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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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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?”

“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.”

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