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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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“I’ve got too many people to see,” Coffin says. “He needs a nice guy like you to say, ‘People are worried about you. What can we do for you?’ If he’s not safe to go home, call me. Use your sense of smell. If it smells like trouble, call me.”

Coffin heads to the mess hall, where sooner or later everyone comes. He goes table to table. “You made it,” he says. “I hear you did great.” He sits beside Sergeant Major Neil Roberts, age 46, a wiry, intense man, with a wife and two young girls at home. Roberts says that he walked miles each day just “saying hello, just building relationships. The Afghan culture is built on relationships. Close physical touching, and here I am a Vermont guy, and I had to learn that.”

He talks about bringing fresh water to the villages, building a hospital but having no doctors. “Doc,” he says to Coffin, “the people are beautiful, so you want to take their pictures and give them to them. You bring them a book about Vermont with pictures of foliage and give it to a man who owns a small restaurant and they’re friends for life. I cried when I left, and not many guys say that.” They’re quiet together for a moment. “Know what I fear?” Roberts says. “The outside world. In the Army there’s always a mission. Mobilize; demobilize; go to war; come home. When I re-upped for 36 months, I felt a weight come off. I have no skills. Doc, if you get an idea for me, write me.”

Coffin nods. “I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do after this,” he says. “That’s why I keep extending. If I’m not a part of this, what am I a part of?”

We drove through the winter snow, Cleveland at the wheel, Coffin beside him, Johnston and me in the back, stopping at an empty corner of the Indianapolis airport. We arrived before 9:00 tonight, when the plane was due; we’re sitting in the car, heater running, eating cold Pop-Tarts and beef jerky. Now it’s long past midnight, and Lieutenant Colonel Chris Evans informs us that the plane will land at 1:30. Evans also once thought that Coffin’s groups were “hokey,” but changed his mind when “I saw my guys crying. I didn’t know what they were carrying.”

Snow falls steadily as the plane lands, and one by one the soldiers descend the stairs in the ghostly light of a remote runway as though they’re being hatched. Neil Roberts waits on the tarmac along with Coffin and the others, and there are hugs and chest bumps and handshakes. “Glad you’re back alive,” Coffin says. “Glad you’re home.” He says he forgets faces these days, but for some reason nametags imprint on him like glue: Hackley, who tells him he can’t wait to see his horses; Cantwell, Sullivan, Leonard … 46 nametags to remember.

After everyone has gathered inside, their duffels on their shoulders, Evans announces to cheers that he’ll try to get them home in three days. The snow is piling up, he says, but they’ll go 30 mph, and “linens are on your bunks waiting.” Coffin hugs Brigadier General Jon Farnham, who says proudly that he’s the first Vermont Guard general to come home with troops since World War II. “You wish you’d walked off the plane, too, don’t you?” I say to Coffin.

“Yes,” he replies, “but that’s the immature Jon–the Jon who wanted to be in on the action, to be with the troops. I know my worth is being here, not there.”

In the morning, I see Coffin in blue jeans and out of fatigues for the first time. He tears up talking about seeing everyone get off the plane. He has extended seven times and now must decide whether he can keep going. In the late afternoon he’ll meet with the Guardsmen and he’ll thank them. He’ll tell them he loves them. And a few days later, he’ll fly home, a few days before Christmas, and have the feeling, he’ll say, that he is “disappearing.”

How do you know when it’s time to walk away? To start over? First you need to know what that means.

For months after leaving Indiana, Colonel Coffin tried to find the answer. The headaches that had all but vanished in Indiana came back like spears. He tried craniofacial therapy and massage and acupuncture, anything that held out hope of relief, and still it seemed that he needed to close his eyes to see. Paperwork piled up. He could still get to the base, and the need for him remained: three suicides, including “one of the best mountain soldiers I’ve ever known,” that had shaken everyone. His own counselor at the vet center urged him to get out: “He said to me, ‘Jon, your work is done. Your job was to get guys ready to go and to bring them back and to get them support. You’ve done that. It’s time for the next generation.'”

He finds himself weeping while he’s talking, weeping while he’s trying to watch a movie, and he’s unsure sometimes whether the tears belong to the past or the future. He needed surgery on his foot, and when he left the hospital in a wheelchair, he thought, “I’m getting wheeled out of my life.” He has spent much of his life helping soldiers cope, and yet he felt at a loss to help himself. “I didn’t have a good appraisal of my own limitations,” he said. “On a bad day, I think I’m going to have to pay for that; that this is going to be it for the rest of my life. I’m remaining optimistic, trying to apply all the things I’ve said to other guys.”

Friends urged him to spend the next few months “giving blessings” to people, to check in with everyone one more time, then say goodbye. “I’m going to miss this,” he said. He knew, as well, that being unable to read paperwork or sit at a computer also meant that his nearly 40 years at the Howard Center had come to an end. One more time he would have to find the courage to climb the steepest wall of all and find what lay on the other side of his life.

On a June day in 2012, a conference room in South Burlington fills with soldiers and friends. Colonel Coffin sits uncomfortably in the front row, beside his son and daughter. There are many gifts–flags and medals and citations–and words of love and respect to keep through the years. Major General Michael Dubie speaks, he says, for everyone in the Vermont National Guard: “There’s not one person who has touched as many lives in a positive way as you have. And I know it has come at a cost. Because it’s not easy to help so many people. And I know that vicariously you have carried the burden of so many of our brothers and sisters. At your expense, they’re doing better. We collectively salute you for caring deeply about people.”

The speakers continue. Coffin receives a citation with three words: “Comforter, counselor, healer.” Finally he faces the room. He speaks without notes, and, anyway, he wouldn’t have been able to read them.

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