Strangers On A Train!
February 27, 2006
Tag Line: Tombers has an encounter with an unknown soldier!
Every train, pretty much, has a quiet car -
cell phones and loud conversations not allowed, a place to
rest and recoup, a quiet enforced by conductors and other
passengers, a mutually accepted dictatorship.
Returning from D.C., I plopped myself down in a seat on Amtrak,
not in the quiet car. I settled in with my newspapers and
magazines, looking for something that would strike a cord,
inspire me to write my column. There was little to inspire
me; my muse was not whispering words into my ear. I closed
my eyes and surrendered to the moment, putting down my Washington
Post, Newsweek, and Financial Times. Opposite me, a man was
talking, in a deep, authoritative voice, chatting away into
his cell phone. I paid little attention but having laid down
my diversions, his words washed over me.
He was recovering from some injury; his leg had been hurt.
He was youthful, athletic, wearing a down jacket. A ski injury,
I speculated. The folks in New York I see on crutches are
generally victims of falls in Aspen, Telluride, Wyndham Mountain,
and Catamount, rare but present. I didn't think much of it
until I heard the word "shrapnel" and then I knew
he had been in Iraq.
Wanting to speak to him, I wondered if I would have the guts.
During a pause in his calls, I did speak to him, telling
him friends were recently back from shooting a documentary
in Iraq. They had been at Ibn Sina, filming the trauma center.
He had been there; though he didn't remember it - he had been
put into a drug induced coma while he was evacuated from the
Syrian border to Baghdad to Walter Reed. Wounded by one of
the infamous IED's, he was being carried away on a stretcher
when the team rescuing him was itself ambushed. His last conscious
memory of Iraq was firing his pistol, giving cover to the
medics, "like something out of the movies," he said.
When he woke, nine days later, his mother was at his bedside,
holding his hand, gently caressing it. As he struggled into
consciousness, his first words were, "Mom, what are you
doing in Iraq?"
Briefly, I turned away; tears were burning in my eyes. I
told him I appreciated him and what he was doing; I may not
support the war; I do support the men and women who serve
in Iraq, even more so after speaking with this unnamed Marine
Captain. He was forty, though not looking it, a veteran of
the first Gulf War. The doctors told him he was lucky. If
this wound had happened in that war, his leg would be gone.
This time they saved it; battlefield medicine is a rapidly
He told me of the young men and women under his command,
scared to death, who carried out their orders and how proud
he was of them and the country from which they came. Listening
to him, I could almost see those soldiers, see their faces.
[I cannot deny Abu Ghraib though I believe this man and his
subordinates are more representative of our forces than those
He told me he wasn't sure of the news coverage
but felt the long form documentary makers were doing a good
job of telling it as it was.
He told me that even if it had cost him his life, he was
not sorry that he had gone, though he was glad he had both
his life and his leg. He felt that way because of the people
he had met, had worked with, the living, those wounded and
dead. He might have been ambivalent about why he had been
sent there, he was not ambivalent about the individuals with
whom he served.
A Marine public relations officer had asked him, as he was
being discharged, if he agreed with the war. He told that
officer that this country was like a bus, and that the President
was the driver and the military and citizens were passengers.
If the passengers felt it was going off the road, they should
tell the driver.
It was, after all, a bus that was not a quiet car.