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.