Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Charming Smile of a Veteran

Today is Veteran's Day here in the U.S. Usually, that doesn't mean much to me, but today, I get the day off.
I haven't spent much of my life thinking about Veterans. Sure, my mother's four brothers fought in World War II or the Korean War, and my father's brother also fought in the Korean War, but my father didn't. My brothers didn't. Now I have a nephew who travels on a U.S. sub to places he can't disclose, and still I don't think much about veterans.
Lately though, they've been showing up in my classes. They add a lot to our discussions. They've seen things most of us never will -- if we're lucky. Most of the veterans in my classes seem to be Marines. I'm not sure why I don't see soldiers who were in the Army, Navy or Air Force, but almost all of the vets are Marines who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of them have injuries, although they aren't obvious, like missing a limb.
This summer, Chad waltzed into my class. I try to picture him the way he was in July. He had and still has a beautiful smile. It's obvious that he's used to charming people. A flash of his smile and a knowing look from his big brown eyes.
He's intelligent and honest. He admitted he hadn't bought the books for the class and planned to get through without shelling out the money. Not reading the stories in our anthology doesn't deter him from joining the discussion. He's had a lot of life experiences for a 23-year-old. He's also excellent at BS.
This fall, Chad walked into my English class, the next in the series he has to complete.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, surprised but also delighted to see him.
"All the other classes were full," he winked.
This fall, Chad is still charming, but it has turned a bit. To the rest of the class, he seems full of himself and not serious about working. When I was pairing up students to work together, I told Logan she would work with Chad.
"No." The word burst from Logan.
Logan worked alone and I paired Heidi with him.
"He's good at this stuff, Heidi," I told the Dominican girl who seemed hesitant.
And Chad is good at writing essays. He gets an A most of the time.
Part of me wants to give the class a lecture on the way they have judged Chad. "He has seen his friends die and has been injured himself," I want to tell them. But I don't.
Chad seems to get angrier in class. He's mad at his classmates. He peppers his language with f-ing everything, language appropriate for marines perhaps, but language he didn't use before. He's mad about the essays we discuss. He turns in a rough draft that is full of "fill-in-the-blank" lines that he will do later.
I spend more time talking to Chad. I call him up after class.
"What's going on?"
He shakes his head. Trying to do too many hours. The medication.
"You seem really angry to me. Have you talked to somebody?"
"The f-ing counselor at the VA, every time I go there all they do is play chess. Nobody talks."
I picture the Doonesbury cartoon where the vets are playing chess with the counselor.
I give Chad the name of a good counselor. She isn't at the VA, but maybe she can help.
After the weekend, I ask if he got in contact with the counselor.
"You didn't give me a number," he says.
I look up the number online during class and give it to him.
"Are you living with your parents?" I ask.
I'm kind of nervous that I might be the only safety net Chad has. I vaguely remember that Chad's parents are professionals of some sort, doctors or attorneys. He talks about a little sister who goes to high school in Columbus.
"No, man, I haven't seen them for awhile," he says.
The most recent essay was about future careers. Chad wants to be a politician, and, the Chad from this summer will be a charming politician, winning votes with his smile. But I worry that Chad may be gone. He got an 80 percent on that paper.
So today, I'm thinking about veterans. Not the ones who march in parades and who served in long ago wars, but boys who come home from Iraq and Afghanistan and try to piece their lives back together. The ones who show up in my classroom and they are fine, until they aren't any more and there is no one there to catch them.


Sheila said...

that made me very teary. I hope you have an influence on him.

Linda said...

What a sad story and I'm sure there are many more like him, sort of left out of the loop. I hope he makes it.

BFF said...

I have a brother-in-law who ought in the first Iraq war. He is whole but not the same. His behavior seems strange to us sometimes and god bless my sister because I would kill him. I never think about his aberrations in realtion to his service. Now I do. Thanks. Good luck Chad. We need decent politicians and decent people

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