Just short of midnight, we entered the line that stretched from GameStop to beyond Old Navy. Ahead of us, clusters of teenagers waited patiently as laughter exploded over the antics of one youth. He’d commandeered a shopping cart to use as an impromptu chair and comedy prop. Every time the store’s rep called out a number for a prize, he bellowed a whooping, “What?” and dissolved into girly giggles when the rep repeated the number even louder into the PA. Directly ahead of us stood a man in his forties, mutely engrossed in a texting conversation.
Behind us grouped an assortment of young men, strangers chatting about their hopes for the newly released game. I missed the transitional phrases that led these men to discover that they shared a link other than their common passion for a game, but in seconds they began swapping tales of their own duties and responsibilities during their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. One man, cherub faced and clean cut, revealed his rank as a Tech Sergeant. A taught-wired man, with tattoos covering his dark arms, piped in that he’d left the military on disability. He constantly danced from foot to foot as he regaled his captured audience with his wartime experiences.
Heaviness filled me as I listened to these very young men rattle off places like Baghdad and Fallujah, or Kabul and Kandahar. They spoke of first, second, and third tours. They bonded immediately over memories of welding metal plates onto the Humvees for extra protection, and they discussed the merits of different guns with almost comical descriptions. The sergeant revealed that he did his tours as a medic. Another link, it seemed, to the young veteran. The conversation shifted subtly at first to more personal stories. The veteran told of trying to aid soldiers cut in two, of picking up severed arms and legs, of ministering to a toddler who’d pulled boiling oil over herself. He talked about his hidden disability, PTSD. He mused that the military recommended he leave because he’d become too desensitized.
The words and worlds of these young men hung over me as I leaned against the wall, listening to their tales. I felt ashamed that my generation pulled these men out of innocence and into a lifetime of nightmares. I looked ahead of me, at the teenagers laughing so carelessly and realized that many of them will enlist into the military out of duty or necessity. The comedian with the shopping cart may end up carrying unseen scars within a few years. His youth and jubilation could fade; his soul become damaged.
Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman