Ask people who know me for a character description and you’d probably hear, “dependable”, “organized” or “diplomatic.” My answer? “Boringly normal.” Yet normalcy feeds my curiosity, allowing me to see the world from a point of view other than mine. Living vicariously on the curb as the world parades by isn’t a bad thing as long as you’re learning. My curiosity is like an odd curse, pushing me to truly understand why people make their choices. I’ve always been a “rest of the story” person. I like closure, even if it isn’t, “And they lived happily ever after”. At least I’ll understand why.
I’m still baffled by war. Although nations have tried to “perfect it” for eons, war still solves nothing. Lots of people die unnecessarily, including innocents who have no say about the argument in progress. What “World leaders” continue to view as a viable option, I see as incredibly stupid. Which is why I was so surprised last week when I stopped to watch a 2006 National Geographic documentary about Green Berets in Afghanistan.
I know. Weird.
All it takes for my curiosity to kick in is the simplest flicker of intrigue. I landed mid-story as a small group of Green Berets rotated between helping local villages and picking off the Taliban. Shaking my head in dismay, I was about to move on when a pair of dark eyes captured my attention. There were so many conflicting emotions parading across them that my curiosity demanded we find out why.
Somewhere between chocolate and black, those eyes were intense. Focused. Bottomless. Conflicted.
If Hollywood needed a “War Hero”, this guy was a Casting Agent’s dream. Ruggedly handsome, with a boy-next-door likeability, his darkly bearded face and shock of unruly hair lent an air of mystery. Expecting a gung-ho, stereotypical bravado, I had to lean forward as this Captain softly spoke. Calmly relating his job as group leader, his face wore a polite, forced smile. Diplomacy on the edge. His by-the-book military explanation was issued confidently, yet his tone bore a hint of weariness much more than physical fatigue. The men walked a thin line in the sand: try to help, but shoot back if necessary. If that wasn’t enough, there were always IEDs waiting to blow you to kingdom come if you stepped wrong.
The story moved on to include others in the group, but the Captain’s gaze stayed behind, nagging at me. Dark. Bottomless. Troubled. Someone’s son. A husband. A father. A total stranger. Oddly, I felt an instant connection, an immense concern for him on a level difficult to explain.
Maybe it’s that being human stuff.
During the documentary, we meet two soldiers who are “Americans by choice.” Naturalized citizens, both were eager to defend their new homeland. One a father of two, the other a newlywed. A single IED killed them both. Worse yet, I had a ringside seat. In my darkened living room, the green glow of night vision cameras suddenly blazed wildly, leaping off the screen to encompass everything in its path. Including me. Then everything went dark.
Like those eyes.
As my heart lodged in my throat, a cacophony of calls sounded in the darkness as the men checked on each other. I almost expected someone to grab my shoulder and question if I was okay. I wasn’t. As my nerves jangled we learn the blast injured several men, including the National Geographic crew. The Director later added, “We never imagined we’d become part of the story.”
I knew exactly how he felt.
Green Berets lived at Firebase Cobra. It sounded so macho. Tough. But watching a soldier kneel, place a hand on the coffin of his buddy and silently cry brought home the true horror of war in a way never before possible.
The lump in my throat reappeared.
“Leaders” want us to believe soldiers are coldly professional, clinically terminating the enemy without losing sleep. The enemy wants us to believe the same men are heartless murderers. The irony was disturbing: a soldier trained as a sniper had become the Medic making house calls in the village. I saw men who are only human being expected to handle on a daily basis what no one should ever be asked.
After the IED incident, the Captain confessed he felt responsible, even though 14 other IEDs had been previously destroyed the same day. He softly admitted although they had to move forward, it wasn’t possible to put it all behind him. “However I can tell you that I’m probably just storing it somewhere for later, so that when we get back, I can just finally let go.”
Intellectually, I understand. Girl Me, however, wondered how you take the worse-day-ever and shove it aside, knowing that one day in the future, when you’re safely home, it might tear you apart? As a film of pain and despair floated across the Captain’s eyes, that lump in my throat returned. The narrator intones there’s no time for grief when the mission must go on. Inside, in a most ungirl-like fashion, I scream, “That sucks!”
Being human ain’t easy.
After the shock and awe, came anger. Mine. What the hell are we still doing in a place where the only tangible goal is kill or be killed? I don’t recall America being sent an invitation to invade and rearrange the sandbox. Two hours later, I was still unsettled by the documentary. As long as there are disagreements, some idiot will suggest war as a solution. The answer to “why?” is not “because”. There are only more whys. And why does it feel as if I care more for these strangers in uniform than the government which employs them?
Closing my eyes to sleep that night, I saw the dark, bottomless eyes of the Captain. Staring into them, I wonder if he made it home okay. I wonder if, after he got home, he was finally able to just let go. I wonder if those eyes that haunted me for days will ever let go of me.