Coffee Talk

Last night I finally had the opportunity to sit down with A.S. and T.B. for the first time in close to a decade. Sure, we’ve seen each other at parties, at weddings and at funerals, but not like this. We spent much of our formative years at the local diner, going through urns of coffee and packs of cigarettes, staying until the joint closed at 2 a.m., hoarse from tobacco and jittering from caffeine.

We’re all much older now. Smoking has been outlawed in public places for eight years, and the local joint now closes up shop at midnight. We’ve all had career changes, and each of us has at least one failed marriage apiece. My story is a story for another time; this night was all about A.S. and T.B., both of whom have aged far more than have I in the past decade.

They’re both combat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While I was growing fat and complacent working in Atlantic City and dealing with a wife with Dissociative Identity Disorder (more commonly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), A.S. and T.B. were serving their country in Iraq and trying not to get blown to hell. As I said in my last blog post, both guys enlisted at the same time, but A.S. has found himself far more comfortable in the military. Shortly after T.B. returned from Iraq his mom succumbed to a brain aneurysm, and he was able to get a hardship discharge. A.S., on the other hand, joined the National Guard after his discharge from regular Army, and has since re-upped and works as a mechanic at Fort Dix.

Both of them have different stories about the things they saw during their tours of duty. Their eyes grow hollow and their voices get low and shallow when they talk about it. They frequently step aside to catch their breath while they catch a smoke. But it doesn’t stop them from talking about it.

The conversation doesn’t remain linear, not by a long shot. Like is advised in (my much ballyhooed) Postmodern Interviewing, in-person interviews are best when they run like a conversation without a defined list of questions. A good interviewer will have talking points they’d like to cover but aren’t rigid in the execution. If the interviewees want to take the conversation in another direction, let it ride. Besides, there’s only so much they can divulge at a time without veering off on a completely unrelated tangent, and that’s okay. What they saw, what they went through is unthinkable to me. Both of these guys are younger than me, and I can’t imagine seeing my bunkmate’s head being blown off now, let alone in my early 20s.

That’s what it was for T.B. He was positioned in a guard tower in an undisclosed area of Iraq when they came under fire. His bunk mate – his friend, his brother – was in the tower with him when someone with ammunition far more powerful than was needed got a lucky shot. The young man’s head exploded, and half of his skull and brains painted the front of T.B.’s battle fatigues.

With A.S., it was a combination of events. Firefights, IEDs, mortar strikes. He was out on convoy patrols a lot and frequently came under attack. Sometimes everyone survived. Sometimes they didn’t. A.S. always came back, but he didn’t come back whole.

Their stories once they got back have their similarities. Like I said, T.B. got an early discharge. A.S. served out the rest of his time before he was discharged, then went into the National Guard. But their personal lives are almost identical. Both of them got married; T.B. had one child and A.S. had two, daughters all. Both of them have sought professional help, and both are heavily medicated. Both of them are divorced, because their wives couldn’t cope with husbands who have largely been absent from their relationship. Even though they were there, they weren’t there, dig? T.B.’s wife moved back to Oklahoma – where they met when he was stationed there before his early discharge – and took their daughter with her. A.S. and his ex-wife share custody.

T.B. hasn’t been able to hold down a job for more than three months at a time.

A.S., a lothario before Iraq, is impotent from the medication cocktail he’s taking.

Both of them drink when their meds aren’t doing their jobs.

But they keep taking them. And they keep learning how to cope. They have their bad days, but they’re mostly outnumbered by the good.

We talked for a long time last night. We went through an almost-criminal amount of coffee, and we made hefty financial contributions to the American tobacco industry’s coffers. I’d like to say it was a good time, but that’s not exactly accurate. Sure, we laughed – old friends always laugh, usually over stupid shit they did when they were young, and we’re no exception – but it wasn’t a riotous brouhaha, you know?

No, it wasn’t a good time. But it was good, regardless.

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