February 12, 2010 by David Gillaspie
A man, a young man of twenty-one, sat on a bench with head in hands. He looked exhausted, spent, like a marathoner running under two hours. But it was more.
Fallen soldier ink marked his shoulder, a rifle with a helmet at the top and boots at the bottom. Any tattoo should be well planned. A fallen soldier tattoo means one thing.
Like many without ink, I am curious how someone decides what sort of image they want stuck into their permanent record. Not this time.
When the guy looked up, I asked him what sort of rifle he had on his arm.
“Is that a Thompson?”
“Pardon me?” he said with an accent.
“The rifle on your arm. Is that a Thompson sub-machine gun?”
“This? No. An M16.”
“A Thompson would be nostalgic.”
“It’s an old weapon. Do you know the M16?” I asked.
“A very good rifle, but we use the M4. Not as good.”
“Yes. I am in the military.”
He got back from Iraq two weeks ago, part of the 82nd Airborne. The kid looked rattled, but still willing to talk.
“Back from Iraq. Now you’re in Oregon. That’s a long way.”
“I am stationed in North Carolina.”
“Yep, Ft. Bragg. I was Army in the seventies. Fort Ord, Fort Sam Houston, and Fort Dix.”
“You were drafted?”
“No, a volunteer, the first wave of the all-volunteer service. The best, the brightest, the solution to the draft age. It was a time of rampant racism, drugs, and disorder. That was the story back then.”
“Todays Army is not the Army it could be,” he said.
“Well it’s not the Russian Army of the Cold War. By the way, are you Russian?”
“Yes I am.”
He knew the name of the video clip showing Russian NCO’s hazing recruits.
“Russia does it differently.”
“Different, yes. In Iraq the people don’t understand the idea of winning Hearts and Minds. They do understand death and brutality. There is much space between the two.”
“Do they understand peace?”
“Here is peace. I was assigned to security for a Major who went out into the community to talk to people. He was the face of America the Good. He was a Major. I was a corporal. When we dismount we do so with all rank and insignia off our uniforms. I explained it to him and he said, “I am a Major and I will wear my rank and unit patches.” He also wore a side arm. Only officers wear side arms. At our first stop he gets out to talk to the people. A suicide bomber blows himself up near him because he is the right target, an officer. The Major dies, along with three in my squad and ten civilians. A woman and her little girl shielded me from the full force of the blast. Blown to little bits. I was in Oregon in June last year to recuperate. My parents live here.”
Russian parents with a Russian kid in the U.S. Army. I told him about a landlord I had who went from Hitler Youth at the end of WWII to America and being drafted for Korea.
The look of exhaustion lifted the longer we talked, his expression blank and unblinking, but still willing to talk. It seemed like he needed to hear something; I felt I should have something more to say besides “thank you for your service.”
This has happened before, getting so far into someone’s life experience so fast that you can’t walk away and feel right. So I reached back to a tried and true reference, The Deer Hunter. I cupped both hands in front of me.
“Do you know what this is?” I asked.
I shook my left hand slowly saying, “This is this.”
Then I did the same with my right, “And this is this.”
“What is this this?” he asked.
“This is you,” I said, moving my left hand. “And this is who you will be,” moving my right.
“I don’t understand.”
“Who you will be is based on who you are now, but they are not the same person. This is this,” I raised my left hand. “And this is this,” raising my right. “One will be thankful for the other, but more than that. You may not understand who you will be, but once you are that person you’ll understand who you were. And you will be able to forgive.”
“Forgive what? I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“You will forgive the things and people you know now. You will forgive what war makes you do. You will forgive yourself for what you have to do later. You will make peace with yourself.”
“Peace. I like the sound of peace.”
“The best soldiers always do.”
I raised my left hand.
“This is this.”
I raised my right hand.
“And this is this.”
I joined my hands together.
“And this is peace.”
He looked at me with his blank eyes and expressionless face. Then a slight smile and nod.
“This is thank-you,” he said.
I thanked Robert DeNiro.