It is 0230 and I should be asleep. Instead, I am crying my eyes out as I sit in front of my computer, reading again the story of Marine Jonathan Schulze. I am glad that I am crying. I feel like a real human again.
The past week has been incredible for me. I only joined IVAW a month ago. I joined because I had no choice. I didn’t even really know that they existed, but I went online to find something I could do, not even knowing what I was looking for. When I finally came across ivaw.org, I couldn’t deny that that was me: I was a veteran, and goddamnit if I didn’t know from the bottom of my heart that I was against the “war.” As Dante said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality.” It dawned on me that even if you only want to bring the troops home for one reason, you should be ashamed not to do what you are called upon to do to speak out in whatever capacity you can. It is thus by the authority of my soul that I had no choice but to join IVAW and become a part of the cause.
I eagerly accepted “speaking gigs” before panels at University of Maryland and Howard University. I was interviewed by the BBC for a segment on Fallujah. I got to introduce Michael Franti and Spearhead at their sold out show at the 9:30 club, and then sit behind him onstage at our benefit. I got interviewed by Al Arabia that night, and early again the next morning so that they could get a shot of me with a crowd in the frame. Then I was treated to no less than ten cameras pointed at me for hours as I marched behind our banner and in front of the thousands of marchers that came to support our message and to march on the pentagon.
It was also by the authority of my soul that I participated in Operation First Casualty. I walked point in our squad as we patrolled Washington to bring home the truth of the war and call attention to our cause. I didn’t want to do it. I was scared. I feared that violating the sanctity of the Marine Corps utility uniform would be sacrilege. I think if I was still on active duty right now, and was watching fellow former Marine Sergeant and IVAW member Liam Madden marching through the capitol in his utilities, I probably would have called him a “shit-bag.” But to not participate when perfectly able would have been to betray myself. In light of the stakes, making a parody of military operations is the pettiest of transgressions.
What we did was a little bit crazy, and you have to be a little screwy to do something like this. But we’re the lucky ones. We are among the relatively safe and sane of the returning vets. Take the case of Jonathan Schulze who killed himself after being turned down twice at a VA hospital after telling them twice that he was suicidal. How many more vets need help that don’t even know that they need help? We are starting to see the first homeless vets of this war trickling into shelters. This disgrace is the best proof that our elected officials are only paying lip service to the idea of supporting the troops. But then there are the real crazies, whose ranks I once was a part of, who want to go back to Iraq. I wanted to go back because I didn’t get a purple heart the first time. That is not a normal thought for a human being to have. Had I told any mental health professional outside of the military that I wanted to go back to get injured, I would have been committed.
For better or for worse, this sentiment is somewhat typical in the service. The dedication of our all-volunteer army is the best weapon of defense this country has. The guys in the rear resent being, “one of the guys that didn’t go to Iraq.” And the guys like me look up to the recipients of the purple heart and say, “those are the guys that really sacrificed.” And the guys with the purple hearts say, “Man, I didn’t do shit. The guy standing two feet away from me didn’t make it home in one piece.” The people that feel this way do so because they love their country and they want to lay down the lives for our safety and security. That was why I served.
Towards the end of Operation First Casualty, former Army Sergeant Aaron Hughes, a member of our squad of veterans, pointed out to me that “people are just done,” as we were walking towards Arlington Cemetery for our memorial service. I had suggested we continue to move in a tactical column, as we had been all day, instead of just mobbing over “like a bunch of nasty civilians.” It was then that I realized, standing between fields of crosses stretching into the horizon, that I was done. And I lost it and couldn’t stop crying. At the service, it was all I could do to keep from falling out of formation. Previously as a reservist, I had served on flag details at funerals and on twenty-one gun salute teams. I had always been able to take the tragedy and put it away and not even think about it. Now I am able to cry about it – the way that an ordinary human would if faced with such tragedy. I cry for Jonathan Shulze, a Marine I never knew, because I nearly was him. Maybe I was one incident away. Maybe it could have been your son. Maybe it could have been your friend from high school. Or maybe it was just another stranger who had taken an oath to risk his life when called upon in order to defend your quality of life. Maybe I’m still a little crazy as I go through the process of becoming human again. Maybe I’m just a little riled up from what we did today. But I would have to be fucking nuts to not do anything.