Here in New England | The Man Who Listens to Soldiers
“They told me that when their friend was home on leave, he’d bought a new hunting rifle. ‘He gave it to me to take care of for him,’ the young guy said. ‘I cleaned it last night. And I turned it over and over in my hands. And now I don’t know what to do with it.’ And his buddy put his hand on his shoulder.
“And what came to me, I just said, ‘Look, there’s nobody better in the world than you to have it.’ And I think that made a difference for him.”
He remembered another summer day in Vermont, another young soldier killed by a roadside bomb: “I saw an honor guard standing alone, leaning against a tree. I almost didn’t see him. He was maybe 22 at best. I thanked him for his service, and I could see he’d been crying. ‘I should have been the one who died,’ he said. ‘It was my job, and we switched. It should be me in that ground over there.”’
Coffin said he sometimes questions himself: “Who am I? I’m just a psychologist, and this is spiritual. What should I say? And then it comes to me: This is my gift. Step up … [I said to him,] ‘What would he say to you, right now? What is he saying right now?’ And that young soldier found a way, I hope, to know it wasn’t on him.”
On this day, the sun was burning the grass at the cemetery on Main Street in Hardwick, as Tristan Southworth entered the earth, and the slow notes of “Taps” rang out, and the quiet followed. Coffin waited, and after everybody had left, he walked for a while in town, people nodding at him in his uniform. Then he drove west, alone, through the hills to a friend’s house, where he lives in a single room. He’s not a man of few words; his phone messages to his children can exhaust their voicemail systems. But when he’s asked to put into words what he–a man who asks this of soldiers all the time–feels, he says simply, “My heart is broken.”
When Jon Coffin came home to his native Maine from the Vietnam War, where he had commanded a listening post in Thailand, there were no welcome-home ceremonies, no counselors waiting to tend to their readjustment. They were sent home alone and on their own to figure out what would come next in a country that for the most part was hoping the war and those who had fought in it would vanish like a stain in the wash. He had joined the R.O.T.C. while at Middlebury College, where he’d played football, scraped by in classes, and then, like a number of his friends, headed off to Southeast Asia.
Once home, he soon moved to Vermont with his first wife, a Thai woman he had met during the war, and with whom he would have a son and a daughter. He went back to school for the first of three graduate degrees and began working with substance-abuse offenders. In 1973, Coffin joined the Vermont National Guard medical corps, partly for the “quick $500″ and partly to find meaning again in what he considered a “brotherhood.”
The Guard had never seen anyone quite like him. Sometimes while in training, Guardsmen would awaken and peer out of their tents and see Coffin doing yoga or tai chi or meditating in a clearing. He spoke of spirit guides and read deeply–poetry and philosophy and spiritualism, and especially the writings of Robert Bly, author of Iron John, who felt that modern men had lost their way. He always placed at the top in fitness tests, and even as the years passed, he could still finish 75 sit-ups in two minutes. In 1993, he took command of the elite 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, for two years, and tried to hide the fact that he feared heights. With a guide, he pushed himself to ascend an ice wall used in training at Smugglers’ Notch. Lieutenant Colonel David Manfredi, the current mountain battalion commander, who once served under Coffin, recalled how the unit stood in fierce, penetrating cold and how Coffin gathered them together and said, “The difference between you and everyone else is one quarter-inch–that quarter-inch that lets your chest stick out in pride.”
“I never forgot that,” Manfredi said. Coffin ended his phone messages with one word: “Blessings.” The soldiers called Coffin “Monk Rambo.”
The elements of his life merge in his office. One wall is draped with news clippings, photographs, obituaries–friends from Middlebury who died in Vietnam, National Guardsmen and regular Army personnel, too, who have died in the Middle East–his personal wall of men he misses, of graves he has stood beside. Each photograph, each clipping, carries a final memory. Here is the 21-year-old whose funeral was held in the same village church where only a year earlier he had married his childhood sweetheart. They had ridden the schoolbus together since first grade, had been each other’s first date.
“The army chaplain spoke,” Coffin recalled, “and said that that morning he and his grandson had seen a bottle sticking out of the earth, all crusted with ice. So he’d chipped away at it and gotten it out, and something had caught his eye. It was a note. He had a hacksaw in the car and cut it open: ‘I’m glad you found me–Adam.'” Coffin’s voice now was a hoarse whisper: “That was the soldier’s name. And then the chaplain walked off the pulpit. You could hear a pin drop. When, when, was the last time you found a note in a bottle?”
Here is another, one of the first Vermonters to die in Iraq. He left a wife and a son: “We were at a ceremony at the Fallen Heroes Memorial. And I see the boy. He’s now maybe 11. I see he’s wandering around by himself. I say, ‘How you been?’ Quite a day to be here, huh?’
“‘Yeah, I don’t understand it all.’
“‘Well, you belong here.’
“‘Yeah, I know. What is this wall here?’
“‘All the guys who’ve been killed in the war, their names are on the wall.’