A friend of mine may or may not have lost his legs to an IED in an undisclosed location in the last calendar year. I was thinking about him today while I was walking down the street tonight, in the direction of the sunset. Given the advances we have made in prosthetics, he will probably be able to walk, after a fashion, some day. Which is a pretty neat thing. Maybe some time soon we will walk down the street towards the sunset together.
I think it’s odd, and disturbing, that we use euphemisms for things like this. It’s not like he woke up one morning and said “holy shit, where are my legs,” and then went around town putting up posters: “LOST: two legs, tanned, medium build, please call if found.” I didn’t send him a card that said “sorry about the legs dude, I hope they turn up soon.” No. One day his legs were there, hanging out, lending a foot so to speak, and then the next they were gone, tossed in a biohazard bin and incinerated because they were unsalvageable. They are not “lost,” because lost implies some possibility of return.
I think that perhaps our way of processing pain and trauma is to abstract it. People don’t die, they pass on. People don’t commit suicide, they take their lives–take them where, exactly? Will they bring them back when they’re done? Irreparable changes in our lives, things we cannot come back from, are “losses.” Acknowledging the fact of what has happened, for me, is the first step in coming to terms with it. Maybe I’m different. Maybe the rest of the world prefers to think of a world where lost loved ones hang out, like a giant waiting room, hoping someone finds them again. Maybe all the body parts are there too, hanging out in the corner. “Are you my hip socket?,” the femur says. I wonder if my pair of lucky lime green paisley underwear is there too.
This war going on here, this is a pretty fucked thing, and I think we are getting sort of inured to it. I open the Chronicle every day and skim over “six Marines killed by suicide bomber,” or “bodies of two Air Force pilots found,” or “car bomb explodes, injuring four soldiers.” I go straight for the hard hitting news, like: “Puppy found in dumpster adopted,” and “teenagers graduate high school.” But the thing is that someone, somewhere, knows these people. And they might not even realize it. It’s not like your Chronicle is going to come with a tag: “ATTENTION! Someone you know died in Iraq yesterday! Turn to page six!”
A lot of men and women are coming back from the war broken, which is a tradition for all wars. Not just broken in the physical sense, although the amount of war casualties is rather shocking. (Part of the tragedy is that these injuries would have killed soldiers in the past, thus allowing us to ennoble them–now they return to the States in the dead of night for rehabilitation, hidden from view. ’cause no one likes a crip.) They used to call it shell shock, war neurosis, soldier’s heart, battle fatigue. Now they call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and they still shuffle it under the carpet. Whatever you call it, the mental strain put on the women and men fighting this war is immense and intense–and there’s little support on our end to help these people integrate into normal life. The VA doesn’t recognize a large number of PTSD cases, and so most of them go home and can’t figure out why normal life is so hard all of a sudden. When was the last time you saw an Iraq veteran rolling down the street? Where are these people? Why are they being hidden from us, why are they living half lives in another world? Why aren’t they up in our faces, saying “hey asshole, you paid for this with your tax dollars. That there is some wack shit, man!”
I suspect that daily denial makes it possible for me to wake up every morning thinking something other than what the fuck are we doing in Iraq? No, seriously. This is a complete waste of time and I’m totally pissed. I’m going to go write another angry letter to my congressman today. Instead I amble over to Headlands to buy the paper and I do the Sudoku, and my pressing thought for the morning is is this really a nine? What if it’s not a nine, and I do the whole puzzle like it is one, and it doesn’t solve because really it’s a four? But I can’t leave it blank, because I’m pretty sure it’s a nine. Why do I have this pressing need to do Sudoku in pen? But for some reason we as a society are able to compartmentalize what is going on, able to carry on a conversation about how the war is shitty and then talk about what’s for dinner.
I imagine that’s rather more difficult for veterans experiencing combat stress. And unfortunately, they aren’t speaking out about it because they are too busy trying to wake up every day, to function, to go to the grocery store without breaking down. They are too busy learning to use prosthetics, being bullied into doing physically and emotionally traumatic physical therapy (disclaimer: physical therapy is awesome, and great, but it is also really hard, and yes people must be bullied into it sometimes, but it’s bullying with love). My friends who have come back haven’t come back in the sense of “here I am, well, that was exciting, hey let’s go to a movie.” Their physical bodies are here, some of them even whole, but their hearts and minds are somewhere else, reliving a hell I can’t really imagine.
We all tiptoe about and euphemize and everything is dandy, yes the world is fucked but hey we’ve got to weed the tomatoes anyway. I suppose it’s unreasonable to think we should go around the world being angry all the damn time, but sometimes I am walking down the street towards the sunset and I am struck by the ineffable sadness of it all. It’s like for an instant someone has pried the cover off and I am dumbfounded by the fact that I am walking down the street thinking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer when people I know are dying in a war my government is waging, and I have a holy shit moment and stop in the middle of the sidewalk. And there’s a cool afternoon breeze and a car drives by and I hear a dog barking and I think how can this be so normal.
And then in the midst of all this existential musing on life, the universe, and everything, some fucking asshole decided to wolf whistle at me, because apparently the image of my femininity frozen in thought on the sidewalk was just so damn appealing that he had to share. Hey boys, let me tell you something, being catcalled at is never flattering, empowering, or awesome. It’s rude, irritating, and frustrating. In fact, it only cements my growing opinion that I should never go outside because it seems like whenever I do I am either stricken with sadness or rage, sometimes at the same time.
I turned to him and said “hey, my friend just lost his legs, have you seen them?”
No, I didn’t. I flipped him off and strode briskly down the sidewalk filled with righteous rage while strains of what the fuck, bitch echoed behind me.