Ask him about his medals, and he’ll politely demur—smile and say that he doesn’t really like to talk about them, doesn’t even look at them himself, they’re shoved in a dresser drawer along with some Hanes T shirts and his socks. Not that he isn’t glad to have them. Mostly, it’s because none of them are really his alone. To his thinking, the purple heart was just as much the Afghani insurgent’s who made the IED, and the bronze star should have been given to the five members of his platoon who didn’t make it back.
He didn’t bring his legs home, brought instead new ones made of metal and plastic. He’s learning to get around, likes to call himself The Terminator. Sometimes he laughs when he says that. Sometimes he doesn’t.
He says it’s tough coming back to the world. Afghanistan was no paradise (no doubt about that), but things were different there. Life gets stripped down to the barest of essentials in a warzone. You learn to take pleasure in the little things—a hot meal, a cold shower, the sunrise after a long night of firefights and RPG attacks. He’ll tell you that the reason he picked up his weapon every day, the reason he fought, wasn’t so much for freedom or America, but to protect the men and women who fought beside him. To make sure they all came home.
A lot of them didn’t. He has dreams about that sometimes. Sometimes he’ll be running towards his friends, hearing their screams and calls for help, and he says they are awful dreams but at least in those dreams he still has his legs.
He isn’t bitter. He knew what he was signing up for, where he would likely be deployed. His life now is just another challenge, one he’ll meet. I think he’s right. I pray for it. He’s still trying to get used to his new life. Right now, he’s stuck in some sort of earthly purgatory, a thin place between his world before and his world after. He’s finding his way, but the way is hard. Right now, he’s doing some odd jobs, making some home repairs and cutting people’s grass. There’s nothing like the smell of fresh-cut grass, he says. That more than anything else tells him that he’s home.
There’s a lot of talk about heroes nowadays. The term is bandied about with a kind of recklessness, given to everyone from athletes to tornado survivors to political activists. The word “hero” is a lot like the word “love” in that way. It’s used for so many things in so many situations that meaning of the word gets watered down. It loses its power.
But he’s a hero. I have no doubt about that. This man who still dreams of hell and uses a thin, curved piece of heavy plastic to push the gas pedal on his John Deere mower. Who will replace your toilet or paint your living room. This man who left half of himself in the desert for all of us.
This man who’s just trying to find his way.
God bless him.