(This article was written several weeks ago on a bobbing boat. It’s particularly apropos for Memorial Day)
The first leg of our British Virgin Island (BVI) sailing adventure started at 6 a.m. at the SeaTac Airport. Because we’d gotten up a 3:30 a.m. all I wanted to do was sleep. Happily, Rich and I were seated in a row with just two seats across. There would be no third person to see me snooze with my mouth wide open and head bobbing from side-to-side as the plane pitched.
Before all of the passengers had been seated, the man across the aisle from us struck up a conversation. He was lamenting the ridiculous charge of $8 for a blanket. He commented that he was “willing to pay two smiles, but not $8.” Then again, with airlines charging for checked luggage, snacks, and in some instances, use of the bathroom, every creature comfort, even a blanket, becomes fair game for a tacking on a fee.
The man, whose name we later learned was Nick, was wearing nondescript white shorts, a tee shirt, white socks, canvas shoes, and a baseball hat. He was eager to talk and was perpetually fidgeting, rubbing his nose, adjusting his hat, scratching his leg, and putting Chapstick on his lips. In spite of the early hour, he was wide-awake and eager to strike up a conversation. He was moving from Fort Lewis, an hour south of Seattle, to the Brooke Army Medical Center outside San Antonio, to be closer to his family. He let slipped that he had been in Afghanistan. My ears perked up.
Not wanting to miss details of his deployment, I fought the urge to sleep and listened to him recount his recent trip, snowboarding at Snoqualmie in eastern Washington. Rich, having been a snowboard instructor for six years, was delighted to talk shop about boards, snow conditions, and other tedious details on how to skim down a hill on a narrow board with your feet restrained in heavy boots.
I continued reading a TIME magazine. Ironically, the lead article was on a captain and his company’s attempts to reopen a school in Afghanistan. Sensing a break in the conversation, I handed the magazine to Rich, with a page open to a map of Afghanistan, and asked that he have Nick point out where he deployed. He was east of Kandahar in an area where the roads where lined with pomegranate trees and an occasional vegetable garden and trees with apple so thickly skinned that he couldn’t abide eating them.
From what we could gather, Nick joined the Army in 2007, after the construction business collapsed in Florida and his plans to travel abroad with friends fell through. He ended up leading a team that patrolled an area crawling with the insurgence. He spoke of the camaraderie and the extraordinary experience of training then closely bonding with members of his squadron.
One fateful morning, however, an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded during his patrol, knocking him unconscious for ten minutes. Later that afternoon, his team encountered another IED. Even though Nick appeared not be injured, the force of the IEDs damaged his equilibrium. His speech, memory, and balance were severely impacted.
Just as a baby is harmed when shaken too hard, an explosion or sharp jolt can cause ones brain to knock against the skull, causing traumatic brain injury (TBI). It’s estimated that two-thirds of all soldiers wounded in Iraq suffer from TBI. The rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and other explosive devices commonly used in Iraq create concussive shock blasts that damage the brain.
Even though Nick enjoyed living in Washington, he was excited about being with his family in Texas. He was hopeful his continual headaches would be alleviated. He explained how they can be completely debilitating, making it impossible for him to do anything more than wish them away. Several times during our conversation, he reached into his backpack for a prescription bottle and gulped down a pill.
It was heartbreaking to listen to him occasionally struggle to find the right word, especially after he explained that he loves to read and used to have a rich vocabulary. His constant fidgeting confirmed the damage that’d been done to his cerebral cortex. We gave him a card with our contact information and asked that he jot down on another card his contact information. He struggled to write his email address, clutching the pen and straining to keep his hand and arm steady.
We unfortunately lost his contact information during our sailing adventure. It would have been nice to have kept in touch. Or maybe not.
Nick put a face on the horrors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He joined the Army on a whim when his plans to travel with friends fell through. In the end, he got his wish, traveling to a hellish country with men who became his closest friends, training, patrolling, and forming a tight unit to protect each other.
Then twice, on a fateful day, the normalcy of his life ended. We’ll never know the outcome of his rehabilitation or whether he moves forward with his life, getting a job, marrying, and having kids. In spite of everything, not a bitter or angry word came from his mouth. He was joyful and determined to grab every opportunity that came his way.
This Memorial Day, Nick is the face we’ll recall when we think about the thousands of men and women who’ve paid a high price to defend America.