By David Chrisinger
I threw Brett a going-away party at my mother’s house the night before he left for boot camp. It was a month or so after we graduated from high school. Summer of 2005. My mother was out of town visiting her old college friends, so my friends and I had the house to ourselves. While most everyone who came sat on the yellow-orange leather furniture in the living room drinking crappy beer or on the rusted deck chairs outside the back door smoking menthol cigarettes, Brett and I crawled out my bedroom window onto the roof of the front porch. The night was cool and dry, which was unusual for Northern Wisconsin in June. For a couple hours we sat there, sipping warm cans of Miller Lite he had stolen from his old man, our legs dangling off the edge of the roof with nothing underneath them.
I didn’t really know what to talk about with Brett. He was leaving for war—every Marine’s gotta fight, he told me—and I was going to college to play football and study the history of modern Europe. There wasn’t much to say, except that I was going to miss him and I hoped he’d come home in one piece.
He says he still remembers Whitney’s face when he told her he was enlisting. They were leaning up against Brett’s black Ford Ranger in the parking lot of Hardee’s. He just blurted it out. No discussion. No consultation. No lead up. Whitney felt hurt and dismayed. She thought their relationship meant more to Brett than it seemed to that day. She was also scared. Not about him being gone. It was more that he might not ever return, or that he might not return himself.
Brett didn’t have the grades or the money for college, and there was also this sense of meaninglessness he felt he had to do something about. When I asked Brett why he had enlisted, he told me shooting rifles and blowing stuff up sounded cool and he didn’t know what else to do with his life. He told me he got the idea after he saw a commercial on TV where a strapping young Marine dashes through the snow and slays a lava monster on the rim of a volcano.
To mollify Whitney and his rightfully concerned, Brett agreed to avoid the infantry. He wanted to become a police officer after he got out anyway, so he decided to become a Presidential Guard. Then during boot camp, he made friends with a few Marines who were on their way to becoming Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team members (FAST for short, though Brett told me that FAST really stood for “Fake Ass SEAL Team”). He was captivated by the promise of travel and adventure.
“The problem,” Brett told me after he left the service, “is that no one considers FAST guys to be ‘real Marines.’ We’re not in the shit in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Then one night in 2007, Brett and his friends were drinking in the barracks at Virginia Beach and an officer came into his room looking for combat replacements to go to Iraq. He wouldn’t be doing what he had been trained to do in FAST, but at least he could say he had been there—that he’d actually done something. Without hesitation, Brett volunteered. The rest of those in the room declined. “I know it’s dumb, but looking back I was so proud of myself,” Brett told me. “I showed I had the biggest balls in the room.”
It was a surprise to me when my wife and I received an invitation to Brett and Whitney’s wedding in the late summer of 2009. I was living in Chicago, attending graduate school, and since he’d left for boot camp, Brett and I had seen each other only a handful of times—usually when he was home on leave between deployments. Each time we ran into one another, it felt like we had drifted further and further apart.
At the reception, in between the chicken dance and “Cotton Eye Joe,” I found Brett leaning against a post in the corner of the reception area. He asked me about graduate school as he scanned the dancing crowd. We locked eyes for a moment after I asked about Afghanistan. After I returned my RSVP, Whitney told me in an email that Brett would be deploying a couple weeks after the wedding. He looked down at the Solo cup of beer he’d been sipping; it seemed like he was sick of people asking about it. After a moment, he told me he’d gotten hooked up with a great gig. Probably wouldn’t see much action, he said. I smiled and nodded. He and I had both changed so much since that night on the roof. I wanted to know more about his deployment, but I couldn’t find the right words. I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of voyeur or just another uninformed civilian.
Almost a year and a half after the wedding, my wife and I were living in Washington, D.C., expecting our first child. I had finished my master’s program the year Brett was in Afghanistan, and he and I hadn’t seen each other since he’d left for that deployment. Sitting on the floor of my bedroom just after midnight one evening in February, unable to sleep, I flipped open my laptop and logged on to Facebook. Brett was logged on too, so I sent him a message and asked how he was doing. He began typing. “Not that good, man,” he wrote. “I think I’m kinda fucked up.”
A wave of panic built in my stomach. Don’t write anything stupid, I thought. I took a deep breath. Seconds passed. It felt like forever. His typing bubble reappeared. He was really struggling, he wrote. He had frequent panic attacks. He couldn’t shake whatever was going on. He was drinking too much and missed being with his guys. Whitney, he said, didn’t get it.
Several months later, I flew back home to Wisconsin and told Brett I’d stop in to see him while I was around. The night we met for beers at a restaurant near his home, he wore a dark T-shirt, jeans, and a white baseball cap with a curved brim, which he’d pulled down low over his eyes. His hair was cropped close to his head, a stark contrast to the scraggly black beard that covered his rough and angular chin. His eyes were puffy and tired, and even after he settled into his seat at the table, his shoulders stayed pulled up, almost to his ears.
Just like that night on Facebook, we didn’t waste time with small talk. He tried not to think too much about Afghanistan, he said, but most of the time he couldn’t help it. The day he would never forget, he said, was January 9th, 2010, the day a 23-year-old Marine and an embedded journalist were killed—six other Marines were seriously wounded—when their armored vehicle was nearly cut in half and tossed 35 feet in the air by 200 hundred pounds of explosives buried in the road near Nawa, in southern Afghanistan.
Brett’s memories of his convoy being attacked and the distressed cries that rose from the mound of mangled bodies in the back of the armored vehicle would skip in his mind over more sanguine memories like a broken record. While he talked, he mostly looked at the tall can of Miller Lite he was practically strangling with his calloused hands. Occasionally he’d whip his head around to check what was going on behind him.
In the middle of detailing the worst days of his life, Brett would pause and look up at me to see how I was reacting. I made a point not to look away. Even though our lives had diverged after high school, Brett was still my friend. I needed him to know that, but I struggled, again, to find the right words. Whenever he looked at me, I locked eyes with him, surrendering to the indescribable telepathy that had taken hold of us. There was no need to speak. It was his turn to talk and my turn to listen. It was my hope that he would see through my silence that there was nothing he could say to make me think less of him.
The enormity of Brett’s grief and his overpowering sense of loss were simply too much for him to process at first, let alone share with Whitney. Instead, he acted angry, abrupt. He didn’t understand why, and he felt there wasn’t much he could do about it. He was living in a strange world where the rules and conditions were quite different from those he had grown accustomed to in the Marine Corps. Once the anger subsided, depression would set in.
After five years in the Marine Corps, seemingly going somewhere, Brett came home for good and found himself on the outside, going nowhere in particular. He missed the Corps’ cloistered universe of regimental life, where he knew he had a place. The instant he took off his uniform for the last time, that status vanished. Even though he had a job and was going to school, he felt out of place and unimportant. His own perception that he was somehow insignificant, coupled with the trauma he had experienced, was what hurt the most—and what caused the most despair.
For months, Whitney felt like it was her responsibility to not only understand what Brett had been through, but also to make things better for him. In a sense, she felt that she needed to grieve for Brett. She came to realize eventually that while she could love and support him, Brett needed to want to better himself. He needed to make changes and find a new sense of purpose. “It was really, really difficult,” Whitney told me, “because there were times when I didn’t want to be by his side, when he treated me poorly, when I actually packed my bags and drove three hours to my parents’ house in the middle of the night because I couldn’t stand to be around him for another second.”
“I saw Brett in his darkest moments,” she continued. “I have never felt so helpless for such a long period of time. Trying to piece my marriage back together and help my husband get back on his feet—while trying to heal myself—was more difficult than anything we experienced during Brett’s combat deployments.”
For the next couple of weeks after I returned to DC, Brett and I talked on the phone almost daily. I was worried about him. Talking seemed to help, but it was hard to make the time, and there were topics I felt too nervous to ask him about. We started emailing regularly instead. Brett wrote to me about the battle for Marjah, and I had to admit in my reply email that I’d never heard of Marjah. I could tell my ignorance was hard for him to understand. Thankfully, he didn’t give up on me. Instead, he wrote me more stories. He was trying to teach me. At the same time, I was reading everything on Afghanistan and Iraq that I could get my hands on. Whenever I had a question about something I was reading, I’d shoot an email to Brett.
After months of emailing back and forth, I curated Brett’s stories into a semi-coherent Word doc by copying and pasting each of Brett’s stories and organizing them into a timeline from when he left home to when he and I reconnected on Facebook. What had once been fragments of thought was now a mosaic. I forget how many thousands of words Brett had written, though I do remember after he read my email, he sent me a message that led me to believe he was just as shocked as I was. I wish I could have seen his face when he opened the document; he had written more for me than he had ever written on anything else. He had told his stories, wrapped his arms around them in a way that made them coherent and meaningful. I believe it was this process of writing and explaining and teaching me that was making a difference for Brett.
The first time a story I had written about Brett was published, I felt as if I had discovered my own kind of milestone. I had made an impression on myself, and I liked that feeling. It was something I had never felt before, and whatever it was that happened inside me when I wrote like that, I wanted to feel it again and again.
By that point in my life, I had written dozens of college papers and an honors thesis, as well as a master’s thesis. A paper I wrote about the T-4 euthanasia program in Nazi Germany was awarded $350 by a national historical honor society. As a professional communicator for the federal government, I had also written or helped write dozens of research reports and testimonies for the U.S. Congress. None of that writing, however, was for me. What I wrote about Brett was. Writing about him and what he had confided in me was the only way I knew how to make sense of the incredible toll keeping silent about trauma takes on those who never find a way to communicate what they survived.
When Brett recounted his stories to me—and granted me permission to write about him—he handed me a sort of power I didn’t know I would crave. There was power over the story of course, but there was also power over the reader. I could use words and descriptions and metaphors to make someone feel something. As soon as I learned that first piece was accepted and going to be published, I had this sneaking suspicion, this feeling that great and enviable things were going to start happening to me. I was going to write a book about Brett, I thought. I was going to find an agent who would sell that book for tens of thousands of dollars to a big New York City publisher, and I was going to spend months traveling the country, speaking to veterans and their families and anyone who has ever cared about those who serve our country. I was going to save people.
My piece was published first thing in the morning a couple of weeks before Veterans Day. The first few reader comments were positive and affirming. My friends and family were sharing the piece on social media, and before too long, several people—some of them complete strangers—sent me private messages commending me for the help I had given Brett. I saved his life, some of them said. The day after my piece was published, my mother ran into Brett’s mom at the grocery store in the town where Brett and I grew up, and with tears in her eyes, Brett’s mom hugged and squeezed my mother for well over a minute. “Your son saved my son,” she said.
A few days later, I clicked the link on my piece and scrolled down to the bottom where the reader comments were stacking up like dinner plates. I skimmed through the words of affirmation as I sipped hot coffee out of a handmade mug in my home office, just down the hall from where my wife was frying eggs for breakfast.
“Go back to jerking off to Full Metal Jacket,” one anonymous commenter wrote, “and leave us combat vets the fuck alone!”
I could hardly believe it. What was this guy talking about? Surely not me. I set down my coffee and leaned in closer to my laptop, my hot heart pounding inside my chest as I read the rest of his rant. “Just a bunch of shitty broken vet porn,” he continued, “with a bullshit ending.”
I scrolled back up to the end of my piece. “If it’s one thing Brett has learned,” I wrote, “it’s that talking about your trauma can help—as long as you can find someone you trust and who helps you to take a fresh look at your experiences. While you may not be able find complete and final truths (none of us can, really), you can create meaning out of your painful experiences by creating a coherent narrative that explains them. That is what Brett has done, and it has made all the difference.”
That was all true. I hadn’t written anything I wouldn’t write again.
Hi Dave, I don’t know if you heard but Brett was in a bad car accident last night. He will be ok, but there are a lot of things involved & he may not have his job. I am worried about depression & PTSD & potentially, what path he could choose. He is in Aspirus at Wausau. Thanks so much! He considers you a wonderful friend & listens to you.
I hadn’t heard.
How long will he be in the hospital?
ICU room 1839
What happened? Was he drunk or something?
Yes, but not sure on the other details. He is lucky to be alive
I have to go to Chicago tonight anyway. I’ll pack and head up there.
Concussion broken ribs & banged up
Thanks so much!
If they move him, let me know. I’ll head up in 15-20 min
Will do!! You are a lifesaver!
Just got word from Whitney they are moving to a new room
Was he suicidal or anything? What other stuff is going on?
Not yet, but extremely emotional about his job. I don’t know all of details but I suspect he & Whit are having a rough time & work is all consuming
Do you know how they know he was drunk?
Blood draw at hospital
Was he working at the time?
No, although he said he was meeting an informant at a bar. He had his personal vehicle
I just talked with a lawyer friend who is a combat vet. He said department policies will dictate what happens to his career.
Thanks, Dave! I appreciate that! I just keep praying since I don’t know what else to do!
He’s the most resilient person I know
Yes, that’s what gives me hope! And he has wonderful friends!
No other cars involved?
He missed a corner & head on into a tree
As I sped along the interstate to the hospital, I couldn’t make sense of what Brett’s mother had told me. There was no way Brett could be suicidal. He had everything he said he wanted. He had a loving and faithful wife who stood by him through the most difficult and harrowing times of his life. He had the job—an undercover drug agent for a county sheriff’s office—he’d been working so hard to land since leaving the Marine Corps. And he was good at it, too. In the first nine months of that year, he told me, Brett had racked up more drug arrests than any other officer in the department combined. He had purpose. He had meaning. People with purpose and meaning don’t wish for death.
“They said his head went through the driver’s side window,” Whitney told me before I entered Brett’s room. She was holding her hand over her cell phone, trying to mute our short conversation. Her face was puffy and pink from crying and going the night without sleep, and her straw-colored hair was pulled back into a bun. She was wearing a shawl with sleeves that made her look like she was wrapped in a blanket. She returned her phone to her ear and told whoever was on the other line that she would have to call them back. Then she hugged me tight; her face against my chest left a small tear stain on my dark blue flannel shirt.
“You should see the other guy,” Brett joked as I approached the right side of his bed. His face was hard to look at. His cheeks were puffy, and the left side of his face was pocky and smeared with dried blood, which made it difficult to tell how badly he was cut. From his cheekbone to his hairline, it looked like he had taken shrapnel from a grenade explosion. He wore a gray medical gown. The paramedics had to cut his clothes off in the back of the ambulance. He chuckled and then winced in pain as I gently put my left hand on top of his. Machines all around him beeped and whirled.
Brett told me he had five broken ribs and a concussion. His right middle finger had also been dislocated and popped back into place, and his left shoulder—the one he busted up in high school—was still out of its socket and causing him serious pain every time he wiggled or tried to get more comfortable.
I asked what happened even though I had already been told most of the details.
“I have no idea, man,” Brett said. “Honestly.” He shook his head and looked down at his feet. He was tired.
“He was up for almost two days straight working,” Whitney chimed in. I hadn’t noticed that she’d come back into the room. “He came home Sunday morning, tried to sleep and couldn’t, so he went into town to run errands. Then one of his informants said he wanted to meet up, so Brett went to the bar to meet him.”
“I had two beers with the guy,” Brett said. He paused and took a labored breath. “And then I told him I had to leave. Got in the car. Don’t remember anything else. I woke up here this morning.”
“The state trooper said it looked like he missed a curve, went down into the ditch and then hit a tree. The car is totaled,” Whitney said.
“Were you drunk?” I asked.
“I don’t know what the blood test will say,” Brett replied. He had downed a few drinks, yes, but that normally wasn’t enough to put him go over the limit, Whitney said. “But then again, he also hadn’t been sleeping or eating, so who knows what that amount of liquor did to him?”
Brett and I spent the rest of that evening watching reruns of American Pickers on the small flat screen television that hung on the wall directly in front of his bed. We were done talking about the accident; there didn’t seem to be anything more that needed to be said. Outside the room, just within earshot, I could hear Brett’s wife and her mother, as well as Brett’s sister-in-law, talking over plans of what to do next. I tried to tune them out and focus on the television, but they were talking louder than I think they realized. It was almost as if they wanted Brett and me to hear what they were plotting.
Just as one episode was ending and another beginning, they came back into the room. Whitney stood on the opposite side of the bed as me, and his sister-in-law stood at the foot, blocking Brett’s view of the television. I clicked off the set as Whitney’s mom sat down in a chair near the door. She clutched her purse to her chest as Brett’s sister-in-law began relaying the plan.
“We talked with Josh,” she said. Josh is Brett’s older brother, a cop turned detective turned arson investigator for the state. “He says you need to tell your department about your PTSD. He says you need to tell them that you were self-medicating and that you’re burned out.”
Brett stared back at her blankly. Whitney grasped his left hand, careful not to disturb the IV ports.
“He says if you claim PTSD, the department has to treat this accident as a medical issue. If you don’t tell them, it will be a disciplinary issue and you’ll probably lose your job.”
For months after Brett’s accident a part of me, a very vocal part, thought what that anonymous commenter wrote must have been correct after all. Perhaps I really had shoehorned in a convenient ending to Brett’s story. Perhaps it really was bullshit. Or at the very least, it had been too soon to tell what the end of Brett’s story would be. By writing what I did, however, by wishing and hoping it were true, perhaps I jinxed Brett. Perhaps it was because he was supposed to be “fixed”—and because everyone treated him like he was fixed and because everyone treated me like I had fixed him—that he didn’t tell me he was struggling in the weeks leading up to his accident.
I’ve struggled for two years to tell this story; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve typed it up then deleted all I’ve written. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out how to end it. I would come to a certain point, and there would be no place for the story to go next. Except perhaps to explore the sadness of wanting things not to be the way they indisputably were.
There are two things I know to be true. First, when Brett confided in me that he was struggling, I didn’t ignore him or wish him luck or pretend what he was experiencing wasn’t as bad as he said it was. I did the only thing I could think of—I got him to write. By getting him to explain what he had seen and done, I helped him reframe his experiences. Instead of focusing endlessly on what he could have done differently, Brett began to see just how much he had grown because of what he had survived. And it worked, or so it seemed, for a little while anyway. Brett really did get better. And so did I. By helping Brett navigate his transition, I found my life’s work.
I never intended that to happen, and it certainly wasn’t my goal, but one thing led to another, and soon I was teaching the first-of-its-kind veteran reintegration course at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and publishing an edited collection of my students’ stories of war and coming home.After the book was published, I crisscrossed the country for a few years, presenting at conferences and training university faculty on best practices and talking about the virtues of storytelling as a tool to help curb the appalling number of military veterans who die here inside our communities by their own hands every day. It was through these efforts that I connected with The War Horse News, which hired me on as the Director of Writing Seminars. Since the spring of 2017, I have continued to teach personal essay writing to military veterans and their families, and just like with Brett, what I teach helps. It empowers those who feel powerless. It brings hope to the hopeless and structure to those who feel unmoored. But writing is not a cure. It cannot prevent someone from experiencing bad days or from falling into despair. All it can do is help in the process of making sense of pain, of turning tragedy into triumph.
Brett and his wife bought a house in our hometown. They have a beautiful baby girl they named Josey and are considering getting pregnant again soon. Brett left law enforcement behind and now works as a machine operator at a paper mill with my father and brother. He says he loves the feeling of punching in, doing his work, punching out, and not worrying about his work until he punches back in the next day. In the months after his accident, Brett also labored tirelessly to renovate an old horse barn into one of the premier wedding venues in Northern Wisconsin that he and Whitney now operate. Instead of locking up drug addicts, he fixes and builds.
In the end, I wonder if it is a mistake to dwell on all that has been lost. I wonder if it is better instead to think about all that Brett has given me—and what I have given him. Brett is not fixed. None of us are or ever will be. In many ways, feeling totally healed is just beyond Brett’s grasp. Though perhaps he is closer than he ever was before.
David Chrisinger is the Director of the Writing Program at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. He is the author of PUBLIC POLICY WRITING THAT MATTERS, a guide for anyone interested in writing to influence change in public policy. In addition to his work in policy, David also teaches writing seminars to veterans and their family members to help them tell their stories of service and sacrifice. In 2016, he edited a collection of essays written by student veterans titled SEE ME FOR WHO I AM that is helping close the gap between veterans and their civilian counterparts. He is currently writing a book on how to write about traumatic experiences that will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2020.