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What Happens When A Nation Goes To War, And A Small Few Bear The Costs

Alicia Lammers points to her husband, Matt's infantry tattoo on his left shoulder.
Bree Lamb for NPR
Alicia Lammers points to her husband, Matt's infantry tattoo on his left shoulder.

Matt Lammers was completely alone the first time we met.

The cigarette butts and old ammunition cans clearly marked his apartment door. Camouflage netting blocked the Arizona sun, but it also sent a message: this guy was still in Iraq. I knocked on the door at 9 a.m. and woke him from the only hour of sleep he'd had all night.

He apologized. I apologized. And after a couple hours killing time around Tucson, I came back. Lammers rolled out his door for a smoke in a manual wheelchair, shirtless. Which saved questions –- scars and ink tell his story.

His birth name is written across his stomach in Korean. After he was abandoned at a police station in Seoul in 1982, a couple in Kansas adopted him. A big wounded warrior insignia covers his left chest, and his name in Arabic on his right shoulder. The other shoulder has an infantry tattoo, and below that his arm ends in a stump above the elbow. He lost that arm and both legs, above the knee, in a bomb blast during his second Iraq deployment.

There's more. He had stretch marks on his stomach from when he'd gained weight, far too easy in a wheelchair. Then he took up adaptive swimming and lost all those pounds, which led to a different problem. His prosthetic left arm, made especially by the VA to drive his truck, wouldn't fit him after he got skinny.

So he couldn't drive. When we met he'd been stuck in that apartment for a few days, living off a giant bag of rice. Matt handed me his keys, I heaved his wheelchair into the bed of his truck and drove him to the grocery store.

'Thank you for your service'

Matt couldn't get from the truck into the supermarket without meeting an effusive "thank you for your service" from a stranger. He usually responds graciously, even if it's not always welcome.

"Some days it catches me off guard," he says. "I'm going to Walmart and I'm happy and then, 'Hey, let me talk about the worst day of your life.'"

Once someone did it to him in the pool – another swimmer stopped him mid-lap to say thank you. As Matt tried to reach over to shake with his one hand, he lost his momentum and sank.

"I try and read who the audience is. Cause sometimes people will come up with tears in their eyes and they'll say, 'You know, I lost my son over there,' and then, I have no problem talking to those families. But it's weird to have to decipher real quick on the spot, who really cares and who just wants a new story to tell the bar that night. Like, 'Oh, I met this triple-amputee.'"

He knows plenty of people are well-meaning; sometimes it can be a genuine attempt by a civilian to connect with a veteran. Sometimes the remark doesn't even make sense to Matt.

"I wonder what they mean, 'Thank you for your service.' Are they like, 'Thanks for having your legs, your arm blown off?' Like, I didn't really do that for them. I mean, it was just, I happened to be sitting there when this bomb went off."

The civ-mil divide

Lammers is one of maybe 60 vets who lost three or four limbs, out of 2.7 million who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The thank-you-for-your-service anxiety is much more common though – and of course veterans have a broad range of different feelings about what civilians should or shouldn't say.

That communication gap is a perfect example of something called the civ-mil divide, and if you've heard of it, you're probably on the military side.

About 7 percent of the U.S. population has served in the military, including the millions who enlisted or were drafted into Vietnam, Korea, World War II. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population went to Iraq and Afghanistan during the past 20 years of war. The vast majority of them are following a family member into the service, which reinforces the insular feeling of what's becoming a military caste: perfunctorily respected, but poorly understood.

They're all volunteers, which is the blessing and the curse of the civilian-military divide. The troops who pulled three or four tours at war — they volunteered. Civilians don't have to think much more about it — it's not their kid over there. The military hasn't seriously considered a draft, even in the darkest days of fighting these two most recent wars. What Vietnam draftee would have predicted that 30 years later, Americans would be volunteering to serve multiple deployments as the rest of the country ignored the war?

Even the designer of America's all-volunteer force worried that the change would make it too easy to go to war without public support. Ending such wars seems to be even harder. Most Americans, including veterans, don't think Iraq and Afghanistan were worth fighting. But civilians, or at least their elected representatives, haven't weighed in on the ill-defined Global War on Terror in the 20 years since Congress authorized it.

Gold Star only

That sometimes awkward interaction across the civ-mil divide was memorably on display in 2017, at a White House press conference with then Chief of Staff John Kelly. He was there to explain President Donald Trump's handling of a condolence call to the family of a U.S. soldier killed in Niger. Critics claimed Trump was insensitive on the call.

Kelly is a retired Marine general — he's also a Gold Star father. He took this moment to speak about his own son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, who died in Afghanistan in 2010. He explained the process of returning the remains, and how notification officers tell the next of kin. Kelly spoke movingly of getting that visit himself, early in the morning, and then going upstairs to wake up his wife and tell her.

Then it came time to take questions. In what looked like an impromptu decision, Kelly asked that only members of the media who were Gold Star parents, or at least knew one, should ask questions. Intentional or not, the underlying message was: you can't question this war unless you or your family have been directly affected.

As he left the stage Kelly added, "We don't look down upon those of you who that haven't served. In fact, in a way we're a little bit sorry because you'll have never have experienced the wonderful joy you get in your heart when you do the kinds of things our service men and women do — not for any other reason than they love this country. So just think of that. And I do appreciate your time."

The next day when a reporter questioned some of Kelly's statements, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered that debating a four-star general would be "highly inappropriate."

The confusion over civilians' relationship to the military burst out again when Lafayette Square, across from the White House was cleared of protesters in June 2020, with high-ranking military officials present. Later that year some former military officers called for the armed forces to either help enforce or to overturn the results of the presidential election. The vast majority of the country, on the civilian side of the divide, sat wondering, "Can they even do that?"

The caregiver

A slightly different question echoed in my mind as I pushed Matt Lammers' wheelchair through the grocery store aisles back in Tucson, in 2016. As he loaded a cart with muscle milk and a few other staples, I wanted to ask everyone in the store: How can a two-tour Iraq vet, triple amputee with obvious medical needs, be stuck bumming a ride to the grocery store from a public radio reporter?

Answering that question would take me five years, and lead to a story just as harrowing as Matt's tales from Iraq. If there's a hero in that story it's Matt's wife Alicia. In keeping with the reality of war heroes, it's about doing something no one should ever been asked to do.

Alicia (née Argelia) met Matt Lammers late one evening at the Bed Bath & Beyond where she worked in Tucson. Matt had been medically retired from the army, and was learning to deal with civilians staring at him. Alicia talked easily with him as he rolled through the aisles in his wheelchair. She attended to him mostly because he was the last customer and she wanted to close the store and go home. Instead Matt started flirting.

"I wasn't too interested in having a relationship. But I wanted to be his friend," Alicia says.

Matt sent her flowers, and kept finding reasons to buy more bedding or scented candles at her store.

"I tried my best lines on Alicia ... 'I'd die for you,'" Matt recalls.

"You're a soldier, you'd die for anyone!" she shot back with a laugh.

Around his third visit he showed her a grainy photograph from Baghdad. A stripped-down operating room, doctors in blue gowns and blood all over the floor. Matt's legs end in tatters of skin and blood and gauze. He'd lost so much blood when he arrived at the trauma bay that the doctors couldn't put him under, and Matt recalls it all vividly, down to the sound of the bone saw.

At one point he felt a crushing in his chest — he used his one remaining hand to tap at a nurse until she noticed that his lung was collapsing. Matt then watched as the doctors jammed a needle through his chest to re-inflate it.

Matt thought showing the operating room picture to Alicia would win her over.

"But I have a medical field background," says Alicia. She had worked as a certified nurse's assistant.

"It didn't impress me ... or I didn't feel like crying ... or like, 'Oh, my God, blood.' I was just, 'Oh, wow. You went through a lot,'" she says.

Their first date was an elaborate breakfast Matt cooked for her — he'd learned to crack eggs with one hand. His persistence eventually won her over, even when he moved to Houston, Matt kept it up, driving 15 hours to see her.

Then came the inflection point — Matt crashed his truck, totaling it and his wheelchair. Without his chair he couldn't do much of anything. He was using puppy training pads on the floor to urinate. He called Alicia from Houston. She thought about it, and then packed up her tiny car and drove to Texas. Without realizing it, Alicia had also driven across the civilian-military divide. It would take her a decade to get back.

They married in 2011, and Alicia became Matt's caregiver under a new Department of Veterans Affairs program to pay spouses a stipend for the de facto full-time job of helping a severely disabled vet. While she was on-boarding with the VA, Matt started her on a different training program.

At first Alicia thought it was fun. Matt taught her all sorts of military techniques, like how to clean and shoot different guns.

But then he was insisting she clear every room in their house of intruders, each time they came home. He'd wake her up in the middle of the night to load magazines. His hypervigilance only grew, and they started to patrol the city, heavily armed and in body armor around sketchy parts of Houston. Once when Alicia insisted on stopping at a Walmart to use the restroom, she came out to find him gone.

"He's gone. My phone is inside the car. My purse inside the car. It's just me ... sitting on a bench crying, waiting. 'Oh, my God, he left me here. What am I going to do now?'" she said.

Matt pulled up a few moments later and said something about teaching her a lesson.

The spiral of manipulative behavior, which got more and more cruel, sounds like a typical story of domestic abuse, and Alicia knew that. When she asked him why he was making her run this gauntlet, it surprised her.

"Matt told me, 'I need to know you have my back,'" she says, "And I cried that day. Because wow, he just needs to feel like I'm one of his brothers. I cried because I knew that wasn't normal, but that was his normal. And I knew it wasn't normal to anyone else in society in a non-military society."

Alicia pushed off reckoning with the problem by convincing Matt to move back to Tucson where fewer people would trigger his paranoia. Things got better for a while. But when something would set him off –- his anniversary of being injured, or the date one of his soldiers had died –- and Matt would get violent. Alicia knew she should leave, or at least that any civilian would tell her to.

"If someone comes to me and says, 'I'm married to a veteran, and this is what he's doing to me,' I'll tell her, 'What are you doing there. Why would you let anyone take advantage of you?'" she says, "'No girl, leave!'"

A promise

The ordeal that Alicia endured, what it took for her to finally leave, and how she somehow also kept Matt alive, is told in Rough Translation's Home/Front podcast. But their story is also about a promise, one made as the nation sends people like Matt off to war.

Abraham Lincoln said that the government would care for those "who shall have borne the battle." That's now the VA's official motto. It's something that we Americans have agreed to do, by the laws our representatives pass. For the time that Alicia stayed with Matt, despite his abuse, she was making good on a promise that others have not kept. As much as we could all urge her to leave him — who is saying they'll step in to keep that promise to Matt if she does?

I covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for 12 years, and spent the past nine years reporting on veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Matt and Alicia's story is maybe the most extreme example I've seen of the hard road home from war. Most vets with PTSD and other injuries readjust to life back home pretty well — and certainly without violence. But aspects of their story may seem familiar to many veterans and their families.

I set out to tell Matt's story because he was a symbol of the cost of the wars, a butcher's bill that is still growing and that will be with us for generations. I wanted to get away from the "inspiring," poster-slogan tale of resilience — that makes a virtue of horrific wounds from a war that few even bother to defend anymore. My question was: What does the VA, and we as a society, do when a veteran like Matt isn't easy to help? What I found instead, was Alicia: a civilian, shouldering the cost of our wars, alone.

Now I have a different question. I wonder, if we as a country were not split by a civilian-military divide, would Alicia have found it easier to ask for help, sooner? Would more of us understand the costs that Alicia was bearing, and the struggle Matt was going through? Would both of them still feel like they were fighting this battle alone?

Listen to Rough Translation's Home/Front wherever you get your podcasts, including NPR One, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and RSS.

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