“I was a patriot and it fucked me up. I’m a fucking mess.”
I met Jim this evening, at the light rail station a stone’s throw from my apartment complex. He sat on the sidewalk, the stub of a cigarette dangling from his fingers. His face was red; a bottle of alcohol poked out from a black grocery bag beside him. We talked for a good long while, fragments of his story coming out in fits and spurts.
After college, he joined the marines, where he spent the next twenty years, including two tours to Kandahar, Afghanistan. He killed people and watched as his pals, Adam and Ron, were shot and killed.
“I’m okay,” he reassured me early in our conversation. “I’m okay. I’m not a bum and I have money. But sometimes its just gets so overwhelming. They say that I might have that PTS, but I’m not crazy. I just miss my pals. Why did they die and I didn’t?”
It’s one thing to read about veterans who ask this question. It’s another to have a veteran look you straight in the eye as he asks it.
I don’t know. There is no answer—certainly none that I, as a middle-class woman half his age, can offer. So mostly, I just listen.
Jim is from Bennington, Vermont, where Ethan Allen and the green mountain boys intercepted and defeated British forces who were en route to Montreal, despite being outnumbered six to one. He told me the whole story, gray eyes sparkling with pride, and said I should try to make it to Bennington Battle Day someday (Wikipedia informs me this is a “state holiday unique to Vermont”).
We talked about history for a while longer, about Harriet Tubman (he wanted to see a picture of her, which I pulled up on my phone) and Francis Scott Key.
Jim isn’t homeless. He has a room in a hotel—run by another veteran—and a job in recycling. “I’m not poor,” he reiterated, asking if I was hungry. I’m pretty sure he would have bought me dinner if I said that I was. But I wasn’t. He wasn’t, either. “But what’s the point of money?”
I had no answer to this, either.
Dusk started to fall and with it a slight chill. We talked about what he should do next and he decided to go back to his hotel, about five miles south. He lit a Pall Mall while I checked the light rail map on my phone. I showed him where he should get off and how to get back to his hotel. I don’t pray much these days, but I prayed he made it safely.
The lady on the light rail recording announced that the train would be there in seven minutes, so I suggested we move to a bench a little closer to the track. It took him a minute to get on his feet and another couple minutes to talk himself into walking to the bench. But finally he staggered the ten or twelve feet and sat down beside me.
That’s when he said it. “I was a patriot and it fucked me up. I’m a fucking mess. I used to milk cows, I loved farming, and then I joined the marines.”
I glimpsed the headlight of the approaching train out of the corner of my eye. He gathered his bags and we stood. “Was it worth it?” he asked as the train pulled to a stop. “I’m fifty-eight years old. I’ll never have a girl. I’ll never be normal. Maybe I do have PTS. Was it worth it, to fuck me up like this?”
I was nine when the war that fucked up Jim began. Most of my conscious memories exist post-9/11, in a world supposedly made safe by people like Jim—people, I was told, who “fought for my freedom.” People who killed, and watched their friends be killed, and who are haunted by the fact that they weren’t killed.
The train pulled away and I turned and walked back to my apartment, on which I spend more per month than some people around the world make in a year. I’m working from home these days, processing mortgages, mostly refinances, helping people who are spending obscene amounts of money on glorified roofs and walls save a couple thousand bucks over the span of thirty years.
I knew the answer to his last question as he asked it, but there’s no way to look a man in the eye and tell him the answer…even though he already knows it, too.
No, Jim, it wasn’t worth it.
Sacrificing your cows, and farming, and the hopes of a girl, and being normal. None of it was worth it.
I’m sorry so many people—myself included, for much of my life—thought it was.
I’m not sure if the internet is the right place to post a story like this, but I wanted there to be a record of Jim, and Adam, and Ron, and all the Jims and Adams and Rons. Maybe someday we’ll live in a world where were it’s not acceptable to fuck people up so we can have cheap gas.