David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Native Son #10
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

 A warrior came by my house last night.

He’s a young Marine officer I’ve known for five years. We met in Vermont during a weekend when I spoke at Norwich College. Josh was my liaison, in charge of my whens and wheres.

From the moment he picked me up at the airport, he called me “Sir” with the crispness of his uniform. He was manly in his youth, a military cliché of blue eyes, broad shoulders, careless cussing and brains. He hadn’t yet been knocked down by a bullet, killed any man nor lost any man under his command.

Josh and I took a fast shine to each other. He liked my novels and still does. He looks up to me and grants me some virtues because of my age and abilities with a story. I admire him and externalize all sorts of unrealized boyhood fantasies onto him, the Marine, the hero.

A year before his first deployment to Iraq, we sat on a grassy knoll at Quantico watching men march. Minutes before, I’d set fire to the brush behind a target range by overshooting a grenade from a rifle-mounted launcher. This further warmed Josh’s heart to me, underscoring that I, like my civilian hundred millions, cannot defend myself, even given the tools, and he was needed to do it for me.

The soldiers marched to a singing cadence. Josh, then a first lieutenant, hummed along, knowing the boot music well.

I asked if he intended on being a career Marine. He answered in a way which moves me even now in recollection.

“Sir, I’m really only good at one thing. Leading men.”

The twenty-nine year old Marine who sat with me last night on my porch had gone halfway around the world and proven that true. In three tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, he’s risen to the rank of captain, taking command of four hundred men. By his own count, in three years of combat he’s killed three hundred enemies and lost ninety men. Chain smoking, shoulders still broad enough, with even more vulgarities, he told me of his experiences in the war. Josh talked on his feet, standing in the memories as if to keep his head above them. He ticked off the towns he’d been given security responsibility for. The names sounded harsh, like windblown sand. He reenacted shooting with a pistol three Iraqis who’d ambushed him. He called into a conjured radio the air strike that saved and almost killed his best friend. He tapped the air to evince the ping of bullets against an armored car.

I listened to his night terrors, recurring dreams with their roots in reality that expand and warp. The enemies he has killed get back up, or they grow in number. He’s left alone to face hordes. The little girl riddled with ball bearing holes from a suicide bomber awakes from her death in his arms to ask him why.
Back in the states for six months, Josh’s third wife has recently tossed him out. He’s taken up semipro cage fighting. He showed me photos of a broken, bloody nose, and called every opponent he’s fought a prick.
It seems Josh remains only good at leading men.

I fed him, smoked two cigars while listening, and said goodnight late, before his drive to North Carolina.

This, of course, is why our fathers did not talk to us about their war, then our brothers, now our sons and daughters. We weren’t there. For his own reasons, Josh chose to talk to me. Frankly, it was painful to listen to. I felt proud of him, hopeful and despairing. I know I have no currency he can use other than friendship and respect. I have committed those to him before, and re-upped last night.

With every conflict, this is the way it is between America’s warriors and the citizens they protect. They pay dearly for something so common to us, our freedom. They’re usually common things themselves, a big blue-eyed boy, a brown-skinned man, a woman with a determined look. Their experiences have made them remarkable. Sadly, their sacrifices have not made them rare.

What can we do? Listen when they choose to speak, accept their silence when they do not. And we can cherish what they preserve for us, because it has always been and remains damned expensive.

Posted in Boomer Mag, Boomer Articles    Tagged with boomer magazine, native son, richmond, marine, war, warrior, armed forces, america, rva


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