January 16th, 2019
I met a young man named Kyle. Kyle is not an unusual name, especially for the generation that came into the world at the end of the 1980’s. I am referring to the first wave of the millennials. It seems like most of the boys born in that time period were named Kyle or Jacob or Joshua. Our son, Hans, was born in 1987. His name is unusual for his generation, at least in this country. If I had a nickel for every “Hans” I know, well…I guess I would have a nickel. Kyle and Hans would not seem to have much in common, but they do.
I met Kyle last night in the psych ward of the VA hospital. I sat with him after I put out popcorn and fruit for the patients in the ward. As usual, I had come to the VA with a couple other people to hang out with the vets for a while. I’ve been visiting the folks in the psych ward for about two years now, and I have learned a few things. The most important thing I have learned is that these people are just like me, or perhaps I am just like them, depending on your perspective. The fact is that we have very similar histories and very similar struggles. It is not unusual for some of the patients to assume that I am also there for treatment, and maybe I should be.
Kyle and I struck up a conversation quickly. He was sitting at a table with an older vet, who was of my generation or maybe Vietnam vintage. The three of us talked together for the entire duration of my visit. The discussion flowed from one topic to the next, and it felt very natural and easy.
Kyle is an Army vet, just like Hans. Kyle served three combat tours in Iraq and he is still paying the price for those deployments, just like Hans is still paying for the six months he spent in Iraq back in 2011. Kyle is a well-built, good-looking man, but he has an ugly scar on his forehead, apparently from a wound that healed badly. He has has other scars on his body from bullet wounds (he showed them to me). Hans has scars too. The visible scars are from the wounds that healed. The wounds on their souls are still raw and bleeding.
I asked Kyle how long he has been in the ward. I remembered seeing him there a week ago.
He told me, “Yeah, I’ve been here a little over a week. Tomorrow I’m going into the “dom” (domiciliary, i.e. halfway house).”
I asked him, “Are you excited about that?”
“Hell yeah. Tomorrow I get to see my my kids for the first time in five and a half years.”
I paused for a moment. “Five and a half years?”
“Yeah. I’ve been a mess since I came back from Iraq. I didn’t want my kids to see me as an asshole. I wanted them to see me clean.”
I mentioned that my son, Hans, and his fiancee just had a baby boy. I told Kyle that Gabi is a very strong woman and that she understands Hans well. She has actually read the book that I wrote about Hans and the war. I remarked that she doesn’t take any shit at all from her man.
He laughed and said, “She shouldn’t take any shit.” Then he said ruefully, “I wish that I had found a woman that strong.”
He went on, “All the time I was in Iraq or at Fort Hood, my wife was here in Wisconsin. She got her masters degree. She divorced me as soon as I got back from the war. I can laugh about it now, but it hurt. She’s had the kids all this time.”
“What went wrong?’
“Hard drugs. Heroin.”
“That’s some bad shit.”
“I know. I needed to get straight before I was with my my kids.”
Both Hans and Kyle were stationed at Fort Hood. As far as I can tell, they both did the same sort of work. I told Kyle about how Hans went on patrols, and how he spent a lot of time clearing buildings and kicking in doors.
Kyle asked, “What unit was he in?”
I shrugged and said, “I’m not sure. I know that he was Armored Cavalry.”
“Was he a scout?”
I shook my head, “I don’t know. He was trained as a tanker, but they used him as Infantry in Iraq.”
Kyle nodded. “He was probably a scout. He was probably 1st Cav Division. Did he wear the stetson and the spurs?”
“I don’t know about that. All I know is that Hans was Cav.”
Kyle started remembering. “We didn’t do what your son did, you know, with kicking in doors and shit. If we had a HVT (high value target) in a building, we would use the IR (infrared) spotter to mark the place with a figure eight pattern, and then the Apaches (attack helicopters) would see the IR and use their missiles to blow the whole house away.”
I talked about how Hans handles his PTSD. I told them about how Hans rides his Harley to get some peace of mind. I told them that Hans calls us at home once or twice a week, just to talk. Hans talks and I listen.
The older vet asked me, “Do you give him advice?”
I shook my head. “No. I have no ideas for Hans. None. He has to figure out all this shit.”
The old man nodded. “Good.”
We talked about jail. Each of us has been in jail, and somebody I love has spent a lot of time in the slammer. It was a strange bonding moment. We traded stories.
The older man said, “They say that the jails in Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee are the worst.”
I agreed with him. I also said that every county jail was like its own little kingdom.
Kyle nodded. He has had experience. We all have.
It was time to go home. That caught me by surprise. The time had gone by so quickly.
I got up and shook Kyle’s hand. We both held on to each other tightly. I wished him well. He looked me in the eye and wished me well too. I felt close to him.
Kyle walked away. I went over to the older vet. We shook hands. He winced a little as he told me that his hand was broken, and that he had just had the cast removed that day.
“Fuck, I’m sorry. Did I hurt you?”
The old man shook his head, and said,
“No. I’m a Marine.”