Not long after the US invaded Afghanistan, my friends and I seceded from the union.
It was raining hard that day, and, like always, I didn’t have my umbrella. I stood there anyway, the water soaking through my hoodie, holding a sign that ripped off some now-forgotten punk band: “United we fall, divided we stand.” We stood on an island in the middle of a busy intersection, an island we’d roped off to secure our autonomous zone’s borders.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that we looked ridiculous, protesting the most popular war in modern history in the rain while the president had a 90 percent approval rating. But then I looked to my left and saw the monument next to the clock tower behind us: a bronze human form, holding a child and looking to the stars, its skin melting away—a statue for all civilian victims of all wars ever. Only Santa Cruz, with its avowed socialist mayors and liberalism, would try to pull off something so ambitious. I decided that next to such a monument, we didn’t look so bad after all. I held my sign up high for all the cars to see.
But even in Santa Cruz, September 11th had instilled a blind sense of patriotism and pro-war sentiment. People who drove by sneered or yelled at us, telling us we were un-American. An old man drove by our secession in an old grey Buick. I noticed the Purple Heart on his license plate. He had a sign too, a sign he leaned over to hold up against the passenger window as he pulled up to the stoplight. It read, like so many billboards and bumper stickers and murals at the time, “United we stand, divided we fall.”
I stepped into the street and yelled, “You got it backwards!”
His reaction surprised me. Rather than the annoyed looks we got from most passersby, he yelled, “No, no, no!” There was a tear in his eye, but I think he was ashamed of it because before I could get a good look at him, he took the sign away from the passenger window and put it in front of his face, hiding behind it, cowering in the driver’s seat. My friends—all angry and shouting—crowded around his car, yelling, “Get that bullshit sign out of here!”
I couldn’t shake the feeling that we looked ridiculous, protesting the most popular war in modern history in the rain while the president had a 90 percent approval rating.
The light changed, and as the man drove away, he moved the sign out from in front of his face. I got a better look at him. The man was terrified; his eyes bugged, the wrinkles on his forehead pulled taught, his ears even seemed to be twitching. A Purple Heart, a man who had been wounded on the battlefield, a man who had most likely seen his friends die in battle, a man who may have liberated the concentration camps in Poland or built the bomb that fell on Hiroshima—that man was terrified of us.
My anarchist friend laughed.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
My friend shrugged, “You see that guy—hiding behind his sign? That’s crazy shit.”
“Why was he so scared? Why was he crying?”
“C’mon, man,” my friend said, “He’s scared of the truth.”
About a year later, I graduated from Santa Cruz with a degree in politics. Despite my ambivalence about the Democratic Party’s lack of guts after September 11th, I decided that they were our best hope if we wanted to avoid total political disaster. Through a hodgepodge of lucky breaks, I started working for a Democratic Congresswoman in Palo Alto. The Congresswoman had no idea that I had once seceded from the union, and for once, I was grateful that no one had paid any attention to us on that day.
Two months after I started the job, President Bush ordered a “shock and awe” attack on Iraq. The pictures on the news were beautiful when you were sitting peacefully on this side of the world. The skyline erupted bright blue or dark orange, depending on the camera and the type of explosive. After the flash dimmed, an eerie delayed thwack, the sound of a baseball hitting a bat when you’re sitting in the nosebleed section, reminded us of the importance of what we’d just witnessed.
At the time, though there were over a hundred thousand members of my generation in Iraq and Afghanistan, I didn’t know a single person in a combat zone.
My friends and I watched it as one watches a terrible movie. We hated it and wanted nothing more than for it to end. We protested in the streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, Boston, London and almost every major city in the world, and we sat around bars cursing George Bush’s name. The job I took was with an anti-war Congresswoman and many of my friends devoted their lives to organizing for anti-war politicians. Yet our efforts lacked the urgency of a mother whose daughter just saw her best friend blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade or a man who just learned his best friend lost a limb. We fought against it but it wasn’t something we’d give up everything to end because it had little direct relevance to us. At the time, though there were over a hundred thousand members of my generation in Iraq and Afghanistan, I didn’t know a single person in a combat zone. My friends knew very few people there, too. The people we knew in the military were in Japan or Germany or deep within the Green Zone, serving in safe, specialized positions.
Soon after the war started, I was informed by my chief of staff that I would soon be meeting some of these people. I would be taking over all veterans casework.
I was distraught.
When I interviewed to work for the Congresswoman, I was told I’d be dealing with Santa Cruz County hippies and Mercedes-driving liberals, Google employees who shopped at Trader Joe’s. I thought I could work with environmentalists, maybe some transportation lobbyists, and do some election work on the side. But because I was the only man in the office senior enough to do casework, my chief of staff explained, I would have to work with veterans.
No one wanted to work with vets. Everyone was a little afraid of them. They were drunk, sick, and justifiably angry. We couldn’t get them the benefits they were promised when they went to war because nobody ever gets the benefits they are promised when they go to war.
At first, I dealt with them as I would deal with any other constituent who was having trouble with the federal government. I asked them to write a letter, to which I added a cover letter I’d written, asking the VA to look into their concerns. This process moved their cases from the normal VA office, which took years to resolve inquiries, to the Congressional Affairs VA office, which only took months.
By asking them to write letters that I could then forward, I avoided the heartbreaking interactions I’d witnessed between my predecessor, a Kosovo vet named Greg, and the veterans who came in for help. Greg would listen for hours to their stories. I didn’t have much interest in that. They were tragic, to be sure, but their tragedy wasn’t my fault. It had nothing to do with me. I disliked war and had even pursued a career with a woman who wanted to stop it. My conscience was clean. But then one day, in the middle of 2004, I couldn’t ignore them any longer.
It was a splendid day in April 2004—one of those days we Californians brag about to our family members back east. I was on my way to a meeting at the local VA, a meeting intended to keep members of Congress up to date. I wasn’t very excited about it. Every time I went to one of these meetings, the director would tell us which services the VA would be discontinuing in order to warn us about phone calls we might receive from angry vets. She was also always sure to deflect blame, to tell us that this wasn’t the Bush Administration’s fault and was instead the fault of Congress.
But today, there was something different: a few sentences from a woman I’d never met before named Kerri. She was a new employee at the VA. She smiled often. She had the friendly demeanor of a Midwestern mother and her eyes lacked the lifelessness I found in those of most VA employees. She had a picture of Jimmy Carter on her desk and admitted to being a Democrat even though she worked for the Bush administration. I thought we would get along.
She started talking. She spoke like she was reading, like she’d given the speech a thousand times:
“We have a major tragedy on our hands from these kids coming back from Iraq. This is the first war in history where our armor and medical technology are keeping our men and women in uniform alive when they’ve been severely injured, and for that, we are blessed. Unfortunately, the downside of these wonderful advances is that we’re seeing a lot more of what’s called traumatic brain injury.”
I jumped. I looked around the room at the other congressional aides. They were all about my age. One of them was yawning. Another one stared down at his pad of paper, taking notes.
I wanted the war to be real. I knew these kids would make it real. But I didn’t know how to ask them for that.
I knew traumatic brain injury (TBI). My friend in high school almost died in a car accident back in 2001. Today, my friend can remember what happened when we were fifteen better than I can but he sometimes can’t remember what happened five minutes ago. He can go from having the same personality he had when we graduated to someone I barely recognize, someone who becomes angry or starts yelling for no reason at all. Traumatic brain injury not only changed who he was physically; it changed who he was as a person. That is what TBI is. It is a concussion that lasts forever, a concussion that alters the soul.
Kerri explained that due to advances in body armor, these “kids”—she always called them “kids”—were surviving injuries no one had survived in past wars. She also explained that they were hit so hard by bombs and grenades that it literally rattled the brains in their skulls, giving them TBI. Palo Alto was one of the only places in the country that could treat these kids, but as one of the most expensive places to live in the country, Kerri found that the families of those undergoing treatment couldn’t afford the hotels in the area. So Kerri was trying to raise support for a sort of a Ronald McDonald House for military families, called the Fisher House. It was a place where they could stay to support their loved ones without paying a hundred fifty bucks a night at an overpriced hotel.
For the first time, I wanted to have something to do with war. These kids were like me. I could see that now because they were also like my high school friend. They were his age. They were my age. We all watched the same movies when we were six. We might have gone to the same summer camps or made fun of the same lunch lady. They probably spent way too much time playing video games, just like me. They lived through the same presidents and watched the Challenger explode, exactly like me. And these kids—these same kids who reminded me of myself and my friends—were missing parts of their brain because of a stupid war started by some stupid people in our parents’ generation. I was obsessed with them. I was angry with our parents. I wanted to meet them. I wanted to hang out with them. Would they know who I was if I wore jeans? I wanted to play video games with them, to talk to them about their lives, to be their friend.
I wanted the war to be real. I knew they would make it real. But I didn’t know how to ask them for that. After all, I was just some guy in a suit, and they were warriors. They had probably killed people. I’d been in two fights in my entire life. They were undergoing what would probably be the most painful time of their lives. I was not. Who the fuck was I to go see them? How the fuck could I even try to understand them?
Not long after the meeting, Kerri called me to let me know that one of the patients at the TBI Unit was being given his citizenship by the Department of Homeland Security. Contrary to what I’d assumed, because the armed forces are so desperate for recruits, a large number of the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are not citizens. I hadn’t yet met any of the people on the TBI Unit, and I wanted nothing more than to talk to them. She asked if I could bring a certificate from the Congresswoman honoring this patient’s citizenship and his efforts. I said yes.
Charlie, our receptionist, volunteered to go with me for support. We were told to bring a flag. Charlie and I folded it in the car on the way over.
The campus at the VA in Palo Alto is enormous. As we drove up, I saw the largest American flag I’d ever seen in my life. I also saw perfectly straight roads, well-manicured lawns, and cars in neat rows that went on forever. But despite the fact that there were no doubt thousands of medical workers and veterans inside the buildings, there was no one outside. It looked like one of the post-apocalyptic horror movies where everyone disappears and the busy downtown streets are deserted.
Kerri greeted us inside.
“What is that?” she asked looking down at my hands.
“A flag. We thought …”
“No,” Kerri said. “No flags.”
“Come on, Seth. These kids have seen too many of those flags given to the families of their dead friends. Folded just like that. Don’t let them see you with that.”
Charlie and I glanced at each other.
“OK, can we put it…”
“Put it behind that desk, now. And follow me.”
We hid the flag behind the desk and walked down the hall.
Charlie and I said nothing. We looked around. Like any hospital, the walls were off-white and the tile floors shone like they’d just been bleached. I saw biohazard bags everywhere. I saw a doctor duck into a room with a clipboard. I heard a noise come from the room, but it just sounded like a groan. All the doors were shut.
“Neither of you are sick, are you?” Kerri asked.
“No ma’am,” Charlie answered.
“Good, we require most people to get TB tests before they come in here.”
Then we walked into the room where the ceremony was taking place. I looked around and smiled. I didn’t want to smile. I saw kids. Kerri was right. They were kids. A dozen kids who couldn’t have been older than 25. Some were missing pieces of skull. Others were missing ears. Still others were missing noses. It was real. This whole fucking thing was horribly, terribly real. It was sitting right there in front me. This was a roomful of people who might have been me, who might have been my friend. This roomful of people wore the same cheap mall clothes that I did when I wasn’t wearing a suit. Their moms, who were sitting next to them, wore the same bleached blond haircut as my mom. I wanted to leave.
The Homeland Security official was already talking. I focused on him, because I didn’t want to focus on the people around him anymore. He stood about six feet tall and after I heard him talk for ten seconds, I wanted to punch him in the face. He acted like he deserved sainthood for being there. He acted like he was doing these foreign soldiers and Marines a favor. He smiled and hugged the injured and their families like nothing was wrong, like the people he was talking to were not missing parts of their brain, parts of their face.
“I was just up in a chopper over Kabul, and it was such a proud moment,” his smile was so broad I thought about stuffing a dirty Kleenex I had in my pocket into his mouth. What right did anyone who worked for the Bush Administration have to smile in this room?
I reached up, touched my face, and realized I was still smiling, though it was a practiced smile I’d learned by being a lackey for a politician. Like me, it was his job to smile. I wanted to run out of the room, to quit working for the Congresswoman immediately. My legs wouldn’t move.
“I thought you couldn’t give citizenship overseas?” a woman asked him.
“No, they just changed the rules. I’ve been over in Afghanistan giving citizenship to all the men and women over there, right before they go in.”
The man began the ceremony, but I didn’t pay attention. I couldn’t look at the people who might have been my friends anymore. I couldn’t look at the women who might have been my mother. I started sweating. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t swallow. Their families sat next to them, holding them, smiling. The Marine getting his citizenship looked proud. His girlfriend held his hand. I remember thinking about everything in that room but what was important:
There were muffins and coffee and soda on the table behind the Homeland Security guy.
And then, when we walked into the room, the first thing I did was turn Lance Corporal Eric Vargas into a monster.
The ceiling seemed really low.
I had to make a speech honoring the Marine in about thirty seconds.
And then I did something shameful. I handed the certificate to Charlie.
“Can you do it?”
He took one look at me and nodded.
And then I really left. My body, standing in its pale, grey, British suit, remained, but I don’t remember anything else that happened in that room.
When it ended, Charlie and I tried to make a quiet exit. Before we could get out, Kerri caught up with us.
“Great speech, Charlie,” she shook his hand, smiling.
“Come with me, guys, I want you to meet Eric.”
“Who’s Eric?” Charlie asked. I was still having trouble saying anything.
I walked with her, coming back to my body. The room was behind us. I took in the smell of bleach and soap and antibiotic hand rinse.
“Eric’s wonderful. He’s helping out with trying to raise awareness for the home for everyone’s families. He’s one of the only guys who’ll talk to the press.”
“They don’t like talking to the press?” I asked, probably stupidly, because then I thought about it.
“They don’t want people here taking pictures of them, really. They don’t want to be used as monsters. But the thing is that nothing works better than taking pictures for raising money. Eric always talks about being the best monster he can. None of the other kids have the same sense of humor about it.”
“That is brave,” I said, because when you work in politics, you’re trained to speak in vaguely complimentary cliches.
Kerri looked at me again, “It’s more than brave.”
And then, when we walked into the room, the first thing I did was turn Lance Corporal Eric Vargas into a monster.
Lance Corporal Eric Vargas’s right eye is sunk into his head, like a little black hole in his skull. His left eye is permanently shut. The left side of his cranium is slightly higher than the right. Part of his ear is missing. His forehead has a little too much of a bulge in it. There is a dent on one side of his head, like his skull was a bumper that had been dinged in a parking lot. His open eye is filled with a mix of something like the false hope one sees in the eyes of newly recovered alcoholics and pain, the pain one must feel when starting to realize that you are no longer the same person with the same hopes and aspirations and abilities you once had. You’re still alive but part of what you were before has died.
No, that’s not it. I will tell you about him, but I should also tell you that it’s not him. I have to replace Lance Corporal Vargas with another because he isn’t real. He’s a composite of several different Marines and soldiers I met while working for the Congresswoman. I have to do this for legal and moral reasons. I have to do this because I don’t want to make anyone a monster.
Lance Corporal Eric Vargas is horribly disfigured by war. But that’s not what’s important about Lance Corporal Vargas. What’s important about Lance Corporal Vargas is his right eye. You see, it remains open. And with it, he can look at people. It took him a long time in physical therapy to be able to walk again, to be able to hear again. But it took him the longest time to be able to see again. It took four different surgeries, but they were able to save his right eye. Kerri had told him why I was there, and because of that, when he looked at me, even though I was at most three years older, I think he saw someone who could help him. Someone who could help all the poor kids in the TBI, kids who came from El Paso and San Bernadino and Nevada City and Portland, who wanted their families to be there to help them make it through this. I think he saw someone who might be able to do what little could be done to make their lives a bit better.
And then I did the cruelest thing I think I could’ve done. I teared up.
I’m not one of those people who’s afraid of crying. Usually, I look forward to it because it happens so rarely and because I always feel better afterwards. But when it does happen, I can’t control it. It’s not like I started bawling. There were just little tears in the ridges of my eyes, where people wipe off little pieces of sand in the mornings. And when I tried to look in his eyes to shake his hand, he saw my tears and looked to the side, embarrassed for me and ashamed for himself.
My tears were proof he was a monster. To Eric, they were proof that he was doing his job. I was another one of those people who needed to see a monster before they would learn to stop everything to help them. I needed to see a monster to see how terrible this war was.
I shook his hand.
“I’m Seth Fischer from your Congresswoman’s office. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”
He looked at me.
“Well, you know about the Fisher House?” he asked.
“Yes, Kerri told me about it.”
“Well that’s real important to us.”
“Well we’re doing everything we can. We won’t rest until it happens.”
“Thank you,” he smiled.
I worked my ass off to get that Fisher House built. Kerri worked even harder. I put in memo after memo after memo after memo to the Congresswoman until she called a wealthy CEO and asked him to hold his company’s annual fundraiser for the cause. She resisted asking the private sector to pay because she thought the government should. She was right, but I knew there was no way Congress, at the time still fighting over what to call French fries in the Congressional cafeteria, would do anything about it. Her phone call worked. She took almost none of the credit. The people at the VA still don’t know what she did for them. The Fisher House was built. It is beautiful.
I went back to the VA to visit recently. They gave me a tour of the Fisher House even though I hadn’t called first. After the tour was over, I snuck back into the building and sat in the living room and looked around.
I saw a brand new television set and smelled what I thought was curry cooking in the other room.
And then I sat in a big reclining comfy chair, took a deep breath and finally let it come. I finally cried.
I cried for Eric and for the bulge in his head and for the fact that something like this happened to someone I knew. I cried because I, and not the war, had turned Eric into a monster. I cried because I didn’t understand war until I saw a monster. I cried because terrible things were happening to people like me and that fact makes everything I do real. I cried because that responsibility makes it too hard to live. And I cried, most of all, because Eric would be with me forever, his face a reminder to keep resisting this war, his eye a reminder I was scared of the truth.
Seth Fischer is currently an MFA student at Antioch University. He is the founding editor of an online literary compilation called The Splinter Generation. Before delving into the world of literature, Seth was a political activist and political science PhD student. He lives in San Francisco.
Art by Emily Hunt