Thursday, August 20, 2015

Plenty of Time When We Get Home

The United States of American does not take care of our wounded warriors. We do not adequately acknowledge our combat veterans. We do little enough to reward them with tangible evidence of thanks.  We are getting better, but it has been a long, hard struggle for the soldiers. To say that conditions and services and awareness are better now than they were in 2005 is to ignore 5,259,600 minutes of pain, uncertainty, confusion, loss, and frustration for 2.5 million soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen (citation here).

Sergeant Brian McGough took shrapnel to his head from a land mine. The Army found him unfit for duty, appropriately enough, and then shoved papers in front of him to sign. He was told that treatments were available, or not available. He was ordered to report to places he could not find for counseling that denied his problems. The searing headaches, the depression, and the mental confusion all left him unable to even read the envelopes in which the bills arrived. Fortunately, he had Sergeant Kayla Williams.
Cover shows three pictures. One is young man in military camouflage writing, another is a woman in camouflage. The third shows the two of them in regular civilian clothes outdoors.
Plenty of Time When We Get Home:
Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War

by Kayla Williams (W. W. Norton, 2014).

They had met in Iraq. He was one of the few soldiers who did not harass her. It turned out that they shared a lot of opinions. Williams enlisted after college. McGough was a lifer, but it took him longer than most to make sergeant because of his attitude. Then he was caught by an IED, severely wounded, and sent home.  After she was released from duty and also back home, Williams looked him up to see how he was doing, and was shocked at what she found.

This is their story. It reads like a novel with a plot and theme, action and dialog. It is also at once a confession, a political statement, and a reflection.
We overheard people on their cell phones: “My latte took ten minutes at Star Bucks. This is the worst day of my life!” Of course we understood that people were exaggerating—but they seemed wrapped up in the most meaningless, trivial crap. The news was full of coverage of celebrities, while what still mattered to me and Brian—stories about American troops getting killed in Iraq and Afghanistan—was relegated to the little ticker at the bottom of the screen.” (p. 109)
Post traumatic stress syndrome is a normal reaction to abnormal events. McGough eventually healed enough to join a fire department. Williams became an EMT. They were instructed to call on the counselors for their departments because dealing with horrible events would be expected. But those departments had counselors. The Army’s response was “suck it up and drive on.”

As individuals, we may not be reducible. How McGough and Williams pulled through—pulled each other through, eventually; first she him, and then the roles were reversed—may not be repeatable. Their individuality is their own hallmark, their coat-of-arms.
“While many people automatically assumed that we would support John McCain for president since he was a decorated war veteran, his Senate record was actually not that strong on veterans’ issues. (http://www.veteranreportcard.org/reportcard.pdf) He had never supported the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a bipartisan effort to increase college benefits for today’s veterans, and wasn’t a strong supporter of increased funding for the VA. Conversely, Senator Obama’s record was solid. “ (p. 185)
But they are not an anomaly. Millions of other people, many of them couples and families, went down the same roads, with similar (though differing) outcomes. As McGough and Williams survived, endured, and overcame their problems, the Army finally got on top of its challenges. In the Appendix, Williams acknowledges the help they (finally) received from the Veterans Administration, and the Army. It is nice to hear… but you must not forget those first 1000 days, 24,000 hours, one million four hundred forty-four thousand minutes, in which McGough’s only medication was self-medication with alcohol – or the minute he put a gun to Kayla’s head. (Later, he remembered enough of it to disassemble the gun and throw the parts away.)  In that, their story is tragically all-too-statistically common. It was also statistically predictable.

We all know the cliché that the generals are always prepared to fight the previous war. For them, that was Desert Storm, horrible enough for some, but not in the huge numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan. And none of those generals had been in command during the previous harsh lesson, Viet Nam.  You can see the outcome of that on the streets of any city in America. 

Williams has disparaging words for the VFW in an oblique reference about clubs of old men who cannot perceive a woman as a combat veteran even when it is said twice plainly.  But she shares tears at receptions and dinners with Viet Nam veterans who finally have someone to talk to who knows what they went through, both during the war, and in the long, long aftermath.
Many of them [students on college campuses] had no idea, and shared common assumptions that troops were the dregs of society, who enlisted because they had no other options. Many asked me why I joined the Army, seeming to think that only dumb people and criminals enlisted. I got to challenge those assumptions with facts: today, 75 percent of young Americans don’t even qualify for the military. Most are too overweight, don’t have high school diplomas, or have criminal backgrounds. College recruiters and military recruiters are by and large targeting the same cohort—98 percent of troops have high school diplomas, compared to only 75 percent of the civilian population. (p. 167)

The story does have a happy ending. They have three children, and a dog. Williams works at the RAND Corporation. McGough takes up golf and considers college. That also underscores a counter-narrative. As destructive as war is, the overwhelming majority of veterans do re-integrate. Those who are wounded do recover with care, support, love, and guidance. 

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