(This story is largely not mine. I’ve done everything I can to stick to the details as I remember them. Every word comes from the deepest well of respect I have inside of me.)
My oldest brother wouldn’t hesitate to pick me up and throw me over his shoulder if it fit the joke. We’re adults, but in the right moment he’ll still throw me in a pool or toss me around like a little kid just because he can. He’s strong. Sometimes I forget how strong. Sometimes I forget that slinging his “little” sister around is a whole lot easier than carrying another grown man. I don’t know how much of that he’s done, but I have to imagine that he carried a buddy or two during his time in the Marine Corps. I wonder if he’s slung an injured friend over his shoulder just to get him to safety. I wonder, but I don’t ask.
There’s a lot I don’t want to know about his months overseas. I don’t want to know that the guy who showed me how to properly hold a baseball bat, used those same hands to steady a high-powered gun in the middle of volatile Fallujah at the peak of the war in Iraq. War is not like play… except in some ways it is. In some ways the skills a person learns while playing in the woods as a child enhance his ability to survive in a war. That terrifies me. The troops coming home from various wars are somebody’s kids. They’re someone’s big brother. They’re just a few years past tossing footballs in the backyard with the neighbors. Sometime after September 11th, with our patriotism reloaded, we began to remember this.
I was taking an elective called “The Sixties” when the 9/11 attacks occurred. The class focused on teaching a bunch of 8th graders born at the end of the 1980s about the culture and events of the 1960s. We had a unit on Vietnam, one in which we learned about the way soldiers were treated upon their return to the states. Soldiers who largely hadn’t been volunteers. Kids who were drafted to fight an unpopular war returned home to criticism from neighbors. They found hostility in airports on their return flights.
A few nights ago I was sitting by a fire with my brother. For the first time I heard the story of his journey back from Iraq. I’d never asked about the trip back. It wasn’t something I’d really considered. I guess I never thought much past the fact that he made it back safely.
My brother’s time in the Marine Corps ended before his tour of duty. He left his unit early. He told me his unit made a pact that anyone who had a reason to leave needed to take it no matter what. They’d all agreed, injury or end of duty, an out was an out. No questions asked. No respect lost. They’d all served. They’d all fought with and protected one another. When his time came up he followed through and left.
Normally when troops leave war they leave as a unit. They’re debriefed. They spend time unraveling the experience with each other, breaking down the loss and the gift of making it out alive. They have time to process it. My brother was sent without his unit on a flight from Iraq to Germany where he spent four days trying to unwind without anyone else who understood. He spent four days in Germany trying to drink away the experience, for which I absolutely don’t fault him.
My brother tells the story of his return to American soil so much better than I ever could. It’s his to tell, and I won’t do it justice. He talks about his first flight in. He landed in Pittsburgh, drunk as a man can be. He was alone. He was uniformed. He was returning from physical battle, and facing the mental battle of getting back to normal.
Normal, by the way, is a myth for men who’ve been to war. My brother is changed. He’s still one of my best friends in the world, but I know he’d tell you he is different. I know he knows it.
My brother was drunk in Pittsburgh when a man took him under his wing. He’d been on a four day bender in Germany, followed by uniformed flights where airline employees fed him cocktails on account of his heroism. You’d be drunk as well. Honestly, I don’t know how much time lapsed between his flights. I forgot to ask. The way my parents tell it, it seemed like an eternity. They had no idea if he was okay, or if he’d make it on his final flight. They couldn’t get him on the phone. They were afraid something terrible had happened. My dad describes it as one of the scariest nights of his life. My brother had made it through a war zone, lost friends and coworkers, earned a medal for protecting someone in battle, and the night he landed back in the states was one of the scariest of my parents’ lives.
My brother can’t describe the man who helped him. In fact, the way he tells it, he honestly thought he was being shown around a strange building by a small Iraqi child. His memory of the man is blurred with countless tours through Iraqi schools. He doesn’t remember any phone calls from that night, but my parents do. The stranger called them to let them know he had found my brother, he was drunk but okay, and the man would make sure he made it on to his next flight. The final leg of his journey home.
This is the part of the story when my dad interrupted to tell me he still has that man’s phone number saved into his contacts. It’s not that he’ll ever use it, but in a way the man saved my brother from a lot of things; from himself; from his demons; from missing a flight and spending a few extra hours in a strange city with no one to help him debrief. Some phone numbers are worth saving.
The stranger eventually got my brother to his last plane. He met the pilot who just happened to be a very nice man who later married my aunt. She knew him at the time, but we’d never met him. He’d never seen my brother until he flew him home to North Carolina. Sometimes people are just exactly where they need to be when they need to be there.
My brother laughed a few nights ago as he told me the story by the fire. I don’t know how it even came up. That’s how I learn about his time at war, though. I don’t ask. The stories just flow freely sometimes. We’re far enough removed now that the stories are more entertainment than harsh memories. My brother laughed about how drunk he was. My dad laughed about how scared he and my mom were. I sat quietly astonished at the stranger who decided he should be the one to take over a soldier’s care.
It may not seem remarkable. These things happen, right? I hear the stories of people standing up for troops when they board planes. I know we’re pretty good at tying yellow ribbons around trees, and praying for young men we send to war. I know that sometimes we can all be very patriotic. But are we really that good at it? How many of us would honestly go out of our way to shadow a young marine around a strange airport for hours until he is safely in the seat on his final flight home? Really, think about it.
My brother took what I always believed to be a lonesome trip back from Iraq, without his unit, without anyone who understood. But he wasn’t completely alone, because some guy, whose number is still saved in my dad’s phone, decided the least he could do was get him back to his family safely.