Our Reasons – Adam Stone And Jesse Goolsby
Incoming / May 26, 2017
Less than one percent of the entire country serves in the military at any given time nowadays, which is perfectly fine from a national security perspective, according to experts on the matter, but that situation becomes problematic on other fronts once we consider how it might affect our democracy, civilian engagement with foreign policy, or the very social contract that holds us all together.
Asking so few to carry a burden so large, one that we’ve all benefited from regardless of our personal politics, is not a deal that comes without consequences. What happens during war time doesn’t end when the war ends, if the wars of our time ever end anymore. It doesn’t end when a service member comes home either, in fact coming home is often more dangerous for a lot of people than being deployed.
The transition back to the civilian world has always been a lonely one, but coming home to a place where most civilians have no idea what service members have done, and have some major misconceptions about it, makes it more so. And while not all of our veterans need help, some do.
The 22 veteran suicides that happen every day on average demonstrates that fact, a number that far outpaces the rate of casualties that have resulted from combat or accidents in the line of duty. And until all of us have some idea about who our military is and what their lives are like, we won’t know how to stop it.
So we started this program to ask questions, hear stories, and learn. Because that’s what we know how to do.
But we’re not just listening and asking questions because it’s ethically imperative; we’re listening because what they have to say is compelling, and artfully rendered, funny, poignant, surprising, and all the other things you want from good storytelling.
Some of the voices you’ll be hearing from are studied writers who want to do this for a living, and others are fascinating individuals we’ve met along the way who have a great tale to tell that we wanted to share with you. But one thing holds true for all of them and it is this: the men and women you’re going to meet are artists. Full stop. Who are also veterans. So we regarded them as such.
On behalf of all our contributors, past, present, and future, thank you for making this possible and for being our audience. The reader completes the writer, and it’s an enormous privilege to have this forum where we can all sit down and talk together at last.
Contributors: Jesse Goolsby and Adam Stone.
Justin Hudnall: Hello and welcome to Incoming, a series featuring true stories from the lives of America’s military, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. I’m your host, Justin Hudnall.
We’re produced out of San Diego by the literary arts non-profit, So Say We All, in partnership with our public media friends at KPBS, and this is the first episode of a very important journey we’re all going to go on together, one hour at a time.
Because it’s the first episode, I wanted to take a moment before we start the show to answer a question that’s often asked of us: why a show about veteran culture?, and why now?
Well for one thing, less than one percent of the entire country serves in the military at any given time nowadays, which is perfectly fine from a national security perspective, according to all the experts on the matter I’ve been following, but that situation becomes problematic on other fronts once we consider how it might affect our democracy, civilian engagement with foreign policy, or the very social contract that holds us all together as a society.
What happens during wartime doesn’t end when the war does. If the wars of our time ever end, considering that as I’m recording this, we’re entering our 16th year of nonstop military engagement. So asking so few to carry a burden so large, one that we’ve all benefited from regardless of our personal politics, is not a deal that comes without consequences. It doesn’t end when a service member comes home either, in fact coming home is often more dangerous for a lot of people than being deployed.
The 22 veteran suicides that happen everyday on average demonstrates that fact, a number far outpaces the rate of casualties sustained from combat or accidents in the line of duty. And until all of us have some idea about who our military is as people and what their lives are like, we’re not going to know how to help them.
So we started this program, to ask questions, hear stories, and learn. Because that’s what we know how to do.
But the other reason we felt this show needed to exist is veteran culture is stronger and more vibrant and more prevalent than ever. Veterans are represented in the arts more than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime; they’re playing important roles in fermenting political and social change across the country. And whenever I’ve met one of those individuals, regardless of whether they were in for one year, or two years, or four years, or retired after their full 20, their identity as a veteran or service member inevitably has played an important role in shaping their world view. And it’s always interesting to listen and find out how.
That’s all to say we’re not just listening and talking to them because it’s ethically imperative, but because what they have to say is compelling, and artfully rendered, funny, poignant, surprising, and all the other things you want from good radio.
So on behalf of all our contributors, past, present, and future, thank you for being our audience and making it possible to have this forum where we can all sit down and talk together. Finally. Let’s start our show.
— Opening theme music –
Justin Hudnall: Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Goolsby teaches at the United States Air Force Academy and serves as the acquisitions editor for War, Literature and the Arts, an International Journal of the Humanities. He’s also the author of “I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them,” which in addition to winning the Florida Book Award Gold Medal, and Book of the Year from Military Writers of America, was one of my favorite books that I read in 2016.
It really got under my skin in a good way, that only really raw, honest writing can. I threw it across the room on more than one occasion in fact because it cut close the bone in ways I wasn’t prepared for. His book only focuses on brief glimpses overseas for its protagonists, instead going deep into the fog that covers the years spent back home trying to reconcile the past with the possibility of having a future. Jesse’s going to be reading directly from that to start with a piece of non-fiction to follow, and in-between we’re going to have a chat. So without further ado, here’s Jesse Goolsby.
Jesse Goolsby: Hi, my name is Jesse Goolsby and I’ll be reading from my novel I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. This is from the first chapter, “Be Polite, But Have A Plan To Kill Everyone You Meet.”
Wintric Ellis, newly arrived, pushes his size eight boot into the spongy ground, and feels the subtle give of the earth run through the ball of his foot, up his leg, and settle in his camouflaged hip. “Green grass in Afghanistan,” he thinks. “Water somewhere.” He smells damp soil and grass, unexpected but familiar, little-league center field, Kristin in a California meadow; and attempts to make this thick-bladed greenery stick along the everywhere suck-you-dry desert he had imagined.
“Eyes open, everyone.” Big Dax says. Although Wintric knows today is a low-risk humanitarian mission, the words slide him back into his default visceral nervousness. Bombs somewhere, everywhere. Already he has been told that “roadside” means nothing in this country. Big Dax and Torres have shared stories with him, everything from far-afield livestock to massive diesel trucks igniting the barely buried hell. Not to mention the bombs strapped to men, women, children, dogs. Bombs the size of tennis balls, soccer balls, tackling dummies. Under the rising sun, Wintric replays the refrain repeated among his platoon for each of his eight days in country: “Don’t go looking for a fair fight.”
Wintric watches the relaxed movements of the most experienced soldiers and he feels his body breathe. He pulls out his knife and crouches in the valley amid a mist of gnats. He plunges the blade into the soil and levers up a clump of grass. Silently he rises and collects his first sample of war in a plastic bag that he fists into a cargo pocket.
Nearby, a group of mangy goats bleat in a grove of white-blossomed almond trees. Their shepherd talking with the interpreter. For the first time since Wintric arrived, the wind doesn’t howl, and he wonders if any kind of omen awaits in the warming air. But he pushes the thought from his mind when he can’t think of a single positive forecast.
The size of tennis balls. Soccer balls. The shepherd laughs and nods and moves his hand to the interpreter’s shoulder, then hugs him. “Ten minutes till the party starts,” Big Dax says. “Going to be hot. Hydrate now.” Wintric observes the men start towards the small mountain of bottled water. Torres passes by and slaps his shoulder. “Drink up.”
Wintric isn’t thirsty, but he keeps his mouth shut. When they say “drink,” he drinks. He straightens up, pats his cargo pocket, and steps and stops. He looks back at the straightening grass and watches the indentation of his boot print disappear.
10:30 and the children and the limbless adults are starting to arrive and Wintric scans the group heading his way. Wondering if he’ll be the one ordered to pat them down before the inoculation and prosthetic limb giveaway. He pushes his index fingers into his temples, then removes his camouflage blouse and tosses it on the hood of the dusty Humvee.
Big Dax and Torres have been decent enough to keep him out of trouble for his first week, but they outrank him and each only has a few months left, so he knows he’ll soon be the one palm-to-body with these incoming strangers. Wintric studies his two superiors as they watch the arriving crowd, Big Dax towering and thick-shouldered, brick of a chin, dark random freckles, scarred forearms, hands on his hips. Torres, slim and handsome, black hair, sideburns, flat nose, outline of a mini-Bible in his pocket, hands interlocked on the top of his head.
“Ellis!” Torres says, “Check ‘em. Old ones first.” Wintric nods and slowly walks over to the now-settling group. The interpreter has his arms up directing traffic, shouting at the dirty and quiet kids to stay in a single file line, along an outcropping of beige rocks. The adults are told to wait behind.
On a short march over, Wintric focuses on the adults, most missing a foot, a leg, or a portion of an arm. Light layers of clothing shield their bodies from the late morning sun; various pant legs and shirt sleeves hang limp. He will have to touch all of these people. Before Wintric begins the pat-downs, the interpreter says “Don’t touch ass, crotch; easy with kids, no problems here, medicine here.”
“You know these people?” Wintric says. “No.” “So you don’t know anything.” Seventeen pat-downs later, Wintric comes to a man who seems whole, tiny sweat streams around his eyes. “Thank you,” the man says before Wintric has touched him. Wintric glances back at the interpreter who nods then shakes his head. “No problems here,” he says. “What’s he doing here?, he’s not missing anything.” “No problems.” “Dammit.”
“Thank you,” the man says. “Yeah.” As with the others, Wintric starts with the man’s shoulders, pats down his arms to his wrists, up his sides, down from his clavicle, chest, to his belly, where Wintric feels something bulging, soft, ball-shaped. He pauses for a moment, and when the bomb vision arrives, he whirls around, head down, and sprints. in the slow-motion frenzy he hears the man yell something, sees his own arms reach out in front of him, and he knows he will die, right now. That the searing blast will take him from behind, open up his back and skull, liquify his body. He is all heartbeat and screams “BOMB!,” takes two more strides, and dives to the ground. Behind him the man has lifted his shirt up to his neck, bearing his torso, pointing at the fleshy protrusion, “Na!” the man yells, “Na!”
“No!” the interpreter says, “No, please! Nothing, no! Only” - He pauses - “Skin! How do you say it?” Wintric lies, face down in the grass. Eyes closed, body flexed, he hears “skin,” and pushes himself up onto his elbows. Big Dax and Torres run toward him. “Crazy cells!,” says the interpreter. Wintric still hears his heart in his ears, and he squeezes his hands then opens them.
He cut his left hand during the dive, and wipes the fine line of blood off on his pants. He stands, still dizzy, and peers back at the man who cups the ball of flesh below his ribs. Wintric shakes his head, and glances down at his palm, where fine dirt is mixed with coagulating blood. “God-damn!,” Big Dax says. “Deep breath, Ellis. Breathe.”
Big Dax touches Wintric’s arm and Wintric shakes him off. From the side: children’s laughter. “Cancer,” Torres said. “That could be cancer.” “Ah yes,” says the interpreter, nodding. “Cancer.”
Justin Hudnall: Jesse Goolsby, thanks so much for joining us on Incoming.
Jesse Goolsby: I’m so happy to be here, thanks for having me.
Justin Hudnall: So you were a graduate of the US Air Force Academy, as a Second Lieutenant, and during the Iraq War served as a Maintenance Officer.
Jesse Goolsby: Yeah I was stationed in England as an aircraft maintenance officer. Heading up maintenance on aircraft tankers, KC-135s. #00:31:04-4#
Justin Hudnall: Can you speak a little bit about what that experience was like, being at a distance from participating in the war but still having such a role in it?
Jesse Goolsby: It was bizarre, in one word. You’re navigating so many things. But the things that I didn’t anticipate, going through the Air Force Academy and then being commissioned and getting my first assignment, and then honestly being pretty proud and exuberant at the start of both wars. Feeling like I was important to what was going on, but also this odd feeling of feeling safe. From a distance. And so really dealing with these multiple levels removed from direct action but also feeling like what I did mattered.
It was bizarre for a number of reasons, one of which is that I got to basically launch aircraft from England that would go and refuel other aircraft bombers often, and then I would see the results on CNN, and then our tankers would land and we would repair them. So there was this incredibly bizarre but also fulfilling nature and cycle and flow of what we were doing from England.
But as I said, alongside that deep pride and exuberance, was this real honest guilt and concern for my brothers and sisters in arms that weren’t safe, that were dodging mortars, that were involved in firefights, and so I remember oftentimes going back to my apartment in England and really having these internal battles of Am I really in the military? What forms of culpability do I need to navigate here? And this is outside of the moral questions that came later. But even just on a very clear-cut level of How do I belong to this operation? How do I claim ownership and culpability when I feel so far removed? And this odd guilt of being in England but wearing the uniform and taking pride and bringing the fight to the supposed Bad Guys at that time.
Justin Hudnall: You mention a lot in your writing and some of your interviews about your conflicted feelings towards the conflicts you participated in; what do you think civilians need to understand about the experience service members go through when circumstance dictates that they have to participate in a war that they might be very conflicted about?
Jesse Goolsby: Yeah, what a great question. First of all, I would say - and I foot stomp this pretty much everywhere - is that service members and veterans are individuals. They bring individual dreams, hopes, fears, political persuasion, knowledge of the situation, to their perspective. And so everybody’s going to have a different reaction. But I remember very vividly, as I alluded to earlier, defending this notion of pre-emptiveness in Iraq. Feeling pretty, if I’m honest with myself, pretty damn gung-ho about what we were doing and why we were doing it in real time.
Over the years, that feeling has changed dramatically. It’s become much more conflicted with simultaneous pride, but a lot of regret. A lot of looking back and considering if I would have done things differently, if I should have just left the service right away because we were currently engaged in a war that I disagreed with, or if I should stay and find other ways to contribute. Questioning what the next war was going to be.
Wondering if we were in forever war. Navigating the morality of day-to-day life but also looking toward the future. And what I would say to civilians looking at all of us as individuals is that a lot of us go through very similar pressures of deciding what we want to do with our lives. So not only is it Am I gonna partake in combat? — and our military does a lot more than just combat, there are positions for policy and humanitarian work — but it’s not clear-cut as far as if I’m gonna participate in this war or not. I mean we’re weighing factors about a life and a job. Yes there’s morality, but there’s also job security, there’s healthcare, there is these ethereal notions of service to our country that are deeply rooted and matter. There’s pride, there’s guilt. There’s navigating the grey areas, there’s leadership.
There are a million different factors for every individual that decides to serve, decides to get out, or decides to continue to serve. And I would just hope that - and I think they do, I think that by and large, civilians understand that these are complicated issues, that it’s not all guilt and it’s not all pride. And that’s what makes up a human life. That’s what makes all of our lives so fascinating is: How do I live my life? How can I support my passion? How can I support my family? and How can I do this the best way possible while keeping my integrity and morality intact? The answer is: It’s not easy. But there are many pathways to get there. That would be my message to civilians. All the things that run through your head, when deciding on how to live a fulfilled and rewarding life, come to every single service member as well, as they decide how long to serve and why they serve.
Jesse Goolsby: This is the beginning of Chapter 9, “Redwoods.”
Seven weeks pregnant and nauseated enough to search for the women’s bathroom, Kristin sweats in the Express 20 items or less line at the Susanville Walmart and tries to calm her stomach and mind. She regrets the Jack-In-The-Box tacos she had for lunch, and her mind replays her answer to Wintric’s question about an abortion: “I don’t know.” Married for two weeks, she wears a solitaire diamond ring and a silver wedding band. And while she hasn’t asked him, she guesses Wintric purchased the set from the same store where she now stands and vices down on the shopping cart’s handle. She’s still acclimating to the minor weight of the set, and the protruding diamond, and the inside of her left middle finger —
Married for two weeks, she wears a solitaire diamond ring and a silver wedding band and while she hasn’t asked him, she guesses Wintric purchased the set from the same store where she now stands and vices down on the shopping cart’s handle. She’s still acclimating to the minor weight of the set, and the protruding diamond, and the inside of her left hand middle and pinky fingers are sore from the new rub.
She swallows and fingers the sweat away from her face. She reaches into her purse and grabs the small plastic baggie of Saltines she totes around. Selects a cracker, and places it on her tongue. Unloading her cart onto the conveyor belt, she surveys her soon-to-be purchases: a whistle, a grey t-shirt, a new sports bra, dry erase markers, a dry erase board, with basketball court markings, an iron-on Coach logo, The Dead Rising video game, the latest People magazine, Three gallons of milk, tortillas, instant coffee, deodorant, toothpaste, and athletic socks. She guesses the Walmart checkout man is new and exhausted or-
She guesses the Walmart checkout man is new, exhausted, or stupid, because he struggles to locate the barcode on everything he attempts to scan. And while she counts out her 16 items before the plastic bar that separates her things from the cowboy-hatted man’s stuff in front of her, she realizes that the conveyor belt isn’t moving, that everything is taking too long for her and her trembling stomach and esophagus.
After another cracker and two more minutes of nervous gulping, the cowboy has his total. And he reaches into his front pocket and brandishes a leather-bound checkbook, then asks for a pen. These acts will delay her bathroom entrance by a minute, probably more. Miraculously, the second Saltine has helped. Offering a sliver of reprieve. Enough, she thinks, to get her through the check-writing.
She glances left to the inviting stand of magazines and candy, and catches a photo of a sultry-grinned Fergie. Light-blue “Cosmopolitan” at the top, deep red “The Sex He Wants” below. Next to Cosmo: Time magazine, “Life In Hell: A Baghdad Diary.” Next to Time: GQ and a flirty-grinned Justin Timberlake. “The Private Life of Justin Timberlake.”
Kristin pops another cracker, her esophagus and stomach downshift from tremble to sway. The checkout man offers an enthusiastic “Hi there!” smiles, and fumbles with the sports bra, turning the garment in his hands although the bar coded tag dangles near the clasp. Brand new, she thinks. Why in the world did they give him the express line?
When he fists the first gallon of milk, Kristin says “It’s on the front.” “Thanks,” he says, smirking with a hint of newfound annoyance. “What team?” He says, holding up the Coach logo. “Basketball,” she says, swallowing the cracker. “Girls, JV. Over in Chester.” “The Chester Volcanoes,” he says. “Cool mascot.”
It’s then that she spots Marcus 20 feet from her. Pushing a cart full of groceries toward the exit with his girlfriend Stacey. Kristin lowers her head then peeks back up. There’s no desire or longing, just a nervous wish to avoid eye contact. She’s heard that Marcus got on with CalTrans and is making good union money, working on the paving crew, and there’s a town rumor that Stacey did time for simple assault on a girl over in Greenville who called her a drunk Indian - which, as far as Kristin knows, is a fairly accurate description.
Occasionally, Kristin sees Marcus’ blue Chevy truck rolling down Main Street in Chester, heading South to the aging Valley-bound highways, but he no longer shops at the Holiday Market where she still works, preferring, she’d guessed correctly, to make the 45-minute drive to this Walmart. Kristin watches them walk away, Stacey’s hand on Marcus’ back, her long black hair hanging down to the top of her jeans.
Kristin pays with cash and moves toward the exit but pauses by stacks of on-sale bottled water, Lucky Charms, binders, and dog food. She doesn’t want to run into Stacey or Marcus returning their cart, or discover that they’ve parked next to her, so she glances over at the bathroom entrance and grabs another Saltine from her purse, and peeks at a clock on the wall. She watches the second hand and decides to wait three minutes. She hears the old man greeter welcoming people to the store, and she digs out her phone and sees the background photo of Wintric and her at a San Francisco Giants game.
Her father had given them tickets for her birthday. five rows up from the Giants dugout, the Pirates intentionally walked Barry Bonds three times but the afternoon was sunny, and the stadium was even better than she had imagined with the bay right there, the eastbound ocean breeze in her hair, and she and Wintric each downing two overpriced hot dogs before the fifth inning. In the phone’s background picture, Wintric has his arm around her, and she’s tucked into him, smiling under her black and orange brimmed Giants hat. It was that night in an Oakland Holiday Inn Express, sunburned and exhausted and happy, that she became pregnant.
Kristin stands near the Walmart exit, one minute into her allotted three. She texts Wintric that she’s about to head home, that maybe they should order pizza for dinner. She knows that he won’t see the text right away; as he’ll be finishing up splitting the pile of wood he hauled home yesterday. It was another example of his four-month roll of energy and optimism. Which Kristin wants to believe can last forever. Even if she talks herself into taking everything a day at a time.
When she took his last name, it seemed like something she had known would always happen. Something inescapable but comfortable. Already her new name sounds familiar: Kristin Ellis. She thinks of Wintric splitting the wood into fireplace-sized pieces. And she believes the war won’t live in him forever. At least not as it has. That there are too many things that happen in a life for the past always to live downstage. She believes that people are always someone different the next day. Already she sees Wintric anew, as they laugh together watching Arrested Development, or as he hums while they walk along the boggy shore of Willow Lake. Or as he takes in the Fourth of July parade, which she hopes one day he’ll walk in with the rest of the veterans.
Recently Wintric has replaced all of ceiling fans in their place, dropped down to two Oxycontins a day, with plans to kick them altogether, and surprised Kristin with lunch, freshly made turkey sandwiches a few times at work. She trusts these things are not signs, they aren’t teasers, this is who he is. Still she understands days rarely pass by easily, regardless of his motivation.
She navigates this world and lives through the days just as he does. In the past week, she’s put in five 13-hour days at the Holiday Supermarket, changed the oil in their car, and finished the sixth Harry Potter book, all under the stress of work as a new assistant manager at Holiday, and the pressing debate of whether to keep this child.
Justin Hudnall: Can you talk to me a little bit about that in your capacity as an instructor and an artist dealing with that kind of cloud that hangs over veterans and veteran art?
Jesse Goolsby: There is no “veteran experience.” There is no “damaged vet” narrative. They’re all individual and specific.
But what we get when our art and when our articles, when everything is projected out into the world, that all veterans are damaged in some way, all folks that have seen combat, they must be damaged, it’s almost gotten to a point where if you have seen combat and you go forth and succeed and deal with your things on your own, something must be wrong with you, right? You haven’t really faced down your experiences. And so all I would suggest is that we seek out art and we seek out conversations and manifestations of individual experiences across the spectrum. That is not to say we prioritize one over the other.
God knows we need the VA to step up. God knows we have veterans that need help and need our support and the government has been lacking in that. But we also have incredibly successful veterans in business and in personal life. And especially humor, man, serving in the military, if you read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, he’s great at this, in how to tell a true war story. War is tragic and devastating. But it’s also insanely bizarre. There are moments of incredible boredom. There are moments that are hilarious. So it’s that full spectrum of the experience that I think serves our country, our artists, our citizenry really well. When we investigate the wide net of those types of emotions.
Jesse Goolsby: This piece is titled “Darcy: A Personal Essay.”
Mom, I’m not sure if I have this right, but I think your last words to me were “Go to Colorado.” By then your voice was thin and your body failing, but I moved close to you where you rested on our green couch, and you touched my arm. I didn’t know this would be the last time I’d hear your voice. But still I listened carefully. I was 17, and I always thought you’d get better. Even after the year of dialysis, the kidney pancreas transplant and the thousands of pills. Even after they let unexpectedly —
I was 17 and I always thought you’d get better. Even after the year of dialysis, the kidney-pancreas transplant, and the thousands of pills. Even after they unexpectedly let you come home from the hospital, and you asked me to push you around the block in your wheelchair. It’d been months since you felt the sun on your face. I knew that you were nearly blind, and when we reached the spot where I could see Mt. Lasson on the horizon, I told you that it was still holding snow, but you didn’t say anything.
Sometimes, I still see your fingers on my arms, and I see your eyes on mine. We’re always in our living room. A painting of Christ hangs on the wall. You raise your head off the pillow and say “Go to Colorado.” Two weeks after you died, I boarded a plane in Reno. And although I knew nothing about the military, by the end of that day I’d stepped off a bus at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. People started yelling at me and I was confused and scared. Four days into basic training, I found an officer and I told him I was thinking of leaving. That my father and little sister needed me back home, due to the recent hardship. And that this military life wasn’t for me.
The officer patiently listened to me and said, “No one will judge you, Jesse. Do what you need to do.” But somehow I stayed, and as I worked my way through the academy I often used you as motivation: would you want me to quit? Would you really want me to run home? And what if you were looking down on me right then? It’s this last question that devastated me. You raised me a Mormon, and for a while I believed. You taught me that families would be together forever in this mortal life as well as in the afterlife, so when I left the church and questioned everything, the one thing I couldn’t give up was the belief that you were somewhere, waiting for me.
And while you were waiting, what could you see? Did you look away or cringe when I said that I didn’t believe in God anymore? When I lied or was cruel? During episodes of self-love or drunkenness? And what of the times when I cheered the bombing videos of Afghanistan or the drone feeds of Iraq? When I once argued that torture was necessary? In those moments, did you have a hard time believing in me?
I’ll understand if you say yes. I’ll understand if you don’t answer. I’m sorry, Mom. but I no longer think of you every day. I hate that weeks often pass without a gust of memory that includes you. But that I’ll randomly hear a Barbra Streisand song or someone will mention my big nose, and I lose control. Last week I came across a photo of my graduation from the Air Force Academy. In the photo I stand in between Dad and Josie with the front range of the Rockies in the background. It’s four months before 9/11. The Thunderbirds have just roared over Falcons Stadium and I’m a brand-new Second Lieutenant with no idea of what will be asked of me. But most important, you aren’t there. I stared at the photo and went and locked my bedroom door, I sat down on the carpet, and wept.
I wonder what you think of me now. I want to know if you think I’m a good husband and father. I want your reaction each time I put on my Air Force uniform and tap into the pride I still feel serving in the armed forces. Can I claim a desire for peace while I’m culpable in violence? I want you to judge me. Tell me: if you knew then what you know now, would you still tell me to go to Colorado? Before you answer, I hope you saw the day I met Sarah near the air base in England where I was stationed.
And later on our wedding day, when I stopped in mid-slow dance and told her that I felt you near? Did you hear me tell my children the other night that this woman hugging 10-year-old me in the photo is my mom?, and that she died? But they can still call her Grandma if they want? I hope you see me struggle with the knowledge that there are things worth fighting for, but that it’s been hard as hell for me to know exactly what they are. Comfort me. Let me know I’ve learned something. Whisper that you hear me preaching the value of empathy to my classroom of Academy cadets. And that it somehow matters. Please. Whisper that it’s ok if I fight in a war that I don’t understand. Or forget that. Just let me know you remember me. Start anywhere. A wheelchair ride in the sun. A final sentence in our living room. I’m listening for your voice.
Justin Hudnall: In your capacity as a professor and lecturer at the US Air Force Academy, and you’re currently getting your PhD in Tallahassee while in the armed services, can you explain to people who may not understand — or may not even know that this is taking place — why the military values providing a fine arts education to their service members and their cadets, including narratives and stories and exposure to art that might be directly contrary to past military endeavors and challenging that military narrative?
Jesse Goolsby: The simple answer is we don’t want Yes Men and Women. Officer, enlisted, every rank, every background - we want folks that are serving in the military that have investigated the human experience. And the best way in my opinion, and I’m biased here, is through reading great and challenging literature. Non-fiction, fiction, drama, you name it. The ability to absorb lives that are not our own.
The ability to tap into empathy. Especially of made-up characters. And to be able to communicate how they feel. How we feel. The ability to investigate our own feelings and challenge our feelings. My experience at the US Air Force Academy as a cadet and then as a professor was 180 out as far as the liberal arts that I expected. I expected narratives that reinforced that everything we do is right in America. Every stereotype of hegemonic power and “might makes right” is the way to go, and we are purveyors of that system. And what I found and what I’m really proud to cultivate in cadets is a questioning identity. Is one to say “What do you believe in?”
Let’s challenge those morals, let’s challenge that world perspective, because I want a pilot — for example in the Air Force — I want a pilot questioning everything. The role of the mission, I want them to question the conflict, and I want them to have the reserve of the finest literature and journalism in history at their mental and moral disposal.
That’s the way that we carry forward and that you can look yourself in the mirror, if you want to go to conflict and come back. One of the tools we can give you, because it’s always complicated, but one of the tools we can give you is a deep and abiding appreciation of the arts and the sanctity of life. We get that through great literature and art.
Justin Hudnall: Lt. Colonel Jesse Goolsby, thanks so much for being on Incoming.
Jesse Goolsby: Thank you so much for having me.
Justin Hudnall: Next up we’re going to hear from Adam Stone, retired Gunnery Sargent from the United States Marine Corp after twenty years, with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia on his passport among others. I was lucky enough to meet Adam when he was a student in a writing group I had the privilege of running at San Diego City College in 2014. The story he’s about to tell is the same one we began workshopping together back then, and watching him perform it in the auditorium in front of the entire college was an incredible experience. I’m sure you’ll feel the same. So with that, I give you “Oblivion,” a true story, by Adam Stone.
Adam Stone: Hello, my name is Adam Stone, and the title of my story is “Oblivion.”
Through my scope I see him standing there, on the brink of oblivion. I imagine he is contemplating his existence, whether to take that step. He sways with the mild wind allowing its breeze to caress him like a mother rocks her child. He looks over his shoulder as if to see if someone was there to give him encouragement; there is no one!
I imagine he is alone in this world, and this is his only way.
As he turns, the look in his eyes has changed, no longer is it fear;
but that of determination. He takes the step. I lean closer as if
to be able to stop him, I scream in my head for him to go back.
My hand instinctively reaches out as though I could push him
backwards from over five hundred yards away. I close my eyes,
cringing at the anticipation of the commotion that is about to occur.
Deafening silence! I strengthen in my resolve and look back
through the scope, watching him, walk towards me.
I have trained for twenty years to survive in a combat situation.
How to fight, to read others, to determine if they are a
threat. I’ve trained for decades to strengthen my mind and body.
I’ve mastered the art of hand-to-hand combat, I can accurately
shoot my rifle and side arm with near pinpoint accuracy. I have
learned to numb my emotions by the loss my closest friend, and
seeing what my own rifle can do to the enemy. I can shoot a man
in the center of his chest from five hundred yards away, and put a
knife thru his throat so close I can count of cavities in his mouth.
I’ve gone through psychological profiles before and after every
combat tour to ensure I can still be considered sane.
As he walked toward me, all my years of training, my decades
of experience, vanished like smoke in a breeze. I was lost in a sea
of emotion. There he was, a child no older than my 13 year old
son, walking towards me, but not to me. He was walking to a
discarded vehicle left in the middle of an ancient mine field. A
leftover from a past war, a constant reminder of the horrors this
country has seen.
He walks with purpose. Knowing that if he makes it to that
shattered hulk eroding in the sand he might be able to find something
he can sell to the Taliban. He knows that the price is high.
The bigger the item, the more destructive it can be, the better off
he will be. An old artillery shell can feed him for a month, but
anything salvaged can feed him for the day, possibly a week.
He knows that the Marines guarding the small outpost, just
five hundred yards away, are authorized to shoot and kill anyone
they deem a threat. His livelihood depends on what he finds, just
as the weapon he wears across his back is his way to survive. He’s
been raised here, and he knows that there is safety in the field
that has seen so much death. Many have tried before him; the
field is strewn with the signs of those that have failed, shreds of
cloth here, a crater there, even a shoe or two are scattered about.
He knows that where death once was, he is safe. A land mine can
only explode once.
He arrives at a crater and jumps inside, resting for a moment,
kneeling down as if to pray to his god to give him the strength to
continue his journey. As he hunkers down into the depression, I
see my own children playing at the beach, building sand castles
and burying each other, laughing as they run and jump into holes
not much different from the one the child I see is resting in now;
only three hundred yards from my position.
From this distance, I can easily hit the target. The wind is slightly blowing from right to left; the sun is behind me erasing all shadows and highlighting my target. In actuality it would be an easy shot, and be justified under the rules of engagement. As I sight in on the boy, I make the appropriate adjustments to my rifle. I firmly grasp the pistol grip, pulling it slightly toward me, ensuring the stalk of the weapon is comfortably in the pocket of my shoulder. I rest the barrel of my weapon in the palm of my forward hand allowing it to just lay there until the moment is necessary. My trigger finger hovers next to the trigger, waiting for the moment. My shooting position is perfect. No one, no one, would question why I pulled the trigger. I would more than likely get a few “good jobs” and “wows” from the younger, less seasoned Marines, who talk openly about seeing action, and wanting to shoot something other than a paper target. Young Marines, who have been raised in front of a television screen, playing “Modern Warfare” in simulated battles around the world. Who also tend to treat life as just another simulation. But there is no reset button, no pause, and no cheat codes. I hold my position, watching the target with my finger next to the trigger. He lifts himself out of his hole and stands at the threshold. His prize, a mere fifty yards away. But it might as well be one hundred, one thousand, or even ten thousand. For the distance isn’t the problem, it’s what’s between and underneath. He takes a step and begins to walk again. As he moves, his eyes are ever vigilant, shifting, searching for a tell in the sand of possible danger.
Nothing can be seen. Footstep after footstep his body tenses as it
might be his last.
I can see him clearer now. The sweat of his brow, the dirt on
his face, and even the beginnings of manhood as a slight wispy
mustache is starting to darken above his lip. I can also see he is
no stranger to war: A ragged scar runs from where his left ear
should be to the corner of his mouth. He is missing two fingers
from his left hand, and I postulate that the entire left side of his
body is battle damaged in some way. Possibly the effects of a land
mine he was fortunate to walk away from, more than likely, as
I have seen too many times, when he was an infant, his mother
shielded him from danger, protecting him, with her own body,
leaving scars as a reminder of her love. I watch closely, he is just
25 yards away.
His pace is slow and methodical, choosing each step carefully.
I again reminisce about my children when I send them to bed for
the evening. The slow intentional walk down the hall, hoping
a reprieve might come, allowing them to watch just one more
show. No reprieve ever comes for them, nor will there be for the
boy who rests squarely in my sights.
He is only yards away, the fruit of his labors within his grasp.
My body stiffens, ready to shoot. He climbs into the mangled mass
of the vehicle whose ancient armor shields him from my sight.
The world envelopes me; behind me I can hear the distant
sound of music playing on a radio. Marines on a break from what
lies outside our walls are playing cards to occupy their minds. The
smell of baked chicken being prepared for the evening meal lofts
up to me, and for a moment I can relax and take in the world.
(Tick….Tick….Tick) The hours of the second hand slowly pass.
When I see the boy exiting the vehicle, I am funneled back
into the reality that lay in my sights. In his hands is a wooden
box, filled with miscellaneous wires and pieces of scrap metal.
Resting on top is his personal fortune. A cylindrical shaped object
that resembles an old Soviet mortar shell. The boy doesn’t waste
any time, he begins crossing the field as fast as possible attempting
to retrace his steps that had brought him to his treasure trove.
(Thud, Thud, Thud) The emptying and filling of my heart is
now keeping time.
I tighten in my position, ensuring I can get a clean shot. The
boy has now become the enemy. Never mind the rifle he wears across his back—every six year old in this country has one—the mortar shell, if sold to the Taliban, can be used against the Marines and soldiers in the field. He moves quickly; I adjust for his speed, my finger slips into the trigger well. I can feel the warmth
of the indifferent steel as I apply slight pressure; my weapon is
ready. He reaches the crater where I imagined him praying, and
he abruptly stops. He’s frozen, not a muscle is moving. Can he
feel the barrel of my rifle bearing down on him? He’s motionless.
Beads of sweat roll down the back of his neck. He’s breathing
heavily, he stands for what seems like eternity.
(Click) I apply more pressure to the trigger. He slowly lowers
the box of goods, down from his chest, and looks up to the sky.
(Click) I place my thumb on the safety, ready to unleash the
dogs of war.
The outpost siren is wailing; every Marine from around the
compound stops what they are doing and rushes to the perimeter
with a rifle in hand to defend our position. It takes the cloud of
sand and debris from the explosion ten minutes to finally settle.
After a few minutes, the all clear sounds and everyone goes back to
what they were doing before. The music starts to play, the games
continue, and I helplessly look out across the field of oblivion.
A torrent of emotion swells, I’m confused; was that me? No,
my weapon is still on safe. Where’s the boy? He’s gone. I…am
thankful; it wasn’t me, I didn’t have to, I would have, I could have,
this time—THIS TIME!—it wasn’t my choice. My soul, though
empty, is still intact. I am angry and demoralized. I understand
why the boy made the trek, all this child wanted was to live, to
survive. I think of all the children that have crossed my path. The
ones on the side of the road begging for change, the ones in the
refugee camps, waiting in never-ending lines, even the ones that
have stolen from me. They all had one thing in common: the will
to survive. That boy was doing what he had to do, to survive. He
was looking for a way to survive for more than just today, just so
he wouldn’t have to walk through a minefield tomorrow.
As I walk off the plane two months later, I see my children
standing there on the edge of the runway. I couldn’t help but think of the boy and his trek, and all that had happened.
I have killed, I have hurt others, justified or not, but I have
also loved and cared for my enemy as I have loved and cared for
my own children. Now they are all here, together, running to me.
Justin Hudnall: Hey, thanks for joining us on Incoming, Adam. Why don’t we start off with you telling us where you at in life when you made the decision to join the Marine Corps?
Adam Stone: I was raised here in San Diego and moved up to the Central Valley my final years of high school. And Just to get away from there as fast as possible, I had a couple of choices: work in the fields, you know work in the prisons, or be on the other side of the prison cage. So I chose the military over those.
Justin Hudnall: Are you from a military family?
Adam Stone: I am, I’m a military brat, I’m fourth generation military, so… kind of runs in our family.
Justin Hudnall: Did you kind of feel that as a, not necessarily a pressure, but maybe a predestination coming your way? Growing up out there, that that was something that was kind of in the cards?
Adam Stone: Probably a little bit. My grandfather was a WWII vet, and he served in Iwo Jima. My father and his father were both career Navy. So probably to thumb my nose at my father, that last dig as an adolescent was to say I’m gonna join the Marine Corps and not the Navy, kind of thing.
Justin Hudnall: When did writing come into your life? Was that something that came in during, after, or before joining the service?
Adam Stone: I think it’s always been a part, I’ve always been told that I can write, that I always had a way to tell stories and get people involved in what I was thinking. While I was in the Marine Corps, way before the Internet and being able to kill time just surfing the web, I wrote bad poems and songs about love that I didn’t know what the heck it was, but I just did what I had to do just to occupy my mind; and one day I started writing a story that was terrible in every aspect of the word, but turned into something I enjoyed that occupied my mind and kept me out of the darkness, I guess you would say.
Justin Hudnall: What did your experience in the service - how did that change your relationship with writing?
Adam Stone: It gave me a different perspective. I read a lot more. When I was a teenager I didn’t like to read. I didn’t want to hear anybody else’s story, I had my own stories, kind of thing. But when you’re out there in some ship or in some country that doesn’t have anything, you pick up whatever book is possible. And you start reading and I just fell in love with the entire art of it.
Justin Hudnall: You were in the Marine Corps for 20 years.
Adam Stone: Correct.
Justin Hudnall: And I’ve met your wife, your wonderful wife, and you’re the father of how many?
Adam Stone: Four kids.
Justin Hudnall: Four kids.
Adam Stone: Yes.
Justin Hudnall: So what’s it like being a father and a Marine, active duty?
Adam Stone: It’s a juggling act. Depending on where you’re stationed at, it changes the dynamics of it. There was a time that both my wife and I were active duty. So it was a real big juggling act. We finally got stationed here in San Diego and she resigned from the Navy; we decided that we were gonna focus on my career. It was a joint decision. And it was kind of hard, you know. My youngest daughter was born right when we got back to San Diego. And I spent pretty much the next three years deployed. One year-long deployment and one six-month deployment. And so I spent her first three years not really knowing who she was, just through pictures and little YouTube clips or whatever the heck it’s called, of “I love you, Daddy.” I missed her first words. I missed all the big milestones ever. So it was hard.
And my twins, their just as definitive moment, for me, was when we were on base and my oldest girl - I was in civilian clothes and she saw a Marine in uniform - and she goes, “Daddy!” And she pointed to him. And that was kind of a deciding moment: Ok, I’m done with this. My kids need to know who I am and not what I wear.
The hardest part I guess is not having a task. I spent the last 20 years with a mission. This had to get done by this time; there was always something that had to be done in a very precise order. All of a sudden when I walked away from the Marine Corps, when I decided to close that chapter of my life, there was nothing. There was no structure except the structure that I created.
And unfortunately my structure caused a lot more chaos than what was necessary in the family. It was: wake up at six, breakfast by 6:30, walk to school by 7:15, be in class by 7:45, I’ll walk home, I’ll do this, do this, A, B, and C, everything became very rigid. And nobody wanted to be around me anymore. People were looking at me: “You need to go back in the military. That’s where you need to belong.” So I had to decompress. I had to learn to be something other than a Jarhead.
Justin Hudnall: You feel like you took your work home with you, you tried to recreate it in the family?
Adam Stone: I didn’t take my work home, I created my world.
Justin Hudnall: What were some of the factors that got you to, for lack of a better word, relax?
Adam Stone: My wife. Definitely my wife. She looked at me and says, “You need to find a hobby. You need to get a job, find a hobby, or go to school. One of the three, you need to figure it out. Because this is killing the whole family.” So I chose the school. I figure if I want to do something, and I want to show my kids that education is important, go to school. So that’s what I’ve been trudging through for almost the last year now.
Justin Hudnall: One of the things that your whole story revolves around is the part that I don’t feel gets talked about very much in the media, and that’s the face of children in warfare.
Adam Stone: Right.
Justin Hudnall: When we think about the idea of battle zones, I think that we still have a kind of partitioned viewpoint, where this is where soldiers go. But it’s not anymore. These are cities and civilian areas.
Adam Stone: Well, in every country I’ve ever been to, there’s always children involved. You don’t think about it when you’re a child yourself, first joining the military. You don’t think about it. ‘Cause you hear about stories from Vietnam or World War II and other places that you hear about the sufferage of children. But you never can reference it yourself. I don’t think you can really reference it until you’re a parent yourself.
Where you have someone back home that resembles that face that’s right in front of you. The enemy’s the enemy. I can see the enemy any place in the city as someone that I deem that might be a threat to me. But when it’s children, they’re helpless, they’re innocent, they have no political outlook on life, they have no viewpoints of what the world is gonna be like, so they’re innocent just like my children are innocent. So it’s a hard line to walk when you see that and have to make decisions and not know what’s gonna happen and what’s gonna be the repercussions of that decision.
Justin Hudnall: So you felt like there was a marked difference in your experience from after you became a father and redeployed?
Adam Stone: Definitely. Definitely. Before I was married, I was a very Que Sera, Sera kind of guy, you know? Just: Whatever. That’s life. Deal with it. But when you see your own children trip and fall and hurt themselves and you know you could’ve protected them, it’s a whole different story. Then, you put yourself in the position of the father of that child, or the big brother or whatever you want to call it and then all of a sudden your humanity kind of shows up. And it kind of plays with your emotions and you can no longer be that blank stare, looking out and “I’ll do whatever to survive,” because sometimes, somebody else has to survive other than you.
Justin Hudnall: Mmmm. What do you think some of the biggest misconceptions civilians have about veterans?
Adam Stone: That we all have PTSD. That we’re all we’re all walking on the edge of a knife, that just the smallest thing will set us off.
Justin Hudnall: Do you feel that, when people find out that you’re a veteran?
Adam Stone: Sometimes. When they hear how long I’ve been in, it’s where I get the more “Oh wow.” And I get the questions like “What made you stay in so long?” Some people, depending on the situation that you’re in, it puts you in kind of an edgy mood.
Justin Hudnall: For somebody who’s about to term out of the military, in say about two weeks, what piece of advice would you give ‘em?
Adam Stone: Take a break. If you don’t take that break you’re just gonna be tense, you’re gonna be caught up in everything that used to be. You need to take a break and take in what the Now is, you know? The military’s lovely, I love everything about it, it provided for me and my family. But it’s not who we are. It’s a career for some of us, it’s a profession for others, it’s a job for some. Take a break, learn to decompress and walk away from the uniform for a little bit. It’s always gonna be inside you, the military changes you, but take a break from it. Figure out who you are and what you want to be for the rest of your life ‘cause the military’s over at that point.
Justin Hudnall: That’s our show! Thanks for sharing it with us.
Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall.
Our musicians are:
and Jeffrey Malecki.
Outro music is provided by Tim Koch, aka 10:32, from Ghostly International.
Kurt Kohnen is our Audio Engineer
Emily Jankowski is our Studio Tech
Nate John is our web editor
And big poppa John Decker is Program Director.
Funding for Incoming is provided by the KPBS Explore Program, The Veterans Initiative in the Arts by the California Arts Council, and listeners like you.
If you’d like to learn more about our programming and how to become involved, please visit us at so www.sayweallonline.com. We’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for listening; we’ll talk again soon.
Incoming is a KPBS Explore series that tells true stories from the lives of America's military — told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. Produced by So Say We All, a literary and performing arts nonprofit, Incoming features voices of people from all walks of life associated with the armed forces. This series showcases the raw, honest voices of men and women who have served in every capacity and branch of the military. If you're interested in sharing your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.