Basetrack is following the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 1-8, for their tour in Musa Qala, Helmand, one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous and strategically important locations. The goal is to tell a small fragment of their story in real time, as it unfolds. We aim to create a connection between the Marine strapping on his helmet and heading out on patrol and the public who have little or no personal stake in the war. For the Marines and their families, there is a perception that no one cares, that no one even remembers there is a war going on.

(For more on this project, read this previous blog post.)

War stories are frustrating — especially the true ones. They’ve been told a million different ways since Homer. Each one is unique, each one the same. Cruelness and beauty, savagery and charity, shame and pride, cowardice and valor, idiocy and genius are in full bloom in war. War is full of life’s extremities compressed in tiny explosive packets, full of experiences that defy expression. Firefights and bombings and their aftermath — a tongue can’t contort those sights to language, a brain can’t take full measure of them even long after the fact. 

Explaining it to an audience half a world away, desensitized and bored after 10 years of war is even more difficult.

Attracted to Risk-Taking

The Marines are halfway through their tour now. For many, this isn’t their first and for many, it won’t be their last. It has been a difficult tour. We communicate directly with people interested in the project and the Marines’ families through our Facebook page, and the ebb and flow of emotion and strain of this deployment on the families is digitally palpable. 

(Note that out of respect for very real concerns about operational security and safety for all involved, there is a delay between the time a photograph or an audio interview or a story is composed and when it is posted on our site, which allows for redactions.)

I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t spent any time with the Marines yet, but if my past combat experience is any indication, many will come home with war still in them. They will have stories they are unable to tell — stories that reside in limbic systems that were remapped for combat and now strain to adjust to life back in the States.

A footnote in the Army’s report [PDF file] about the ever-increasing suicide rate within its ranks said, “The all-volunteer Army attracts and recruits individuals who enlist knowing they will be sent into harm’s way. A segment of this population is not only aware of the risk but may be attracted to risk-taking.”

Shared Commitment

I fought in Afghanistan and I miss it. I miss the risk, the bonding and the sense of purpose, which is one of the reasons I was attracted to Basetrack after I got out of the Army. I served 16 months in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division.  

In Sebastian Junger’s book about an infantry company’s experience in the Korengal Valley, he wrote about the thing infantrymen miss most when they come home: The sense that someone has your back.

“The Army might screw you and the girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is unnegotiable and only deepens with time,” Junger wrote.

This bond cuts both ways, however — especially after a tough deployment when the absolute single-mindedness of combat action is replaced with the mind-numbing and often frustrating kaleidoscope of experience in the real world. The strain of combat presented itself in different ways when members of my battalion came home. Some of the more extreme examples: 

  • Drunk out of his mind, one soldier walked up to a police station with a pellet gun, threatening the cops. The officers said that he was trying to commit suicide-by-cop — to let someone else have the responsibility of pulling the trigger for once. 
  • A friend’s wife stole $4,000 from him and spent it all on heroin, the irony not lost on anyone. He divorced her, but not his emotions, and put himself into an early grave. 
  • The MPs went to a house on post to investigate a 911 hang-up call. By the time they came to the door, the Staff Sergeant was a bottle of vodka deep. He told them there was nothing wrong. They wanted to investigate more. He invited them in, produced a concealed pistol, forced them on their knees and took their weapons away. When their backup arrived and tried to talk the Staff Sergeant down, he fired two shots at them.  They shot him in the neck and the face and killed him dead in the house where he lived with his wife and three children. 

Of course, there were also divorces, fights, drinking, drug use, arrests, and other expressions of frustration with life after war.

These stories aren’t unique; they’re representative of the things that happen after war, when the bill for the psychic debt incurred after months of sustained tension comes due. It happens after every war.

Ward 1A

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My story isn’t unique. I spent my last two years in the Army back in the U.S., in a good job, with a wonderful girlfriend and the promise of better days ahead. Still, something was wrong. I couldn’t sleep. I was depressed. Morose. Bitter. Angry. Drinking.

I took anti-depressants. I saw counselors. I spent 12 days in an in-patient psychiatric ward at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, after I took matters into my own hands. I was not a happy patient. Here’s a note from my art therapist:  

“Patient did attend and participate in art therapy group. He was agitated and attempted throughout the session to instigate and provoke arguments with other group members. This patient eventually calmed down…the graphic conversation and commented that ‘I can draw bullshit all day!’ He was loud and confrontational. He was not able to receive feedback and was not able to provide meaningful feedback to others. He was resistant to even hearing about others’ assessments of their own work. During this session, the patient’s mood was agitated and was congruent with his affect. The patient was challenging and distracting to others.”

Getting out of the Army last summer didn’t change much except my health care.

Less than a month ago, on the day after Christmas, I checked into Ward 1A of the Veteran’s Hospital in Fayetteville, Arkansas — the psych ward. The staff called it the “VA Spa,” a place where a bunch of seriously messed up vets check in to chill out. Another patient, a Navy guy, called it the “flight deck” because it’s where vets crashed and then had short take-offs, often to return or transition to another form of treatment.

“1A ain’t spittin’ out winners,” he said.

On the ward, in plastic chairs molded around heavy weights to prevent throwing, sat combat vets from Korea and Vietnam, along with other veterans who had no combat experience, just serious mental conditions. All were clad in sterile hospital scrubs color-coded by size.

Blogging From Hell

I was the only one from Iraq or Afghanistan, but it was a slow time, the doctors assured me. Plus, most of the Vietnam vets hadn’t started to show up at the VA until five or ten years after their combat tours. All of us were on potent cocktails of medications. Pretty much everyone in there had some sort of dual psychiatric diagnosis. PTSD. Drug addiction. Depression. Suicidal thoughts. Homicidal thoughts. Schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder. Delusional. Actively psychotic. Alcoholism. Pretty much anything in the DSM-IV

You could put all those conditions up on a bulletin board, throw a couple of darts and come up with someone’s condition. Darts, of course, weren’t allowed in Ward 1A.

For many on the ward, the war never ended. Many, like me, had been there before. I talked to Teru Kuwayama, who leads Basetrack, and we decided there was value in covering the way the war continues in individuals, long after deployment ends. 

So here I am, blogging from a VA psych ward now that I’ve transitioned to an intensive outpatient program. Kuwayama and I couldn’t have written a script like this, but here it is, and it’s important. If people can ignore a public war in it’s 10th year, they will certainly ignore the private war that continues long after.

At the end of my first day in 1A, a nurse introduced another veteran in-patient, prompting him with standard questions — name, hometown, current place of residence, that sort of thing. The man, a Vietnam Special Forces combat veteran whose father was one of the first 100 Americans killed in Vietnam, answered. 

“Where do I come from? I come from my mother. Where do I live? I live in hell.”