It was Super Bowl Sunday at a Dallas Marriott bar with one lonely flat-screen and no Shiner on tap, so there were seats to be had and space in between them. I sat in the back corner alone nursing a heavy handed old fashioned and watching a slow football game.
Sometime during the third quarter, a middle-aged woman checked in at the front desk and shuffled over to a table near the bar, far enough to keep a respectful distance from me but close enough to make conversation if she chose. Sporting overladen luggage and a bob cut, the woman looked out of place among the bar’s scattered business travelers. She ordered a tall gin and tonic, and I could gather from her reaction that the bartender had been as liberal with her Seagram’s as he had with my Maker’s.
She let the quarter, and a second gin and tonic, wind down before she leaned over and asked if I was pulling for anyone in particular. As I turned to tell her I didn’t much care either way, I watched her take note of the obvious military tattoo I had inked on my arm years prior in a fit of motivation and hubris. We talked for a few about football and our families before she finally set in on the question she’d been holding back.
“Military?” she asked.
“In a past life”, I replied.
She was quick to let me know she was a big military supporter. She and her husband were true patriots, she said, and she thanked me for my service.
“You’re welcome”, I said. I told her my time in service was a great experience, honestly, and that I was thankful to have had the opportunity.
She seemed surprised I would say that. “What branch?”
Something about saying Marine Corps seems often to tug at people’s interest. The Corps has marketed itself well as the violent step child of the services, and it tends to raise an eyebrow. I’m never sure if I should be flattered or offended that people are surprised to hear I was part of it. Now she was curious and concerned.
“Did you see, like, for real combat?” she wondered. I turned to look for the bartender, but he had made himself scarce just as the conversation seemed to be turning serious.
I had, I said. Not as much as many others, but more than nothing.
A brief pause followed. “Are you all, you know, messed up? PTSD type stuff?” she asked, gravely. “Did you see terrible things….you know…things you can’t unsee”?
The question may have been jarring if her voice hadn’t carried such genuine concern in the asking. It was the last thing I had expected to hear from a middle-aged and middle-American mom, but strange as it may sound, this is the kind of interaction I want to see more of. She was reaching out, misinformed as she was, and asking an honest question borne from the narrative she’s been fed about vets…that we’re inherently damaged, scarred, and broken. And in being brave enough to ask it, she had opened the door for me to share a different kind of story. To deny her my answer would have perpetuated a stereotype. To take offense would have confirmed the misperception that drove the question. Besides, at 10 to 3, the game was less interesting than this conversation was bound to be. I took a long swig, then dove in.
She asked more questions and I gave more answers. I told her about how strange it was to feel relieved the first time we experienced combat , as if we had undergone some strange version of a Believer’s Baptism, affirming our faith and place in the violent mythology of the Corps. I told her about a Marine getting shot and refusing to be evacuated, returning from surgery to hobble around the outpost for half of a deployment, controlling air strikes from the command center, and grousing about missed patrols. I told her about long bouts with boredom and impatience being interrupted occasionally by intensity, and about the addictiveness of adrenaline. I told her about the partial detonation of one IED that rang a few bells at worst, and about another that was more effective. I told her how hard we worked and how much we risked keeping a dirt road out of Taliban hands, only to cede it to them overnight when we left to consolidate at a larger base.
I told her how my time with guys I would never have met or lived with in any other circumstance renewed my faith in a country that can otherwise feel so divided and broken, no matter what legacy our blood and sweat would leave behind in Helmand Province. I told her how much better I was for having been there, and that I saw the same strength, resolve, and drive pour out of so many men I had served with across my time in the Corps. Finally, I told her that while there are indeed many guys that come home with personal challenges associated with trauma, there are also many others who have used it as a stepping stone, and most importantly, that those ends aren’t mutually exclusive…that damage, growth, and goodness can often come hand in hand, and that I hoped we could shed more light on the latter two without forgetting the questionable strategy that demanded such sacrifice. She waffled visibly between confusion and understanding as I went on, but listened intently all the while. She wanted to hear the story. I wondered how many more like her want the same.
After a long while, we checked the time, paid the loose-pouring bartender, and parted ways cordially, having never even exchanged names. By the time I made it back to my room, more than an hour had passed since the Patriots had sealed a plodding Super Bowl win, carrying on an 18- year dynasty that has run concurrently with 18 years of conflict, the consequences of which threaten to undermine America’s own international dynasty. It’s telling that 6 championships for an NFL franchise may be less stunning than two American strangers having a frank conversation about war. I hope there are many more to come.