Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I am waiting to turn left at an intersection. A driver cuts me off, we make eye contact, and I am caught in the endless loop of a memory I thought I had left behind eight years ago in Afghanistan. I begin to feel panicked. I’m driving beside a railroad in Edmonton, Canada, and the train tracks prevent me from turning. I run two red lights, wondering if a vehicle is following me, then bump over a curb and cut into a back alley. I lurch behind houses and garages, turn right, then left, trying to avoid an explosion caused by a suicide bomber whose shadow trails me. After twenty minutes my heart rate calms. The burger I just purchased is cold, the fries stiff, the soft drink warm.
When you’re young and return from war, you may mistake anxiety for energy. You need to sleep, but something in your blood prevents it. Eventually you nod off and may even dream. At first the dreams are without form. The nightmares come later, and the bed-wetting. You’ve experienced more combat than some and much less than others, but the amount doesn’t necessarily matter. You’ve come into contact with primal, instinctual violence: situations where you could have ended up killing someone or getting killed yourself. Many years later, even when you’re no longer a soldier, you still feel the effects.
When I got back to Canada from Afghanistan in August 2006, after a six-month tour of duty (my first and only), I was tanned and twenty, with newfound limitations that I didn’t fully understand. Just weeks before, I’d been part of a convoy that had been hit by two suicide bombers: one in a vehicle, the other on foot. Two Canadian soldiers — Frank Gomez and Jason Warren — had been killed in the attack. Afghans whose names I do not know had also died on that quiet stretch of highway. Many more had been injured. Soon after I’d returned to Canada, I was part of the honor guard that lowered the casket of Ray Arndt, a soldier from my platoon, into the dry August soil of northern Alberta. I was becoming opposed to the military mission in Afghanistan, but another part of me still found meaning in having served my country.
I’d once thought I would be in the army forever. I come from a military family. Some of my earliest memories are of my dad in uniform, returning from a training exercise with rations for us kids. (The tubed peanut butter was my favorite.) My brother was a soldier; my sister was a soldier; my father was a soldier; my father’s father was a soldier, and his father, too. Our lineage includes Hungarian hussars, U-boat captains, and infantry grunts. My last name, Hertwig, means “hard war.” I’d been a soldier since my sixteenth birthday.
A man from church asked me to speak about my war experiences to a group of seniors at a pancake breakfast. I went, but halfway through I choked up and stopped talking. Everyone looked sad and confused as I walked away. How could I share my thoughts with these well-intentioned people whose bland acceptance of free pancakes and patriotic war stories felt like part of the problem? But what was the problem? I wasn’t sure. I was a mass of roiling contradictions, unable to express my anger at the yellow-ribbon magnets on cars and the people at church who spoke piously about war and soldiers, as if all soldiers who had gone to war were courageous and kind and self-sacrificing. I wanted people to hear my stories — to really hear them — yet at the same time I wanted to be left alone.
I considered selling everything I owned and living on the street, but I was as naive about homelessness as I’d been about war. Everything that had once defined me — paratrooper, reconnaissance patrolman, combat veteran — no longer felt like a perfect fit. I couldn’t be a soldier anymore, but I still had the memories that came back unbidden:
A village at sunset. The valley is green, and smoke spires into the sky. I kick a door, and the sun-bleached wood snaps like kindling. Inside it’s dark. I feel a rush of air, and something brushes against my head. A fucking chicken.
Another building, a second door kicked in, and I’m staring into someone’s home. Fruit on a table and a woman watching me, her face uncovered. I have a rifle in my hands; she has nothing. I back out the door and return to the battle.
An overweight man, his partug drenched in sweat. His hands are zip-tied in front of him. He raises his arms to his mouth, miming drinking water, and the interpreter conveys what we already know: he is thirsty. One of the Americans laughs, and no one gives him water. I would if I could, but I don’t have any.
Afghan bodies in the back of an Afghan National Police pickup, their blood like an oil slick against the metal.
After I was released from the army, I occasionally saw soldiers from my old platoon — at a wedding, a chance encounter downtown — but I avoided Remembrance Day ceremonies and pushed the past away. I heard that one of the soldiers in the platoon had discovered cocaine. Others had blown the money they’d earned on cars or guns or gear and then gone back to Afghanistan on second tours. Some of us pissed the money away in the urinals of cheap pubs or expensive restaurants. I stopped reaching out to other veterans, and they mostly stopped reaching out to me.
A second soldier from the platoon died. Dan had re-enlisted, then discovered he had brain cancer. Many men from the platoon gathered and got drunk in his honor, as Dan had asked. I could have gone but didn’t. Though I had liked Dan, he was a part of my past. I was making a new, army-less life.
I enrolled in a university and met a woman in philosophy class. We got married and moved to Montreal for the same graduate program. We had an apartment and a cat and friends and a hookah; a regular table at the neighborhood pub, an old Volvo, and a clear view of the neon cross on Mount Royal. My life was like nothing I’d ever known. I didn’t shave or cut my hair for a year. Then my wife went back to Edmonton for a new job, and I followed. In a sign of the separation to come, she flew and I drove.
I found work at a homeless shelter and discovered I was unprepared for the sheer number of people living and dying on the streets. The unpredictable environment of the shelter sometimes felt like war: boredom punctured by violence. Women and men were assaulted. I was punched in the head on several occasions. I watched a knife go into a person as if into soft butter. I started thinking about the army again, the people I had known and the things I had seen.
Shaun was the third person from my old platoon to die. I heard that he had hanged himself. But I was so detached from the army that it took a few years for the news to reach me. His death had been the subject of a military inquiry and an extensive media investigation into the number of suicides involving Canadian soldiers. I still have a hard time reconciling how he died with the person I knew: a baby-faced soldier in training, proud of the wisps of beard he grew, who later slept across from me in a tent in Afghanistan and offered me his fruit snacks. He was good-natured and periodically picked on by other soldiers in the platoon. Sometimes I defended him, but I’m sure I picked on him, too.
One evening, as I was trying to close up the shelter, a gang member got maced just outside the building. He ran inside with another gang member to pour milk over his face and relieve the burning, and as I watched them, I found myself back in Afghanistan, watching Corporal Jason Warren emerge from the back of the personnel carrier after the first bomb went off. I wasn’t sure he felt anything, whether he was aware that he was dying, but within minutes he lay prone on the road. I tripped over his body in the chaos before the second suicide bomber, the man with a vest of explosives, detonated himself in the crowd of Afghans who had gathered. When my mind returned to the present, the gang members had left.
In 2013 my grandfather passed away, and my wife and I filed for divorce. It went smoothly — as efficient and impersonal as a car tuneup. No kids. No reparations sought. I thought about the soundless, voiceless ways we can die: My intubated grandfather, struggling to breathe in intensive care. Those people in Afghanistan who bled out in the back of a pickup truck.
After living with my parents for a while, I moved into a community house run by the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton. The rental came with the keys to one of Edmonton’s oldest churches. At night, when the building was empty, I’d walk into the sanctuary and sit near the altar, where the red light of the Christ candle reflected off the wooden walls and icons. Sometimes I’d try to pray; other times I’d fall asleep and wake hours later to the light of the candle still flickering. I’d imagine Jesus walking down the center aisle, past the long pews, footsteps on the creaking floorboards, and I’d think about Ray, Jason, Dan, Shaun — all of them walking through the dark church, too.
I went to lunch with my childhood pastor, who had once been a military chaplain. We ate at the Lighthouse Diner, the kind of place where the cheeseburger is always the thing to order and the servers call you honey even if you are a jerk. The conversation somehow came around to a former Guantánamo detainee named Omar Khadr. A native of Canada, he had recently been released from a Canadian jail, where he’d been transferred after ten years in Guantánamo. A parishioner from my childhood church joined us, and with each bite of his burger his talk became louder. “Omar should rot in jail for the rest of his days,” he said casually.
I could feel my face flushing. Who the fuck are you to say? I thought.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
The man looked up, licking his fingers. “Would you want him as your neighbor?” he asked.
“I would like him as a neighbor,” I replied, partially because I would have said just about anything to contradict this man, with his happy regurgitation of right-wing-media talking points. But I also felt that Omar, who’d been sixteen when he was sentenced to Guantánamo, deserved a chance. The man harrumphed and continued eating.
Omar had been in the news often since he’d been paroled. With cameras surrounding him, he’d asked the Canadian public to give him the opportunity to prove himself. “There’s nothing I can do about the past,” he said, “but I hope I can do something about the future.” I’d known about his situation for years, but, impressed by his thoughtfulness and soft-spoken demeanor, I’d googled his name again and learned he was a year younger than I am, born in September 1986. I learned he came from a conservative Muslim family who’d moved to Afghanistan when Omar was ten; his father had ties to militants there. I learned Omar had been captured in 2002 by American Special Forces after a firefight in which an American soldier had been killed and Omar — the only survivor on the side of the Afghan militants — had been shot. Accused of killing the U.S. soldier, he’d become the first minor to be charged with war crimes since World War II.
Omar was considered a child soldier by some, a terrorist by others. The accounts I’d read of his torture were harrowing: he’d been shackled, threatened with rape, denied medical treatment for his wounds. He’d remained behind bars for ten years, become an adult in prison. Feeling that he didn’t have an alternative, that he’d never be able to return to Canada if he didn’t offer a confession, he had pleaded guilty to the charges.
I’d seen Omar’s face on the Internet, in newspapers, on TV. I’d seen the photo of his fifteen-year-old, dust-covered body, a wine-colored blood stain on his shoulder.
And then one day I saw him at a camping store.
I’d walked through that same store years earlier with my wife just after our wedding. Now I was shopping for a tent to replace the one I’d lost in the divorce. Since I’d first heard Omar speak on the news, I’d wanted to talk to him about what he’d gone through, but, standing across the store from him, I wasn’t so sure. In my post-divorce malaise I was introverted and indecisive. Anxious, too. I pretended to look at energy bars and German chocolate. Why did I want to talk to him? Why would he want to speak to me, someone he knew nothing about?
Finally I walked up to Omar and mumbled something inane like “I’m glad you are out of jail.” He couldn’t have been free more than a few months and probably had all kinds of strangers accosting him. When I told him I was a former soldier, and that I’d served in Afghanistan, he seemed surprised. I noticed one of his eyes was cloudy from an injury I’d read about online.
After our brief encounter I spent the rest of the day at home with war on my mind. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan had not made our world a safer place, as our leaders had promised. I wanted to get to know this person whose experience of the war had been so different from mine. I had chosen to enlist, but Omar hadn’t. I thought about the things I’d been doing at fifteen: messing around in school, playing sports, getting drunk. Instead of playing football, Omar had been used as a political football by the Canadian and U.S. governments in ways that felt both wrong and disingenuous. Even if he had engaged in combat, he shouldn’t have been treated as a terrorist.
I wanted to see Omar again, and I realized that he and I had a mutual friend: an English professor I knew had corresponded with Omar while he was in Guantánamo and seen him regularly since his release. I e-mailed her, and she said Omar had told her about running into a soldier, though she hadn’t realized it was me. I asked her to tell Omar I’d like to meet again. She did and said he was receptive to the idea. The professor gave me Omar’s e-mail address and encouraged us to have coffee, but the meeting didn’t happen right away. Omar was busy adjusting to a new life in the city. Later he told me he had also been nervous about being around a soldier. I was nervous, too, though for different reasons: What would my family say if they knew I wanted to meet Omar? What would my old army friends say?
I e-mailed him in September; we finally got together the following April. With the smell of sun-warmed earth and melting snow in the air, he and I sat in a crowded cafe on the edge of Edmonton’s river valley. I was suddenly unsure about this: a few words in a camping store is one thing, a meal together something entirely different. A few people had recognized Omar and were watching us. We ordered lentils, chickpeas, and yerba maté. The bread was fresh, and the lentils were warm, and I thought of some Afghan men who had once offered me a similar meal while I’d stood guard.
I told him a bit about my experience of war, about the suicide bombing that had followed me home and continued to haunt my memory. He told me that some of the guards at Guantánamo had been kind; others, not so much. He said that after spending so much time in small cells, he’d had difficulty getting accustomed to open spaces upon being released. But the shared food was more important than the conversation. Just the act of sitting together — a former soldier and a former prisoner of war — was meaningful. I quickly lost my nervousness. After the meal Omar asked to take a photo with me. In it we stand side by side, arms around one another’s backs. We look caught off guard, but we are smiling, too.
We met again a month or so later at a quiet coffee shop, where we sat across from one another and talked about cars and books and Edmonton, not mentioning Afghanistan at all. We were just two humans who’d been on different sides of the war and were grateful to have made it home.
Omar had been just a kid when he was captured. In a way the boys in my platoon had been just kids, too. I sometimes look at a photo of us before we left for Afghanistan in 2005. Our faces are mid-winter pale, and we’re staring straight into the camera: thirty-five young men in desert uniform; soldiers waiting to confront a world beyond our borders. Some of us are smiling slightly, as if straining not to laugh at a joke. Others are expressionless. A few are frowning, trying to look tough, puffing up their chests for the camera. Most of us appear grateful for the opportunity to go to war. Perhaps, all these years later, some of us still are.
In 2016, near the ten-year anniversary of my return from Afghanistan, Omar visits me at my new home in Vancouver. He sleeps in my bedroom, and I move to the couch. I ask him how school is going, how Edmonton is treating him, whether he has spoken lately to the professor who brought us together for coffee. I never ask about his injuries, though I am aware that he is still waiting on surgeries to fix lingering health problems from the firefight in which he was captured. I know he still goes to visit family occasionally, but I don’t inquire about the father who brought him to Afghanistan, or whether his family relationships are strained after the war. I’m worried that certain topics might trigger unwanted memories for him. I am still seeing a psychiatrist for my flashbacks.
In the morning we make breakfast together: eggs, potatoes, coffee. I think about the man who told me that Omar should rot in jail forever; about how some of my family members and friends from the army would consider me misguided, at best — at worst, a traitor — for inviting Omar into my home. The late-summer heat comes through the open kitchen window. The air smells of green, growing things.
We go to a movie. I suggest a 3-D film, but Omar says he can’t watch them because of the injuries to his eyes. In the downtown theater the soda machines look like spaceships. Whereas once you could choose from a handful of flavors, now you have endless combinations: diet, regular, vanilla, lime, raspberry, cherry, orange, cherry-vanilla, and lemon. I wonder what the transition from Guantánamo austerity to Vancouver decadence is like for Omar. Even I am overwhelmed. He seems to approach it all with curiosity.
Later my PhD supervisor, an American, invites us out for a dinner of seafood antipasto, cozze alla marinara, and fresh Italian pasta. At one point my professor quietly reveals that his brother was stationed at Guantánamo while Omar was a detainee.
Though my supervisor is kind and means well, I feel protective of Omar and worry about how this revelation will affect him. When I first returned from Afghanistan, the wrong question about my experience could derail my mind for days, putting me in a mental state from which I could not extricate myself.
But Omar isn’t upset. His obstacles to reentering society have been greater than mine, but his patience is greater, too. We finish our meal with strong Italian coffee and oranges stuffed with gelato.
Back at my place, Omar and I talk in my living room, surrounded by my secondhand furnishings. He tells me that he has started volunteering at the Islamic dinners held at the homeless shelter where I used to work. I remember those meals well, how each woman and man walked away with a huge plate of food. I talk about growing up conservative and evangelical and needing to be part of a world that is more complex than the one I once believed in — a world where a Muslim and a Christian can come back from war and become friends.
I still dream about the war sometimes, and I’ve stopped trying to convince myself that I’ve put it behind me. I’m trying to accept that some people — perhaps even some family members — will think of me as a traitor when they read this. I love my family, and I’ve renewed friendships with my army buddies. I won’t push any of them away, even if we disagree about politics. But I would invite Omar to my house again. In my mind these two are not mutually exclusive.
Before leaving, Omar asks me to bike with him down to the water. He rides a mountain bike, and I take my old fixed gear. I have a hard time keeping up: he is in shape and eager. We bike down Main Street, past where the Canucks play, and follow the coast to Spanish Banks. Omar seems content as the waves slowly roll in. I spread a blanket and crack open a can of club soda. A shaggy dog keeps running into the surf to chase a tennis ball. Each time the dog comes back, he gives a vigorous snout-to-tail shake, spraying droplets of water over everyone, Omar and me included. The mountains behind us are pink in the waning light, and the beach is busy with parents, children, couples walking hand in hand. Omar tells me that he hasn’t seen a sunset over the water since his time in Guantánamo. On the frosted windows of his cell there was a thin, transparent edge through which he could catch a glimpse of the sun setting over the ocean.
I doubt I will ever forget “Home from the War” by Benjamin Hertwig [October 2017]. I’m glad he connected with Omar Khadr and shared that story with us. Hertwig has motivated me to speak up in the face of fear and hatred and reach across whatever divides us. If we don’t find the courage to connect with our so-called enemies, what is left but to continue the cycle of violence and war?