Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Identity Born of Fire

I was sitting in the lab one day, messing around with circuits and generally trying to avoid serious work, when a friend of mine said something to me. He was on my right and I couldn't hear him very well. I asked him to repeat. He asked me why I could never hear him. It was then that I decided to let him in on a side of me that rarely ever comes out.

“I was blown up by a suicide bomber in Iraq,” I said. This coming out of the mouth of a mild-mannered physics student was a little strange. He stared for a second, perhaps waiting for me to crack a smile and laugh at my own joke. I stared back.

“Are you serious?” he asked. I smiled inwardly. It happens like this every time. I let out my “secret” and people are dumbfounded.

“Yeah, that's why I can't hear in my right ear.” I responded. “I also have a bunch of scars on my leg. Wanna see?” I pulled up my left pant leg and the stare began again. My left leg, from the tips of my toe to right below the torso, is covered in scars. My right leg has a few, along with two on my left bicep and one behind my right ear. These aren't cool scars like the ones in the movies that are single straight lines; these are jagged, rough, huge patches of off-colored skin. It takes a couple minutes to comprehend that this is a real leg and not some elaborate make-up trick.

He was silent. “I was in the Marines, went to Iraq, was relatively safe until a suicide bomber killed two people and injured myself and another Marine,” I said.

It's a heavy story (you can read more about it here:, one that most college students hear about only on the news. To me, it is a fact of life. At the time, it had been five years since that fateful day and since then I married a beautiful woman and started attending school. I had learned to cope with my injury and was lucky to escape from serious psychological trauma. We talked some more. I showed him some shrapnel pieces still under my skin and used a magnet to get the full effect. He asked some pretty common questions (“Did you see him coming?” No. “Do you remember everything?” After the blast, yes. “Did you kill anyone?” Thankfully, no. “What's Iraq like?” Hot, sandy.). Then he said something that affected me deeply.

“I just can't look at you the same way anymore.” It wasn't offensive and he certainly didn't mean any harm, but it made me think hard about my whole experience.

Well, why can’t you? I'm still me, Josiah White. I like to run and jump around (when my knees can take it) and crack jokes, and I get frustrated over a hard physics problem. I'm the guy you knew a couple of hours ago who never stood out for any reason. I'm like the tens of thousands of white male twentysomethings who are secretly afraid of the future. I'm like you, only a little older than the average college student, and a lot more beat up. How does seeing my scars and knowing my past change how you see me at this moment?

Our relationship—one built on joking with each other and mutual dislike of excessive math—continued on almost as normal. The quarter ended and we reveled and/or sulked over our final grades. I went on a road trip over the summer with my wife and worked at an internship churning through mountains of data for one of my professors. My fellow students and I met back at the start of Fall quarter ready to begin again.

Still, those words stayed with me. It was the one phrase that defined my last five years of interaction with civilians. Iraq and Afghanistan are thousands of miles away and back in some half-remembered part of the zeitgeist. Someone who has been injured over there is even more uncommon. As I started school and became more comfortable with my new life, I drifted away from my fellow veterans, and away from people who understood me and my injury. All one has to say is “Purple Heart” to a vet and the story is three-quarters told. With civilians though, a whole book opens at just the mention of Iraq, and my injury and scars only add on chapters that I am obligated to tell. Gone is the group that understands me. I am now a stranger in a familiar land.

I don't mind telling my story. I don't mind showing my scars. Part of my recovery was being open about the experience. (At times, yes, I can be very self conscious about my legs. Living in Southern California, shorts are a requirement. When I wear them, I find myself subconsciously crossing my less-scarred right leg over my left. In the gym I catch people staring at my leg as I stretch.) After a while though, telling my story and showing my scars got boring—at least to me—and I started finding creative ways to truncate it, or avoid telling the story altogether. I wish I had a little book I could pull out of my back pocket and hand to the curious just so I wouldn't have to spend time telling my life story to another stunned face. What’s worse is that the longer I build a relationship with somebody without first telling them about my experience, the harder it is when I eventually have to explain everything.

That was the case with my fellow classmate. He and I got along fine before. For all he knew, I was another twenty-one year old kid going to college straight out of high school. But suddenly, within the span of an hour, I transformed from plucky student to battled-hardened Marine. How does a relationship stay the same with such an apparent character shift in one of its members?

So how do I foster a relationship with someone without first creeping them out? (“Hi, nice to meet you. I have eight pieces of shrapnel in my legs and President Bush awarded me the Purple Heart.”) When does the time come when I reveal the “rest” of who I am? Why do I have to maintain such a fractured personality? Why can't I just be Me, instead of just Mild-Mannered College Student, or just Battled-Hardened Warrior?
I don't want my war experiences to dominate my life, and I don't want them to be forgotten. I have to find a way to politely say “Yes, this is who I am. Now, can we move on to more recent things?” Perhaps it will never be easy. How can it be when less than one percent of the population serves in the military and a small percentage of them have been wounded in war? I want to be normal, but first I must accept that—in some small part—I am not. Instead of forcing people to see me in a way that I desire, I should instead strive to foster a relationship between the wounded and the curious. And not just people wounded in war, but anyone—civilian or military service-member—who has suffered some sort of trauma.

Special thank to my friend Sui Solitaire for helping me get this thing out of the door.

1 comment:

  1. While I am not a vet or a military person, I have a story in my past that most people find shocking. I never know how to bring it up, especially on dates. How long do you have to know someone before you tell them that your mother was kidnapped out of your home, held hostage and used in a bank robbery?

    To me it is simply fact. Yes, it happened. Yes, we were changed by it. But my family has had so many other things that have changed us as well. It does not stand out to me as a massive block of time. It was one day. We took a while to get over it but the car accident years later was worse, or my father losing his job. The kidnapping was a blip on the radar but people are shocked to hear about it.

    I do not think there is a good way to tell people about it. Once I have known people a while and know they are going to be good friends I bring up the old family histories. I think if it is not a major defining moment for me then they should be able to accept it and move on.