COVID-19 and the loneliness of American heroism

"I now stand in the shoes of those who tried to thank me when I came home. I profusely thank...

A few hours after my friend was blown up by the side of the road in southern Helmand Province, I went to the gym. By gym, I mean the wooden squat rack with a rusted barbell and some upright seats made of 2x4s, covered by a dusty tan tarp on which camel spiders crawled, waiting to drop on the unsuspecting. My lifting partner Zach and I went through the same routine we had gone through for the last six months. I think it was a chest day. Members of other platoons occasionally poked their heads in on their way to our platoon’s tent to offer their condolences. We tried to be as gracious as we could, but were anxious to get back to our workout.

A short month later, I came home. Instead of fellow Marines checking in on me, I was surrounded by civilians. It was hard to connect with them. War had cost me pieces of myself I would never get back, cost me friends I would never get back. I had spent months disassociating myself from basic empathy in order to survive, in order to kill, but now empathy was exactly what I needed. When someone tried their best to check on me, I thought they couldn’t possibly understand. I couldn’t summon the charity to accept their attempt to connect with me. I was too angry.

Something separated me from them. I had gone away and come home. They had never left. We had born unequal risk, and I couldn’t stand it. I had signed up for that risk — had freely, even willingly, chose to bear it. But still, the feeling that there was something unfair about it all gnawed at me.

I imagine past generations of soldiers would gladly trade their homecoming experience for my own. In America today, veterans are revered, yet every expression of adoration became an occasion for me to contemplate the distance between me and them. For whatever reason – maybe because war demands its practitioners sacrifice their ability to empathize, or perhaps precisely because Americans often turn objects of gratitude into objects of worship, or some combination of the two – being treated like a “hero” did nothing to narrow the gap. It gets lonely up there on the American altar.

I’d guess there are plenty of veterans who still are angry, who still feel separated, who are still preyed upon by feelings of the divide between themselves and the community they live in. Although there are now far fewer service members deployed each year, there are still plenty over there, fighting, some of them dying, and the rest coming home to an America they’ll have to reconcile with.

It took a long time for me to reconcile myself with the world and the people I came home to, to be at ease in a world after war. For the past nine years, I’ve slowly been working on reconnecting. It has been going well, slowly, but surely. However, in the past few months, I’ve seen familiar expressions of heroizing, just like those that used to make me feel so uncomfortable. I see Americans again worshipping when they mean to offer thanks. But this time it is not veterans we are placing on a pedestal and away from ourselves.

I fear that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) may be creating a new wave of people who will face the same kind of alienation veterans experienced. Health care professionals, grocery workers, and “essential employees” are bearing the heaviest burden in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. Unlike me, many of them didn’t sign up for this unequal distribution of risk, but we are asking it of them anyway. No ballpark tribute nights, no prime-time ads, no billboards, will change this disparity.

I now stand in the shoes of those who tried to thank me when I came home. I profusely thank the checkout clerk, the pharmacy technician, the nurses and doctors I know. But in my heart, I wonder if each time I try to express my gratitude, I’m only creating a moment for them to remember that while I am relatively safe from harm, and they are risking their lives and livelihoods, so that I can have a bowl of cereal in the morning.

The spread of COVID-19 and the shelter-in-place orders that followed are a different kind of trauma from what I experienced in Afghanistan. All of us are affected, somehow. When my hometown of St. Louis went on lockdown, the law school I attended shifted to online learning. On a cold March morning, I drove to school, collected my casebooks, quickly cleaned out my locker, and left the building, trying to avoid any other students. The roads were eerily empty on Highway 44 on my drive home. Back at my apartment, I organized my books, and built a makeshift work-from-home station in my bedroom. I then prepared for a life that bears a striking similarity to the routine of deployment – one dominated by routine.

I wake up every morning and boot up my computer. I read the daily reports of new cases and deaths, by country and by state. Then I choke down a water bottle full of chalky pre-workout (a different brand then I used to drink in Afghanistan, which has since been banned) and get ready to sweat. I don’t even have a rusted barbell now. I substitute my backpack full of law school textbooks for a dumbbell.

The repetition and predictability of my day helps keep me sane, and helps the days pass. In Afghanistan, while the monotony of patrol, followed by post, followed by a workout, followed by sleep, day after day, was soul-draining, it allowed for focus on the tasks in front of me, and helped me forget that I lived in a dangerous, deadly environment.

I can’t say that my day-to-day experience during this pandemic is nearly so dangerous. There are difficulties, there are things I miss. I’d like to sit in a classroom with my friends again. Zoom lectures can’t match the thrill of getting cold-called and dueling with a professor on a matter of obscure case law. While I’ve enjoyed online game nights with my family, I wish I could go to my parent’s house on Sundays for dinner, with a bag full of tacos from the shop down the street from their house, extra sour cream for mom. She smiles when I remember. I’d like to sit with my elderly grandmother, and help her do a puzzle. I don’t know how many more I’ll get to make with her. There are costs to social distancing that we are all paying, moments we will not get back, that we mourn. But I’m young, I’m relatively healthy. The threat of COVID-19 to my life is relatively low.

Routine in Afghanistan was necessary to stay frosty, to stay alive. I had to burn out parts of myself, and those wounds took years to heal. My routine now is helpful, but not an existential necessity. The personal cost to me is not nearly so high. For some, however, this pandemic does put everything at risk.

An ER visit could bankrupt the man who drives the city bus past my house each morning. The woman who stocks the shelves may be taking care of an elderly parent, and contracting COVID-19 could mean bringing death home with her. How can I, in good conscience, ask them to choose between going to work so they can keep paying their bills, and the possibility of a financial ruinous hospital visit, or worse, killing a loved one?

I wonder if the checkout clerk at the discount grocery store down the street is angry at me, as he scans my rice and vegetables, the way I used to be angry. I wonder if the pharmacy technician at my drug store feels the same separation I used to feel, if she looks at me and thinks, “You do not know what I am going through. You are not in constant danger, like me.”

When the nurse collapses into his bed at night after a long shift, turns on the TV, and sees commercials from beer companies thanking him, when the doctor is greeted at her home by a parade of neighbors blaring their horns and holding signs, like the freedom rider motorcyclists who welcomed me home from Afghanistan, do they ever feel lonely, in spite of all the thanks we clumsily try to shower upon her through social media?

I do not share the same risk that these workers now face. Their experience is entirely their own. I’m the civilian now, trying my best to imagine what their life must be like. I can’t walk a mile in their shoes. The dangers and fears they are experiencing are unique.

When the time comes for them to tell the story of what COVID-19 cost them, I hope I’ll listen carefully. I hope I’ll lament with them those pieces of themselves that they lost, grieve for the moments they won’t be able to get back, and mourn the dead. I hope I’ll have found a way to express kinship, while acknowledging that they gave more than I did during this time. I hope we, as a country, find ways to express our gratitude for those that bore more risk than we had a right to ask them to bear, without causing the recipient of our gratitude to feel alone.