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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.

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