"I'm waiting for my first thunderstorm. I don't know how I'm going to react, and I'm afraid it won't be good!" That is what the young soldier sitting in front of me on the train was telling his companions, as we moved away from the Farragut North stop on the DC Metro red line.
In an effort to try not to eavesdrop I would stare out the window only to see my own reflection staring back at me. These men sitting in front of me seemed so out of place, not because of their clothes or anything tangible. But they seemed to sit like they were in some unseen bunker, almost huddled together. They were in our midst, yet almost instinctively they created an invisible wall, which screamed we're not like the rest of you!
One of the young men had a southern drawl, and as he spoke I could see him traveling down a desolate two lane road with his girl tucked under his arm. He looked no more than 22 or 23, and he was telling the others how guilty he felt going to Walter Reed for group sessions. He felt he was taking the place of someone more worthy. To look at these men there were no visible indications that they had been wounded in a war. Apparently not having missing limbs or shrapnel scarred faces made them feel undeserving of the services afforded them.
As we traveled farther down the line the one who mentioned being afraid of storms was asked when was the ceremony for him to receive his Medal of Honor. The idea that you could win a Medal of Honor, but not feel worthy of a group session struck me as odd. I started to think about my father's two tours in Viet Nam. He --never-- talked about it. In a rush of guilt, I was aware that I didn't know if my own father feared a coming thunder storm. These young men, who without knowing it, had made me aware of the possibility of my own father's fears.
Navy Medal of Honor (also USMC)
I felt that I had been let in on a deep dark secret: and I felt that I had been remiss, because as clearly as I could see how different the war had made them from the rest of us, I had never seen it in my dad. How do you miss that other worldliness, the haunted look, which accompanies combat? Maybe because you see what you want in a loved one, but in a stranger you see the truth. Maybe because they had given me the key to see their pain, fears, and worries while my father gave me silence.
I felt I owed them something for this insight that I would never have gotten if I weren't able to hear them speaking. So I tapped the Medal of Honor winner on the shoulder and told them I knew they were in the service. I then told them that my father had also been in the service, and that I was glad they made it home okay. I had climbed that invisible wall in an effort to make them feel at home, cared about, something. Their response was quick and to the point, yes they had been to war, and the wall was quickly repaired. I sat back in my seat aware that not only does one need to want to welcome them, they also must want to be welcomed in order for it to work.
As I came to my stop and got off the train, I saw a young soldier in uniform on the platform waiting for a train. A young man dressed in leather wearing a spiked dog collar approached the soldier. He asked him if he had just gotten back from the war, and how he was doing and held his hand out. The soldier didn't respond he just looked forward without moving a muscle.
That night I called my dad and told him about the train, and about the young soldier afraid of his first thunderstorm. I asked him if he had been or if he still was afraid of thunderstorms. He never answered me, instead he changed the subject. I never asked him about the war or his fears again. I figure that when a soldier builds an invisible wall he/she does it to protect themselves, and maybe even those who love them. That wall may be all we have between a person rationally absorbing the horrors of war, and eventually healing, or losing it altogether.