I met my wife three weeks before I deployed for the first time in the summer of 2001. We met as people met in the simpler days of the early 2000’s — at dollar beer night at a country bar.
I’d been in San Diego a month. I moved there with friends I met at Annapolis or along the way in the myriad of professional schools they send junior officers to before they’re allowed to report to their first assignments. By the time we’d reached the west coast as newly minted Naval Aviators or SEALs or Marines, it seemed like the party hadn’t really stopped. We just picked it up and dropped it down in Pacific Beach.
We were family by then. A few dropped off to marry the women who stuck with them for years of purgatory at Annapolis. But most of us were young, unattached officers staring down the barrel of five years commitment to a force that hadn’t been in sustained combat operations for nearly 30 years.
By the time I met my wife, I wasn’t interested in a wife. I wasn’t interested in a serious relationship. I wasn’t interested in anything serious; women, work or otherwise.
The dates we went on were less dates and more an assigned commingling of friends. I had my team of Navy men. She had her team of San Diego women. We spent barbecues, keg parties and dollar beer nights together. A few extreme short term relationships burned bright and flamed out. And then it was over.
I left on a ship bound for the Gulf that June. It was the summer of 2001; the last summer of peace; the last summer of the last era of history.
As the weeks and months passed, I got an occasional email from her. Usually she sent pictures of her with my friends. They went to Chargers games. They went out out to our favorite bars. I wasn’t sure if she was hanging around them because of me or for some other reason one comes up with fifteen thousand miles away when one hasn’t seen a woman in four months. I know now the reason was simple.
They were friends. She liked them. And they made her feel safe.
On September 11, the world ended. My ship, scheduled to transfer out of the Gulf the second week in September, never left. We stayed on station until November, launching the first Tomahawks into Afghanistan on October 6th.
In December when we finally came home, we were the first ship back stateside from the then two-month old Operation Enduring Freedom. There was a parade at the base. I was allowed two people on the pier to meet us. I chose my friend who was with me that night at the country bar.
She threw a Christmas/welcome home party. Our friends who hadn’t left for the war already showed up. It was the last time we’d all be together.
Out of that group of friends from that summer, there have been scores of wartime deployments. It’s been our whole careers. The war outlasted my service. It’s outlasted marriages. It’s outlasted the childhoods of our children. And sadly, it outlasted a few of my friends too. Of the extended group of friends my wife met that summer and fall, four are no longer with us.
The contrast of how she’s grieved and how I haven’t is the story I need to tell.
When I sat down to write this essay, I struggled a bit with what I wanted to say. I typed the words “inarticulate grief” in the header as a placeholder. I knew it was about grief. But mostly that I didn’t understand it or know how to talk about it. I know I’m supposed to grieve. I’m supposed to grieve my friends who are no longer with us. But I don’t.
I know how to honor them. How to fold the flag. How to hold them up as an example for us all to strive to be like. I know how to make those that love them feel like their deaths mattered. But I don’t know how to cry for them. I can’t feel the sadness.
She thinks about them. She remembers the things they did together. She cries when they die. And she smiles when she finds their picture in an old album. She remembers them.
What right does she have?
She knew them for a minute.I knew them for a lifetime. I didn’t believe that I had the right to feel sad when these men passed. I was not their best friend. Someone somewhere knew them better. It was not the worst tragedy. Someone somewhere had it worse. Grief for me is some comparatively earned privilege. For her, it’s just grief; something she feels.
She remembers that summer. I don’t.
I’ve tried to forget so much over the last 20 years that it’s hard to remember anything at all. How I’ve run from the grief of losing my friends is how I’ve run from just about everything hard this war brought us. Because pain and sadness, for me, is also some comparatively earned privilege.
No deployment I had was hard enough to make me deal with the pain it caused. Someone always had it harder. No loss suffered; no trauma absorbed was bad enough to acknowledge. Someone always had it tougher. Acknowledging it, in some way, dishonored them.
I Googled “Inarticulate Grief” to see if it were a term anyone else used. It’s something I do before I pick a title for an essay. What came back to me put me on the floor.
Inarticulate Grief was a poem written a hundred years ago by Richard Aldington, a Brit who served in WWI, in the trenches of France. He wrote poetry about war. His critics called him cynical and bitter and often contrasted what he wrote before the war and after.
This is what he wrote:
Let the sea beat its thin torn hands
In anguish against the shore,
Let it moan
Between headland and cliff;
Let the sea shriek out its agony
Across waste sands and marshes,
And clutch great ships,
Tearing them plate from steel plate
In reckless anger;
Let it break the white bulwarks
Of harbour and city;
Let it sob and scream and laugh
In a sharp fury,
With white salt tears
Wet on its writhen face;
Ah! let the sea still be mad
And crash in madness among the shaking rocks —
For the sea is the cry of our sorrow
Millions of men and women have gone off to war and died since Aldington wrote those words. A hundred years have passed. Yet there’s no daylight between me and a long dead warrior poet on where to put our grief. He didn’t know where to put it either. So he put it in the bloody sea.
Last month Lt. Col Paul Hudson (ret) was killed in Australia when the tanker he was flying to put out the brushfires crashed. He was a classmate of mine at Annapolis. He was a friend.
I told my wife that a friend of mine had died in the fires. And that was it. Later as his picture began to circulate over social media, she blurted out, “My God, that’s PC…”
I didn’t remember she knew him too. They were friends. She showed me a picture in an old photo album of the Christmas party she threw 19 years ago. There was 1st Lt Paul Clyde Hudson standing next to 1st Lt Jeremy Graczyk. Two classmates. Two friends. Both no longer with us.
I’d forgotten the party. I’d forgotten they knew her. I’d forgotten them.
I’ve forgotten so much.
We often talk about the impacts of the war on my generation. We talk about the physical wounds. Now, more, we rightfully talk about the invisible ones of PTSD or TBI. But we don’t talk about what’s been lost for my generation of warfighter. A life lived between trips to the sandbox, lived with heads down, slogging our way through the good parts to live through the bad.
It’s not just the grief we don’t know what to do with. It’s the joy. It’s the happiness. And all of life that happens in between.
It’s the cost of 20 years of war.