My conversation with a young soldier who had an old face

Outside the airplane windows, the sunset had thinned to a ribbon of orange, and the rest of the sky was night-black. The pilot had doused the cabin lights, so passengers could sleep, and there were only a few who still had reading lights on, making little oases of light here and there.

The darkness made the cabin feel safe and private, and in that privacy, the young man next to me had begun to talk. “It’s easier to hide in the desert than in the woods,” the young man was saying. 

The young man with the short haircut and the old face. I knew he was a soldier before he said a word.

I’ve sat beside other guys like him lately —  and seen many more —  on different segments of their way back home. Sometimes, they just say they’re coming back from Europe, but it doesn’t take much chatting to find out that they got to Europe from Baghdad.  

They always make me remember the soldiers of my own generation, drafted during Vietnam. They’re gray-headed now, but to me they’re still the boys they were when they left.

One I knew used to say he was two years younger than he really was, because that was how much time the Army stole from him. Another was so disheartened by the treatment vets got back in the States that he emigrated to Europe to work; it was years before he came home.

Returning soldiers are treated better now — if only in the sense that they aren’t being blamed for this war. But I don’t think they can ever be treated well enough. And I’m not sure they ever really get to “come home.”

Wounded several times
I’ve been a reporter long enough to sense when somebody wants to talk — and to know when I should shut up and listen. Now was one of those times, and the young man started to tell his private story.

He talked about how he’d been wounded — several times — finally so severely that he’d been sent home. He’d been taking survival courses, toughening himself up so he would be strong enough to go back. He felt he owed it to his buddies.

He told me how angry he was when he first got home, how he’d pick fights in bars just because somebody looked at him wrong, how once he even hit his mother when she woke him from a nap.

He’d been offered counseling, he said, but he wanted to “work through the Suck” on his own.

 “You could write about this,” I suggested, ever the believer in the healing power of words. 

No, he said, no — he’d never write about it — he wouldn’t want his son to read it. He took out his cell phone and flicked through the images until he found the picture he wanted — a chubby 2-year-old smiling in his mother’s arms.

“Best thing in my life,” the young man said. 

I didn’t ask his name, and he didn’t ask mine. The conversation was too intimate for that. We didn’t even look at each other much, just stared straight ahead; it made the talking easier.

I wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him again, but this young man with the old face has been with me ever since. I think of him every time I read “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” in a headline, every time I hear those names on TV or the radio.

I want other people —  people like me who live safe lives at home, people for whom an airplane ride is just part of a vacation or a job —  I want the rest of us to remember him too.  And all the others like him.  

What he can’t forget
Near the end of the flight, the young man with the old face began to tell me about the worst stuff  —  the stuff he couldn’t forget: A woman with half her face torn off by a car bomb… A burned man whose skin pulled off his legs like socks… A little 3-year-old girl on fire, running around and crying…  

Finally he got to the worst thing, the thing he hadn’t even told his wife. It was how he’d had to kill a 14-year-old Iraqi boy. He’d shot him twice in the chest — “here,” the soldier said, pointing to his own body, “and here.”

It happened when his unit got ambushed, early in his tour of duty. The Iraqi boy had a rifle, and  “he was coming straight at me, and I didn’t know much Arabic yet —  I was yelling, ‘Stop, Stop,’ but he started to raise his weapon….”

When the fight was over and the unit had accounted for its men — they’d all made it —  and they were taking a few prisoners away, the young American noticed an old Iraqi man, just standing there, looking at the dead boy, with tears running down his cheeks.

“You’re supposed to interview anybody who might know an insurgent,” he said, but he was sure the old man was the boy’s relative, maybe his grandfather, and he just didn’t have the heart to take him in.

We sat in silence for a little while.

The things we ask them to do, I kept thinking. The secrets we ask them to keep. The memories we ask them to carry for the rest of their lives…

“I’ve never told anybody that story,” the young man said slowly. “Not my wife, not my mom, but I feel like I can tell you.” He said he didn’t know why that was.

But I knew. Sometimes it’s easier to tell the truth to someone you know you’ll never see again, and there is no better place than an airplane seat, six miles in the air, crossing a continent in darkness.

Psychotherapists should try it. Maybe they’d know what to say.

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Chris Steele on 12/14/2009 - 05:07 am.

    Catherine, thanks for sharing your moments with this soldier with us.

  2. Submitted by Gary Peterson on 12/14/2009 - 12:06 pm.

    Thank you.

  3. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 12/14/2009 - 12:10 pm.

    These are the men and women whose wounds don’t show, the war has changed them so they never become who they used to be. I think it is telling that most men and women have to be trained, indoctrinated, and desensitized to fight battles in war. It’s encouraging in one way; most of us are innately peaceful.

  4. Submitted by Peter Soulen on 12/14/2009 - 01:35 pm.

    This is why pesident Obama took the line he did last week in his Nobel acceptance speech. Why he walked that thin line between idealism and reality… He knows there are experiences like these coming home with soldiers every day.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/14/2009 - 02:08 pm.

    Of course these memories will last forever. It’s terribly sad that the state of our world requires that they be inflicted on those who fight to preserve our freedoms and those on the other side who often believe they’re doing the same thing.

    All too often the emotional wounds inflicted on those who go to war program them so that they inflict similar wounds, through pysical or emotional abuse, on their own beloved children and family members making war more likely in subsequent generations.

    This does not have to happen. The underlying programming created by the most ancient parts of our brains in order to deal with life-threateningly painful situations in response to these physical and emotional wounds does not need to be lived with. It can be de-programmed with proper techniques. Click on sig to explore how (anonymously and at no cost).

  6. Submitted by Lynn Nelson on 12/14/2009 - 02:18 pm.

    We all play a role in sending our troops across the seas. I say a prayer every time I see a young man or woman dressed in military garb. I am thankful my own 21-year-old son is not going, and my heart aches for those who choose to go and for those who love them.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/14/2009 - 02:31 pm.

    A double blessing in this cameo…

    This wounded soldier – for whatever unexplained serendipity – shared seating space with one very special listener in Catherine Watson…who demonstrates the capacity to take a reporter’s talents one step beyond into the realm of poetry in the telling, without compromising the integrity of this happenstance experience. Thank you.

    I also think as a powerful experience well told, it needs a bigger stage?

    It’s real life drama; an indictment against all the unending, pointless killing; destroying lives and minds and hope, from both sides,yes.

    And with the telling, Watson’s tale demands a greater audience. Why not the Oval office?

    Words can move mountains and maybe even Obama…enough war already.

  8. Submitted by Hannah on 12/14/2009 - 04:52 pm.

    Catherine Watson’s story is beautifully written. Perhaps somehow it will make its way to the President, as someone already has suggested. Maybe Sen. Klobuchar or Sen. Franken has already seen the story and sent it to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, Catherine deserves the Pulitzer Prize or whatever prize is available for writing of this type.

  9. Submitted by Stuart Macdonald on 12/14/2009 - 06:21 pm.

    I take a different message from this story than those I read in previous comments. If 10 people who read this made it their CHOICE to become actively involved with an individual living with combat memories, there would be 10 more chances that someone in great need would be heard. There are more people in the US available to listen than there are who need to learn that someone cares, will listen, and not judge. What if veterans found 2 or 3 people willing to act to support them instead of having to wait for a chance, anonymous encounter on an airplane?

    We, The People, have the CHOICE to end the isolation of those who served in combat, especially women since they receive less or no support due to the terror US citizens have about women in combat. We don’t need Senators or Presidents or God or Harry Potter to ‘take care of’ our veterans. We, as individuals, need to get off our rear ends and walk our talk.

  10. Submitted by David Koski on 12/14/2009 - 09:44 pm.

    Sure I would listen and try to help. But, there is no way I would condone any aspect of war. I would tell people coming back from combat that it was horribly wrong and unfortunate that they had to participate. There is nothing nobel about killing or being killed in these fabricated wars which have nothing to do with protecting our freedom.

    The worst thing to do is support and reinforce this absolutely outmoded form of conflict resolution which is really just doing the dirty work for others.

  11. Submitted by William Pappas on 12/15/2009 - 06:50 pm.

    The experiences of this young soldier illuminate the tragic futility of our war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. With each added troop there will be organized more Afghanis to resist us. With every attack on insurgents that kills many more civilians than combatants the rural countryside will gravitate to the Taliban to resist us. When we finally pull out for good all that will be left for Americans will reside in the haunting memories of young soldiers.

  12. Submitted by Steve Morris on 12/16/2009 - 08:30 pm.

    Catherine,

    What a wonderful piece. Too bad it had to end so early, as I was hooked and hoping for more.

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