What I Don’t Understand

by Diana Donovan

I sat up, finally, after struggling most of the night to breathe. Ethan’s intention sat like a lead weight on my chest. With gravity’s help, though, I could gulp down some air—a kind of temporary relief.

Cold, now, I grabbed a sweater from the bedpost and wrapped it tight, as though it could promise some kind of security. The chill of this southern bedroom made me yearn for our cozy, wood-heated mountain home. I adjusted the covers to cover the bare, freckled shoulder of my snoring husband. And then I sat and waited, as the morning’s misty gray light began to reveal the dark beads of condensation on the windowpanes. A tentative certainty was seeping into my body.

Still, action seemed impossible without help.

“Please, God,” I silently pleaded, “make this work. You know I’ve screwed up in the past. But please…”


“He may be an adult…but he’s still our son and he doesn’t get it. Please…help us keep this from happening again.”

I scrunched back down, under the covers, breathing easily now but shivering. I molded my body around Paul’s warmth. As usual, he turned toward my touch. “I know what we need to do,” I said softly, trying out the idea before his sister awoke in the next room.

“What?” A shade of relief fluttered behind the sleepy tone.

“You know that armory we passed on the edge of town? We need to stop on the way home. Get some solid information.”

                                                                    . . .

Our older son’s announcement to the family the day before had come at the end of a wondrous Christmas gathering. Just before leaving for home, Ethan had announced his plan for the New Year. He would enlist in the National Guard.

“I want to work in logistics…for emergencies like Hurricane Katrina,” he said, standing tall.

His words were greeted with silence. After all, it was 2010 and the elephant in the room was the war still being waged by the Guard, Reserves, and full-time troops.

Wanting to be a good mom, I pushed aside my disagreement with the war in order to break the silence. From part of my heart, I said, “Well, son, I’ll support you.”

No words followed from Paul; or his sister, Kate; or her husband, Luis.

Beth, our son’s fiancée, did not raise her eyes from the floor.

Despite my hope that an enlistment would go well for him, I had to add: “What if you get deployed to the Middle East?”

“I don’t think that will happen,” he answered. “I tested well and I plan to be an officer. They really want me.”

We want you too, I thought as we hugged goodbye. In the presence of such naïve optimism, I could find no words.

                                                                      . . .

The more the reality of his leaving for basic in a few weeks sank in, the more uneasy I became. With my dad—an Air Guard colonel who helped build Cold War air defense systems—I had seen the Guard as being about home defense and disaster relief. But since our invasions after 9/11, the Guard appeared to be just another reserve unit, regularly sending units to war.

The tension invading my body the evening after Ethan left was not only about our son’s decision to support what to me was a senseless war, or about possible physical wounds. His strong and sensitive heart, and his complete trust in what authorities told him, were too similar to qualities my first husband had possessed. Despite the lack of blood kinship between Dave and Ethan, I couldn’t ignore the possible results if my warmhearted, fun-loving, generous Ethan enlisted.

During supper, after Ethan’s departure, my husband and in-laws spoke only of the cold snap and road conditions for our trip home. Sweet avoidance. Beneath the chitchat, my mind was a jumble. Should I trust my firstborn to God’s care…to good luck…to the idea that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same life?

If Dad were still alive, I could ask his advice. Then I remembered the words of a Marine colonel I’d met by chance, years before. He’d been telling me about his frustration over the attack he’d survived while in Lebanon.1 “If the politicians would just let the military defend themselves,” he’d said. I’m not sure why, after talking with him for some time, I began to think of my boys, who were in grammar school back then. But I asked what advice he’d give to someone wanting to enlist. After some thought he said roughly, “Make sure they know what they’re getting into.”

My uneasiness grew into agitation after supper. My sister- and brother-in-law spoke of how much they were against U.S. military actions in the Middle East. For them it was not just bad policy, as it was for Paul and me. It was personal—my brother-in-law came from South America, where U.S. interference was viewed with disfavor, at best.

Luis disappeared into his home office and returned with Internet printouts. Suicides in returned military were high, one said.2 Another included horrible pictures of men being debased at Abu Ghraib; that article stated that Guard MP units had been part of the abuse. (We later learned it was mostly Army Reserve.3)

What would Ethan do, I asked myself, if ordered to torture prisoners or even if he became aware of some distasteful deed? He had always worked to help those in need—in the States and elsewhere. How would he be punished if he disobeyed an order? And would disobeying even help the victims? Either way, what scars would be left on this boy who was engaged to marry in only a few months?

                                                                        . . .

The decision to gather information led Paul and me to the armory. On that frosty morn, the parking lot was empty. But toward the back we saw one car. We banged on the thick wooden door, waited, and then banged again. A young man in plainclothes, talking on a cell phone, opened up and said, “Excuse me.” In a moment he hung up and introduced himself as a National Guard recruiter who had come in to finalize some paperwork, even though it was not a workday.

We spoke for about two hours about what Ethan could expect in terms of the job he sought in the Guard, how military ideals fit (and didn’t) with experiences of our own fathers (both colonels), and what kind of unit Ethan was considering for his enlistment. The recruiter thought it did MP duty overseas and advised that Ethan ask more questions of his recruiter. “Some recruiters can be misleading, at times,” he said, “but they will answer direct questions.”

If you can’t trust your government with your children, I wondered in passing, who can you trust?

I asked my questions and received some kind of answers. Paul listened and occasionally clarified. When we said good-bye, the words that stuck like glue were that, to the Guard, Ethan was not an intelligent, caring young man. He was a “deployable asset.”

We stood on the front steps in the anemic morning sun, after the castle door thudded shut. I found myself shaking from the exhaustion of speaking unemotionally in order to gather facts. My husband warmed me with a long, close hug.

“God answered my prayer,” I murmured into his ear, not quite believing that we had succeeded. “Someone was here today even though it’s a holiday. He answered all our questions.”

My husband answered with a tighter hug, which I wished could last forever.

                                                                    . . .

Eventually I looked up and noticed a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. It brought back memories of wintry comfort years before, when I could leave a study session at the Boston library, cross the street, enter a sweet-smelling shop with clear, condensed steam running down the panes, and join in neighborly talk about the Bruins or the cold weather or just about anything else that made us feel what we all had in common.

I gave in to a craving to relive that sweet nourishment. “I can’t seem to get warm,” I said.

“Can we get some coffee before we hit the road?”

Holding hands, we crossed the street. We spoke of the fact that it would be dark before we reached home that night. Of the time it would take to warm the house with the woodstove, given the mountains’ cloudy weather that would have blocked any solar gain.

Paul and I did not speak of my first husband that morning, but we both knew he was again part of our lives.

                                                                      . . .

I met Dave at a late-night party in Boston in 1970. Across the hazy, dim room where we sat listening to music and smoking weed, I saw him come in. His hair curled gently to his shoulders. He barely said a word other than hello to my brothers, so I wondered, after he left, why I felt his absence in my belly. Over the next months, it would take filling in a lot of blanks to get to know him as well as I did.

Before Vietnam he had trained in Europe as a paratrooper. A plane door slid shut on his left hand and crushed all four fingers. Doctors inserted thin metal pins to return fairly good use to the hand. The day he told me this story, he pointed to the thin, shiny scars along the edges of those crooked fingers. It was evidence of one of his wounds—one he understood.

After Nam, there were no pins to stop the post-Asia nightmares, though, or to erase learned instincts like jabbing at the eyes of anyone who dared to come up behind him unannounced. Once, over supper, I absentmindedly twisted one of my waist-length hairs around a finger and dropped it into the candle flame. He snuffed it out quickly, explaining with a quiet firmness before lapsing into his habitual silence, “I can’t stand the smell of burning hair.”

There was so much to this gentle, strong man. When we weren’t working, or sitting in a bar, we hiked along the seashore in all kinds of weather. We picked beach plums in late summer; slung kelp into the cold winter wind; danced on the sand and called to seagulls swirling overhead; hauled lobster traps to safety and bagged trash that storms or people had left on the pristine dunes. We saw ourselves as feeding off, and preserving, some safe kind of wildness.

After returning to the States for his mother’s death and burial—just a few months before we met—he had grown out his army-short hair and put aside his olive-green clothing. It wasn’t that he was taunted by demonstrators. Jeans and boots and colorful shirts helped him feel back home, among the townies and bikers and sidewalk vendors—those loose-shirted boys selling Latin American or Asian trinkets, and long-haired girls who, in bell-bottoms or loose skirts, danced to the music of tambourines, flutes.

                                                                     . . .

A block or two from Harvard Square, Dave and I built a cozy nest with salvaged furniture, which we reupholstered in bargain yardage of a rich, dark red. We closed the matching curtains and lit candles for our Friday night suppers, which were occasionally inspired by TV lessons from a neighbor we didn’t know—Julia Child.

Once in a while, Dave would mention something about his time in Nam—like his staying up at night, watching the sky and smoking. Or the nights he said he could hear vehicles moving southward just before the Tet offensive. His superiors ignored his report, he told me.4 Some of his stories correlated with facts; others, I later decided, had more to do with puzzling out his life.

During those evenings or in the wee hours of a morning, I would finger his light brown hair and ooze along the length of his tall, thin, pale body. Was I his healing balm, at least for a while?

                                                                  . . .

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, I was against the lies of that war but not against those fighting it. I come from an extended military family. My dad, for example, was career Air Guard; an uncle worked at the Pentagon. My brothers reluctantly served in the Guard, too, after Dad greased the wheels so they wouldn’t go to Nam. Despite political differences, they complied with his gift rather than dodge the draft because, as one brother put it, “It would break Dad’s heart if I went to Canada.”

The year I met Dave, my family’s arguments about the war had not yet shifted. Dad—with his reading disability—would later sit in his chair each evening, running his finger under the lines as he read every word of the Pentagon Papers.5 His sense of betrayal when confronted by the truth of Ellsberg’s revelations made him more wary about the mix of politics and military expertise. But in 1970 Dad was still supporting the war—deaf but far from mute during family arguments against it.

Other than voicing loyalty or mentioning parties in Paris, Dad never spoke of the stresses of his own service—in World War II or since. So I didn’t expect Dave to speak about his time in Nam. I thought we were living in the now, which meant, I thought, my listening but not asking for details.

                                                                        . . .

Dave and I aimed to create good things against the backdrop of government investigations and media publicity related to Nixon’s breaches of trust at Watergate. While I worked an office job to bring in cash, Dave patiently transformed a trash-strewn alley into a rich kitchen garden of salad greens, vegetables, and tall, white spider mums. That summer, evening after evening, he stood outside for an hour or more, smoking Gauloises and using the hose to gently shower first the garden, then the seeds he planted around the corner, in the building’s barren courtyard. They too responded to his care, by sprouting a blanket of green in spite of the short hours of sun they received.

Like those quiet evening sessions of watering and smoking, our early morning fishing trips to Walden Pond seemed to feed the heart within my husband. One morning we walked through the pond’s surrounding forest and he said, almost in passing, “I buried my gun somewhere around here, when I got back.” I had no idea how to reply, so I merely took his crooked hand into mine. “I was afraid of what I might do with it.”

At the time, I thought he was afraid of hurting someone.

Despite our love, beneath the surface of our talk and our actions, there was too much that we didn’t understand—things that were slowly freezing our chances for a future together. Dave’s occasional outbursts of anger led to losing his job. His recreational drug use morphed into steady drinking. One Friday I took the bus to New York to visit friends. Misunderstanding the purpose of my trip, he took off the next evening in his VW bus—weaving on the highway, I was told later, until he hit a berm and was thrown into the road. Luckily, no one ran over him.

His injuries left him in traction at a nearby VA hospital for three months. I visited each weekend, taking the train from South Station and staying at the YW. In time, the doctor said, his bones would heal. The psychiatrist told me he was reluctant to approve Dave’s discharge when he came out of traction, though. He wanted my husband to stay and attend “rap groups.” Dave finagled the discharge by promising to go to the Boston VA for follow-up care.

He went once, his sister driving him while I was at work. In the following weeks, day by day, he removed the full-leg cast with his jackknife, chip by chip, on a schedule he set.

Looking back on the months that came next, I can think of so many things any of us might have done differently to help him finish the correspondence-based illustration course so that his fine-line drawings could help him earn a living…to help him meet the obligations of his job…to help him return to eating rather than beginning each day with only beer.

What I thought was our mutual understanding of each other steadily faded away. I had seen what alcohol could do to couples like us, what we could become, and one of the few things I knew for sure was that I didn’t want that future. Dave did go to AA once but refused to return the calls from a fellow attendee. After he made several refusals to continue AA, I told him I was making a clean break, and I moved out.

                                                                      . . .

Much of me hoped my leaving would jolt him into sobriety. That did not happen. We talked more, during our visits, but only about how, after I returned, he would change. This was his promise. I didn’t trust some kind of magical reform based on my actions…perhaps I should have. Instead, I accepted my failure at the marriage, spent time with friends, and left him to the care and loyalty of his siblings.

I did not expect to begin a new relationship so soon, but when I began seeing Paul, he seemed blessedly normal to my eyes. It was hard to ignore the attraction. He smelled like moist spice and when I tried to talk out my confusion and my hopes, he listened.

One afternoon I went with Dave’s sister to visit my former husband in the home we had shared. His new puppy was clearly not housetrained. There was some kind of black particulate scattered all over the couch. When his sister demanded of her brother, “What is this?” his only answer was to stubbornly puff harder on his pipe. He would not say a word.

After being picked up from a gutter by police, he lost his job and moved back to his father’s house. Later he went out west, where he had a brother. I saw him a year later. Dave was thinner, if that was possible. He showed me a posed photo of a new image he seemed to be trying on—in a cowboy hat, with a serape draped almost to his boots, holding a long rifle in a classic old-West post. Why this myth? I wondered sadly. He asked if I’d come out west with him and try again. I remember wishing that the fantasy could be true but I refused. I wanted a life without complications I didn’t understand.

Paul and I moved to Ohio, near his family and friends from his youth. A lingering, unvoiced fear of Dave and guns lurked in the background of our decision. I did not leave a forwarding address with his family. We eventually settled into a house shared with two other adults, along with Ethan, our first child. Just after Christmas in 1980, I answered the phone and heard Dave’s sister’s voice. She had called my mother for my phone number.

I remember standing there, by a white-topped kitchen counter in a room with blue-checked wallpaper, listening to my ex-sister-in-law. My hand rested on the soft red hair of my two-year-old. His little hand reached up to my thigh as, with clear blue eyes, he watched my face, waiting for me to hang up and get his snack of “nuts and deans” (raisins and peanuts).

He told some woman at the bar he’d marry her, she told me. But he didn’t want to go through with it. He said he knew if he couldn’t make it work with you, he couldn’t make it work with anyone.

I glanced down at Ethan’s freckled, round face, able to name, at first, only three of a warring set of emotions—relief. The gun Dave had taken from the back of the bar on the morning of that almost-wedding day—the gun he used to replace the one he’d buried at Walden years before—had not been used on us, as a friend’s ex-husband had done. There was embarrassment and deep sadness too. Why hadn’t I understood what he’d meant that day?

That evening, Paul cared for Ethan while I tried sitting alone, with a candle, waiting for tears. They did not come. I felt only a tearing of loyalties, emptiness, and shame that I could not cry.

As the years passed and the children grew, I told them about Dave. We sometimes celebrated his birthday with ice cream cakes. Years later—in October 2001—Paul and our two younger children and I visited DC. We walked out from the idealism of the Lincoln Memorial and approached the Vietnam wall—out of curiosity, I thought. Awed at its length, I found myself touching the wall as I walked alongside, reading name after name, somehow hoping Dave’s was there.

It wasn’t, of course. His death from those occasionally visible wounds had taken longer than the deaths of those killed in action. It had not been counted to anyone but those of us who loved him.

After coming to the end of the wall, I sat alone on a nearby bench and cried—for hours, it seemed. Paul gave us space by taking the children to other monuments.

                                                                     . . .

Sometime between Dave’s death in 1980 and that visit to the wall, I learned from a friend of Dave’s that it was Nam that had changed him. Part of the reason, he told me, was a story Dave described in a letter. His small unit was attacked one night by men who, days before, had shared beers with him in the village.

Dave and a few buddies had gone to the village hangout on a different day of the week than usual. His leave schedule had changed. The normally welcoming owner hesitated at letting him in. Then she did, but only after insisting that they leave their weapons at the door.

The bar was full of enemy soldiers—it was their day of the week, Dave learned. He drank quickly, in a room where camaraderie and uneasiness filled the thick air.

A long night of shooting followed. When the sun rose, the U.S. squadron found their position surrounded by bodies melting to jelly in the hot sun. Dave wrote to his friend that he broke the rules and refused to bulldoze Vietnamese bodies into a mass grave. He put out the word: Families who claimed relatives would not be shot if they did so in daylight.

The Americans buried only a few Vietnamese bodies, days later.

                                                                       . . .

In the southern coffee shop after leaving the armory, I dunked my plain doughnut into deliciously strong black coffee. Paul and I spoke of Ethan’s overly optimistic trust that he would not be deployed because he’d requested a job in domestic emergency response. We went over the facts we had learned that morning—especially the fact that Ethan could expect at least one deployment and probably two during his planned enlistment.

We agreed that Ethan’s personality wasn’t one to come out of a war situation emotionally intact. But should we interfere with his decision?

To alleviate the weight returning to my chest I finally said it aloud. “We need to detour and stop at Ethan’s on the way home. We need to tell him it’s a fact that he can expect deployments.”

Paul made the phone call.

                                                                       . . .

Ethan considered our words and decided the Guard wasn’t the best way to contribute to people in need. Together we mourned the lack of a Home (only) Guard division. I, at least, rejoiced that he and his fiancée, and the family they hope to build, could avoid wounds like Dave’s, which now have a name—PTSD.

. . .

I now understand more of what I didn’t see with Dave. Perhaps his story will help more than my family. Although I am grateful for the progress made in treatment options and for the stories now being told about deep war wounds to the psyche, my heart goes out to these members of the military and to their families and to all who interact with their courage and their pain.

I guess what I don’t understand is this: In this so-called open democracy, why isn’t it required that combat stress possibilities like PTSD or TBI (traumatic brain injury) be explained as a real possibility by recruiters, so volunteers are aware of all the risks they’re accepting?

In this information-heavy world, with its TV info tickers that predict the weather and report stock prices, that inform us about what Hollywood stars are up to, sports scores, lottery numbers, and countdowns in elections, where are the daily updates of war statistics?

When I was taught ethics, I was told that omission is a lie.

If I search for statistics from our years of wars in the Middle East, I find 6,781 have died and 51,770 wounded in action through December 19, 2013.6 Wounded in action does not include the 103,792 deployed troops diagnosed with PTSD or the additional 253,330 from TBI as of December 13, 20127—a total of these kinds of combat stress of 357,122, or about seven times those whose wounds are visible and included in standard statistics.

                                                                       . . .

Along with all the joys and opportunities in my life, I still hold in my heart the unknown many who, like Dave, died a long, slow death after they returned from Nam and who have their names enshrined only in the hearts of their loved ones. I ache for the many civilians who suffered in Asia during our war there, and for those Middle Eastern families just trying to build a life today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That grief is coupled with hope for informed healing and opportunity for all who are affected by these current wars.

Diana Donovan lives with her husband in the mountains of North Carolina, is a full-time offsite faculty member of Ashford University, and teaches religion and general education courses online.

About What I Don’t Understand—This piece comes out of the tensions in parenting adult children. Names have been changed and locations intentionally left vague.


Names have been changed and locations left intentionally ambiguous.

All URLs are accessible as of December 19, 2013.

1 On October 23, 1983, Marines stationed in Beirut for a peacekeeping mission were attacked with a truck bomb. Deaths totaled 241 U.S. troops. The Marine I spoke with said the peacekeepers were not allowed to adequately build defenses around their centers because politicians in DC thought it would look bad. For basic information, see: CBS/AP (2009, February 11), “Beirut Barracks Attack Remembered,” CBS News. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-202_162-579638.html

2 In 2012, shortly after Ethan said he wanted to enlist, the average of military suicides was usually quoted at one suicide per day. The Army Times cited the rate in 2012 as one every twenty-seven hours: Patricia Kime (2012, August 16), “Army Faces Highest Monthly Total of Suicides,” Army Times. Retrieved from http://www.armytimes.com/news/2012/08/military-army-faces-highest-monthly-total-of-suicides-081612/

The suicide rate, thankfully, has decreased. For historical rates and recent statistics, please see American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s updates page at http://www.afsp.org/advocacy-public-policy/policy-news-updates

Specific information on Army National Guard suicide rates through the end of 2010, when this conversation took place, can be found in Charles Keyes (2011, January 19), “Suicide Rate Doubles for Army National Guard, CNN: U.S. Retrieved from http://articles.cnn.com/2011-01-19/us/army.suicide.rate_1_army-suicides-suicides-among-active-duty-soldiers-suicide-rate?_s=PM:US

3 The abuses at Abu Ghraib took place between October and December 2003, mainly by members of the 372nd Military Policy Company (based in Cresaptown, Maryland), according to Hersh’s article, which is based on the Taguba report. Seymour M. Hersh (2004, May 10), “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/05/10/040510fa_fact

The Taguba report can be found at: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/US_Army_15-6_Report_of_Abuse_of_Prisoners_in_Iraq

A timeline of the Abu Ghraib scandal that was on our hearts during the time of this event in our lives can be found here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/world/iraq/abughraib/timeline.html There were reports at the time that the 372nd was a Guard unit; a few of these reports are still on the Internet.

4 The Tet offensive in the Vietnam War was a set of surprise attacks around the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet), in late January 1968, on various southern and U.S. centers. Because of the holiday, no attacks were “expected.” Good basic information can be found on the “Tet Offensive” web page of: U-S History.com (n.d.) at: http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1862.html

5 Basic information on the Pentagon Papers that were gathered by Daniel Ellsberg and published in 1971 by the New York Times can be found on the “Pentagon Papers” web page of: U-S History.com (n.d.) at: http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1871.html A current edition of the book is: George C. Herring, ed., (1993), The Pentagon Papers (Abridged ed.), New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

6 U.S. Department of Defense. (2013, December 19). Casualty report retrieved from http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf

7 Fisher, Hannah. (2013, February 5). U.S. Military Casualty Statistics: Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. Congressional Research Service. Retrieved from http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RS22452.pdf

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