Ryan Went to Afghanistan

It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services, to the defence of it.

George Washington

On my eleventh birthday, my grandfather Alexei “Papa” Romanchuck crowned me with an M1 steel helmet before an audience of my friends. “You’ll grow into it,” he said when the steel pot slid past my chin, obscuring everything but my neck. “In seven years I’m going to dump you off a boat fifty yards from Virginia Key and see if you can swim ashore with that thing on.”

My birthdays were occasion for the men of my family to shower me with presents from their branch of the military. My other grandfather, “Papa Lou” Russell, handed me a blue T-shirt with navy lettered in gold across the chest. He’d left his job teaching high school science in Sarasota, Florida, to fight in the Pacific Theater. “Old Papa, he stormed the beach when he was 18,” Papa Lou said, to which Papa dutifully responded, “Well, those dirty Japs, they should be our slaves.”

My father left the kitchen briefly and came back with two small cardboard boxes wrapped differently from the rest. He handed them to my best friend, Ryan, who was standing next to me. More so than my other friends, Ryan was in awe of these men. Papa, who’d had his marrow tapped by the cold of the Hurtgen Forest, hunched himself over the kitchen sink because there was a mild December draft and none of us assjacks would close the goddamn window. He was shivering blue crab claws with his huge, spatulate hands, the hands of a sapper who’d destroyed European bridges and built Eastern Airlines engines. Papa Lou had a wife and three kids and was excused from the draft, but he enlisted in the Navy anyway. He’d combed for mines in the beryl narrows between Japanese-held islands. “No sweep, no invasion,” was how we greeted one another. There was no history of military service in Ryan’s family, or in the families of any of my friends, save Ricardo, whose father had been discharged from the Navy and sent home from Vietnam because of a “sleepwalking problem.”

My father had taken Ryan in as his de facto son. A series of car accidents and an addiction to painkillers had left Ryan’s mother housebound; she rarely left her room except to stomp around late at night like a revenant. His father rented a high-rise condo in Coconut Grove and hardly came home. “First, Ryan opens his presents,” my dad said and laid the boxes on the table. I didn’t mind. Ryan and I did most things together. A few days before, we’d shaved each other’s heads, to cement our pact that when we grew up I’d be a Marine and he’d be a fighter pilot. People said we looked even more alike now — two little boys ripe with baby fat, grinning milkteeth ramparts, our cropped scalps pale. Ryan opened the boxes. Inside were model fighter planes, an F-14 and an F-16, metal and intricately detailed.

Then my father started the parade of gifts for me. He loved this. He’d leave the kitchen and walk back in theatrically, bringing with him old ammunition boxes and camo gear he’d bought at a surplus store he referred to as Earl’s House of Crap. My favorite, and the one I put on right away, was an olive T-shirt with a hideously grinning death’s head. It had feathered wings with tips that curled up, as though the skull was flexing, and a streamer behind it that read, airborne — death from above. My father brought out more gifts — MREs, a compass, a canteen — before the grand finale: the Marine Corps Common Skills Handbook.

My father had been a lieutenant in the Navy. He captained the swift boat that would later become John Kerry’s. His job was to stand apart and instead of a weapon wield his men like materiel. He’s a small man, about five four, thickly built. He likes to joke that they only let him into Vietnam because he’d stuck lollipops under his shoes to seem taller. He rarely wears a shirt, and the sun has cured his skin poreless. He’s horseshoe bald, my father, with one tendril of graying brown hair that lies across his head until he gets upset, whereupon it falls next to his face and flails, always a step behind, like a gymnast’s ribbon. His gray eyes are very nearsighted; when he joined the Navy ROTC on scholarship at Vanderbilt University, he had to memorize the eye chart beforehand to pass. He had never weighed the pros and cons of becoming a sailor. In his time service was expected of every young man. Especially in the Russell family. (After Papa Lou died, my father went through Lou’s cache of genealogical documents and found the records of one Aladdin Russell: Welshman, officer in the Continental Army, “The Little Iron Man” his affectionate sobriquet.)

None of the men in my family thought anything of my wanting to be a Marine. They hadn’t actively encouraged me, but they did nothing to discourage me, either. I’d simply come to understand what they had: that service was expected of me. I’d chosen the Marines because they were always the first to fight, and because they were a part of the Navy. Since I’d never been much of a boater or a fisherman, I figured the Marines might make up for my deficiencies in the eyes of my father. The gift of the handbook made me giddy. I wanted to read it all right there. The table of contents seemed to me a delineation of all the things I’d do later in my life. I flipped through it with Ryan looking on and everyone else dicking around with the rest of the gear. It had charts and diagrams explaining things like How to Identify a Weapon of Opportunity, What Is the Responsible Use of Force? and How to Apply a Splint to a Fracture. I have it to this day, and I consult it often.

After cake, the men stayed in the kitchen to drink, and we boys retreated to the dining room to have our Nerf-gun war. The dining room was perfect: at one end was a large entryway with two walls to take cover behind, and at the other was a carpeted, three-step staircase that made a serviceable trench. My mother threw a quilt over her crystal, and then it was on.

I took command of the trench and Ryan the walls. We rarely hit one another. When we did, nothing happened, nobody died. Our war had no real objective, but it made a wonderful cacophony. I stood to the side of the trench with my Nerf chain gun and belched darts that drifted past the enemy in sad arcs. I’d never notice Ryan until it was too late, when I’d see half of his face poking out from behind the wall, and thwunk, a dart right in the neck. It would stay there, stuck, because Ryan had licked the suction cup.

In 2005, both Ryan and I were living in Gainesville, Florida. I was enrolled at the University of Florida, and he was attending classes at its feeder school, Santa Fe College. He lived across town in a house he shared with two brothers, casual acquaintances from Miami. One night, while he napped in the living room, plainclothes police officers arrested the younger of the brothers in the front yard. He’d been selling marijuana from the house. As the police cuffed him, he yelled for Ryan. Ryan woke, saw men with drawn weapons approaching the house, and went for an AK-47 he’d purchased legally at a gun show a few weeks prior. For a very long minute, there was a standoff. When the screaming abated long enough for the men to announce, “Police,” Ryan threw down his weapon and was arrested. He was charged with attempted aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer with a firearm.

Ryan told me, “I remember standing there, just being in a Mexican standoff with everybody, how exhilarating it was. One of them asked if I was in the Army because I had my hair short, and I was aggressive with the assault rifle, and I was behind cover. He said I made all the right choices. ‘What are you, in the fucking Army or something?’

“Everything I did after that moment was boring. Everything I did didn’t mean anything. Everything was in slow motion after that. Nothing compares to the thrill of gunplay.

“I kept thinking about what that dude had said. I thought about how I could redeem myself. I was a shitbag. All I cared about since high school was drugs, alcohol, and tits. I didn’t care about anybody except me. My dad had spent $40,000 to get me out of jail. He put the house on a second mortgage. I was going to trial arraignments without a job.

“Then I really researched what was going on in the wars and stuff. We’re in two wars; I didn’t know what these guys were dying for. I wondered, How do I re-create the excitement from that night? How do I become an honorable man like your father and your grandfathers? How do I do my part? Our country was in a war, so why not me? I called my lawyer, asked him, ‘Do I have to go into any more arraignments?’ He said, ‘No,’ so I asked him, ‘Can I join the Army?’ He goes, ‘If they take you, I don’t see why not.’

“I couldn’t join at first. I hadn’t been acquitted yet, so I had to get a criminal waiver. I had to be interviewed by a lieutenant, a captain, a colonel, and a lieutenant colonel. One of them asked me, ‘So you’re the guy who pulled guns on cops? I’ve never been to jail, that’s one thing I haven’t done in my life. Welcome to the Army.’ They were hurtin’ for manpower. They just wanted meat for the grinder.

“I enlisted without telling my dad. I was living at home while the court case was going on. Everything was fucking up. He would’ve never let me go; I would’ve never had his blessing. The day I enlisted, I came home to tell my dad.

“He goes, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ He tried to convince me not to go. He said, ‘These wars are bullshit. Don’t die for their bullshit.’

“He said, ‘I’ll give you $5,000 right now if you don’t join.’

“I said, ‘Dad, this is something I have to do.’

“He said, ‘I’ll give you $15,000.’

“I said, ‘Dad.’

“He said, ‘I’ll give you $40,000 to not die for their bullshit.’

“I said, ‘Dad, I don’t care about the money. I need to do this.’

“He said, ‘When you die for them, you’re going to regret it.’

“I went to sleep. The recruiter came to pick me up the next day.”

When military service is compulsory, the burden is indiscriminately and equally borne by the whole community. This is another necessary consequence of the social condition of these nations, and of their notions. The government may do almost whatever it pleases, provided it appeals to the whole community at once: it is the unequal distribution of the weight, not the weight itself, which commonly occasions resistance.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

“That’s why i joined, to go over there and bust heads,” Ryan told me when he got back. “When I was actually over there, it wasn’t how I thought it’d be. It wasn’t romantic. Not noble or ideological. You weren’t fighting for your country. It was a group of guys in the mountains trying to kill another group of guys in the mountains. You and a group of guys who are like you, fighting against a group of guys who aren’t like you. In the midst of all this, civilians die because of you. People are killing kids. Are these people a threat to the United States of America? Nah dude, they don’t even have shoes.

“These people don’t know that we want to help them. They see us in their mountains and go, ‘What the fuck?!’ The guys who died didn’t die for America, they died for Afghanistan. Afghanis don’t give a shit about us. They don’t give a shit about their corrupt-ass government. They play both sides of the fence. Guzman got blown up on a mission we weren’t even supposed to go on. I’m sitting there eating an MRE as he’s dying, and I don’t know it.

“I’m the crazy guy? I am. I want to get the bad guys. I still do. The older guys who were in real wars, they’d tell us, ‘You’re in the right division; wrong war.’ Nobody gives a shit you’re doing this except the guys next to you — your friends, your brothers. It’s not a war. It’s a gang war.”

October in Miami is when the heat breaks and the rain stops. Skies are cloudless, and palmettos wave goodbye to the last weak bit of bluster coming out of the Caribbean. The afternoon of Tuesday, October 12, 2000, was mild and breezy. I appreciated it when I came out of my last class. I’d been a high school freshman for a month, and my father and I had worked out the transportation scheme: I was too close to the school for the bus but too far to walk, so every day he’d drop me off and pick me up in the parking lot of an abandoned bank across the street, thereby avoiding the tangle of cars and moms and teenagers at the front of the school. After the first two days the process of coming and going went quickly and wordlessly; I’d be out of the car before it’d come to a complete stop, and I’d see him pull into the bank as I walked out of school. This kind of precision and efficiency quietly thrilled my father.

Ryan and I were attending different schools: I was at the local public school, while Ryan’s grandfather was paying his way at an all-male Jesuit academy, for the discipline. Ryan did learn discipline there. He would tell me horror stories about the place, how it was a prison atmosphere, how a new kid got sodomized with a blue Bic pen, cap on, in homeroom, and how there were three things a freshman could do to survive: make good with one of the groups of guys who preyed on each other; make yourself a clown or a bitch and offer yourself up to the hierarchy that way; do neither and accept that you will be tested every day. The other boys from our middle school did the first two, Ryan said. He did the third. And practically every day for four years someone tried him, said or did something and dared him to fight back, and if he didn’t, even just once, they’d all smell blood, and it’d be over. He’d go home with cuts under his eyes from seniors’ class rings, and whenever his mom was conscious, she’d throw a fit because he’d stopped telling her the truth about why he was fighting. When he’d try, she wouldn’t believe him. She’d ask how Jesuit priests would allow that to happen, and he’d tell her that they knew if they interfered, 1,400 hormonal savages without a skirt to chase would turn on their captors. Then he’d go into his room and do push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups and wait for the next day. Everything extra came off of him. After the first month his knuckles looked like kettle corn.

We still saw each other a lot after school. Sometimes he’d pick me up, loaded on his mom’s painkillers. Sometimes I’d walk over to his place. Once, I opened the door to his house and he was standing there in his white boxers with both barrels of the shotgun his grandfather gave him in his mouth. He took them out, looked me dead in both eyes, and asked, “Is it loaded?” in the same tone he’d ask, “Is it hot outside?” When I tried to answer he took a step closer and screamed, “But is it loaded?!” He gobbled the barrels, wrapped his right big toe around the trigger, Hemingway-style, and squeezed. The empty chambers clicked, and he laughed and laughed. Five more times he did this to me, but I never tried to wrench the gun out of his hands, because I was always afraid that this time it really was loaded.

But on October 12, 2000, I was walking toward our car wondering why my father was in the driver’s seat. The day before, he’d let me drive the short distance home, for practice. I expected him to get out and switch to the passenger side, but he didn’t. He stayed in the driver’s seat, ball cap and purple aviator sunglasses and both hands on the wheel. I got in and he started driving, and then without turning to me he said, “Arabs attacked a destroyer today. A suicide attack. Hit them in the galley as sailors lined up for lunch. Cowards.”

The attack on the USS Cole had shaken my father. He was born 364 days after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Even casual mention of Japan or the Japanese prompts my father to mutter things like, “It was a Sunday morning,” or “In their beds,” or “On the toilet.” To him, the attack on the USS Cole was the call to war. September 11 would only ratify how he’d felt a year prior.

What he said next I can’t remember exactly. The words came as such a shock to me. Again, he’d never actively pushed military service on me. It was just part of our lives. Sitting through the Army-Navy football game despite a blizzard in Philadelphia; vacationing next to his old naval base in San Francisco; numbering our dinners and rotating them (J-5 = steak and potatoes); explaining to me philosophies he’d formulated but couching them first, “In the immortal words of Lieutenant Commander Ralph M. Strainey . . .”; helping me sew the official seal of the United States Navy on the left side of my backpack and the official seal of the United States Marine Corps on the right.

Yet that day he said, I don’t want you thinking about the military. It hurts me to say this. I believe in the military as an institution. But I don’t want you fighting their war. You’re too valuable. Let their own sons fight for them.

I tried to rebut him. How what he was saying went against everything he believed about civic duty. How the military serves a President who’s been democratically elected by fellow citizens. How you can’t pay taxes only for the programs you like, and how it’s just as absurd to serve only for the “good wars.” He answered me by talking politics and Vietnam.

He left the main part unsaid, but it’s something he implicitly says to me every time he doesn’t eat until I’ve finished my own meal, or doesn’t let me drive the car until he fills the tank, or doesn’t leave me alone while I’m asleep. What he’s saying is, I believe a parent’s duty is to protect his child. A parent is relieved of his duty only in the grave. I could never forgive myself if you were hurt or killed and I could have prevented it.

I said nothing more on the ride home. The car was Papa Lou’s, a white Grand Marquis. He’d left it for my father. The thing was a boat. The paint had gone fibrous from weathering, same as happens to the Plexiglas in a bow. If you ran your hand across it, you’d come away with half a dozen shards that your body can’t dissolve and are painful as hell to remove.

They had email in Afghanistan, and once in a while I’d receive one from Ryan.

tues jan. 15 16:31:01 est 2008

i got a letter from you a couple of months ago. but it was destroyed before i wrote back to you. i remember it was in computer text, not very intimate, but still appreciated. i prefer instant email myself. i just told the story to my buddies the other day of when we were playin foot hockey in your driveway and i hit a wicked fast slapshot into your nuts. the following moments after the impact were hilarious. as i get older and make new memories its easy to lose track of all the good times weve had, especially childhood times. i remember you wanted to be a marine and i was gonna be a fastmover pilot. its funny how fate molds you to serve your purpose. im lookin forward to the day where we can knock back some brews on a daily basis without me havin to go back to some war. cant wait to be a long haired degenerate drunk again. take care brother…………….Ryan.

fri feb. 08 17:37:23 est 2008

hows life brother. hope youre happy and shit. spring is comin soon, all kinds of crazy rumors are circulating the platoons. suicide missions and international incidents and such. hope none of them are true. i realized that i had left bragg exactly 1 year ago today. cant believe that they deploy you for this long. 15 fuckin months. i seen two cherries straight outta airborne school at a FOB a couple of weeks ago. i used to be them. im not that kid anymore, i left him in the sand a while ago. been a long fuckin time here. even when i was home i knew i was comin back. next time i get to stay for good. i dunno how thats gonna feel. depression is hittin everyone real hard here cause its past the point where we shoulda gone home. everyone doesnt give a fuck unless they are gettin shot at that second. my morales pretty shitty but im always okay. no women no alcohol no food. fuckem………………………………..Ryan

thurs. feb. 28 14:04:52 est 2008

hey brother. shits about to heat the fuck up real soon. i just wanna get it done. the way home is straight thru em. cant believe its been 4 years since high school. time flies by. seems like yesterday i enlisted. gonna be 2 years come march. looking forward to comin home in may God willin. leave will be from june 4th thru july 6. we gotta stay under observation for a while and do some psych bullshit so i dont blast myself and others. then all-american week and division review. the 4 brigades gotta compete against each other for a week. boxing, combatives, basketball, running, live fires. i think ill compete in combatives or live fire. havent made up my mind yet. youve been like a brother to me all these years, and your old man like a second dad. cant wait to crack open some brews at your house and pass out on the carpet without a weapon. fuck. peace.

“They try to get you to reenlist in Afghanistan because then the bonus is tax-free. Back at Bragg, they try to get the dudes who aren’t going to reenlist because they want to have a life, have a family, go to college. They try as hard as they can to get them. A few months before my time was up, they’d bring me to meetings even though I’d long since told them I wasn’t going to reenlist. They said, ‘You can get all this money, you get all this great camaraderie. You really gotta make this decision.’ Then, a few weeks before I was out, the meetings went, ‘You’re not going to make it on the outside. You’re going to live with your mother. You’re abandoning all your brothers. What are you, a pussy?’ They try to alienate you; you’re the guy trying to get out at that point. ‘Oh, he’s not a team player.’ Some guys are so fucking brainwashed when they’re over there — this is all you know. You don’t even know what the civilian world is like anymore. You’re in the zone. The Army is all there is.”

I was home from college and Ryan was home, more recently, from jail. It was two months after the incident with the police in his front yard; he’d gone to court and been acquitted of aggravated assault. The first thing Ryan did when he came over that night was hold his fist level to my face. “You see this shit?” he asked. There were bloody canals running from his knuckles down the three grooves in his fingers. “Fucking, I’m squeegeeing my windshield at the Shell station, and a homeless guy punches me in the back of the head.” I’m sure there’s more to the story, but I don’t press him. This was Ryan, after all. Since high school it’d seemed that my share of bad luck and tough circumstance had been diverted onto him, as though there was a jetty between us and it all piled up on his side. I took him into the kitchen, where the houselights were on.

My dad was standing on the far side of the kitchen island, shirtless. I’d told him Ryan was coming over, so he had arrayed plates of leftovers in front of him. Ryan was rangy in high school, like a starved animal, but now he was threaded with muscle. His head was huge and bulbous, and there were brown aprons under his big eyes. With Ryan over my dad kept his arms crossed so his biceps would look more parabolic. He’d also put out on the counter a baseball cap embroidered with vietnam: i won my half.

This was the first time my dad had seen Ryan since he’d been to jail. (Ryan had used his one phone call on him.) My dad grimaced and cocked his head to the side. His tendril of hair slipped loose and dangled next to his ear. “Come on, Ryan. You can’t be getting into more fights, not now.” He told Ryan to help himself to a plate. When we were in elementary school, my dad would put a second sandwich — processed turkey, American cheese, yellow mustard, on white bread — and an extra carton of milk in my lunchbox, for Ryan. A tall glass of milk was already waiting for him on the kitchen table.

“Kent doesn’t eat leftovers. He’s too good for them,” my dad teased. “Survival school, Kent. You pluck a pigeon, boil it, and share it with fourteen guys — you’ll eat anything after that.”

Ryan sat down at the far side of the table, facing my dad, with a huge plate of chicken and rice, C-3. My dad brought out a bag of tortilla chips and put it on the table too, just in case. “How you been, Ryan?” he asked.

“I got kicked out of college the other day, for fighting,” he said, and began to eat.

My dad fingered the hat a little and said, “Ryan, you ever seriously thought about the military? I think it’d do you some good.”

“No, sir, not in a while I haven’t.”

“Armed forces teach you discipline. Which rules people like Kent out, what with the running and the waking up before noon. And you’re given responsibilities no one gives young people in the civilian world anymore.” He glanced at me quickly, and then back to Ryan.

“I tried to get Charlie, Kent’s old babysitter’s son, to think about the Navy when he was your age. All the women in his family went apeshit. They thought I was trying to get their baby killed. He’s in prison now.”

My dad was on a roll. I’d never heard him talk like this. His arms were still crossed, but he sauntered to the head of the island.

“When I was in the Navy, the armed forces were the only places that were integrated. It’s a meritocracy. Nobody cares that you didn’t go to college or you had to spend a few weeks in jail.

“When you come back, it’s not like that in the civilian world. But, I’ll tell you, you’ll have things they don’t. One is the discipline. When I got back, I went to the University of Florida’s law school and did the six semesters one after the other, boom boom boom, no summer breaks, because I had that discipline. And you’ll own this country. The draft dodgers, the guys who can sing ‘O Canada’ by heart, they can’t tell me shit. When you come back, you own this country more than they do. You’re a shareholder.”

Ryan said, “I’ll think it over, sir,” and then bent his head back over his plate. My dad turned to me, uncrossed his arms, and daubed his hair into place with his right hand. I picked up the dirty dishes and took them over to the sink, but my dad pushed me out of the way and said he’d do it.

“Eighty-second airborne is the most elite conventional unit in the Army, not counting Special Operations or Special Forces,” Ryan told me when he got back. “So every year that he can, the President comes and reviews us. This was in 2008. Twenty thousand guys standing in formation at Pike Field in Fort Bragg. We’re talking guys doing two, three, four, five tours already.

“George Bush is up on a podium, giving a speech. A couple guys start booing, then dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. Command sergeants and first sergeant majors are screaming, ‘SHUT THE FUCK UP!’ and punching guys in the back.

“Everybody knew Iraq was bullshit. All those dudes over there saw their friends die. They had to murder Iraqis. For what? Going fifteen months at war, eleven months back, stop-loss, violated contracts. One of my higher-ups lied to my face; he told me I was being stop-lossed. I had to go to the civilian bureaucracy to hear I wasn’t. Plus I had my ace-in-the-hole: the doctor’s note about my mom and how I needed to care for her. But still, I was disappointed. I’m a sergeant now, and I would never lie to my soldiers like that . . .

“Bush, he was the problem. We booed his ass because he’s a piece of shit. But he was pretty far away from us, so I don’t think he heard.”

After six months in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Ryan shipped off to Afghanistan. I was in my junior year of college. He’d given me the address of his forward-operating base, a bit of reconditioned Soviet concrete still stained with blood. I decided I’d write him a letter.

It took me two weeks to draw up a rough draft. I had no idea what to tell him. I couldn’t imagine that he’d want to hear about things like parking tickets and football games. But then, maybe that was exactly what he wanted to hear. I didn’t know whether I should handwrite it or not — we’d never been sentimental about anything before, but I thought handwriting it would show that I was really taking time out for him. I didn’t know how to word the thing. Should I speak in the language and memories of our best times, middle and high school? Or would he prefer I be the college junior I was instead of being falsely vulgar? I had no idea how to talk to him anymore.

After several drafts, I decided to just type the thing casually and in one go. I wrote about what was happening with the family, and how I was doing in classes, and what our friends were up to now. I told him that when I saw him over Christmas, I’d take him to a hockey game. I closed by telling him that I loved him, because I did, and I’d never said it to him before. I didn’t want to miss what could be my last chance to say it.

The day I mailed the letter to him, I went to the very house Ryan was living in when he was arrested. His roommate was out of jail and having a party, and about a dozen of my friends from Miami were crowded around a keg in the backyard.

Someone had parked a car back there and was blasting bad hip-hop out of it. Guys were shouting over a beer pong table that stood on four uncertain legs like a newborn giraffe. The spread boughs of a big live oak hid the sky, but a lattice of white holiday lights stood in for stars. Wet, dead leaves stuck to everything. A kid who used to be my partner in Spanish class was trying and failing to light a fire in the fire pit. Two guys were racing around the perimeter of the house in some kind of beat-the-clock drinking game; one of them tripped, fell, and vomited.

I’d thought of my nonservice as an individual choice. The men in my family who’d served before Ryan had done so in either the draft era or a time of national muster. They’d more or less been compelled to. Now, with our volunteer military, my decision not to serve was simply another choice I was free to make, like choosing not to go to church. It was the sum of my conscience, my ambitions, and my own best interests. As for Ryan, I thought of his service as the best choice he could’ve made at the time. It would straighten him out and give him money for college when he came back. It was a way of getting his life together. He hadn’t told me exactly why he enlisted, but I didn’t think it too hard to imagine why. Ryan added up to the stereotypical military enlistee: a poor college dropout in trouble with the law.

But that night I went up to my friend Ricardo, who knew Ryan, who’d had Ryan over for parties and had invited him to play football every Saturday for ten years, and I told him that right now, as we spoke, Ryan was huddled somewhere in the thawing Hindu Kush waiting for the Taliban to regroup and attack.

His eyes glazed in an instant. They seemed to sheathe themselves with a membrane. “Man, I’m sorry to hear that. That’s too bad.”

That was everyone’s reaction when I went around, proud but scared, talking about Ryan: “That sucks, but he’ll bounce back.” As though this was an appendectomy, something to get out of his system before he’d be back better than ever.

I was disgusted by these people. But, I thought, this is what he’s defending, right?

I proposed a toast to Ryan, to his safety. Ricardo countered, “We should probably be praying for the Taliban. They’re going to need it. Ryan loves that shit.”

I thought, He’s right. I was once riding shotgun in Ryan’s car when some teens going the other way over a two-lane bridge threw a hamburger that splocked onto his windshield. A whole, unbitten McDonald’s 29-cent hamburger. I laughed at the absurdity. But Ryan pulled an eight-point turn and chased after them. He drew a machete out from under his seat. I prayed the offenders wouldn’t stop, because I knew Ryan might kill them. They escaped only by running a red light. If anyone should fight the Taliban, I thought, it was that man. If it’s between him and me, he should go every time. We toasted and kept drinking.

Ryan was in afghanistan for fifteen months between 2007 and 2008. In that time improvised explosive device incidents and deaths increased 400 percent. His friend Juan Guzman was killed while out on patrol, driving around a small Afghan town in a Humvee. Ryan at the time was back at the base.

“As shit was winding down, random people started sending me stupid emails asking me stupid shit. I was disgusted with them. I didn’t want to talk to them. I had this sense that I was different than everybody. You don’t understand, so don’t talk.

“I think I have less entitlement to this country than everyone else because I feel like America’s this big circle, and I’m outside the big circle looking at it because I’ve been away for so long doing weird shit in a weird country. I see everybody and how they act and I don’t understand. People treat me different if I tell them I was in the Army. I like to sink back and be in the crowd, so I don’t tell anyone I was in the Army.”

Before moving back to Florida, Ryan did a semester at DePaul in Illinois.

“I was in my German class, and the girl sitting next to me pointed to my KIA bracelet for Guzman and said, ‘What’s that?’


“‘Is it a bracelet?’

“‘No, it’s something else.’

“‘Seriously, what is it?’

“‘It’s for my buddy, he got killed by Taliban.’

“‘I didn’t know you were in Afghanistan.’

“‘You never asked.’

“She thought it was a big deal I didn’t tell her. Her name’s Emily. We used to be German partners. I used to walk her to the subway and shit. After that she sat away from me and found a new partner. Maybe she thought we had nothing in common, or she disagreed with me going over there. Whatever.

“I can’t study in the library because every person who walks by, I have to raise my head from the textbook and evaluate them as potential threats. I can’t sit in the middle of the library. I sit in the corner with my back to the wall with good lines of sight and proximity to an exit. I’m completely paranoid now. I don’t carry a firearm here only because it’s illegal to do so in Illinois. I know that’s not normal. But I’ve seen so many lives snatched from seemingly nowhere. I learn from that. I’m not going to be a victim.”

“They were killing my friends.”

Audie Murphy, America’s most-decorated World War II veteran, on how he could single-handedly destroy a company of German infantry

We carry two cases of Corona to a condo pool, Ryan wearing his boxers, his unlaced Army boots, and his dog tags. His high-and-tight is growing out. His show-muscles have been pared down to the lean, predatory symmetry of the rest of him. We recline against the ledge in the shallow end, grandstanding the empties on the steps out of the pool. Our conversation is stilted and awkward; we need three beers to limber up. “Fucking Afghani Bedouins, man. Those guys are badasses,” he tells me. “They kill anyone who messes with them, us or Taliban.”

Story goes: His patrolling squad approached a small tribe of Bedouin in a valley in eastern Afghanistan. Things were tense; there’s mutual mistrust, and everybody’s slung with guns. A baby cried out, and Ryan’s squad went on alert. They searched the tribe for the baby but saw none. The baby screamed again, this time joined by a few others. Then a soldier screamed, because he’d found a baby. “In the fucking hair, dude. They strap the babies to camels under all the hair, to keep the sun off them. They had, like, eight fucking babies strapped on that camel.”

Ryan kneels in the shallow water, only his head above it, and looks to the sky. His tags are ringed with black rubber and they float in front of him like an ineffectual tug. He tells me how his squadmate from Texas talked the Bedouin into letting him ride one of their horses, and how the Texan rode it hard into the distance, dust trail kicking up, into a no-shit sunset, and how for once the whole squad was at ease, watching the cowboy do what he would’ve done back home.

I ask Ryan a question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. “Why was it you and not me?”

“Why would you waste a rich life full of potential? Jesus, Kent. Don’t waste the best of America on this bullshit war. Let the guys with criminal records go. Jesus.”

Ryan has blood bruises on his face from a bar fight he got into the other day. They’re globular and asymmetrical, as if even his skin’s fatigued. He’d been playing pool with a guy from his platoon. When we were little, we would split a pair of Everlast boxing gloves and whale on each other in the front yard, exchanging the righty every other round.

“What about your kid, when you have one?”

“Absolutely not. Never. Fuck that.”

“What if your lawn’s under attack?”

“Then I’ll be his fucking squad leader. If that’s the case, I’ll sacrifice him.”

“What if al-Qaeda has a bunch of Pakistani nukes?”

“If al-Qaeda wants nukes, that’s their fucking problem. People are going to have nukes. People are not going to like America. People are going to have different forms of government. Does that mean we have to go over there and destroy them? No. That’s un-American.

“But you keep sending guys like me over there, without knowing what we go through, we may start fucking your shit up. First over there, then back here.

“To be honest I really hope that some Red Dawn shit goes down, because I’ll be ready. I’ll pick the family up in the pickup, start handing out guns. Some general is gonna have a really fucking hard time with Manati Avenue. That’s going to cost someone their career, that little white house third on the left.”

The principal commands of the army were filled by men who had received a liberal education, were well instructed in the advantages of laws and letters, and who had risen, by equal steps, through the regular succession of civil and military honors. To their influence and example we may partly ascribe the modest obedience of the legions during the two first centuries of the Imperial history.

But when the last enclosure of the Roman constitution was trampled down by Caracalla, the separation of professions gradually succeeded to the distinction of ranks. The more polished citizens of the internal provinces were alone qualified to act as lawyers and magistrates. The rougher trade of arms was abandoned to the peasants and barbarians of the frontiers, who knew no country but their camp, no science but that of war, no civil laws, and scarcely those of military discipline. With bloody hands, savage manners, and desperate resolutions, they sometimes guarded, but much oftener subverted, the throne of the emperors.

— Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

I had to be light-footed when discussing World War II with Papa. I never knew where I could lead the conversation, or when I might overstep my bounds and set something off. Past times I’d asked the wrong question and sent him hurrying out of the room. He and Ryan, though, they’re on the same wavelength.

Sitting on the lawn after Christmas dinner, they speak to one another in a kind of clipped Army morse.

“Cold where you were, Ryan?” Papa asks.

“Yes sir, Paktika Province, Hindu Kush mountains. Waited up there for bad guys to cross from Pakistan. Nights, you’d have to huddle naked with three guys just to stay alive.”

Papa recounts tentless winters in black primeval forest. “The wind was worse than the Germans.”

“Socks. It’s about keeping your feet dry,” Ryan agrees.

Ryan has a hooded sweatshirt on, my grandfather an old grey windbreaker; both wear long pants and closed-toe shoes. The temperature is above eighty.

The conversation switches to lighter things. My grandfather remembers liberating a cottage’s silver and throwing its owner off a bridge into a river when he objected. “We was the victors,” he explains to Ryan. We’re lined up in rattan lawn chairs — Papa, me, Ryan, all facing forward — and their voices meet each other over me.

“They use IEDs because otherwise it’s not fair,” Ryan says. “You get rich Saudi teenagers coming to the mountains, thinking it’s an adventure. I’d flank them, and they’d still be firing one-handed over a rock. Just kids, you know?” When it’s only me, Ryan hardly ever talks about combat. With me he’s sutured the gap in his civilian life. But Papa brings it out of him. “At night at the fire base sometimes I’d look through my nods — night vision — and see these fuckers, pardon,” Ryan stands up and pantomimes a blind person stepping tentatively, “see these guys coming up the mountain for us.” Now he pantomimes holding a rifle. “We got an infrared beam that only we can see in our nods, and I’m painting these blind bastards right in the face.” He laughs a little, and so do Papa and I, because he pantomimes the sightless Taliban again. “So I’d let them do a little of this before I put the steel to ’em.”

I leave them to it and walk into the house to get another beer for Ryan and another whiskey soda for Papa. My dad turns from the dishes and admits, “What Ryan’s seen, I can’t even imagine. I’m just so relieved I didn’t get him killed.”

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