GUNS AND CHAPSTICK |
June 08, 2011
Name: MAJ Ben Tupper
Returned from: Afghanistan
Hometown: Syracuse, NY
Tim O’Brien wrote a book titled The Things They Carried. It’s a revealing look at what soldiers in Viet Nam carried throughout the war, and what those things said about their personalities, opinions, and expectations of a year in combat. O’Brien’s book speaks to the fact that soldiers are indeed master packrats focused on survival through the effective utilization of the knickknacks and accoutrements of war. But physical items are not the only thing soldiers pick up and carry along the way.War is also a supplier of emotional experiences, and soldiers must shoulder the weight of this mental baggage that they carry on the inside.
Most of the physical items we carry are owned by the government, like body armor and weapons and helmets. These are unceremoniously returned to Uncle Sam as we out-process from military service.
But the emotional baggage is ours to keep, and stays with us as we transition back to civilian life. These memories are packed deep inside our own private museum of war experiences. Sometimes the outside world gets a peek at these painful artifacts when they rise close to the surface, manifested by bouts of depression, fits of rage, and tears of remorse and guilt.
I’m like most combat veterans in that I keep my handful of secrets private out of fear that they may alienate me from my social circles. If I was to line up my friends and family, and tell them all my post-war idiosyncrasies, I would likely be the recipient of an impromptu intervention, resulting in me being dragged off to a mental hospital for further evaluation.
A good case in point is the anxiety I still feel today, three years since leaving Afghanistan, of being outside arm's reach of a weapon. This fear of an impending enemy attack is something I haven’t admitted publically to, because even I know that it’s an absurd fear that a squad of Taliban may be laying an ambush for me in my suburban middle class neighborhood in upstate New York. To hear me confess this fear of an impending Taliban attack, frankly, sounds crazy.
So given this sense of insecurity, I got home and bought the exact same model of combat shotgun we carried in Afghanistan. The shotgun helped allay my fears at home, but it wasn’t enough. I still felt vulnerable when I wasn’t around the gun, so I took further action. I purchased an M4 carbine rifle, complete with a combat reflex red dot site, just like the one we had over there. And to finish off my trifecta of re-armament, an M9 pistol, identical to the one that never left my side for a year of duty in Afghanistan.
For over a year, I illegally carried the concealed pistol on my person, or kept it handy in my work truck. Eventually I sobered up to the criminal ramifications of such a foolish action, and got the proper permit to carry the gun legally. The combat shotgun was stuffed under my bed’s mattress in case the Taliban attacked at night. And the M4 carbine rifle, complete with its combat reflex red dot site, is positioned at the ready in my office.
No one, not even my wife, knew that I had woven this three-part security blanket of weapons to cover me from home to work, and all points in between. No one knew, that is, until a couple months ago when I was speaking to a group of young student veterans and their faculty advisors at a local college. One college student, who was an Iraq war veteran, was confessing that he felt alienated and vulnerable being back home, unarmed and defenseless. In an attempt to show him that he wasn’t alone in this fear, I revealed the secret of my weapons stash.
Right after I said it, I realized I had gone too far and had likely just scrared my audience of students and professors. I expected the friendly crowd to lean back in their chairs and nervously eyeball their shortest path to the exit door.
Instead, my awkward confession triggered a response from others with similar confessions. One student stood up, reached behind his back, and pulled out a large hunting knife that he had been carrying concealed on his waist. He said that the day the Uncle Sam made him turn in his M16, he began carrying this knife. Not a day had gone by since he returned from war that he didn’t carry that knife for a sense of security.
Then on the other side of the room, a professor spoke: “I’ve never told anyone this story in my life." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tube of chapstick. He held it high above his head for all to see. His began his confession on the day he left his job as a police officer and he had to turn in his pistol that he had carried daily for years. Stripped of his firearm, he moved to carrying a concealed knife with him everywhere he went. After a couple years of carrying this knife, he mustered up the courage to transition to his lethal tube of chapstick. The small tube was a regular part of his daily wardrobe. On days when he forgot it, he would turn the car around and drive back home to get it. It was a security blanket item that he had trained his mind to accept as a protective talisman. It had the power to ward off any threats and danger, all the while providing the peace of mind that previously he had needed a gun and knife to achieve.
In hindsight, I see how the dialog from this classroom conversation reads just like a chapter from O’Brien’s book. Spontaneous confessions of stories we the warriors never told, out of fear that you the civilians would never understand. The revealing of weapons long hidden under mattresses, concealed under belted waists and jackets, and a chapstick security blanket that soothed an anxious and weathered pysche. All of which were a painful yet cathartic acknowledgment that, in the end, for better or for worse, the things we carried were now carrying us.