“Happy Memorial Day!”
Did you hear that this past Monday? I find this “celebration” confusing. Memorial Day isn’t a celebration, it’s a remembrance. It’s about more than BBQ’s and parades. It’s about honoring those who’ve died while serving our country.
I always struggle with days that celebrate the passing of someone or a group of people, especially Memorial Day. As a former Air Force spouse turned Pacifist, I’ve spent time in conflict zones and with the work I have done with those who’ve lived through conflict, I know that war, and the violence that comes with it, is not something to ever be elevated in any way. I understand that Memorial Day is to honor those who died serving our country, yet, it is celebrated in the strangest of ways. Especially because those who have died in combat, most likely suffered a death we can only imagine, yet, have no real grasp of.
I never really understood this until I dated an American Sniper. Although it was three years ago and for only four months, I can tell you that PTSD, and all that goes with being in a combat zone, is very real.
The complete antithesis of me, I met Gerry (not his real name), on a dating website. Our first date should have been a signal for me about his alcoholism – he finished a whole pitcher of margaritas by himself within 30 minutes. When we said our good byes, he said he was going to walk home – which was about 3 miles from where I lived. I remember being concerned, but just let it go. When I got inside, I sat on the bed and thought about him walking through some tough neighborhoods to get home and how late in the evening it was. But, then I thought … If he can trek through the mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan hunting and dodging Al Qaeda and the Taliban, he can walk the three miles to his house through San Francisco.
Gerry’s inherent ability to wander became a norm in our short, doomed relationship. He’d show up at my door sometimes, unannounced, at all different times of day and night. Also a norm was his incessant drinking (gotta have a drink in the morning to fight the hangover and make it through the day), along with alcohol with lunch, alcohol to get to sleep, alcohol while at the beach, alcohol while making dinner, alcohol to have sex. I had never been so close to an alcoholic, so, it was all very new to me.
Gerry had a difficult time sleeping and when he did, his bad dreams would startle me awake as well. When not drinking, and sometimes when he was drunk, he referenced a dark man, in the corner, watching him, watching me, while we were talking. He would reference this dark man when he would open up to me, talk about the 12 brothers he lost in battle (some right in front of him), and when he shared about him killing indiscriminately. Tears rolling down his face, he once detailed an attack in an Afghan village that went very wrong, and he essentially killed everyone that “got in my way,” while going after someone who had just killed his buddy.
Some might think Gerry insane. Wrought with trauma. Maybe he exaggerated. Maybe it was the alcohol. It could be his personal demons. Maybe it’s all of the above. Nevertheless, I noted in Gerry a deep sense of fear, anger, mistrust, deep sorrow, frustration, rage, truth, loss, darkness, disbelief, and resolution.
I also got sucked in. I was picking him up after he’d call me, slurring his speech, finding him at the bar on 16th Street, barely able to walk. I would drive him to work and to school, to make sure he got there. I watched him get fired from a job for drinking while at work (he was a Chef). I was totally enabling him.
I learned fast that I certainly couldn’t save Gerry. He had to save himself.
I admit, at times, I also found Gerry to be a scary individual, yet, my empathy and compassion were in high gear. I remember thinking, This man has seen things I will never see, nor can I even imagine. He’s struggling. He’s so lost. He needs help. I tried to tell him he needed help. I reached out to people since I had no idea what he needed. A friend who is a psychologist told me that Gerry would need to stop drinking and be sober, before he could even begin to do the work on the trauma. Gerry said he already tried to get help through the VA and it didn’t work. He had no interest in that. He was content getting his $6000+ a month paycheck from the government – living expenses, disability, and hush money – to stay quiet about what he did “over there.”
In closing, I know every Memorial Day is hard on Gerry. How can it not be? We go to parades and BBQ’s and pretend to honor those fallen women and men, while Gerry and thousands more like him, drink, do drugs, and anything else they can, to not remember – to try and beat the numbness, to try and feel normal. Last I heard, Gerry was arrested for driving under the influence, without a license. I am not sure if he’s still in school, nor do I know if he even has a roof over his head. I hope for him that he doesn’t end up on the streets, as so many of our Veterans do.
It is a bit stunning how spending four months with someone can change you forever. How someone can enter your life and teach you in the way Gerry taught me. My short time with Gerry revealed more than anything that our government must take better care of our soldiers, especially when they return. Gerry is a liability now. Whereas before, he was important, needed, a star, a coveted Sniper, a US Government Killing Machine – keeping America safe. At least that’s the bedtime story the government sold to Gerry on his work “over there.”
I never thought I’d date someone like Gerry. It’s obvious why. Yet, after that short time with him, I have a different view of who I thought an American Sniper was. Gerry somehow humanized that title. While I won’t ever condone killing in or out of war, Gerry helped me see a person, a conflicted human, a child at times, screaming to be let out of the mind and path he is stuck in and on. His overt actions can never be condoned. Yet, I chose to see the human being he so desired to be. I believe that’s how God sees Gerry too.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. As an instructor, Karen designed and taught an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, and she teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area. Karen has two theological master’s degrees, one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology, and she did her undergrad at Wellesley College in Peace and Justice Studies. She currently lives in San Francisco, has worked with the United Religions Initiative, is an Ambassador with Parliament of the World’s Religions, is pursuing her Doctor of Ministry at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.