Monday, November 21, 2005

More Melancholy

A student appeared at my office door today. He's generally a happy, charismatic guy with an interesting background. He was raised in California and joined the military immediately after graduating from high school. He bought that line about seeing the world. He became a radio operator and, toward the end of his enlistment, spent nine months in the front line, right in the heart of Baghdad. When he was discharged after four years of service, he registered for college under the GI Bill. Though he'd been home for almost a year, the war plagues him relentlessly.

While in Iraq, he watched his best friend, someone he'd known since high school and enlisted with, die right in front of his eyes. His other friend lost all feeling in one leg when a mortar hit him during the same attack. It's the image of his friend that is haunting his every waking moment. He thought it would get better if he just ignored it, but it's now consuming him. He's failing several classes. He's frighteningly quick to anger. He's no longer sure that he's ok. Frankly, I'm not sure he is either.

It is an understatement to say this war is an ugly thing. It's taken this young man and chewed him up. And, culturally, we haven't given him any tools for coping with what he's seen and what he's reliving now. He sat there saying, "I don't want to see anybody about this because it's going to mean I'm weak" and "My grandfather and Dad were in wars, and they never talked about it. We're not supposed to" and "What if I'm a dad one day? What is my son going to learn from me about being strong?" He shoulders all the responsibility for what happened. He confessed that he didn't want my sympathy. He said that men didn't cry. He was bound by his fear of discovery even in the face of his confession.

Culturally, we reward men who are fit the mode of traditional hero: brave, strong, inaccessible, invincible. Yet, we condemn the ones who do not fit the model even as we say that we want sensitive men who can discuss their feelings and be part of the team. The message he gets is obvious - suck it up, get over it. As a boy, he learns that confessing feelings means we will think less of him. His feelings are a threat to his masculinity.

I ache for this poor man's grief. It is palpable. His blissful demeanor masks hurt that I find worse because it didn't have to be this way. Of course we all know that people who sign up run the risk of facing real war. I understand. But his pain is another real war that continues and that I hope he won't fight alone.