There’s a wonderful, nightmarish short story by Donald Barthelme called “The Sergeant,” (collected in 60 Stories) in which a middle-aged man wakes to find himself a soldier again after 20 years away. “I’m not supposed to be in the army at all,” the narrator tries to explain. “It’s a fuckup of some kind.” But a dreamlike logic keeps him there, and the NCO in charge says the narrator must look after the new recruits, who will
...be rolling training grenades under your bunk, he said, just as soon as we teach ‘em how to pull the pin.
I said they wouldn’t do that to me because I wasn’t supposed to be here anyway, that it was all a mistake, that I’d done all this before, that probably my discharge papers would come through any day now.
That’s right, he said, you do look kind of old. Can you still screw?
Has there ever been anyone who’s served that hasn’t had bad dreams about being forced to return? My own are infrequent now but recur when I’m stressed. In them I’m ill-equipped (having lost my pack, uniforms, fins, etc.) or physically unprepared (too old, too fat, too weak) to go on patrol with the others or do an underwater compass swim. They’re mild nightmares but on waking seem comic, like dreams of lecturing naked or taking tests we’ve forgotten to study for.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there are 23,532,000 living American veterans (war and peacetime). That’s a lot of bad dreams, and think of how many more new vets are being produced today than when I was a soldier. (My era was Grenada, and that conflict was over so quickly that my unit never deployed, though the military police did put concertina wire around our company area to prevent desertions on the eve of battle.)
I believe there can be benefits to military service, such as money for college, which I was helped by. I learned to work with my hands, to endure, to exert my will. Studies suggest other positives, such as vets being more likely to vote, even though they experienced in the service “the most controlling and least democratic facet of American democracy” (Teigen, Jeremy M. Political Research Quarterly; Dec. 2006), or that male vets are less likely to engage in domestic violence than men who never served (Bradley, Christopher. Journal of Family Violence; May 2007).
But while everyone knows the risk of death, or physical and mental trauma, in serving, there are other longer-lasting effects. Combat experience increases the number of divorces (Ruger, William, et al. Armed Forces & Society [Transaction Publishers]; Sep. 2002). Service in general equates with income deficits compared to non-vet peers later in life ( Social Science Research; Dec. 2007). And CBS News has reported something “stunning”: “In 2005…in just…45 states, there were at least 6,256 suicides among those who served in the armed forces. That’s 120 each and every week, in just one year.” Even worse, “Veterans aged 20 through 24, those who have served during the war on terror…had the highest suicide rate among all veterans, estimated between two and four times higher than civilians the same age.”
Even in training or garrison, military life often includes more than anyone’s share of sadism, negativity, brutality, and boredom; it’s a grinding, ascetic existence—which surely stays with us the rest of our lives. Has anyone performed a study on the human costs to a society of this experience on an entire generation, in the calculus of Iraq?
You know, the Army sent me to the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center, among other places. As part of our training, cadre made us lie on our backs next to a pool, doing lock-kneed flutter kicks, with scuba masks filled with highly chlorinated pool water strapped to our faces. They made us sing as we kicked, or they walked on our bellies and sprayed water from garden hoses into our mouths. Their pedagogy, they said, was designed to make us learn to keep closed the “flapper valves” we all had in our noses, so we wouldn’t drown if our gear was knocked off underwater.
Predictably, we drank the mask water through our noses, gasping and bloating with swallowed air, then vomited on the deck. The instructors made us refill our masks from the pool, strap them back on our faces, and re-assume the position. This might go on for more than an hour and was just the warm-up to other things. Twenty years later I still get something I call “the drowning disease,” a chronic inflammation of that little flapper valve, which leads to the worst burning and post-nasal drip imaginable, coughing, choking, gagging, refluxing saliva and mucous, and the panicky feel of going under for the last time, which lasts all night while I sit up in bed, wide awake and spitting into tissues. I take it for granted that it will happen several times a year.
Mrs. Churm asked me last week if I knew exactly how “waterboarding” worked. I was surprised to realize I didn’t, so I went here and a few other places, and to my greater surprise, I learned I’d been waterboarded in the service of my country. The Wiki article says, "Dr. Allen Keller, the director of the Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture, has treated 'a number of people' who had been subjected to forms of near-asphyxiation, including waterboarding...Keller also stated in his testimony before the Senate that 'Water-boarding or mock drowning...can result in immediate and long-term health consequences. As the prisoner gags and chokes, the terror of imminent death is pervasive, with all of the physiologic and psychological responses expected, including an intense stress response, manifested by tachycardia, rapid heart beat and gasping for breath. There is a real risk of death from actually drowning or suffering a heart attack or damage to the lungs from inhalation of water. Long term effects include panic attacks, depression and PTSD. I remind you of the patient I described earlier who would panic and gasp for breath whenever it rained even years after his abuse.'"
Funny what you can come to take for granted, and how things stay with you.