Here in New England | The Man Who Listens to Soldiers
There’s nothing Jon Coffin wants to do more than talk to soldiers. “Nothing else feels as real to me,” he says, and for a month they’ve been everywhere, knit caps pulled over their ears, walking from barracks to mess hall, from meeting to meeting, sometimes just walking in groups feeling the air; four days here, then a plane to Burlington and the family reunions, with reporters and cameras capturing the moment. What worries Coffin is what happens after the moment.
When Coffin and the two young men arrive at the AA meeting, they sit in the back, beside the brewing coffee, and watch in silence. When the meeting ends, people press close and thank them for being there, for serving. On the way back to the base, Coffin takes them to Chili’s. They want Wendy’s, but he wants soup and pulls rank. The young men order burgers and fries, and while they eat, one soldier keeps texting his girlfriend, breaking into a smile whenever he looks down at her reply.
The other is trying to piece to-gether a future that is less certain than when he left. He had been with a woman who had a child, and he had left her his bank card for emergencies; she took the child, took his savings, and moved west while he was 6,000 miles away. “I wanted to have a life with her,” he says. “I wanted her child to be my family. I was young and foolish in life.” He takes a sip of soda. “But I’m over it,” he says. He admits that he’s worried but tells Coffin that he hopes for a good job using the training he got in the Guard. He’s taken a technical test as part of a job application and scored near the top. “I won’t have to worry about money,” he says, “if I get this job.”
Coffin knows better–that the young soldier may need to worry, job or no job. He has seen it time and time again. A month passes, and all seems fine in the bubbly relief of being home; then three, six months pass and many are still fighting shadows. Guardsmen might have been in charge of multimillion-dollar equipment, might have made life-and-death decisions, but while they were at war, seasons changed, lives continued; sickness, death, infidelity, sorrow, birthdays, anniversaries, spouses picking up the slack and making family decisions. Kids have grown taller, some doing well, some not. Coffin believes that “most of our battlefields aren’t in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of our battlefields are right here, at work or at home.” He makes a note to himself to check back on the young man in three months.
When Coffin drops the two soldiers back at their barracks, it’s past 9:00. When he arrives at the hotel where he and Cleveland are staying, three miles from the base, he says he hopes he can sleep.
Shortly before 11:00 p.m., my phone rings. He can’t sleep. Soon he’s sitting in my room, still in his fatigues, a small yogurt container in his hand. Before I came to Indiana, his Howard Center friend, Todd Centybear, had said to me, “If you think he’s not doing well, if you think he’s in trouble, call me, call me right away. Tell me what you see.”
I see a man who keeps rubbing his arm, and closing his eyes between sentences; a man too tired to sleep; a man whose life seems to be an extension of the names and faces on the walls in his office; stories to be told in a hotel room on a cold night. He says that a few weeks earlier in Burlington, he went alone to see the documentary Restrepo, about an American platoon in Afghanistan, and that when the lights came on, he “stumbled out to Church Street,” unable to talk. He talks about other demobilizations, when soldiers found words to fit what they had gone through and how life-changing that felt.
“The first time I did this was at Fort Benning, Georgia, ” he says. “This was 2002-03, very early in the Afghanistan war. We met these 13 people, and we stood together. They were a bunch of lost boys, the dust so deep into their skin you’d think it would never come out. For a half-hour they shouted about their uniforms: how they had been given only two and the regular Army had ten, and they had been better soldiers than any of them. It seemed to be all about their uniforms, how they were all ragged and in tatters.
“And then it came around that it was about a lot more than uniforms. They were the toughest guys I knew, and everybody was crying. And then I knew that this work was important. At Camp Shelby, [Mississippi,] after a session, sometimes the nurses would go outside and cry in the grass, and sometimes they would be ill. They were embarrassed because they were soldiers, too, but I’d feel sick, too. There was so much anger in the room: anger at the tour, at their mission, at their commanders, at what they saw, at what was done to them, at what they did.”
When he gets up to leave, it’s nearly 1:00 in the morning. “You know, when they come into the room, I tell them, ‘I know many of you don’t want to be here. But there are one or two of you who need to be here, and that’s why I need you all to be here.’ They get it then.”
There’s a joke told in the Vermont Guard that when they see Colonel Coffin approaching, they duck and hide. They don’t always want a hug or to be the focus of his concern, but they also have never, as Staff Sergeant Cleveland said, “met a more caring individual when it comes to soldiers.” It wasn’t long ago that if a soldier needed therapy, he’d lose security clearance or a chance at promotion. The hard core still feel that it shows weakness to admit to troubles, but post-traumatic stress can be like a storm knocking down everyone in its path; it’s Coffin’s gift (as it has become Jason Cleveland’s gift) to listen to one soldier’s story and then use it to find others who need help. A soldier will call them, “and talk about the weather,” Cleveland said, “but it’s not about the weather.” Coffin calls them “doorknob” conversations. “We’ll talk for 49 minutes,” he explained, “and then he’ll be ready to leave. He puts his hand on the door: ‘Oh, one more thing. I’m going to kill my mother-in-law.'”
The Indiana morning arrives with blue skies and puffy clouds, and when Coffin and Cleveland meet in the hotel over coffee, Cleveland is feverish and hoarse, unable to do anything but take to his bed; for Coffin, a long day is made longer.
Coffin wants to talk more with the medic who, when he got off the plane, told him that his final memory was of trying to save the life of an Afghan man who’d been injured in an explosion. He had come in bleeding, blinded, a leg gone, his arms shredded. There was little the medic had been able to do to help him, but he had tried and had called for a medevac. Soon after, the medic flew home. Coffin finds him in the medical records building, a blade-thin, boyish-looking man in his forties. “I made a pact with myself,” the medic says. “No movies, no reading about the war. I tried to see The Hurt Locker, then walked out. I had seen bodies blown apart. I didn’t need to see it on film.”
The heat in the building is blasting, and Coffin unbuttons his shirt. He sits down with Tom Johnston, the Woodstock dentist pressed into being a counselor. Johnston is friendly, soft-spoken, the son of a minister. He used to be an Army helicopter pilot; in 2008 he sold his practice and later that year joined the Guard. “I just wanted to give good service,” he says.
There’s a soldier they need to find. His wife had called, worried; the soldier had told her not to come to the airport. He had seemed very angry. “We need an immediate diffusion of anger,” Coffin says. This would have fallen on Cleveland, but now Coffin needs Johnston.
Johnston asks quietly, “Wouldn’t this be better for you?”