This is no ordinary Veteran’s Day for me. Sure, I’ve been supportive to our military personnel in word, donations, and thought, but without an emotional connection. Something in me has changed, and it happened on a Thursday in Roseville, California. I get to meet amazing individuals as I write my latest book GriefINK—a non-fiction pictorial and narrative about memorial tattoos, their meaning, the back story, and how we carry our lost loved ones through tattoo. On an ordinary Thursday, I had an extraordinary experience while interviewing Jonathan, a humble young man who served in Afghanistan.
Jonathan’s tight-knit company was stationed in Mushan, Afghanistan; what he and his brothers call “Moosh”. He was part of an elite company of soldiers known as Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technicians.
“We walked everywhere because the terrain was horrible. We were in amazing physical shape. We’d attach to an infantry unit, find an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), render it safe, and dispose of it. There were so many people around me who got hurt. We carried around 80 pounds on our back: food, water, robotics, IED/metal detectors, explosives, evidence collection equipment, clothes. We were constantly getting shot at. I believed I was untouchable; we had an invincibility complex over there; we couldn’t function without that. We couldn’t think or feel when others got hurt, or we would freeze up.”
During his 8th month, Jonathan and two other team members were severely injured while trying to clear an IED. Jonathan was thrown ten feet into a wall. He shattered his arm, suffered a fist-sized hole in his armpit, blew out his eardrum, lost tissue in one leg, and incurred a traumatic brain injury. He spent a month in a VA hospital. “EOD Warrior Foundation was good to me. They sent an iPad and other things to help pass the time in the hospital.”
It took thirteen surgeries to repair his injuries.
“I had a hard time being hurt, and felt very helpless. I wanted to go back. I lost the connection with my unit, couldn’t stay active, and suddenly I wasn’t able to shut out the worry and stress that served me in the field, especially when other guys got hurt. What I survived was not as hard as hearing about others getting hurt or killed over there. I was no longer invincible; I was broken.”
Life also looked and felt different for Jonathan once he left the hospital and returned home. At twenty-four, most of his friends were in college, working, or starting families, and he felt five years behind everyone. The trauma he experienced made it more difficult to relate to friends and family, and yet, Jonathan very much sees himself as a survivor, not a victim.
“My close friends know I’ve gotten hurt, and they are supportive, but I really don’t talk about what happened in Moosh. Some people treat me as if I’m fragile, and that’s annoying. Or, someone may go through a hard time, and while they’re telling me about it, they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s nothing like what you went through.’”
For veterans like Jonathan, reintegrating into civilian life can feel like dropping in to a foreign county; home is unfamiliar, and sometimes unsettling. Despite his injuries, Jonathan is creating new meaning in his life, with attendance at a four-year college on the horizon.
“I’m all right, but I was more than all right before I got injured.” And yet, he acknowledges that his life could be radically different; different like one of his closest military brothers who risked his safety; whose self-sacrifice resulted in a double amputation, and two years in a VA hospital.
Veteran’s Day: a day off of work, or school. The gift of meeting Jonathan spurs me to reflect on my freedom, and know that my rights aren’t free. Take a moment to whisper a prayer of thanks, make a donation, post something on Facebook, send an email, or pick up the phone, and thank a veteran who set aside his/her comfort and safety so that we have can have ours.
To donate to EOD Warrior Foundation and/or Wounded Warrior Project—non-profits dedicated to injured veterans and their families—visit the links below.
Photo is of the EOD memorial in Florida. It has a plaque with the names of every EOD tech who died in each of the four branches of the military. Every year there is a ceremony to add the names of the individuals who died that year.