"He's still a good guy" is what Saskia says. "He's just a broken good guy."
She says it as an explanation of why on some days she has hope that he will once again be the man he was before he went to war. It's not as if he caused this. He didn't. It's not as if he doesn't want to get better. He does. On other days, though, it seems more like an epitaph, and not only for Adam. All the soldiers he went to war withthe 30 in his platoon, the 120 in his company, the 800 in his battalioncame home broken in various degrees, even the ones who are fine. "I don't think anyone came back from that deployment without some kind of demons they needed to work out," one of those soldiers who was with Adam says.
"I'm sure I need help," another says, after two years of night sweats and panic attacks.
"Constant nightmares, anger issues, and anytime I go into a public place I have to know what everyone is doing all the time," another of them says.
"Depression. Nightmares of my teeth falling out," another says.
"I get attacked at home," another says. "Like I'm sitting in my house and I get attacked by Iraqis. That's how it works. Weird-ass dreams."
"It has been more than two years, and he's still beating me," the wife of another says. "My hair is falling out. I have a bite scar on my face. Saturday he was screaming at me about how I was a fucking bitch because I didn't have the specific TV he wanted hooked up."
"Other than that, though," the one who might be in the best shape of all says with an embarrassed laugh, after mentioning that his wife tells him he screams every night as he falls asleep. He sounds bewildered by this, as do they all.
"I have to admit a day doesn't go by that I don't think about those days, the boys we lost, and what we did," another says. "But life goes on."
Out of one war into another. Two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Home now, most of them describe themselves as physically and mentally healthy. They move forward. Their war recedes. Some are even stronger for the experience. But then there are the others, for whom the war endures. Of the two million, studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent have come home with post-traumatic stress disorderPTSDa mental health condition triggered by some type of terror, or traumatic brain injuryTBIwhich occurs when a brain is jolted so violently that it collides with the inside of the skull and causes psychological damage. Depression, anxiety, nightmares, memory problems, personality changes, suicidal thoughts: every war has its after-war, and so it is with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have created some five hundred thousand mentally wounded American veterans.
How to grasp the true size of such a number, and all of its implications, especially in a country that paid such scant attention to the wars in the first place? One way would be to imagine the five hundred thousand in total, perhaps as points on a map of America, all suddenly illuminated at once. The sight would be of a country glowing from coast to coast.
And another way would be to imagine them one at a time, starting with the one who is out in the middle of a Kansas night, driving around and around unseen. Toward dawn, he returns home. He doesn't mention to Saskia where he has been, or what he had been thinking, and she doesn't ask. Instead, the shotgun is put away, the baby awakens for his next feeding, their other child, who is six and anxious and has begun wetting her bed, awakens after doing so again, and a breaking family whose center has become Adam's war wounds gets on with another day of trying to recover, followed by another day after that.
* * *
He doesn't believe anything is wrong with him. That's part of it. He stares at himself in a mirror, ignores what his red eyes look like except to see with continuing regret that he still has two of them, does the inventory. Two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two hands, two feet. Nothing missing. Symmetrical as ever. No scarred-over bullet holes. No skin grafts over bomb burns. Not even a smudge in the tattoo covering his right forearm, needled into him between deployments as a display of undying love, which says SASKIA in letters constructed of stick figures in various poses of having sex. He is physically unmarked, so how can he be injured? The answer must be that he isn't. So why was he sent home with a diagnosis of severe PTSD? The answer must be that he's weak. So why was that diagnosis confirmed again and again once he was home? Why does he get angry? Why does he forget things? Why is he jittery? Why can't he stay awake, even after twelve hours of sleep? Why is he still tasting Emory's blood? Because he's weak. Because he's a pussy. Because he's a piece of shit. The thoughts keep coming, no way to stop them now, and yet when he goes into the living room and sees Saskia, he gives no indication of the pandemonium under way.
Copyright © 2013 by David Finkel
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The Angel of Losses
"Family saga, mystery, and myth intersect in Feldman's debut novel." - Booklist
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