Last week my parents, Swiss and I went over to the on-post bowling alley for a little friendly competition (the bowling is a weird tradition that somehow grew out of my Mom goading Swiss about how she could kick his butt bowling... now we do it every time we are together). There was a birthday party for a sweet little girl in the 3 lanes next to us- it was chock full of the prototypical young military families all laughing and bowling (badly, just like us) and celebrating. But amongst the couples and the kids... there was a young man. He looked to be in his early twenties, fresh faced, clean cut in perfect military style... his manner was quiet and easy, he was good with the kids... but he wasn't bowling.
I thought nothing of it.
Then I saw him turn around. Splitting the dark hairs of his high and tight were two massive scars. One, a wide path running from the base of his neck, along his spine, up to the middle of his scull. The other was a crescent shaped scar standing out like a sliver of the moon against a field of dark brown.
I didn't pity him, he seemed to be doing fine. Out with friends, an otherwise normal young man, still in the Army, still living his life. He moved without any other indications of permanent damage and while quiet, he had an unmistakable confidence about him. But... those scars. Those were awfully big scars for a man so young. My heart sank.
It made me think back to the times that Swiss and I would be out on post... at the Shopette, Food Court, the Commissary... when you would see the men with the scars. The physical manifestations of whatever horrors they saw in combat... their lasting reminders of this war, this career, the marks that will always stay with them. Maybe you have seen them too- maybe not- living on post, I suppose, make these encounters all the more common. I remember the man in the Food Court last summer with most of the left side of his face caved in, probably 10 surgeries in to the 20 that it will take the plastic surgeon to try and make it look normal again. The man too young to be limping and walking with a cane coming out of the Shopette with a case of beer in the other hand. The burns. The scars. The eye patches. The men who you can't help but notice, but don't want to stare at... the ones who don't act ashamed (nor should they) but who clearly have so much more to cope with, deal with, face every morning when they look in the mirror.
I don't want to be all maudlin about this and I don't want to come off as melodramatic. But I look at Swiss, the bullet hole an Iraqi insurgent put in his calf... his own lasting reminder of this war, and wonder. Just the other day I caught myself staring at the bright white dot, encircled with dark, purplish skin and the oddly smooth texture of it... and I couldn't help but think of how different it all could have been if that bullet was a few inches higher, if there had been more than one, if the insurgent had been closer. Would he have that leg? Would he be able to go out and run and chase the dog and be the vibrant, active man I know? He was a lucky one.
It all makes me feel foolish for the trials and tribulations I 'dealt' with as a twenty-something. The "dramas" and "issues" I had to cope with while in my youth... where not getting a class or a phone call by a guy or office politics were the major trials in my life. I didn't have to worry about what someone of the opposite sex would think of my burns or amputated leg. I never had to worry about sidelong glances at my scars. I can't fathom having to deal with those things, on top of the horrors of war, of facing your own mortality, or the prospect of living the rest of your life knowing it will be colored by this war and the wounds you bear. I can't fathom it.
I don't have some grand point to make, nor do I have an agenda to push in regards to this... I guess I just wanted to remind all of us, for it is easy to forget when you don't see it. I wanted to remind us that there is a cost to this war... not paid in money, oil or body counts. Some of these debts are less obvious... paid in forever altered lifestyles and appearances... paid with limbs and youth and innocence. It is paid, bit by bit, every day by those who served, those who were injured, those who will never be the same.