The Things We Carried Home

Twenty years ago, I was sitting in Mr. Carey’s history
class discussing the differences between constitutional and absolute
monarchies. He got called out of class for a few minutes, and when he came
back, he told us in a deadpan voice, “So there’s been a terrorist attack in New
York. Both of the Twin Towers were hit with hijacked airliners, one of them
just collapsed a few minutes ago, and there may be other hijacked planes. You
now know everything that I know.”That was the moment I knew I would be going to war. Coming
from a family with generations of military service, and knowing that I lacked
the commitment to succeed in college, there was no other viable option.Through several bouts of dumb luck, I made my way. I fell
into place as a scout in an airborne cavalry squadron. I got transferred to
another cavalry troop weeks before we deployed and went to Afghanistan’s
Paktika Province instead of the now-legendary
Camp Keating in Nuristan. The transmission on the loaner Humvee I was driving
got a hiccup, it changed the order of march, and another truck crew caught the
IED. I shattered my fibula parachuting into a mud hole and spent my second
deployment running the radios in the troop operations center. There wasn’t any skill involved in escaping five years,
eight months, and four days in the Army relatively unscathed.There wasn’t any skill involved in escaping five years,
eight months, and four days in the Army relatively unscathed. A lot of the guys
I served with didn’t have it so great. They went to Keating. They fought at Saret
Koleh. They caught RPGs, or IEDs, or got shot by snipers, or were burned
beyond recognition.The war’s finally over. Though given that I watched a video
on Twitter of Taliban-flagged Humvees barnstorming around my old outpost on June 29, it’s safe to
say things didn’t end according to plan. We ended it about as fecklessly as one
could, and now we have to deal with the second- and third-order effects, or as
Chris from Northern Exposure would say,
“the Whole Karmic Enchilada.” Radicalized nutballs are just starting to bubble to the surface of the national consciousness—like this tantrum-throwing buffoon, Landon Copeland, who took the hearing for his role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol as an opportunity to turn a court of law into a MAGA bughouse. These guys didn’t just come out of nowhere.A lot of guys that I know who saw serious action and took
brain injuries act like this now. A lot of those same guys got radicalized just
like Copeland and believe a lot of that wackadoo Q nonsense. When we got
back from Operation Enduring Freedom VIII (“The Ocho!”) in 2008,
quite a few of my friends were having serious trouble. Some were the guys that
Jake Tapper wrote about in The Outpost.
Total mental malfunctions, terrible decision-making, and little to no thought
as to the consequences of their actions.Paranoia, delusional thinking, near-instantaneous escalation
to violence—classic exterior symptoms of post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries, and a
whole slew of psychological maladies. Did you know that combat trauma can
trigger latent
bipolar disorder? Neither did I, and in my youth I was too ignorant to
recognize what was going on. Such things didn’t even compute until my friend
was diagnosed with bipolar (likely from putting fist-size holes in bad guys
for a year straight with an enhanced battle rifle).We went out and did a bunch of now-meaningless things on a
Sisyphean crusade for 15 months, and when I finally saw my friends who
went to Nuristan after being separated for so long, a decent chunk of them had
come back crazy. One time, a whole carload of my buddies drove to Amsterdam, returned
with a trunk full of drugs, got caught, and then all I heard from them for the
next month were these lunatic rants that, in hindsight, were as logical and coherent
as a Trump speech about how they “had a plan to get out of it.” Then, I kid you
not, they pulled exactly the same move that Copeland pulled in court when
they went in front of the squadron commander. Crazy stuff like this kept happening throughout the squadron.
After we had all gotten out of the Army, I kept tabs on everyone via Facebook.
Over the last 11 years or so, I’ve been watching dudes go through a laundry
list of toxic life events: meteoric marriage/divorce cycles, in and out of rehab,
and homelessness. (I was homeless for a moment there in the winter of 2017—it
happens to the best of us.)A bunch of my guys spent about a month tracking down our
former first sergeant, who had a nervous breakdown and disappeared in Los
Angeles on a meth bender. A former platoon sergeant got caught in the nick of
time in a bathtub in NYC with his wrists cut open. Another guy I deeply respect
died when his liver finally blew out from his attempts to drown himself in Jack
Daniels, which, I might add, I found out about because Jake Tapper tweeted the
news (I had to notify Tapper through a mutual friend that it wasn’t suicide).
My best friend, Jayme, killed himself in a drunken wrestling match with his wife
as she tried to take the gun away, which was a week after another friend just
shrugged his shoulders and put the gun to his head at the shooting range, which
was a week after another friend had killed himself (method unknown). The
self-destruction didn’t end there. A year later, it was followed by John, who,
after getting all of his rank stripped and kicked out of the Army for a series
of DUIs, decided to leave a final Facebook status—Screw all of you, approximately—then took all of the pills from all
nine of the bottles the VA docs prescribed.I still remember helping Jayme clean the gaping hole in
John’s arm after an IED. I’m the only person left who does, because everybody
else in the aid station that night is now dead.The past decade has been a
surrealistic nightmare, and far deadlier than both combat deployments.Three days after John died, I spent a few hours talking his
best friend out of killing himself in the middle of the Arizona desert over a
joint. Put down the weapon, pick up the spliff. The past decade has been a
surrealistic nightmare, and far deadlier than both combat deployments. But
what’s worse is that a lot of the guys who weren’t preoccupied with
recreational pharmacology or killing themselves were busy elsewhere.In our quest for justice and denying terrorists a safe
haven, we accomplished neither. We’re the guy at the dinner party who claims to
be in the import-export business but in all reality is a drug dealer—except
instead of bags of cash and mountains of cocaine, we exported world-shattering
ultraviolence and imported the very style of extremism we sought so hard to
eradicate.To a normal person, all of the memelords, centipedes, and
chan group urchins seem like a sick joke. But to many of the people who got
their bells rung a few times, spent the pivotal moments of their lives shooting
at people, watching their friends die in miserable and meaningless ways, and
who came back from the war into an increasingly alienating online society,
these groups were legit.  They had similarly warped senses of what can be considered
funny, and offered a sense of belonging. The toxic vetbro lifestyle pumped up
their egos, they threw on T-shirts with insane
slogans, and scumbag
ideologies gave them something on which to focus their seething inner
turmoil.Whereas the vets with whom I willingly associate nowadays
spend their time reflecting on the things they did and attempting to learn and
grow from the experience, these people dove into the next great war and
preparing to shed yet more blood in the name of the latest ridiculous
conspiracy theory. So when Donald Trump came along, they were already Three
Percenter chapter presidents (one of my former comrades), Proud Boys (an
uncomfortable number of my former comrades), or just plain cynical and wanting
to watch it all burn down.They were primed to storm the Capitol and do all manner of
heinous things. What scares the hell out of me is that I understand them
because, in weak moments on dark nights, I feel those tendencies—those urges to
lash out at authority, the apocalyptic anger at the world for all the
disgusting things that happened in Afghanistan and friends I needlessly lost,
the indignation that any concept of God would allow such terrible things. Such
limitless anger that I can feel the fuse connecting me to reality pop, and the
only thing that keeps me in check is my sheer drive to be a decent human being.So when I see insurrectionist scoundrels like Copeland do
completely insane things like that in a court of law, I see my old roommate
raging in divorce court. I see Steve-o flipping out at our squadron commander.
I see my buddy on wife number six. I see a path that I am thankful every day
that I did not take a decade ago when all of this looney-tunes stuff started
happening among friends from my time in the service. I see people who found
something to feed their inner demons, and in so doing I stare into a dark mirror
at the person who I could have been—a cryptofascist hate-fueled degenerate bent
on tearing down the very structures and society he swore to protect, and with
every fiber of my being I oppose him.The war in Afghanistan looked like a war without end even
back in 2007 when I first arrived in-country. People have been referring to it by the title of Joe Haldeman’s
1974 epic sci-fi novel, and to those superficially familiar, it is
appropriate. But combat operations in southwest Asia, in all regards, were just
the opening skirmishes. If we continue to defer any effort toward addressing
this national sickness of radicalization, it plays right into their hands. The
longer we wait to take a thorough audit of how we reintegrate returned
veterans, as well as deal with the physical, mental, and moral injuries
generated by this too-often-forgotten, incomprehensibly and immorally drawn-out
war, the more recruits these degenerates will find in the hearts of disaffected
veterans, and the greater the risk that January 6 will happen
again—next time with better special effects and far more bloodshed.I feel no pity for those who have come under the sway of
this insanity, and neither should you. Those who have broken the law will pay
for their crimes. We need to focus on prevention. Now. Or the Forever War will
have only just begun.
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