On Meeting a Veteran

I have lived in New York City through the ten years that the twin wars of our time, the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been waged. In that time, I’ve met a few members of the armed forces who have served in those operations. (Their willingness to talk about their experience has varied: some reticent, some garrulous.)

I met another war veteran last week. He had served in Afghanistan, done his time, come back home. Back to high school friends, a girlfriend that is now his wife, and perhaps even the life he left behind. The war hadn’t left him alone. It had extracted its very particular grim price. Both his feet were gone, blown off by an improvised explosive device that had sent him flying twenty feet away. The military doctors had removed one foot almost immediately; they had fought hard, for weeks, to save the second foot before eventually giving up and removing that one too. The feet–and the legs till halfway up to the knee–had been replaced by prosthetic limbs. They  looked new and high-tech, marvels of science and technology, the products of the latest materials science and bio-medical engineering. He was already comfortable in them; he drove a truck, and casually crossed his legs as anyone else might.

When you think of ‘veteran’, you think perhaps of old men, grizzled types with blazers, medals, regiment caps, fading memories, reunion dinners and back-slapping bonhomie about postings to far off lands and the now-memorable discomforts of barracks life. What you might not immediately associate with ‘veteran’ is young, barely-twenty men with missing limbs who are expected to carry their experiences lightly, who might attempt a studied nonchalance about their catastrophic encounters with fate.

When you think of the costs of war, you often think of the trillion-dollar budgets and cost overruns that threaten bankruptcy and the straightforward, now numbing, numbers of the dead. You tend, sometimes, to forget the injured, those who returned, altered forever by what the war did to them. They are back, traveling along the modified trajectories of their new lives, leaving ripples around them in their families and communities,

I had traveled to Ohio, to the American Midwest, to attend the celebration of Eid, the Feast of Breaking the Fast, with my wife’s family. During the day, as the eating progressed, her cousin decided to expand the celebration by inviting his high-school friend–the vet–to come and partake of the lavish spread of curries, rice, sweets, and salads that we were noshing on.  M___ showed up; he had always liked these slightly chaotic, well-fueled gatherings that his friend had called him to for years.

We greeted him, we chatted; he ate a bit, and then stepped out on the porch to smoke a cigarette with his friend, my wife’s cousin. As I watched him from inside the living room, I was struck by how the weekday flirted with the dramatic: two friends sharing a quiet, utterly unremarkable moment together, one that could still be placed into a radically different context.

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