In my conversations with veterans I often hear from their family members that, "He just never talks about it." Stories connect people, and veterans' families and friends want that connection, but veterans still don't talk about it. Why?
Each veteran has a different reason. Many times we feel the story would be "too much" for their loved one to hear. Stories about blood and death are kept secret for this reason. Even the funny stories often end with, "And the next day, his vehicle got hit with an RPG and he died." Death and destruction creep into the edges of every war story, and the teller can never be sure if he will be able to handle the surge of rage or the tears that follow close behind.
But there are deeper reasons veterans don't talk about it. We know any story we tell cannot capture what really happened over there, and what really happened inside of us. The following is an excerpt from my book, Death Letter: God, Sex, and War, where I write about what it was like for me when I came home.
When I return from Iraq, I tell as many stories as I can to anyone who will listen. I am never finished talking about it. I do this for about three weeks. I realize that no one gets the point of what I want to say so I stop telling the stories. The only story that makes sense to people is the one about the time I piss in my helmet.
This story happens while I am visiting some Soldiers on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) on the other side of Baghdad. We drive past the squalid neighborhoods of East Baghdad. There are burning cars and young men with dark eyes staring at us as they stand on the side of the road. When we arrive at the FOB, we tell a major in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) about the route we traveled and the major says, "Christ Almighty!" He says we are lucky to be alive since that road was black. A "black" road means US forces aren't allowed to drive on it. In the previous week, they lost several vehicles on that same road.
I stop by a chapel and visit a Chaplain named Reggie. He offers me some Gatorade. Reggie takes the powdered packets and pours them into a cold water bottle -- shake and serve.
It's about 11:00 p.m. but it is a hot night. I gulp down the whole bottle of Gatorade fast. When the convoy is almost ready to roll out, I have to piss. So I decided to go around to the other side of a dump truck. It's dark and I'm wearing body armor with a large bulletproof groin protector hanging off the front. I'm also holding my helmet in my hand so all I can do is unbutton my fly by feel. I pee and something sounds strange. In the dark I'm pissing directly into my helmet which I can't see. Now it's full of my own urine. I dump it out on the ground and try not to get it on my boots. At that moment I hear my Chaplain Assistant yell for me to get back into the Humvee because the convoy is rolling out. I curse and take my canteen and dump the water from the canteen into the helmet. I swish it around, dump it out, and put it on my head. I fasten the chinstrap so no one confuses me with John Wayne. It smells like Gatorade and berry-scented piss.
This is the only story that makes any sense to anyone.
Death Letter: God, Sex, and War was written in the dark days immediately following my deployment to Iraq. Death Letter is part memoir, part comic lament, on my relationship with the three great subjects of our mythic imagination. For more information from this veteran writers go here.