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Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Publish a New Book of Short Stories about the Long War

"There were a bunch of guys like me at Walter Reed—severe burn cases, the faceless. You would think we would have hung out together, but we avoided it as much as possible" -- from a powerful fictional short story.

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On the horizon was a familiar set of industrial-looking buildings. I got Sleed’s attention and pointed them out. “Fort Detrick,” I said. “They do testing on monkeys there.”

“What kinda testing?” he asked.

“Chemical and biological weapons. They have a big incinerator where they burn the dead monkeys.”

“How you know that?” “My dad works there.”

“You never told me he was Army.”

“He’s not, anymore. Civilian contractor.”

The first time my parents had come to visit after I’d arrived at Walter Reed, my father had given me a check for twenty thousand dollars. “Starting out money,” he’d called it.

I lay on a hospital bed in a paper gown, recovering from the latest skin graft. Before entering my room, my parents had to scrub down like surgeons, donning hospital coveralls, masks, hair caps. My father placed the check on the nightstand beside the bed. He said it was the least they could do. He could hardly bear to look at me. My mom wept quietly. Nobody talked much. They visited often in the beginning, dutifully, every weekend. My mom went so far as to stay the first two weeks in a nearby hotel.

Five months later, the grafts had hardened nicely. I was a fast healer, and the risk for infection had returned to near baseline. Physiologically, I was out of the woods, off morphine and onto muscle relaxers for the pain. I had completed the initial course of therapy, and the Army had started the paperwork for a medical retirement. My parents were in town on yet another visit.

“So what are your plans?” my father asked.

“Live off the government,” I said. “Get wasted.” I was a little high on pills, or I wouldn’t have been so bold. In Valium veritas. “You don’t mean that,” he said, looking agitated. “You’re just upset because of what happened.”

“No shit I’m upset,” I said. “Look, maybe you two should just leave. To tell the truth, I want you to stop coming here. This place depresses me enough without having to deal with this.”

A month had passed since then, and they hadn’t been back. Now, to the west of the interstate, the bus ferrying me and Sleed along at a steady seventy miles per hour, I sighted the building where, for the good of the nation, my father infected rhesus macaques with smallpox, his lab only miles from the antiseptic home where my mother spent her days watching cable news and talking to the cat. I tried to imagine how it must feel to be a parent to a son in pain who doesn’t want your help. I felt awful for them, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt better apart. They were not rotten people—don’t get me wrong—statistically speaking, they had been the best I could have hoped for: upper middle class, free thinking, well educated. I had been taken to art museums as a child, read to, enrolled in the finest preschool, kindergarten, et cetera. I hadnot entirely failed as a son, either. About the worst trouble I had ever gotten into was partying too hard and flunking out of school, and I remedied that dishonor by joining the Army a month after September 11. None of us had been bad people; we had simply made the wrong choices. How could they have known their values would lead me to this? That all that safety would push me into the fire?

I asked myself these and other unanswerable questions as we passed the borders of my old home, into acres of corn broken by the occasional exurban neighborhood, the new houses, trimmed in plastic, out of place in cul-de-sacs carved from cow pastures.

We turned off US-15 near the little town of Thurmont, onto a state road climbing into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The winding, two-lane road tunneled through a forest of oak, poplar, and hickory. The trees grew from a mat of ferns and decaying leaves atop a thin but rich soil broken by crags of limestone. A sign said we had entered Catoctin Mountain National Park. We drove a ways farther and then pulled into a gravel lot, where we filed off the bus. Sleed struggled down the narrow steps with his cane and prosthesis, which he was still getting used to. This had been a sticking point in his coming.

 
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