Valhalla

Image: U.S. Army / Rachel Larue

Rob Kunzig edits profiles coverage at Morning Consult. He is an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and dog. He can be found on Twitter at @RobKunzig 

They had him dressed in a blue smock that read “Arlington Medical Center” on the breast. In the flat, thin light, it only made his skin look gray. IV lines snaked from his arms and legs, feeding fluids in, sucking them out, performing all the functions his body forgot when it died in Syria. The nurses smiled as they adjusted dials, flipped switches, and worked him like a pit crew.

His limbs were thin, the muscle mass gone. He looked like a bundle of rakes in the chair, slouching to the right. His smile came through a sleepy fog.

“You woke me up,” he croaked. The nurse handed him a Styrofoam cup of water. He took a sip, water dribbling down his chin. Then he noticed my uniform.

“Jesus,” he said. “What did you do?”

I held out my arms, palms up. “Ta-da,” I said.

His laugh was thick with phlegm. “You look like an extra in a musical,” he said. “Good Humor Man.”

“Ever see A Few Good Men?

“Not since the last time you asked.”

“There’s a good line about Navy whites.”

“I didn’t think they’d take you,” he said. “No offense.”

“Yeah, well, desperate times.” I felt my ears flush as he gave my uniform an up-and-down. He winced as he took another sip. “This what you woke me up for?”

I shrugged. “I just got out of OCS,” I said. “I’m in public affairs school at Fort Meade. Figured I’d drop down, say hi.”

“Because, you know, this gets worse and worse every time. The techs are starting to give me a look – like I’m a little past expiration, or something.” He flared his nostrils. “I think I’m starting to putrefy.”

“Dude.”

“That’s something that happens to dead people.” He winked. “Don’t look so glum. You paid good money for this. Enjoy me.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this – a habit. As the Department of Defense phrased it, it was a “chance to say goodbye,” an “opportunity for closure.” After they told the nation what they could now do, we were among the first to volunteer. They brought us to Arlington National Cemetery in the middle of the night – better for avoiding media attention – leading us through dark hallways until we reached the medical wing, where the tile was white and new, the paint on the walls still a little tacky to the touch.

The first time was a mess. He died twice on the table, the doctors shouting at nurses for syringes of adrenaline as the machines frantically beeped and chimed. He lay with his back to the metal, his chest heaving, his eyes wide, and croaked out questions: Where am I? How long? What happened?

They kept him alive for 15 minutes while we told him: It was a mortar. Six months ago, near Raqqa. You was sitting on a Hesco near the FDC pit, having a smoke, and then…

So, what? he said. He was panting. Sweat beaded on his forehead. I lose my legs? Where am I? He tried to sit up, but he only made it a few inches off the metal.

You’re at Arlington, we said. Then we told him.

His face crumpled. If his tear ducts were working, he would have cried. His mother fainted, and the nurses dragged her out by her armpits. He asked about the men in his platoon, and his father answered as if in a trance. Alive. Alive. Alive, but missing his legs. Dead. Dead.

Then his eyes started to flutter. The doctors gave us looks. We held his hands, placed our palms on his cool, sweating skin, and told him we loved him, we were sorry, we would be back, we were sorry. His eyes were wide, full of animal fear as he said I love you too, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry mama – then gone.

In the two years since, the coming and going became less traumatic. They opened up the program to weeping fathers from Wichita, widows from Biloxi, guys who wanted a few final words with their squadmates. Nonprofits established funds to underwrite plane tickets, pay for hotel rooms in Crystal City – and, of course, fund the procedure.

Usually, the doctors gave them a few minutes to perk up before they wheeled them out. The slow ones got an amphetamine jolt, if they wanted – kind of like a shot of espresso, the docs said.

If he took the drugs, he wasn’t showing it. His body seemed to be under a different gravity than mine. He slouched in his chair, his eyes scanning.

“I was having a nice dream, actually,” he said. “I was getting double-teamed by Olivia Wilde and January Jones.”

“We paid extra for that, you know.”

“I don’t dream, actually,” he said. “I told mom I dream about home because it makes her feel better. But I don’t. They put me on the table, I close my eyes, then I open ‘em, and I’m back on the table, only it’s three months later.”

“Is it cold?”

“Enough with the questions. Talk about yourself. Give me something to not dream about.”

“Well,” I said. “There’s the costume.”

“With your one ribbon.”

“You get that for joining.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll get more. One for good behavior. One for not tripping over your own dick. They still give out the GWOT?”

“No,” I said. “They’re calling it something different now.”

“So we beat terror, huh?”

“Guess so.”

“Glad I didn’t die in Syria for nothing,” he said. “Where they sending you?”

“Dunno. Could be anywhere. Business is booming.”

“Get orders to an Air Force base, if you can. Air Force chicks are hot,” he said. “You know, we had a public affairs guy on our FOB. Only ever saw him in the chow hall. You guys take pictures, right?”

“The enlisted take pictures.”

“Figures. So what do you do?”

“Sign their evals.”

He laughed, but the laugh turned into a cough and bent his body. My legs tensed.

Through a wincing smile, he said: “How’s mama?”

“She doesn’t know I’m here,” I said.

“Still writing that book?”

“It’s her way of processing. Getting closure.”

“She shows up with bags under her eyes, her voice all shaky. She breaks out that damn notebook, and then she’s grilling me about Syria, the Marines, why I joined, shit that happened during recruit training. Voice all shaky, bags under her eyes. Gives me a headache.”

“Dude.”

“I know she mortgaged the house to pay for these little miracles. That’s retarded. You need to tell her that, okay?”

I nodded, but the promise wasn’t worth making. He sighed. “I made a friend,” he said. “Army doggie who got shot in Sevastopol. Sniper. Femoral bleed. Gone in minutes.” When they get to talk to each other, he once told me, this is what they talk about: how they bought it. How death came, when it came at last, and how it was scary, and maybe a little funny, but mostly just sad.

“He’s been on the slab next to me these last couple times,” he said. “Get this: his sister’s a tattoo artist in Richmond. She’s gonna sneak in a kit and tattoo ZOMBIE around his throat.”

“Holy shit.”

“I know, right? How fucking metal is that? Thing is, he’s sticking around because he thinks they’re gonna find a way to make this permanent, bring him back for good. Stupid fucker wants to re-up. He doesn’t think the tattoo will be an issue.”

“It won’t,” I said. “The Army can’t afford to be choosy these days.”

“So we’re still rock-and-rolling in Eastern Europe?”

I nodded.

He shook his head. “You know that Medal of Honor dude they brought back? Joe Ranger? I saw him on the screen when they wheeled me back last time.”

He was talking about Sergeant First Class John Yancy, the first posthumous Medal of Honor awardee to show up for the ceremony. Yancy was the kind of hero that used to sell war bonds: stormed a machine gun nest during the Battle of Riga, then stormed another, and kept going from pillbox to pillbox until he died from blood loss. They did a good job patching him up, but his cheeks looked a little too red on TV.

The president liked to stand beside his bed in Arlington as Yancy preached the necessity of sacrifice, courage and dedication. The cameras rolled, the SFC did his duty, and then they slotted him back in the freeze.

“They can’t be paying him, right?” Chad said. “I mean, how would he use the money?”

“Maybe he means it.”

Chad laughed. “Look, when I joined? Lot of guys meant it. Nine-eleven guys, or guys who said they were doing it for the Yazidis, even if they didn’t know what a Yazidi was. But seriously, anyone who says this is still a good idea is a comedian or a liar.”

“We could wake him up and ask him. He’s right down the hall.”

Chad shook his head. His eyes scanned the room, busying themselves while his mind worked. “You dodged, earlier,” he said. “When I asked about you.”

“I told you,” I said. “I joined the Navy.”

“Yeah, but why? Really?”

I shrugged. “We’re at war.”

“We were at war 10 years ago. You didn’t feel obligated then.”

“People change.”

“They must. ‘Cause I remember getting in a shouting match with a guy who said that voluntary service made us better than the rest – the fact that you could refuse, that you could choose how you made your mark.” His eyes were boring holes in my head.

“I grew up.”

“Nah.” He sat up, leaned in. “Grown-ups know when to move on. You don’t. Mom doesn’t. Grown-ups know how to let fucking go.”

The door opened. Two nurses rushed in, their Crocs clapping on the tile.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, raising a hand. “Just got a little worked up.” I only then heard the urgent beeping from one of the machines – pulse, or blood pressure.

The nurses looked at him, then me, then each other. “Let us know if you need anything, alright, sir?” the blonde one said.

“Thanks, Kelly,” he said. They left. When he heard the doors close, he winked at me. “She’s hot for me. Got a thing for lost causes.”

“I’m sorry, Chad.”

“Don’t be. Feels good, honestly.” He tried to roll his shoulders. “You aren’t really allowed to be angry when somebody drops a stack of Benjamins to thaw you. Not allowed to be disappointed, either.”

He sagged a little in his seat. His knees emerged from under the gown, small and hard like doorknobs. He was always on the slight side: in his boot camp photo, he looks like a 12-year-old with an Adam’s apple, eyes flat, mouth drawn, playing tough. Looking at him now, I recognized the individual features, but they didn’t cohere into resemblance. Only his eyes were familiar. I’ve seen them amused, angry, in love, scared – and now, trapped.

“I’m fading, dude,” he said. “Why don’t you go get me a Coke?”

I laughed. “C’mon.”

“C’mon yourself. Support your fallen heroes.”

“You know you can’t.”

“James.” He pulled himself upright with agonizing slowness. “I’m a bag of guts. Every time they bring me back, it feels like a heart attack. And the cold? You come out of it, but it stays with you. It doesn’t leave.”

His voice sounded flat and dull. “I’m tired, bro. Just leave me alone for a few minutes, will you? Go get me a Coke,” he said. “I haven’t had a Coke since Syria.”

“Fine,” I said. “When they yell at me, I’m blaming you.”

As I walked for the door, he grabbed my hand. His flesh was so cold, I jumped.

“Hey,” he said, looking up at me. “Tell mom to get some sleep, alright?”

“Okay.”

“And you.”

“What?”

He grinned, and suddenly, he’s transformed into the kid I knew in high school, his hands gripping the steering wheel, his left foot on the brake, waiting for the light to turn from red to green.

“I lied about Air Force girls,” he said. “Marine chicks are where it’s at.”

“All right, jarhead.”

“No one calls us that, anymore,” he said, his voice sad. “They just call us heroes.”

The concourse was empty. The clop of my dress shoes echoed off the high ceiling as I walked past framed pictures of the formerly dead with parents, girlfriends, wives, children; pictures with their old comrades, a hospital gown in a sea of dress blues and grave stares that seemed to reach out into infinity.

In the break room, I fed a few bills into the vending machine and punched the button for Coke. The machine’s LCD readout told me the internal temperature was 36.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

After some internal rumbling, the Coke thundered out. Air immediately condensed on the cold plastic.

“That yours, Ensign?”

I jumped. The voice was heavy and a little slurred, and it belonged to a doctor sitting at a small, round table, hunched over a cup of coffee. His eyes were bleary, his hair a messy smear on his scalp.

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, yes, sir. It’s mine.”

He shrugged. Something sour cut the smell of coffee. It took me a second to place it: whiskey.

“I wouldn’t stop you,” he said.

I try on a smile. “No need to,” I said. “It’s mine.”

“You know,” he said, “we started this so people could say goodbye. Right? So they could have that last hug, that last I-love-you. Then they wanted more, so they gave them more. The Catholics didn’t like it, but who cares? We gave America visiting rights with its dead heroes. We turned never forget into see you next week.

The only way out of this was through, so I nodded.

“And now…” he flapped a hand in the air. “This.”

“Now what?” I asked.

“They’re scandalized when it doesn’t last forever.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “Shocked. Horrified. We’re cheating death to give them what they want, and they’re outraged when things go sideways.”

“Excuse me,” I said. “What’s going sideways?”

He nodded at the door. “Go give your friend his Coke,” he said.

“He’s my brother,” I said.

The doc stared at me with dead eyes. “Give him the Coke,” he said.

My collar itched as I left the break room, the white cloth scratching at my razor burn. Who’s running this place? I thought. I made plans to file a complaint.

A scream froze me mid-step. Behind me, a woman stumbled to a wall and slid against the floor, her face a kabuki mask of grief. The noise she made didn’t quite match the motion of her mouth. A squad of nurses and orderlies whipped around a corner and sprinted into the room.

I told myself I’d joke about this with Chad: jumpy medics, shattered mothers, the comedy of overreaction. We could make fun of anything. That’s how we made this okay.

The light in the room had blued. His back was to the door, his head bent, focused on his lap. “There’s a drunk doctor in the break room,” I said, kicking the door closed with a heel.

I unscrewed the top with a hiss and held out the Coke like a baton. His gaze was fixed in his lap, his hands on his thighs. He looked like he had fallen asleep while waiting for a bus.

I didn’t know at first, because I never saw him like this. His was a closed-casket funeral, the framed photo above it a totem for the deceased, an abstraction that didn’t quite connect the dots between my brother and the body in the coffin. I remember standing before him, trying to make the connection, trying to tell myself Chad was dead, trying to close the loop.

Trying, and failing. Trying, and failing.