Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Young Marine and the Old Cop

Since returning from Iraq in October, 2004, I have met many other Iraq war veterans as I worked the streets of Central Florida as a police officer. The following op-ed article recalls one of those encounters:

Special to the Orlando Sentinel
October 26, 2005

The young Marine, in his dress-blue uniform, sat in the passenger seat of the car. He was visibly upset and his new wife, in a formal dress, stood helplessly nearby. I was the cop, called to the hotel parking lot at 3 a.m. for a disturbance. Now that I had found it, I had to fix it.

Walking up to the Marine, I glanced at his uniform and immediately recognized the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. This meant he had been overseas in the war on terror, probably to either Iraq or Afghanistan. He had been drinking at his wedding reception and his wife said he wouldn’t get out of the car.

I asked him where he had been overseas and, staring straight ahead, he said, “Fallujah,” a major battleground for Marines in Iraq. When I asked him how long ago, he said he had only been back for a couple of months.

Then he started to cry.

I knelt down next to the car and told him that I was an Army sergeant and that I had also been in Iraq, stationed in Baghdad. He suddenly looked at me with a look of “recognition”, that unique way that one war veteran looks at another. Through wet eyes he said that “they”, meaning the insurgents, had killed his friends. It was clear now that the problem was post-traumatic stress.

As I put my hand on the shoulder of this strapping young Marine, I told him that I knew how he felt, and I did. When I was his age, I was returning from Vietnam with similar memories. I told him that it had been 34 years since I returned from that war and I can still see the faces of my friends who died there. After my tour in Iraq, I have new faces to add to the old memories.

After he calmed down a little, he agreed to let me help him to his room. I asked him if he was still on active duty, and he said he was on leave but planned to spend his whole life in the Marines. I smiled to myself. He was a spiritually “wounded” warrior, but he was still a warrior.

As we reached the hotel room, I looked at him and shook his hand. I told him that he had lost a great deal in Iraq, but he had also been given a great gift. He asked me what I meant.

I explained to him that he had been given a chance to teach other Marines the warrior skills he had learned in combat. Now that he is an experienced infantryman, he not only has the opportunity, but the obligation, to pass his knowledge on to new Marines. This would be the best way for him to honor his fallen comrades. He promised that he would do so.

Then he began to cry again. I put my arm around him as a father would for a son. I did feel his pain and briefly my own pain returned, giving me a lump in my throat. What a sight we must have been, the old cop embracing the young Marine.

At one point the young man said, “They just don’t understand.” He was talking about the rest of the world – the non-warriors – those for whom we carry the sword. I told him that, no, most do not understand and never will. That is why we take care of each other, just as we did in war.

Then the new husband joined his bride in their room.

I walked outside into a hot summer night and returned to my job on the street.

It was time for a cup of coffee.

SFC Chuck Grist

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