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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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“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.”

He told me about one notification in a small Vermont city. The soldiers arrived at an office and everyone in the cubicles started crying. They knew who had a son overseas. But the father seemed oblivious. He kept thanking them and saying he would write his son and tell them how kind they’d been to visit. The young soldier assigned to say, “We regret to inform you …” couldn’t utter a word. He tried three times. Finally the chaplain with them took the father aside. “That experience will linger with them,” Coffin said.

He told me about a Guardsman assigned to stand vigil beside a casket in a small-town armory. “It was one of those cases where we recommend that the remains not be viewed by the family,” Coffin said. “But the family has a choice. So it’s the middle of the night and the wife shows up and wants to view the remains. And [the Guardsman] is all by himself. The wife is clawing at the coffin. He calls the soldier’s father. He comes right down there. So they’re all around the casket. And the boy’s father is trying to persuade her not to open the casket.”
Coffin stopped. He rubbed his hands over his face. “There’s no book on this one. The father was able to get her to come to his house and sleep, telling her they were all crazy with grief. But there’s that soldier still standing vigil. Whom will he talk to about this?”

It’s no secret that Vermont has drawn some of the toughest assignments–their elite mountain training seemed to demand it–and it’s no secret that for the size of its population, the state has suffered more losses than any other. Nearly everyone seems to know someone whose life has been forever changed by war. “We’ve been put in some awfully tough places,” Coffin said.

I replied that the ripples must touch nearly every town in Vermont. “Not ripples,” he corrected. “Tsunamis.” He shook his head, and stopped until he gathered himself. “We just had the largest deployment of the National Guard in Vermont history–1,500 soldiers. Many were just starting to re-adjust to being back home from Iraq, and then we had to crank them up again for Afghanistan. There’s no state of the art for this. I’m emotional because it’s too much.” His hands engulfed his face again. “Too much war,” he said. “Eight years in, it’s too much.”

He said that the soldiers who had left five months earlier, in January, would come home in time for Christmas: “When we see them off, I say, ‘We’ll be waiting when you come down the stairs.’ It’s profound when these guys get off the plane. It’ll be 3:00 in the morning. Almost every soldier says it’s unbelievable to see the welcome. First thing I say is …” For a moment he couldn’t speak. “First thing I say is: ‘I love you.’”

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