It’s been a rough month. But I think I’m ready to come out of hiding. Reasons for hunkering down are largely beside the point.

And now, a scene.

Platinum Gym: a family-owned sweat palace populated largely by what appear to be bodybuilders of the former Soviet republics. Our heroine is doing pull-ups, wiggling excitedly between sets to an infectious pop number. She is marveling at a lissome lifter when she realizes that he is no longer kicking his leg to his forehead; he is staring at the pull-up bar, then at her, then at the pull-up bar, then furrowing his brow, and then fixing his gaze, again, on her.

Gym dude:

Hey, girl. I, uh, I wanted to say …

She smiles nervously, as is her wont. Just see what happens: It can’t be as bad as the time another regular mumbled through a discourse on the evils of Google Toolbar before asking her for a drink.

GD:

… you’re beautiful. But it’s not just, you’re not just beautiful. It’s that you work at it. You’re here, what—

TJ:

Oh, yeah, I come five or six days a week, blow off some steam.

GD:

Yeah! Blow off some steam! I’m K—-, and you’re?

TJ:

TJ, good to meet you K—-. And thanks, I, um, appreciate it?

He smiles and starts mumbling something again, and she knows that she should be annoyed, that he’s penetrating the little bubble of herself and the time she’s created when she never has to think about her husband or cleaning or making dinner or those damn cats, those fucking cats. But it’s not always about hormones and gonads and the ceaseless beating of flesh on flesh; sometimes it’s just nice, right when you feel farthest from the world and everything you wanted, to be reminded that there are others going through the motions, making the effort, trying to connect when it’s easy enough to make it through the day with no more contact than a rapid-fire coffee order or an exhausted “Excuse me!” yelped in the crush for the rush-hour train. Only connect, only connect.

Advertisements

 vet.jpg

(Photo from NYT, courtesy the man’s family)

The New York Times began a new series today, “War Torn,” that focuses on crimes and wartime experiences of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings (or been charged with them) after coming home. The first piece, “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles,” is a heart-breaking, provocative, and essential piece of reportage. The paper also offers multimedia case studies, a slide show, an audio interview with a psychiatrist, and an excerpt from a related book.

 “Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories [of violence committed by veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan]. Lakewood, Wash.: ‘Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.’ Pierre, S.D.: ‘Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.’ Colorado Springs: ‘Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.’

Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.

The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killingi n this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.”

This story hits home for me, having two brothers that have spent time fighting in both countries. I don’t see either very often, and when I do, the subject is off-limits. Occasionally, something about their time there will slip out — one Christmas, right after Saddam had been captured by the U.S. (“like a rat!”), one of my brothers kept mentioning how he swore he saw Hussein driving a taxi around Baghdad, and how he should have just shot him in the fuckin’ head right there, while he had a chance, how he always regretted not shooting the driver in the fuckin’ head. Another time, when someone asked if he had killed anyone, my brother got quiet, then noted that people there got killed all the time, but that the military was very respectful, that he had helped bury dead combatants in mass graves as soon as possible out of respect for Islamic mores and customs.

It’s hard to hear these stories, and even harder to figure out how to process them (imagine how hard it must be for my brothers themselves). As I’ve begun writing this, I’ve gotten…increasingly agitated, simply because I don’t know how to make sense of it all, or how to work my concern for my brothers (and people I went to high school with, and other acquaintances) into everyday life. But as I continue to ponder the subject, looking forward to the next story in the series, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Brockton D. Hunter, a criminal defense lawyer:

“To deny the frequent connection between combat trauma and subsequent criminal behavior is to deny one of the direct societal costs of war and to discard another generation of troubled heroes.”

It’s difficult to make sense of stories in which there may be no winners, only losers, only gaping holes where pieces of ourselves used to be. But it’s important to review them and cast a critical eye on them — and I applaud the Times for highlighting this important issue.