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Here in New England | The Man Who Listens to Soldiers

Here in New England | The Man Who Listens to Soldiers
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He wonders: How wide do his shoulders need to be? How open his heart? How deep his soul? Can he ever really understand what it’s like to lose a child, even as he looks parents in the eye and lets them fold their grief into his arms?

He has been telling me about a time when Vermont National Guard soldiers were patrolling Ramadi, considered the most dangerous place in Iraq, and how “basically their mission was to walk beside convoys and draw fire. They were walking targets. Just waiting to be killed. And,” he added, “no matter how good a soldier you are, if they want to blow you up, they can do it; it just depends on which vehicle you’re riding in.”

And then Jon Coffin, Vermont National Guard colonel, one of only six psychologists in the country’s National Guard system, stood up and walked away from the table, shaking his head, choking back tears. It was late June 2010 and he had just turned 65, the oldest soldier in the Vermont Guard. He knows that therapists are supposed to distance themselves from those they help, but this is his dilemma: Jon Coffin does not do distance.

We were talking at the Howard Center in Burlington, Vermont’s largest social-services agency, where in his civilian life he has worked since 1973. He’s tall and lean, gone bald, dressed as always in combat fatigues. His specialty is alcohol- and substance-abuse counseling. But since 2002, when the first Vermont Guardsmen deployed, thousands of ordinary citizens have been thrust into extraordinary danger. They’ve seen not only their own lives but their families’ in turmoil because of wartime deployments. Now Coffin’s work is to help citizen soldiers prepare to leave, and to be there when they come home; to help them, he said, “leave their hauntings behind.”

He listens to soldiers in the first raw hours after they fly back from war, before they rush into the happy embrace of family. On bases distant from Vermont, he and a small, hand-picked team coax out the anger and the memories that nobody wants to talk about–the memories they cannot now or maybe never will share with family, friends, co-workers.

He brings them into a circle, 10, 15, 20 soldiers at a time. He asks: “Where were you? What did you do? … What was the worst part for you? How did you handle the worst part? … How did it feel when you walked off the plane? Down the steps onto the earth? … What lessons have you learned to take with you?”

Each soldier will have a short story and a long story. The short story begins: “I was justa … I was justa gunner … I was justa medic.” “Not good enough,” Coffin will say. It’s the long stories he goes after. He and his team have done this, more than 100 different sessions, three hours at a time, morning, afternoon, and night, during a dozen different demobilizations, listening until he wore out, and those helping him wore out. He calls it a “sacred time,” the last time many of the soldiers will still be together. He said he has watched as soldiers reunite with their families, walking away and turning their heads, looking back for one another.

“The guys I worry about are the ones who say, ‘I’m fine, and I don’t want to talk about it,'” Coffin said. “They believe that if you think about it, it gets worse; that if you talk about it, it gets worse. I don’t think that’s a great idea.”

Coffin uses everything he believes in–spiritualism, mysticism, Eastern philosophy, Western philosophy–to help Guardsmen cope with the conflicted choices combat soldiers often face. He may tell them about his own personal struggles: two failed marriages, his early battle with alcohol, his search for meaning after the Vietnam War. Whatever it takes he’ll try. What he won’t say is that the people who know him best worry about him; that his two grown children, who live in Maine, worry about him; that he worries, too.

“As soon as we sent troops over, I got involved,” he said. “And it started to tear me up. I started to over-identify. One young soldier said to me, ‘I thank you for your concern, but frankly, sir, I am f—– . All of us are f—–.’ A 21- year-old kid said to me when he got back, ‘What’s the point, sir?’ He felt he had lost his soul, with no redemption. That we sent him to hell and now he can’t get out. These wars are journeys to the gates of hell, and I wanted to go there with our soldiers.”

“‘Tortured’ is not too hard a word for how Jon struggles with the burden he’s carrying on his back and in his heart,” said Todd Centybear, Coffin’s longtime friend, colleague, and, as the Howard Center’s executive director, the one who funds Coffin so that he can devote himself full-time to soldiers. “Never have I seen him like this, trying to alleviate the burden of the men and women he’s working with. He’s paying a price. It’s used up not just mental resources but physical. But it’s a price he’s willing to pay as part of his duty. It’s his personal deployment. Is it the right burden? I don’t know. I don’t know if he can make it through.”

By this June morning, the Vermont Guard had lost 11 soldiers, their names engraved on the Vermont National Guard Fallen Heroes Memorial wall at Camp Johnson in Colchester, six miles from Burlington. Coffin works with those who return with hidden wounds, unable to shed what they’ve witnessed, or done; those who have lived a year as if crossing a street blindfolded, never knowing when they would be struck, and can’t find a way to be normal again.

“Nobody comes back unchanged,” Coffin said. “Nobody. You know that 80 percent of what they do over there may be good, but it’s the other 20 percent that will stay with them, and maybe 1 percent of that could haunt them for the rest of their lives.”

He seeks out not only combat soldiers, but also those whose pain could stay hidden–like the ones who must deliver somber news. “The hardest work,” Coffin said. “They’re the dark angels. Nobody wants to see them. There are people who beat on them. Others collapse on the floor.”

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