We weren’t at war when he enlisted. My brother was 19 and we were in the few years of peace we’ve had in my lifetime. It was March 2001 and nobody wanted him to do it, but a kid gets in his mind he wants to serve and good luck stopping him. Basic training, jump school and the 9-11 attacks later we were at war and the risk of putting his name on that paper had reached an entirely new level.
I was 13 then. As far as I understood my brother was a hero who’d left me at home with the other brother who certainly wasn’t going to help me with my jump shot.
I was 16 when he left for Iraq. Three years and a couple of history and geography classes down, I knew the risk. I knew if my brother was lucky enough to come back in one piece, he’d come back changed. I knew the lanky boy who taught me where to place my fingers on a football to get the perfect spiral would see things none of us should ever see.
He’d call when he could from a satellite phone. The conversations were always broken, but never without the reminder he’d be home in time to intimidate whatever poor soul asked me to junior prom. He always talked about coming home as though it was fact. This was a 23 year old man whose every step was a gamble. A special forces marine with his fragile life at the mercy of the placement of IEDs. He knew, on a primal level, the reality of death but his only job when he heard my voice on the other end of the line was to find a way to distract me from the horror of it all.
I was 17 when he sent his girlfriend 6 hours up a Carolina highway to take me shopping for my birthday. He’d missed my birthday before for other deployments, but this time he’d gone all in on making sure I knew he wished he could be — not just on American soil — but by my side to celebrate. The note he sent along with her was short and ended with “tell your prom date I’ll see him in April”.
I was still 17 when he returned in one piece, at least physically. I was 17 and running for student council. He was 23 and marred by destruction, death and the loss of friends who’d served by his side. He came home harder than he’d left, with a darkness that I couldn’t understand and was afraid to ask about.
I was 18 when he cut his hand during a night of drinking at a family party. I was sober, a DD, the only person willing and able to take him to a hospital. We argued for what seemed like an hour. I was angrier than I’d ever been. It was the type of fight I’d sworn to God I would never have with him again as long as he’d bring him home from Iraq alive. His hand was sliced from thumb to wrist and it needed a doctor’s attention. Somewhere between me yelling at him and trying to enlist my other brother’s help, we lost him. He disappeared only to return 20 minutes later with his hand crudely sewn up with fishing line. I was 18 when my drunk, marine corps bear-of-a-man brother sewed up his own hand “because that’s what we would’ve done over there.”
I was 24 when I finally had the courage to ask him what it was really like. Until then every story had been about children he’d met while they were restocking schools, or wild animals he’d seen during patrols. He’d told me the stories you tell kids so they don’t have to know the reality of war. I was 24 when he finally told me some, certainly not all, of what he saw and I don’t know how old I’ll be when I’m finally able to forget it.