He was sitting next to Kevin when I met him. Kevin had an easy, slow smile, twinkling warm eyes, and quiet humor. This guy, however, buzzed with energy. Kev gestured to his companion and introduced me. “Kim, this is my best friend, Jeff. He’s shipping out to Afghanistan in a week.” I looked at Jeff, and my heart started to break.
There was nothing about Jeff that wasn’t beautiful. He had a laser gaze and a demeanor that announced itself with a clarion whisper. He owned the world. I skipped the handshake and went for a full-body hug. “When you come home, tell me we have a date. My husband can suck it up.” All three of us laughed.
The first time he came home, there were ghosts with him. We didn’t have a date, but we talked. I forgot that I wasn’t supposed to ask him questions so I did. He gave me answers.
He told me how the men in Afghanistan were in charge of the merchandise and the women and children in charge of procurement. So when we would drop huge bags of rice in the middle of a town to help rebuild it, the men were immediately rendered powerless. So they regained their sense of control the only way they knew - by beating the women and children.
He told me how much he loved his country and how he knew it could and would do better. He told me he couldn’t tell me about the ghosts, because it would hurt me to know what he knew and he loved me too much. And he told me why he was going back.
“I have to keep my men alive.”
After a total of three tours, Afghanistan and Iraq, he came home for good. I didn’t see him then.
I was sitting with Kevin when he went to chemotherapy every week. Kevin’s mother didn’t get many breaks as she watched her son disappear to cancer, and it was one of the few things I could do to help. But Jeff never showed up. Kevin and I both knew why.
“He can’t keep me alive. He’s used to fighting wars he at least has a shot at winning.”
I don’t give a fuck what Jeff saw in Iraq or Afghanistan, his greatest act of courage was coming to Kevin’s memorial and asking forgiveness. His ghosts had graduated to demons by then. But he spoke of love.
I would bring him to my home so we could talk with the buffer of a dog and a tennis ball. I heard struggle on top of struggle and the demons swirled. The phrase that made them laugh was, “My benefits have run out.”
How do benefits run out for a man who has done what he did? How do you put a price tag on someone’s willingness to die for you? How do you calculate the depth of the wound caused by killing for you? How do you decide the worth of taking a rusted, blunted knife to the connection between a man and those who love him? How the fuck?
October 24, Jeff wrote, “Even bamboo has its breaking point.” My heart finished breaking.
I never got my date. Twenty-two a day take their lives. I refuse to believe any losses are “acceptable”. But this…