(Will's notes: Everything I've written down here pretty much actually happened exactly as described. I've changed a few names and locales in order to protect the identities of my friends and acquaintances.)
1. I met Crystal a couple of years ago while working in a small gym in Mesa. She'd just moved here from Parts North and was looking for a job as a Yoga instructor, and I told her I'd make a few calls. I eventually got her a gig at a different gym and we managed to stay in touch via friends of friends and whatnot. When November 11th rolled around that year she stopped by my gym with her 2 kids and a basket of cookies. She kinda prodded her oldest son forward and said "Go ahead, Kyle."
Kyle whipped out a big piece of bright yellow construction paper and handed it over to me. It was a homemade card; they'd painted an american flag and some other stuff like stick figures and a tank on it. In big, glittery letters across the top it said "Thank you for your service."
"This is for you," he said, and I said thanks and stuff.
To tell the truth, I was confused and a little embarrassed. I'd never mentioned to Crystal that I'd served in the military. When they came in, I thought at first that it was a thank you card for finding her a job. It took a minute to sink in what the whole thing was about. Crystal and I made some small talk for a few minutes while the kids wandered around the gym and then they said goodbye. She did it again the following year, and then the whole family moved again - to California, I think.
2. When I used to practice Sambo with a few guys over at ASU there was another student named Josh that insisted everyone call him "Gunny". The guy was something else - he stood about 5 feet 5 inches tall and maybe weighed about 135 lbs soaking wet with a bunch of fishing lures in his pockets, but he was tough as hell.
We'd do "Round Robin" drills, which meant that one dude would have to get in the center of the mat and grapple each of the other students for a couple of minutes until somebody either submitted or got choked out or something and usually if you were the one in the center of the ring by the time the 3rd guy was up you wished you were dead. But "Gunny" was a gamer, man. That cat would fight like a friggin' demon unleashed for a half hour straight without ever getting tired. After a few weeks of working out together, he and I became pretty close. I found out he'd served right around the same time that I did, and then went back in again after 9/11.
On his 2nd enlistment, he'd been deployed to Iraq for about 4 months and then one morning while on patrol Josh got shot in the head. He was wearing his Kevlar at the time, and the bullet didn't hit him head on or anything. In fact, it struck him just above and behind his left ear and then spun around the back of his head, right underneath the helmet, and passed out just under the right side of his jawline.
After that happened Josh was taken to Battalion Medical, where they stitched him up and told him in a few days he'd be fit to fight again. When he got sent back to his unit everything was cool for a couple of days, and then while on his next patrol he spotted one of those big-ass Dromedary camels and just totally lost his shit. At the time, Josh was carrying a Heckler & Koch MP-5 automatic sub-machine gun. In the space of about 5 seconds, Josh emptied a 30 round clip into the beast. Every single shot struck it in the ribcage, shredding muscle and intestine and splintering bones, and nearly tearing the fucking camel in half.
To this day, Josh couldn't tell you exactly why he shot the goddamn thing, but it didn't matter anyway. Josh was summarily court-martialed for unlawful use of his firearm and received an administrative discharge. When he got back to the States, he was alright for a couple of months, and then he started getting weird.
I remember the 1st time I thought that there may be something seriously wrong with him. We'd skipped going to practice and decided to hang out and drink a few beers. It was Josh and his wife, and me and my girlfriend at the time. We were all at my shitty little 2-bedroom apartment in Tempe playing cards. My youngest daughter was still about a year and a half from being born, and I was still a pretty irresponsible guy (not that I'm some sort paragon of virtue now, but moving on). I don't remember exactly what Josh and I started to argue about, but I remember it escalating way beyond the import of the subject, and fast. So I said something to the effect of "Forget about it, I'll just grab us a couple more beers."
Josh said "Don't worry, I got it." But when he stood up, instead of going to the kitchen he lurched across the table and straight up tried to strangle me. Somehow, we ended up separating, and then he went home. I got a call from him the next morning saying he was sorry and I told him it was alright, but that was the last time I invited him over.
He stopped going to practice not long after that, and then a few weeks later I got a call. This time it was from his wife. Their downstairs neighbors were tweakers, and she thought that Josh was using crystal meth. I asked her what she wanted me to do about it, and she said that I was really his only friend and that I should call him.
I made the call a couple of days later. I wasn't going to, actually, but I guess my conscience got the better of me or something. When I did, first thing Josh asked me was if I was going to turn him over to the cops. I told him I didn't know what the fuck he was talking about, which was true. Then he asked me if I liked golf.
"Never really tried it," I said.
"We live right by a golf course. You should come out with me sometime." Josh said.
Last thing I wanted to do was take up golf, but again I felt kinda bad so I asked him when he'd like to go.
"How about right now?" He asked. It was sometime around 6:30 at night, but what did I know about golf? I told him I'd get there as soon as I could.
Josh lived in an apartment complex about 20 minutes from my house. When I got there it was just a little after 7, and I was pretty sure that the course behind his unit, which was one of those public city numbers, would be open after dark. But again, it's not like I was a fucking authority on the subject.
When I knocked on the door, Josh answered in an ill-fitting camouflage jumpsuit. He'd scrawled "Gunny" in fat block letters above the left breast pocket, and "USMC" above the right. On the sleeves, he'd drawn crude triple chevrons with a pair of crossed rifles at the center above double bars - the Marine Corps symbol for a Gunnery Sergeant.
"Come on in and have a beer," he said.
I did, and if I'm being completely honest right now, it was mostly just not to hurt his feelings. I wasn't in any way qualified to deal with whatever he was going through otherwise, but I figured I could at least hear the guy out. When I went inside, I saw the house was clean, but there wasn't much in the way of furniture. They'd dragged in what appeared to be some of the patio chairs from the pool area. In the living room, there was a TV about the size of a toaster oven and a VCR stacked on a couple of cardboard boxes, and across from them was a pile of folded blankets and a bunch of throw pillows. Josh's wife came out to say hi, and I saw that she was pregnant.
I had a couple of beers with Josh, but when he told me that the plan for the night was to wait for the course to shut down, jump the fence and bust into the pro-shop I told him I was going to have to pass. I split a little bit after that, and it was the last time I ever saw the guy.
He and his wife were planning on moving to New Orleans, I'd heard. Her parents still lived out there, and they wanted to help out with the baby. Josh's job detailing cars at a Mazda dealership had soured, and if they stayed in Arizona they were going to run out of money.
I have no doubt that whatever help Josh has gotten from the VA in the years since is woefully inadequate for dealing with the multitude of demons he brought back from Iraq. I think of him often, especially when I see a homeless veteran, and I pray he's doing better than those guys.
3. I served in the United States Marine Corps from September 9th, 1992 until September 7th, 1996. I was attached to the 2nd Marine Division, and spent the 1st year in Camp Lejeune, NC before being transferred to the Marine Corps Security Force Battalion, which sent me after a time to a Naval Station in Bangor WA, which is where I completed my tour of duty.
I came in a year after Desert Storm and got out several years before 9/11. Only 3 of my friends died while I was in - two were suicides and one died as a result of complications during a training exercise.
When I reflect on the time that I spent in the Corps, I realize how fortunate I am to have been in while I was in. But it also makes me kind of want to step back a moment and skip the parades and fanfare and stuff any time Veterans Day rolls around. Because in a way, all I ever did was play at being a real soldier. I'm okay with admitting that, just as freely as I'll admit that had things gone down a little bit differently, and had I been called upon to actually fight, I would have.
But I wasn't, and I didn't.
The guys who have come in after me; the ones who have seen multiple tours in places like Kabul and Kazakhstan and Tikrit, they're the real heroes. They're also the ones who have suffered the most.
For those of you who, like me, have served without seeing real combat, please don't think I'm minimizing anything anyone else has done. This is just one of those things I meditate on a lot during these kind of holidays, or whenever I see on of those VFW guys or a retired Soldier/Sailor/Marine. There's service and then there's service.
Anyway, to the "Gunny's" of the world, keep your heads up and stay strong. I wish I could wrap this particular post with some sort of wisecrack or pithy summation, but for now I got nothing. Later y'all.