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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.

The following is an excerpt from Brian Van Reet's fictional short story "Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek," which appeared in the book, which appeared in an anthology written by veterans,  Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher,  Da Capo Press, 2013). Van Reet is the recipient of a James Michener Fellowship and the Gulf Coast Prize in Fiction. In 2004 and 2005 he served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad and was awarded a Bronze Star with "V" Device. His writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Shenandoah, The Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere.

A few weeks ago, Sleed and I loaded onto a sleek tour bus. We filed behind a gaggle of other “wounded warriors”—the term the Army used to refer to us in official memoranda. I guess it’s what we were, but the phrase was too cute to do our ugliness justice.

It was a beautiful May day, and we were taking the bus to Maryland to do some trout fishing. I had convinced Sleed to come along after seeing a sign-up sheet in the hallway outside my group’s meeting room. I normally wouldn’t participate in extracurriculars, but had fished the stream we’d be going to, years before. I grew up nearby in the city of Frederick and guess I took the trip because I wanted to revisit old stomping grounds—that, and I was going stir crazy in the barracks.

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. We all looked the same; being around one another was like looking in a mirror. None of us wanted that. We wanted to forget.

Sleed was not faceless. His was okay—a few scars—but mostly intact. Back at Camp War Eagle, he had been standing beside me in the awards ceremony, both of us receiving commendation medals from the Division Commander, when the suicide bomber ran up and exploded himself. Sleed lost his cock and balls and one of his legs above the knee. My privates survived the blast—my right leg shielded them—but I was never going to need them again, not with how I looked. I don’t know how it was Sleed took most of the shrapnel while I got the brunt of the fireball. There’s no explaining these things.

Sleed was served divorce papers shortly after returning to the States from the army hospital in Germany. His wife came bearing them on her one trip to DC from Toad Lick, Georgia, to visit her wounded husband. Turned out she had been cheating on him for most of the time he had been overseas and cited the loss of his reproductive organs, among other reasons, as grounds for divorce. She wanted more kids.

The whole situation was nightmarishly helpless, but there it was, our bodies transformed in a flash I could not remember. The only thing to do now was deal with it. Time was reckoned in two halves, before and after. I took a window seat on the bus. Sleed sat beside me. He was tall and ropey muscled, with freckled skin that tanned deeply in summer and paled to magnolia white in winter.

The air brakes released with a hiss, and we pulled out of the parking lot and onto Georgia Avenue. I thought it must be a painful reminder for Sleed to have to live on a street named after his home state, where his wife was probably hard at work trying to have more babies with her new boyfriend, a divorced first sergeant with two kids of his own. Sleed had sworn to fight his wife—“The Bitch,” as he unfailingly called her—for custody of their three-year-old daughter, but the judge in the case had ruled the proceedings delayed until Sleed’s medical retirement could be processed. In the meantime, Sleed had employed a private detective to gather dirt on his wife.

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