Here in New England | The Man Who Listens to Soldiers
“‘Oh, so is that what those plaques are?’
“It occurs to me that nobody’s brought him up there to see. It was one of those moments where I say to myself, ‘Who am I? What should I say?’ I say, ‘Do you want to go up and take a look?’ And he holds my hand and we go up.”
A second wall in Coffin’s office is filled with eight self-portraits, drawn under the tutelage of a Santa Fe artist. They’re vivid, strange, luminous–a man with eyes so large they’re like wild moons within a face. “Something emotional comes out when you do these,” Coffin said. “It’s a guy I’ve dreamed about. There’s not a good name for it; maybe he’s an angel or a spirit ally. I call him ‘Rondal.’ In a dream I was climbing up a deep, circular turret made of stone, like a dungeon. Out of the corner of my eye, there’s a guy with a knife waiting to kill me. And my guy, my spirit ally, took care of him for me. Sounds crazy, but I sure like having him up on the wall surrounding me.”
In his own way, Coffin has also been the protector of soldiers he feels should stay home. One soldier’s father lay in a hospital bed in the family’s living room. His wife, with two small children, would need to care for him. “He wanted to go,” Coffin said. “Nearly all want to go. They train together; they’re in this together. But I had to make him understand that there can be a nobility in taking care of people here, too.”
Another soldier had already deployed once; his wife said that if he deployed again, she would leave. “The three of us went to a quiet place for coffee,” Coffin said. The more he listened, the more he realized that there were compelling reasons beneath the surface for the soldier to stay and keep his family together. He made sure the soldier didn’t deploy. Coffin didn’t tell them that once when he and his second wife were out to dinner with some other couples, “one of my wife’s friends said to me, ‘What’s more important, your marriage or your work?’ I made the mistake of answering truthfully.”
On this November day in 2010, Coffin was scrambling to get everything ready before leaving in three days for Camp Atterbury in Indiana. Soon the first wave of Guardsmen would arrive home, and then every four days another planeload, until the final plane would land just before Christmas. The Army had just told him that most of the support he’d thought he’d have had been, in military terms, “deleted”–budget cuts. Coffin now knew that he couldn’t accomplish the long, intense debriefing sessions; too many soldiers, too few days, too few trained people to help. “All the strikes are against us,” he said. “I had vet-center people coming, I had counselors from the Howard Center, and I haven’t had the courage yet to tell them they can’t come. I’m going to be the only f—— psychologist there.”
Who he would have would be a small group of nurses, including Colonel Janet Thomas, a school nurse with nearly 30 years of Guard duty behind her, who had been with him on previous demobilizations; Major Tom Johnston, a semi-retired dentist who would be pressed into counseling duties, and Staff Sergeant Jason Cleveland, a smart, hard-nosed bear of a man who had served two intense and bloody tours. “He talks to soldiers from his bones,” Coffin said.
Cleveland had also once flown back from war and found Colonel Coffin waiting. “I thought, ‘Who is this kooky guy who wants to hug me and tells me he loves me?'” But he saw how Coffin got to him and his fellow soldiers, and he wanted to be part of it. “He got the importance of it,” Coffin said.
Cleveland wears the combat patches on his sleeves, one from Iraq, one from Afghanistan, that tell soldiers that whatever they went through, he did, too. When he tells them that therapy saved his marriage; that he thought he could escape 12 ounces at a time; that you can tell a soldier to f— himself, but you can’t say that to your wife; that your family deployed with you and worried about you every day; that he lost half his squad in one day and that he locked himself in a room in Iraq with the rest of his team and they drank and played video games until they couldn’t feel; that he knows about nightmares and feeling as though you’re living on a cliff; that “you can’t just file what happened to you in a drawer and walk away”–when he tells them those things–he has their attention.
So in Indiana, Coffin and his small team would have to fan out: find soldiers who served with Grady and DeLuzio and Southworth; find others considered at possible risk to themselves or to others. Before leaving Afghanistan, the Guardsmen had filled out a questionnaire, and nearly 300 had been identified as in need of followup counseling. Coffin and his team would have to find them in the barracks, in the mess hall, walking across the barren base.
Coffin packs stacks of cards with his phone number, which he hands out to soldiers, along with hugs. The cards say Exchanges of Significance. What he hopes to do in Indiana is “sow the seeds; have conversations. What they’ve been doing is dehumanizing. But you try and get people to come back and be human.”
There’s that. And then there’s this: On his desk was a booklet about suicide in the National Guard, which is rising at an alarming rate. What he has said to Jason Cleveland is what he tells everyone who comes to work beside him: “Talk to everyone. Don’t ignore anything.” And he always adds, “You’re going to save a life while you’re down here.”
To reach Camp Atterbury, you drive 32 miles south of Indianapolis, past the silos and the snow-veined fields, with semis bullying past on I-65. Outside Edinburgh, its mall all lit up for Christmas, you come to the base, 12 miles long, 4 wide, a town unto itself. There in the early dark of a raw mid-December night, Colonel Coffin pulls his rented sedan in front of a barracks. Two young men, waiting outside, quickly slide in. They’re in their early twenties, and they’re from small towns near Lake Champlain. They’d lost their driver’s licenses before they deployed because of DUIs. To re-enter civilian life, to have a chance at a job, they need their suspensions lifted. This is why for the second night Coffin is escorting them to an AA meeting about 20 minutes away. When he sees these young soldiers, he sees himself long ago, back from war, full of questions without answers.
What the soldiers don’t know is that the colonel who’s driving them can’t see well at night, especially on an unfamiliar road. Nor do they know that Sergeant Cleveland remembers a time when Coffin was driving him to the airport. Coffin had trouble holding the lane, drifting back and forth. When they finally got on the plane, one of the medical team peered at Coffin and his glasses. “Sir,” he pointed out, “do you know you’re missing a lens?”
“He just loses himself in soldiers,” Cleveland says. “He forgets everything else.” Now Coffin drives warily through the Indiana night.