A couple of years ago, I spoke at a storytelling competition about some Marines I’d known during our deployment in Iraq and my feelings on getting out of the Corps. After I left the stage, an older woman in the crowd came up to me and, without asking, started rubbing my back. Startled, I looked over at her. “It was very brave of you to tell that story,” she said.
“Oh, thank you,” I said, a little confused by what was happening. “I’m OK.”
She smiled sympathetically but didn’t stop. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I turned to watch the next performer—and she remained behind me, rubbing me down as if I was a startled horse in a thunderstorm.
It was my first really jarring experience with an increasingly common reaction to my war stories: pity. I never thought anyone would pity me because of my time in the Marine Corps. I’d grown up in the era of the Persian Gulf War, when the U.S. military shook off its post-Vietnam malaise with a startlingly decisive victory and Americans eagerly consumed stories about the Greatest Generation and the Good War through books like “Citizen Soldiers” by Stephen Ambrose and movies like “Saving Private Ryan.” Joining the military was an admirable decision that earned you respect.
Early on in the Iraq war, after I accepted my commission in 2005, most people did at the very least seem impressed—You ever fire those huge machine guns? Think you could kick those dudes’ asses? Did you kill anyone? I’d find myself in a bar back home on leave listening to some guy a few years out of college explaining apologetically that, “I was totally gonna join the military, you know, but…” The usual stereotype projected onto me was that of a battle-hardened hero, which I’m not.
But as the Iraq war’s approval levels sunk from 76% and ticker-tape parades to 40% and quiet forgetfulness, that flattering but inaccurate assumption has shifted to the notion that I’m damaged. Occasionally, someone will even inform me that I have post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re never medical professionals, just strangers who’ve learned that I served.
One man told me that Iraq veterans “are all gonna snap in 10 years” and so, since I’d been back for three years, I had seven left. Another, after I’d explained that I didn’t suffer from PTSD and that my deployment as a staff officer in Iraq had been mild, said that I needed to have an honest conversation with myself. And since I’m a writer, I’ve been asked more times than I can count whether my writing is an act of therapy.
I’m never offended; these are genuinely concerned people trying to reach out. But I find it all strange, especially since the assumption never seems to be that I have the actual symptoms of PTSD—intrusive memories of some traumatic event, numbing behaviors, a state of persistent hyperarousal. Instead, it is more in line with the Iraq veteran Brian van Reet’s observation that “PTSD has graduated from a diagnosis into an idiom used by soldiers and civilians to talk about all kinds of suffering, loss, grief, guilt, rage, and unrewarded sacrifice.” For a certain subset of the population, my service means that I—along with all other veterans—must be, in some ill-defined way, broken.