In 2007, Laura shuffled through the sterile hallways of a San Antonio burn unit looking for her son, Jon. She’d received a phone call saying Jon had gotten blown up, and at first Laura thought this meant exactly what it sounded like: that Jon was dead. She didn’t know the lingo yet.
So Laura flew from Boston and found Jon in a back room of the unit, mummified in gauze and pigskin. His limbs were separated by some kind of special chair and his face was splinted with a mask. Laura had read about the mask online. Without it, scorched features morph through recovery and take on knotty profiles. It was there to help Jon’s face retain its shape while what remained of it healed. Jon would be burned beyond recognition, Laura thought numbly, but if the splint mask did its job, he would at least look like a human.
She had learned about the pigskin online, too. She reminded herself that it might be corpse skin, not pig skin. In some instances so much of a patient’s body has been burned that not enough skin remains to graft with, and so human skin must be generated in a lab. Meanwhile, wounds are covered with a pig’s or a cadaver’s.
“Wounded Warriors,” Laura said, repeating the phrase to herself over and over. This, too, she had learned during her research: the institutionalized term for people like her son was not “injured veterans.” Downstairs at the desk, she’d called her son a patient, and had been told by a well-intentioned but stern administrator that the service members preferred, “Wounded Warriors.” That was the lingo, and Laura didn’t want to get it wrong.
“Wounded Warriors,” she whispered again. She stared hazily through the window of her son’s room and felt her stomach twist sharply to one side.
It wasn’t him.
“What?” Laura asked.
“I said, that’s not Jon,” the nurse repeated softly.
“This one’s George,” she continued, pulling gingerly on Laura, “and he’s having a bad day so let’s leave him be. Jon’s in his room. Come on.”
Laura allowed herself to be led like a sleepy child, and walked down the hall and through a sterile antechamber to find her son laid out, his face shiny from some kind of ointment. His grafted leg lay open, peeled underneath a heat lamp. It looked like a hamburger, Laura thought—but after seeing the mummy and all that pigskin, Jon’s injuries seemed like nothing. They seemed like a miracle.
“Where the hell have you been?” he asked.
Skin grafts prickle in the sunlight even after healing, making San Antonio, Texas, a painful place for people who have caught on fire. Yet this is the site of Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC), one of the premier burn units in the United States, the Center for the Intrepid (CFI), a cylindrical building next door to BAMC where stabilized patients go to rehabilitate, and the Warrior and Family Support Center.
Prior to the Vietnam War, losing two legs during combat often meant dying in the dirt. During Vietnam, improvements in battlefield medicine led to droves of traumatized amputees returning home. And thanks to further advancements during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, more wounded make it home alive these days than ever before. Rangers on patrol get blown up and yanked apart, but contraptions like the Kevlar vest keep their internal organs intact. Some survivors fly home as torsos, with beating hearts and functioning livers but without limbs or faces to speak of. Now that bodies are surviving such devastating damage, the onus is on places like CFI to tackle questions such as, “How does a brain damaged quadruple amputee with 80-percent burns and state-of-the-art robotic limbs re-learn how to wipe himself?”
In 2013 alone, there were over 42,000 appointments at CFI.
CFI is a good place to get new limbs. The hands in particular look so lifelike that seeing them stacked ceiling-high in the prosthetics lab (a sort of Santa’s workshop for manmade body parts) prompts an instinctive shudder; the calibre of craftsmanship is so high that it’s easy to mistake them for real, disembodied limbs.
Before progressing to CFI, however, burn patients must be stabilized. Fire can ignite anything, even muscle and bone. The shiny, scarred limbs of survivors often appear smaller than they should, because destroyed tissue has been removed to avoid infection. Excision is complete when a doctor’s scalpel touches healthy tissue, which is vibrant in comparison to what must be carved out. Dead tissue is grey and mottled, and cutting into it releases nothing except gooey pus and stench, whereas healthy tissue bleeds. So you dig until it bleeds.
Following excision, surgeons harvest healthy tissue to cover the open wound. For this they take an instrument resembling a cheese slicer and drag it over skin, covering a wide swath (usually the thigh) to produce flat bands of flesh. They put those through a machine that is sort of like a pasta maker, which splices skin into netting. Mesh maximizes coverage, allowing a finite amount of skin to cover a larger area. Staple that netting to the edges of the wound, and stick the grafted body part under a heat lamp to keep it dry.
Wound care follows, which is not as easy as squeezing on Neosporin. Many of these wounds are caused by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which are typically packed with projectiles such as nails, steel pellets, screws, and nuts, or noxious chemicals designed to spread as shrapnel. IEDs are typically used as roadside bombs, and are known as “dirty bombs.” Usually this means the bombs contain biohazardous material. But Dr. Booker King, the director of BAMC, says that the term “dirty bombs” is used among doctors to allude to the fact that these bombs are disgusting. Whether this is because they’re cobbled together with rusty, re-used parts that, when lodged inside a wound, precipitate septicity, or because insurgents are purposely coating the bombs with mysterious pathogenic material, doctors at BAMC can’t (or won’t) say. They do, however, admit that infection during wound care kills many. Whether on the battlefield or at BAMC, burn patients are always at risk for sepsis.
Since IEDs are routinely delivered via human carriers, there have been a small number of suicide bombings to date where human remains shrapnel not only caused grievous injury but also blood-borne illness. In other words, if the individual wearing the explosive device was hepatitis B- or HIV-positive, explosion casualties must be appropriately treated for pathogen exposure. During wound cleaning, doctors not only remove metal fragments and the patient’s own destroyed tissue, but may also dislodge body parts belonging to other humans.
That’s it. Excision, grafting, wound care. Voila: fixed.
Not really. It isn’t easy to put a person back together. You need surgeons, sculptors, scientists, psychologists, and healthy tissue. And still, it doesn’t always work.
In 2009, Laura was a librarian at my college, and she was always happy to see me in the quiet but ecstatic way that mothers who have no daughters get excited about girls. We met because I wandered, my arms loaded down with dusty books about Jane Goodall and animal behaviour and bear attacks, dazed past her reference desk. I’d recently returned to school in the wake of a two-year-long rape trial. My heart still raced like I was in the courtroom, and learning about animals more dangerous than the man I’d sent to prison tended to calm me down.
“Can I help you?” Laura asked.
She steered me toward sections on vicious animals and taught me how to use library research tools. She set aside novels she thought I might like. “For when you get a break from your big animal project,” she said, thinking that my restless investigations were for school. In reality, I managed to get to class around once a month. I couldn’t kick the certainty that every little thing was an emergency. So I hid in the library, where the ethos corroborated my worldview; there, yawning arches and unspoken rules regarding total silence enhanced the occasional slap of sneakers against marble floors to warlike proportions. Every noise felt like an assault.
I figured that I could relate to Wounded Warriors—not just because most of them were my age, but also because in my mind we shared certain symptoms; like them, I too had been blistered and bruised by life.
I was wrong about a lot of things.
Laura and I had disappeared from Harvard around the same time—in her case, to care for and reel over her son; in my case, to take away a man’s freedom—so I didn’t find out about Jon until about a year after he got blown up. I remember I was dawdling in front of Laura’s reference desk, waiting for her to talk to me. I was feeling bad about myself because all of my roommates had cool jobs lined up for the summer. I hadn’t even realized school was ending for the year until people started asking me about my internship plans.
“Did you dye your hair?” Laura asked, sounding quieter than usual.
I fiddled with my ponytail. The truth was I simply hadn’t washed it in a while, so it was a shade darker from grease. Sweating on the stand had made me unaccustomed to lying, but I was getting back into the swing of it for manners’ sake. “Lowlights,” I said.
I brought out a crumpled list I’d scribbled with one of those tiny library pencils. “I need some information on feral hogs,” I mumbled. But Laura didn’t answer. She seemed pale and faraway.
“Are you all right?” I asked. She gave me this look, like, Do you really want to know?
I nodded. “I’m not just being polite,” I said. “You can tell me.”
So she did.
At first I made the same assumption she had; I thought “blown-up” meant “dead.” I didn’t know the lingo yet. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said.
That spring, the number of casualties coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan was still cloaked in a lot of mystery. But based on what Laura told me about BAMC, where Jon had recovered, the burn unit she’d visited had been crowded with wounded, and more casualties flooded in daily. She told me how hot it was in San Antonio—so sweltering that it often felt like another planet entirely, somewhere too close to the sun—and how military culture was different from anything she had ever experienced.
Swept in by her stories, I put aside my studies on dangerous beasts and began researching the history of war wounds. I learned that during World War I, men emerged from the trenches with facial disfigurements so extreme that doctors were left baffled. The sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd volunteered to create lifelike masks that would cover the gaping holes.
I also learned that scars are about 20 percent weaker than healthy skin, making survivors prone to sunburn even in indirect light. Burns destroy sweat glands, ruining the body’s ability to regulate its temperature. When it’s hot out, survivors can feel as if they’re burning (again). A historical San Antonio heat wave once swelled to 111 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if burn victims heal to the point where they can utilize the Zen-like gardens that have been built for them at Fort Sam Houston, where BAMC is located, they will only be comfortable prowling them at night, when the sun won’t hurt.
I started having dreams where I thought I’d woken up, only to look out my fifth story window and see droves of men lumbering past, mid-air, burned and chatting like mothers at the mall.
I visited Laura more often to ask how she was doing.
As my peers set up living arrangements closest to their summer internships, I sat late into the night scanning headlines related to BAMC. I’d printed out application after application for summer jobs in Manhattan, but I couldn’t stay focused past the point of writing down my name—the act of which always reminded me of being on the stand and spelling K-a-t-h-l-e-e-n H-a-l-e for the court reporter. More and more, my synapses only fired in the presence of other people’s problems: roommates crying about breakups, that woman whose face got torn off by a chimpanzee, talking to Laura.
I decided to spend my summer working for Wounded Warriors. I applied for the few remaining fellowships and grants. “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” were buzzwords that year, and I received generous funding. “Nobody really gets what’s going on down there,” I announced to my parents. “These people need my help.”
“We want you to focus on yourself,” my mom implored. But I just scoffed because parents never get it—and, if anything, the fact that I had recently been through my own trials only increased my conviction. I figured that I could relate to Wounded Warriors—not just because most of them were my age, but also because in my mind we shared certain symptoms; like them, I too had been blistered and bruised by life.
I was wrong about a lot of things.
When I told Laura about my plans, she was not as excited as I’d hoped. In fact she seemed anxious. “It’s very strange down there,” she said.
It didn’t occur to me that she might be worried about my safety, or about my ability to handle what I’d invariably see. I assumed that I was merely reminding her of old traumas, and that the idea of my traveling to BAMC prompted memories of Jon on his hospital bed.
So I stopped talking to her about it, and instead used the common sense she’d taught me to track down the right phone numbers. “I just want to help,” I told the BAMC coordinator who answered my call. He explained that the burn unit was full, but patched me through to the Warrior and Family Support Center across the parking lot. The WFSC’s mission was to create a “living room” environment for recovering warriors. They had just set up a DVD rental counter and needed someone who could digitally organize the film library and work a scanner. “Are you good with computers?” they asked.
“Whatever these guys need, I’ll do it!” I said.
I settled on the first place I could find, in a touristy part of San Antonio located near the historic district, and ended up spending most of my fellowship money renting a three-bedroom ranch house owned by a French family. The reduced rate was due to the fact that it came with a corral of animals. The faunae in my care included two boogery-eyed cats named Star and Moustache (pronounced Moo-Stash), a tank of fish, a feral rabbit who lived in an enclosure beneath the trampoline, and a crazed Dalmatian named Columbine. The French family vacationed so much in Provence that they still associated his name with the flower, not the massacre.
The Warrior and Family Support Center had been built to resemble an enormous lodge. There were rocking chairs out front, shaded by American flags. When I arrived, I saw a man with metal legs and burn scars licking up his jaw, standing outside, careful to stay in the shadows.
“Hi!” I said, with loud civility that makes me shudder to remember now. (Flashing oversized smiles at disfigured people reads more as aggressive than kind.)
As I entered the building, a hush fell over the nearby buffet table, which was laden with foil pans of barbecue ribs, and flanked on either side by long queues of burned men. I could feel them staring and forced myself to stare back with my teeth exposed. Some had ears and some didn’t.
Nancy told me to “come up with a good fiancé story,” and suggested that I wear an engagement ring.
“Don’t lead them on,” she admonished me. “A lot of ‘em have traumatic brain injuries and impulse control issues and in general they get easily attached. They think they look the same,” she continued. “You gotta understand that they flirt because they forget.”
“Katherine!” An elderly woman with blue-white hair waved at me from across the room, and hustled over with a swiftness that defied her age. She was wearing a red, white, and blue tracksuit that swished when she walked. She introduced herself: Nancy. “Katherine,” she repeated. This would be my name for the rest of the summer. “Let’s get you situated, dear,” she said.
She led me away from the buffet line to a teenaged boy dressed in camouflage.
“Pedro, teach her the computers.”
So Pedro taught me how to use the scanner and the computer system. Then he wagged a DVD in my face and suggested that we role-play a rental scenario.
“Rambo, please,” he said, performing polite patron. I scanned the DVD case, handed it to him with a smile. He handed it back again, and I checked the DVD in.
“That’s it,” he announced, sounding disappointed. For the moment, there was nothing else to do, so I asked some questions about where he was from (Florida) and how he liked Texas (“Dunno”) and what had brought him to Fort Sam (“I’d show you the injuries, but I’d have to take my pants off”). Then he scribbled his phone number onto a Post-It, he stuck it to my forehead while making a loud kissing sound, and left me to greet the men lining up with gooey barbecue lips.
“Hi,” I said, peeling the Post-It from my face.
The first guy in line asked me to touch his hook, so I did. Then he asked me to touch his cock.
You are not supposed to be repulsed by these men, I reminded myself silently. They are victims. Heroes.
“Touch my cock,” he repeated.
Still grinning like a lunatic, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, where I stared at my face in the mirror, trying to remember how to smile normally. When I returned, Nancy was standing in my place, scanning DVDs, the wall, her arm (accidentally). The guy with the hook was gone, but more men were waiting, and Nancy was flustered.
“Where have you been?” she asked. “The line is out of control.” She was trying and failing to scan another Rambo. “I know this isn’t a paying job, Katherine, but for goodness sake, I don’t know computers.”
I took the DVD from her, apologized, and made small talk with the next guy, who explained that he couldn’t eat red meat anymore because it reminded him too much of his dead friends. “Sometimes when I’m doing laundry I think I feel their skin,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I responded, flashing another stupid smile, which in turn prompted him to ask if I was single. Then I scanned his movie (Rambo: First Blood Part II), waved goodbye without making eye contact, and turned stiffly to the white, middle-aged man waiting for my attention. “For my son,” he said sliding Rambo III across the counter.
“Good choice,” I said.
“Are you single?” he asked.
I kept smiling.
“It’s just not often you see a female around here,” he said.
I would quickly learn that it was never girls, women, or ladies in the military, but always “females.” (Although women in the Marines are called Women Marines, or WMs.) The word felt so biological and removed. Like “females” were rare birds spotted on an expedition.
The old man smiled back at me. I wanted to point out that Nancy stood less than twenty feet from us, and that she, too, was female.
“I’m new,” was my reply.
Those abandoned by wives or girlfriends were the ones who spent the most time at the Warrior and Family Support Center, asking me which Rambos we had in stock. Or playing single shooter video games alone in the pitch dark. Or asking me when I would get off work and then waiting for me by my van in the parking lot even after I told them not to. The worse their wounds, the more predatory their sexual posturing felt. I wanted to feel sorry for them; I’d come to feel sorry for them. But I was starting to realize that thinking I would like all these soldiers was a particularly noxious brand of naiveté. It would have been a nice story to tell back at Harvard, surely—how, like a more attractive Eleanor Roosevelt, I had befriended rough-hewn heroes and glimpsed their inner beauty despite our outward differences. In reality, I did not like or even understand most of these men. They frightened me.
When I shared this with Nancy, she told me to “come up with a good fiancé story,” and suggested that I wear an engagement ring.
“Don’t lead them on,” she admonished me. “A lot of ‘em have traumatic brain injuries and impulse control issues and in general they get easily attached. They think they look the same,” she continued. “You gotta understand that they flirt because they forget.”
She flapped her hands around, unsatisfied with that particular explanation. “Or … you know, they wanna forget, so they flirt. They’re boys. Boys will be boys. Always got something to prove.”
“But what about the ones without TBI?” I asked. “No offense, but usually the brain damaged ones aren’t the ones bothering me.”
“They’ve all been through a lot,” Nancy said.
“Like they’ve got PTSD?”
“We don’t use that word around here.”
The next day Nancy came into work wearing a black plastic boot with Velcro straps. As we closed up she explained that her husband collected fossils and she’d broken her foot on one.
“I used to think I wouldn’t mind growing old,” she said, “but I don’t like bones breaking. You start to die.”
We tag-teamed turning off all the lights, and Nancy said she’d walk me to my car, which seemed like a hassle, given her foot, but I let her anyway. Occasionally there’d be a burned man waiting in the parking lot at sunset who wanted to say goodnight to me. No matter how sorry I felt for them, I kept a stun gun in my purse and was afraid I would use it if one of them ever tried to touch me.
“Wait,” Nancy said, touching my arm. I looked down at her boot, thinking she was hurting, but her eyes were peeled on the horizon. The clouds were orange and black against grey sky. Sunset in Texas looks like Halloween. “This is when they come out,” she said, squeezing my arm. “Just watch.”
I thought she meant the men until a creature flapped above our heads, landing in the shadows of a skeleton tree.
“Bats,” Nancy said. “You can tell them apart from the birds because they’re frantic and alone.”
A few days later, Nancy had a doctor’s appointment and I walked to my car by myself.
When I got there, three warriors were waiting. I recognized one of them: earlier that day he had bragged about once hosing down some females at the air base. The women were cleaning the planes, he said, when he and his friends ambushed them with hoses. (“They were old-ish. I dunno, 30s, 50s. But they had, you know,” he gripped the air in front of his chest, indicating nice tits. “It was cold, so we were all like, ‘Wet t-shirt contest!’”) They were standing between me and my van and my mind flipped straight to gang rape. So I reached for my stun gun and accidentally electrocuted myself—flipping onto my back, yelping. I blinked at the night sky as one by one their faces popped into view. I was staring up at the men I’d intended to disable.
What had first seemed like a pack of wolves quickly transformed into a unit fit for battlefield trauma. They treated me like a wounded buddy, lifting me up, brushing me off, checking my vitals. When I finally started up the van’s engine, they stepped back, looking proud. “We’ll keep an eye on your plates ‘til you get to the check point,” one shouted, as if I’d ever feared anything but them. It turns out injured veterans can be the worst suitors in the whole world but also the best people to have on your side in an emergency.
After that, I told Nancy she didn’t have to walk me anymore. And I tried to be more open-minded the next time I found a wounded warrior waiting for me by my car. He was tall and muscled with burn scars dripping from his forearms to his fingertips. My own hand dipped into my bag, grazing the stun gun. He was blocking the driver’s side.
“Please let me in,” I said. He didn’t answer, so I edged past him, keeping my purse between us, and unlocked the door, slipping through. Before I could tug it shut, he leaned in, reaching for my lap. I froze.
“There we go,” he said, pulling the seat belt across me without touching my body. “One of the guys said you drive off a lot not wearing it.”
He ducked back through the door, shut it gently, and sauntered off into the darkness.
Later that week, I received a Facebook message from Laura asking how things were going. She urged me to get in touch with Jon. “He can show you around,” she wrote.
Instead of answering, I made myself a baked potato and flicked through basic cable channels. Across the room, Columbine chased a flying cockroach. In other places, cockroaches connote filth, but in Texas I had learned they were common regardless of cleanliness. They had wings, too. When you approached them with a swatter, they flew into your face, clacking all their little parts.
While another cockroach scuttled up the wall, and another crab-walked across the ceiling like that girl from The Exorcist, I pulled my computer onto my lap and watched, besotted and grateful, as Columbine lunged mid-air and caught one with a satisfying crunch. I decided then that I loved Columbine in spite of his weird smell.
And I think that’s when I realized I needed real, human friends. It was scorching hot outside and I was lonely as hell. So I opened my computer and I messaged Jon.
Jon and I met for the first time at a packed bar near the Alamo, where we sucked down half-priced margaritas. He wore a Nike tee shirt that said “Crushing You Will Be a Pleasure.” He had tattoos on his biceps—a series of black initials etched into his skin that made me feel self-conscious about the temporary tattoos I’d slicked onto my forearms the previous night out of boredom. He made me smile. He seemed kind. I found him whip smart and funny—self-aware and apparently steady in a way that put him in stark contrast with the men at the Warrior and Family Support Center. In general, Jon was vague about the war, but I knew from Laura that he’d landed at BAMC after driving over an IED while on patrol in the Korengal Valley.
“People must ask about that a lot,” I said, thinking I was being very sneaky. But Jon was onto me.
“Well, usually when people ask, it’s about the initials on my arm, and I want to tell them to go fuck themselves,” he said, grinning. “Another round?”
I waved at the waitress.
The next morning, Jon texted me and we got breakfast. And then he texted me again a few days later, and we got lunch. He seemed to hang out all the time—which was fine with me because I was lonesome, and because he seemed secure and normal and fundamentally grumpy in a way that I usually associate with elderly men. Over the next week or so, we saw each other almost every day.
Every Wounded Warrior I met hated the word PTSD.
Jon in particular had mixed feelings about the term. Like Nancy, he seemed to equate it with traumatic brain injury. One day after picking me up in his truck (we were en route to another “drinks and guacamole” deal) I asked how his friends felt about PTSD. He rolled his eyes and spoke of a guy he knew named Aaron, who was currently in counselling and took Ambien to fall asleep at night. He told me that counsellors at Fort Sam give out PTSD workbooks—“The same fucking exercises they give to rape victims.” His quarrel apparently lay with the idea that victims of rape are women. “I respect the hell out of Aaron,” Jon said one day as we were speeding down the highway, “but he’s been talking about his feelings like a girl ever since the diagnosis.” As the speedometer hit 83, he roared. It took me a second to realize his outburst indicated pleasure at a song that had come on the radio.
“Butt, butt, butt fuck her face, butt, butt fuck her face,” Jon sang, changing the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” It could have been a Weird Al song if it weren’t so dirty.
Sometimes, on my way to work, I’d drive through the Fort Sam checkpoint blasting “Weekend Wars” by MGMT. I’d since looked up the lyrics (“It might take a hundred years to grow an arm”), but preferred to sing that part the way I’d heard it (“It might take a hundred years to grow at all”).
Jon and I veered off the highway and swerved into the sundrenched parking lot of a local dive bar. It was four o’clock on a weekday, but the bar was crowded. We got our guacamole and our margaritas, shouting at each other to be heard over the classic rock. After a few drinks, a pan clattered in the kitchen. Jon shot out of his seat like a rocket, knocking over his chair and spilling margarita everywhere.
“I’m a klutz,” he grumbled. But the waitress swooped in and cleared the away detritus before his face could register much embarrassment. She placed two fresh margaritas on the table with an unruffled flourish that made me think she saw a lot of big, tattooed guys squawking over dropped trays.
“Your mom said you were in the Korengal,” I said finally.
“What was training like?”
“Oh, you know.” Jon took a deep breath. “People think they break you down, but really they build you up. Training, it’s getting strong. But the other part is just learning to be scary. To put our fear in other people. Busting down doors and yelling.”
“And then came Korengal,” I pressed on, with idiotic certainty. “That must have been hard.”
“Maybe for some guys.”
One night, Jon and I were rear-ended while merging off the highway. Neither car was damaged, but I called the cops anyway because I thought that’s what you do. As we sat on the gas station curb waiting for the routine police thing to happen, I kept saying Jon’s name and he kept saying nothing, occasionally rising to stumble inside and buy more cigarettes. “Jon, what’s up?” I kept asking. Finally, he told me to shut up.
The cops came, asked why we had ever called, and left. I waved goodbye to the Spanish-speaking family that had hit us. Jon said something to me about owning the Arrested Development box set. I was surprised he wanted to hang out, given how cranky he seemed, but at that point anything was better than being alone. So we went back to his place, ordered TexMex, and sank into his couch to watch about five episodes.
“I love when she says the thing about bananas,” I said, clapping my hands, because there was Lucille.
Then I cackled because she said it.
Jon smiled. “You’re weird.”
In combat, losing your dick is a completely reasonable fear. The first thing Jon recalled asking his medic after getting blown up was, “How’s my junk, man, how’s my junk?”
I’m not sure how, but we transitioned from Jon’s fugue state to laughing so hard in between bites of takeout that his enormous brown lab Corbin howled from his crate.
“Can we let him out?” I asked.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Jon said, rising to unleash the beast—which is how I learned that Corbin was not only huge for a puppy, but also sexually mature, totally un-neutered, and (at least in my presence) prone to violent bouts of humping.
“Gross,” I said, trying to get him off me. But we were the same size. “Why the hell does he still have testicles, Jon? —Why wouldn’t you neuter him? —Don’t you see the ASPCA commercials—Jesus! … Corbin, this is not consensual.”
“Neuter him—what, cut off his balls?” Jon asked. Like most men I met that summer, Jon was passionate about dicks to the point of flinching violently, even vicariously, when one was threatened.
He pretended to barf and shook his head.
Unlike some of his less fortunate buddies, Jon’s burns were limited to his shoulder, his calf, and a graft site on his thigh—a fact that he hammered home for me often, in case I was ever wondering about the existence of his penis.
In combat, losing your dick is a completely reasonable fear. The first thing Jon recalled asking his medic after getting blown up was, “How’s my junk, man, how’s my junk?” Genital wounds are common with IED injuries. And although troops on patrol are given body armour that shields the torso, with a triangular patch that covers the genitals (sort of like a long bib), that patch just hangs there, and might not be covering everything when a service member is thrown into the air with a bunch of rocketing shrapnel.
Another more complicated contributing factor to genital injuries, however, is that some service members choose not to wear body armour at all. For one thing, when you’re deployed in a region where temperatures can skyrocket to 135 degrees, body armour becomes incredibly uncomfortable. But beyond issues of physical discomfort, the disinclination to wear Kevlar becomes hugely psychological. For starters, training not only entails an intensive physical regimen, but also a certain amount of mental reprogramming; ideally those who have been properly prepared to enter combat feel invincible. Service members also report feeling a huge responsibility to their fellow fighters—so much so that they might feel less concerned with protecting their own lives than the lives of their buddies. After seeing friends die, one can begin to think of death as random—that is, not something one can guard against, even with body armour.
Eventually, Corbin grew tired of trying to mate with me. But just in case, I built a fort around myself with couch cushions, and proceeded to watch a few more episodes with Jon.
When I woke up, my white athletic socks were wadded in a damp ball near my head, and a note was taped to my back. “You kicked your fucking socks off in my face. I went to walk Corbin. My friend Aaron wants to hang out so try to be normal for once. We’re going to the Snake Farm & PS: Wash your feet.”
“You know what the problem is?” Aaron asked as the three of us waltzed across the sun-drenched gravel to The Snake Farm’s ticket booth. “A lot of the times when people think about PTSD, they think about somebody crying with a shovel in the rain, diggin’ a hole.” He smiled. “Like, do you get that visual? Diggin’ a hole in the mud with the rain?”
Jon punched him in the arm. “Dude, shut up about your emotions,” he said, sliding on his sunglasses. “You’re starting to sound like Hale.” He walked off to snap cell phone pictures of the Snake Farm sign.
“Like Shawshank Redemption,” I said, once Jon was far enough away.
“What?” Aaron asked.
“The hole in the rain thing you mentioned,” I said. “The PTSD analogy you talked about.”
“Oooh, analogy—Miss Harvard with her big words.” Aaron threw an arm around my neck, giving me a noogie.
“Tickets are on you, right?” He laughed, dragging me toward the ticket counter. It seemed fair that I pay, since I still had money from Harvard, whereas Aaron had made whatever money he had sustaining injuries I couldn’t see. But when I tried to buy the tickets, he got mad, insisting that it’d been a joke, and in the end he paid for both of us.
Inside, Komodo dragons were placed in cages with turtles. There were pits and pits of snakes, slithering over each other underneath a Plexiglas floor, and you could toss money on top of them as some sort of wish thing. I wondered whose job it was to wade into the snake pit to get the quarters.
That night Aaron went home to take his Ambien, and Jon and I went back to my place. As he pushed in the Arrested Development DVD he’d brought, a cockroach flew by my ear and I screamed.
“Jesus fuck, Hale,” he said.
Jon was prone to quick bursts of temper, but in general nothing made him angrier than my screaming at the cockroaches. He’d seen actual people die. He’d been shot at. He jumped out of helicopters with parachutes. And here I was yelling at the French family’s weird dog to “Eat the bug! Save me!” It must have been infuriating.
“When’re you gonna get a real job?” he asked, stretching out on my couch. Per usual, he was taking up the whole thing and I was perched in the corner, sitting upright. I lifted his heels, scooted over, and plopped them on my lap. “What’s your five year plan, Hale?”
This wasn’t the first time he’d asked me this. He had made it clear that he didn’t approve of my volunteer position at the WFSC—not just because he thought the guys who hung out there were “depressing” but also because he thought I was wasting my life.
“Why are you even here?” he pressed on. “You could be working at a bank or something useful. A law firm. Instead you’re the DVD girl.”
“I just want to help people,” I mumbled, staring at Jon’s scar. He was wearing shorts, and the healed burns on his calf were bluish white, pockmarked from the skin graft.
“You wanna touch it again, don’t you, sicko?” he said, turning up the volume on Arrested Development. “Knock yourself out, dude.”
I covered the one I could see with my palm, stretching my fingers to camouflage the whole thing, like I could make it disappear.
“Remember when you asked about the war,” he said, emphasizing the last two words in a high-pitched voice. Mine, I guess.
He turned to me.
“But, uh,” he said, his tone gentler. “You can ask me about it. Like if you’ve got a real question.”
I squeezed his foot. His heel was black from the trampoline and warm against my thigh.
“Let me guess,” he said, making a weird face—his next best impression of me. “‘What is war like?’”
His expression darkened.
“War is like being in a championship game times a million,” he said gruffly. “Every piece of you is awake. And you’ll see things both good and bad that are the most amazing things in the world. My buddy got sent home with a purple heart for burning human shit. We didn’t have running water so that’s how we got rid of it: fire. In Iraq, they have air-conditioned trailers. Talk about luxury.” He yanked his feet from my hands.
I startled. “You can stop if you want.” His eyes looked far away. Beads of sweat were forming on his forehead. I wanted him to stop.
“The protocol for patrol was ‘keep your windows closed and your seat belts on.’ But my unit didn’t accept that as a safety measure because it meant we’d be more likely to be trapped in the vehicle while it burned.” He blinked a couple times, as if mentally fast-forwarding through the gory stuff. “I got thrown. I landed in trees.”
“Like in the branches?” I asked quietly.
He looked at me like I’d just pissed myself. “You run by buddies who you know will die, but they’re still talking.”
He told me that before he was thrown, before he got blown up, he sat there in the valley, trapped inside his vehicle. He said it took him a second to realize that the spark of grey and orange in his peripheral vision meant he was engulfed in flames.
I thought back to when we’d gotten rear-ended on the off-ramp, and how Jon fled the car as if it were on fire.
“Were you scared?” I asked. For some reason I expected him to say that fear wears off—that the strange thing is how familiar and normal violence starts to feel
“I was never not fucking scared,” he said. “Life’s not a joke, you know?”
For the rest of the summer, days bled into one another on a loop. I watched TV with Jon, got sunburnt with Jon, drank with Jon on the trampoline; we drove fast to The Snake Farm and back, took selfies in front of the slithering pits; I rented Rambo to the wounded, and romantic comedies to their wives. I laughed at Corbin’s farts, fell asleep on Jon’s couch. I woke to notes from Jon.
Throughout it all, I was very touchy, often because I was too full of margaritas to speak and simply couldn’t find the words. I hugged Jon a lot, trying to cheer him from the same guardedness that drew me to him. I followed him around—to his haircuts, his oil changes, or to watch from a medicine ball as he dead lifted hundreds of pounds.
“Hale,” he said one day, drenched in sweat at Crossfit, “grab a five pounder—I’ll have you looking like Conan the Barbarian with a wig on in no time.”
After long afternoons spent with sexually frustrated burn victims, Jon’s fraternal razzing felt like a gift. His tone pegged me somewhere between a boy and a barbell. Our feet were always black from the trampoline.
But some nights, the room swam before me from the booze, and although I was in love with a boy in New York and Jon had a fiancée waiting for him to finish treatment in New Hampshire, he would slide his feet onto my lap while we watched Arrested Development, and I would trace my fingers over the shiny dappled scars on his legs.
In late July, my best friend McKetta visited. We met Jon at The Snake Farm and went back to my place to drink champagne in our bathing suits and play with all the weird animals. We ran through the sprinkler, and napped on the trampoline.
“It’s like you guys are afraid that if you stopped insulting each other for one second, you might kiss,” McKetta whispered during one of Jon’s trips to the bathroom.
“Blegh,” I said.
After sobering up, Jon tagged along while she and I did what we considered typical best friend stuff—hitting up roadside flea markets and laughing and loudly reinforcing one another’s life choices. I got her a five-dollar nightgown that said, “I love unicorns” and a contact lens case covered with googly-eyed ladybugs. She didn’t wear contacts but I thought it was funny.
Jon hated the presents. I had never seen him so angry.
“Do you guys just call each other up and say, ‘Let’s get together and make light of certain things’?” he asked, doing his girl impression.
“Is he okay?” McKetta mumbled. She was drunk again by that point, gently bobbing up and down on the trampoline as I bounced beside her, and after a few moments of Jon’s stony silence, she grew tired of the situation, curled into a tiny ball with all of her presents, and passed out.
“Angelic little potato bug,” I said, patting her butt fondly. Then I turned and chided Jon for being weird in front of her.
“You guys are so fucking annoying,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “You’re just fucking kids.”
“I’m one year younger than you,” I reminded him. “And McKetta is actually literally your age.”
“I fought in a war, went to college, and I bought myself a car,” he yelled.
“Cool, you win I guess.”
We kept drinking.
“What is with you?” I snapped, unable to handle the quiet any longer. “All of this because I got McKetta a gag gift? C’mon.”
I tried to punch him softly in the arm, but he flicked my hand away before I’d even touched him.
We stared at each other for a few beats.
“Okay, here’s what’s going to happen,” I said. “I’m going to leave you alone, because it seems like that’s what you want, but at some point you’ll drop this humourless stoicism thing and you’ll find someway to laugh about your troubles.”
His jaw tightened. “My troubles?”
I rolled my eyes. “I meant, like, your trauma or whatever. The fact that everybody hates the war except for you.”
“How about here’s what’s going to happen”—he swung his legs off the trampoline—“I’m out of here.”
“So … I’ll just wait for you to call me then?” I shouted as he marched across the backyard, straight through the spray of the sprinkler. He didn’t call for the rest of the summer. When I texted him to say they were throwing me a going away party at work, he didn’t respond.
At my party, Nancy gave me a snow globe of San Antonio that shook with sand instead of snow, and the marine who’d buckled my seatbelt presented me with a collector’s coin bestowed to US medics for their service. I went back to the house, kissed Columbine on the head, and drove twenty hours back to school, feeling flustered and unsettled. I had spent most of the summer trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with the Wounded Warriors who rented Rambo, but it wasn’t until I’d stood there holding the unearned medics coin, hating myself, that I realized what was wrong with me. Civilians are cowards who feel entitled to opinions about wars they’ve never seen.
That fall, Laura found me on my haunches between two bookshelves. I was acquiring sources for a research paper on the architecture of early American homes. I had started going to class again.
“I wrote you a bunch of messages,” Laura said softly, sounding tentative.
I couldn’t look at her. What could I say to her? “Your son and I spent every day together, but I’m not even sure we were friends”?
“How was Texas?” she asked.
I thought for a second.
“Hot,” I said finally.
I made light of things.
Five years later, I’m back in San Antonio. Since I left, a hodgepodge of writing credentials have finally granted me access to both BAMC and CFI. Until now, I’ve only seen the outside of these buildings.
Many of the men and women I will meet are outfitted with robotic limbs—the most advanced being the i-limb, an arm that can be programmed with an iPhone and includes a greeting function. From an able-bodied point of view, shaking hands with the i-limb involves compression not unlike that of a blood pressure cuff—a grip that connotes confidence, in other words, without hurting the recipient or scarily evoking The Terminator. Clasping produces the sound of an electric toy car whirring across pavement.
“The inclination is not to touch,” a nurse tells me. “When they first come in, often they’re so bloody, and families don’t know what to do. So I find the healthy part and I say to the family, ‘Touch him, touch him right here.’”
Technically I’m back to learn about the inner workings of CFI and BAMC. But returning to San Antonio mostly brings up memories of Jon. Despite not talking for half a decade, he and I remain Facebook friends, and I’ve kept up with his statuses, which I “like.” He lives in New Hampshire now. He opened up his own Crossfit gym. He owns three dogs and recently got married. I want to reach out while I’m back in town, but instead I get in touch with Aaron.
I’m sitting in a booth at a restaurant called The Lion and The Rose when Aaron slides in across from me wearing an oxford shirt and khakis. We order beer and creamed corn, and Aaron tells me about his PTSD, and how it got worse after Jon and his other friends rehabbed fully and moved away, leaving him alone at places like The Lion & Rose.
He says that after that he dropped out of school so that he could spend more time in counselling. Now he works in a stock room, and doesn’t really like it.
“How is Jon, by the way?” he asks after a pause. “Have you seen his new gym?” He shakes his head, smiling. “He’s so fucking successful, man—I can’t believe that dude opened a gym. I mean, I can, but … damn.”
“I actually haven’t talked to him for a while.”
“It’s dumb I guess.” I pick a piece of corn from my teeth. “We had a falling out.”
“Did you guys date or something?”
I shrug. The waitress brings us another round.
“Do you miss him?” I ask.
“A girl misses people,” he says.
Later, perched on the pullout couch of a friend of a friend, I open my laptop and finally write to Jon. Admittedly, I would like to think that my rape trial and everything preceding it does not represent some aggregate explanation of who I am. But I also spent a whole summer trying to escape into other people’s pain—complaining to Jon for three months straight about men who, if given full opportunity, could not physically harm me due to some combination of amputations and genital injury. It only seems fair that he should know about the maybe-whys of such delusion, if he wants to, given that I was allowed an intimate, unreciprocated window into all of his weird stuff. Like why he jumped when pans hit the floor. Even if our traumas aren’t explanations, they can fester. You can’t excise unless the wound is open.
So I tell him “Hi!” and I tell him I’m happy for him, because I am, and I also include a link to an article I wrote about the rape trials, the ones that led, in a roundabout way, to our meeting. “I’m sorry for making it all about you,” I conclude, signing off.
John writes back the next day saying I should call him sometime, so I find his number on his Facebook profile page and save it to my phone. That afternoon at BAMC, I walk to the Zen garden during my lunch break and sweat a while on a concrete bench before scrolling through my contacts and pressing Talk.
“Jon?” I say when he answers. “Hey.”
“It’s been a minute,” he adds, referring to the last five years.
He tells me that he read my piece, and that he’s sorry. He tells me he’s seeing a counsellor now for PTSD. “It gets to a point where you’re having a cigarette and talking to your dead friends and you think, ‘Ok. Maybe this is real,’” he says.
I tell him that I’m sorry for being an asshole that summer, and he says that we were both assholes and it’s not my fault. We were just two traumatized guys, he says, clinging to each other in open water, trying not to drown. We did the right thing pushing each other away at the same time.
When I relay how impressed Aaron was about the new gym, Jon says, “I can make people think I’m a pretty well-adjusted guy for, well, long enough, I guess. But you hang around me and you’re going see like, something’s kinda off.”
“I hate explaining it,” he adds. “It’s gonna sound bad, but it’s so laborious. ‘Oh, well, I was in the war.’”
I agree that it’s a long story.