The Thousand-Yard Stare

“Another friend committed suicide after coming home from Iraq. I spoke at his funeral today.”

The voice on the phone is that of a friend. This friend is a soldier. First an infantryman, then a noncommissioned officer, he's completed three “tours.” The Pentagon sure knows how to sell wars, doesn't it? “Tours” are visits to Disneyland-type attractions, not the grinding work of surviving day after day of combat in a harsh and hostile land.

Still dutiful in friendship here as he was in combat there, he is explaining why he has not returned my phone calls. No need to explain, though, why he hadn't called. One sentence said it all. It told more about Memorial Day than any array of flags, trumpeting songs or red, white and blue picnic napkins ever could. “Write this story down,” I suggest to him. Maybe he could explain to us why so many of the leaders who sent him and countless others into battle went missing when the bugle mustered them to action.

So, he did. Here is some of what he wrote.

In a work he titled, “Red Holes and Black Holes and No 'Holy Wars' In Sight,” he wrote of the countless days he spent in a dark memorial.

“I have had my reflexes tested as to what my senses can handle. Then I let go rejecting all activity. Then I could take the ability to go numb up another notch. That's when a dead body became just that. Then, a badly burned dead body captured my attention. Then, the body of a mutilated child, after that, random body parts caught my eye only while trying to figure out what happened to the rest of the body.”

As you read on, you see his tolerance for emotional extremes getting higher and higher with each new trauma. And, more than anything, he laments sinking deeper into an incessant, unrelenting survivor's guilt. Instead of a growing pride in his ability to survive, he drowns in guilt because he lives on while his friends die off – many by suicide after they returned home.

“Upon returning to the States … I made sure to have something that was a constant reminder of what they had done. “

That something is a memorial bracelet he wears on his wrist to discreetly remind himself of them and of what they went through. But sometimes that is not enough to stem the tide. The guilt deteriorates his body and mind.

“How do you move on with your life when you feel compelled to dedicate it to the memory and service of those who made it possible for your life to continue? If those of us who survived manage to come to terms with the loss, are we disrespecting the personal sacrifice of those who did not come home?”

He asks himself this poignant question: “Where's the middle ground between the haunting and the happiness? There are RED HOLES in our hearts … we try to plug them, but fear they will never heal.”

Now he gets to the heart of the matter: the latest suicide of yet another friend.

“He lost the majority of guys in his squad during the deployment, including being shot and having to return to the US for his own treatment. He dedicated his life to helping others, became a humanitarian and yet was never able to get past the loss. These bleeding red holes will always hemorrhage love and pain and leave those of us trying to survive in a constant state of enduring.”

“Are those efforts, sacrifices and gifts given by those fallen soldiers just gifts that fall into new, blacker holes?”

Through these words, my friend is bleeding out emotionally, and there are not enough drugs on the planet to make him feel better.

The final statement of his letter reads: “To get well, one must become unwell.”

But how can he and thousands of other soldiers ever get well? How will we ever stem the tide of war if, here at home, we insist on waving flags and celebrating war with saccharine-sweet, jubilant, pom-pom waving militarism? Instead of donning a red, white and blue baseball hat on Memorial Day, look long and hard into the eyes of those returning home. There is no color there, and certainly no celebration. Not really. The true cost of war is reflected back at us all by those forced to see the world with that thousand-yard stare.