delivered me. On October 8 of that same year, she gave birth to Brian. His family stayed in Washington, whereas mine moved around the world at the Army’s behest. Both his parents were Army officers, as were both of mine. We didn’t meet one another until mid-2008, and I didn’t learn about this odd coincidence until after he died from an IED blast on June 25, 2009. Brian’s last act on earth was his attempt to render aid to Afghan truck drivers hit by a roadside bomb. A secondary device (aimed to target first responders) killed him.

The advent of Memorial Day ushers in strange feelings for me, and I imagine it is the same for many veterans. On one hand, there’s a profound sense of kinship – a mutual understanding across time and space that unites us to anyone who has experienced the loss of comrades in war. On Memorial Day, my veteran friends often share images and stories that provoke distinct emotions. It was five years ago that we deployed to Afghanistan, certainly not a distant epoch, but when I see photos of a friend who served in Somalia in 1993 or my dad’s photos from some hair-raising patrol on the Korean DMZ in 1976, I imagine that the kinship will remain even decades from now when we no longer resemble the selves captured by the camera’s lens.

These extreme circumstances force people together. In June 2009, my battalion had a soldier named Bowe Bergdahl who abandoned his post and got captured by the Taliban. For the months after his departure, we took pretty much every able body in the battalion on missions to recover him. I still have some photos of that period, and they capture moments of utter reckless abandon: the bone-weary and sunburnt faces of guys in grey camouflage who haven’t slept well in months, each one seeming to say “This doesn’t make any sense, so I guess we’ll crash and burn together.” We spent whole weeks looking for Bergdahl. It was a terrible time, and yet it’s just about all we discuss when reunited, aside from reminiscences of those lost. Each of us is now a member of an awkward family with reunions that can go from chortles to tears to chortles again with each successive round of drinks.

But then there is also the profound sadness that I feel when I see photos of people who didn’t return, or when I see photos of a time and place now strangely elegiac because of the absolute folly it represents. Brian hasn’t gotten older in my mind’s eye, even as everyone who knew him becomes creaky, sallow, and undeniably aged. Now that I’ve left the military, I cannot see any reason why we were still in Afghanistan in 2009 besides inertia, and though I saw small victories achieved, they cannot negate the failures or shortcomings of ill-thought policy. We fought hard for the 2009 Afghan presidential election, but it was nakedly corrupt. We fought hard to recover Bergdahl, but he’s still there. So, maybe the natural response is to take stock in the fact that we simply fought. For many of us, it’s the single most intense experience of our lives, and as such it’s important to assign it meaning. It’s too heartbreaking to envision that friends died for no reason.

For me, it’s hard to look at the old pictures or watch a movie like Restrepo without this looming sadness. I see the same brotherhood and devotion, the same sacrifice and horror, but since I didn’t fight in the Korengal Valley and since I don’t own the war anymore, I just want to ask ‘why?’ Young men and women across the theater of war and the entire generation that it spans paid dearly with blood and with acts of valor. They paid, but what did that actually buy? It certainly bought suffering, some of which has come home in the form of Americans forever changed, but most of which has remained the sole province of civilian populations in the countries we invaded.

We also built schools. We also delivered rice and cooking oil and cut-rate children’s clothing from Central Asia dubbed “H.A.” for humanitarian assistance, as in “We’ll hand out some H.A. after the shura.” It all happened – that’s the point. The good things were true, and good, but the bad things were true, too, and very bad. To deny the bad is to airbrush the authenticity of our experience into the sanitized veteran caricature so prominent in advertising, forever returning home but never actually fighting, as though we never really deployed but rather just put on battle dress and walked through an airport in poignant slow motion. It was a war and we committed acts of violence in our country’s name. Our friends died for something that wound up inconclusive at best. That doesn’t sell beer and car insurance, but it’s true. 

In April, I attended a conversation with the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim and my friend Phil Klay, a Marine Corps veteran and author of a short story collection called “Redeployment.” One of Hassan’s first questions to Phil was, effectively, “How can someone who volunteered to join the military and serve in the occupation of a country feel proud of what they’ve done?” I didn’t think it was the right question to ask Phil as if he were representative of all American military veterans. He can only give his own private answer, the same way I can give mine. Some veterans will never wrestle with it, whereas others might be in distress for the rest of their days. It also depends on what they actually did, and how they interpret what they did. A personnel clerk who never deployed past Fort Polk, Louisiana might experience a total change of conviction and feel shame for having ever served in what they now consider a tool of imperial oppression. A CAG operator or Ranger Regiment veteran might find himself psychologically damaged by the prospect of having to leave his unit and exit the military despite his best efforts – because he wants to keep doing it so badly. Or the reverse might happen. How people respond to what they’ve seen and done has as much to do with the actor as it does the action committed. Gus Hasford had harsh words for people who claimed it didn’t affect them at all. But, no matter how each individual interprets their experience, most everyone who went to a combat zone has to wrestle with some kind of grief. 

Visiting Brian at Tahoma National Cemetery, I make it a point to bring little rocks to set on his headstone. I’m appropriating a ritual from Judaism, but I try to bring pebbles from places I’ve been since the day he died. They’re evidence of a visit, but also of the milestones in my life for which I’m grateful because I know how unfair it is to the families who lost everything. I can imagine that the groundskeepers at Tahoma must see adorned graves like his every day, miniature shrines to people whose death stopped time for some and counted as a statistic for most everyone else. I imagine they become numb to it, because otherwise it would be devastating.

When I think of him running to help those drivers, or when I remember the sensation of surrendering to fate when I dismounted my truck and ran to meet a friend (whose radio lost its encryption at the site of a roadside bomb), I feel something that I can barely describe. It’s like an abnegation of the fear of death – something categorically antithetical to human survival instinct. It was a beautiful day in August, with a high-elevation blue sky and errant white clouds. I was in the lead truck. We’d screeched to a halt maybe five meters in front of a culvert rigged to blow. I ran to meet my friend, whose platoon had engaged the trigger men. I knew that the insurgents put secondary devices all around to target people like Brian, like me, anybody. I hoped I would die before I registered pain. My feet touched the ground and I ran, maybe with a smile on my face, and that could have been the end. But, it wasn’t.

Fifty years from now, I imagine that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will seem like distant abstractions. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will be like today’s wizened Korean War veterans, the recipients of what I hope is a mixture of patience and curiosity. If I’m still alive, I’ll be nearing eighty, almost as old as my grandfather. Brian will still be twenty-four, still running down to help those jingle-truck drivers, still alive in my mind’s eye with whatever you want to call it: naïveté, youthful vitality, imperial superiority, blissful ignorance, conviction, a love of his fellow man – people can view it however they desire. Who knows how the world will see us by then. I just wish he had the chance to speak for himself.

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Brian with kids somewhere in Khushamond district, Paktika province, Afghanistan, 2009.

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Tahoma National Cemetery, Kent, WA