Losing love: The price of war
After a war, many troops still carry war with them. Each troop has had his or her own experience.
I found myself hiding from my war after my return from Iraq. Who needed to know about my deployment? Who really cared? What did I have when I returned? I had no wife, no partner, no lasting girlfriend during my early readjustment days. Where was the love?
I’d had a taste of unconditional love before Iraq, but following Iraq, I’ve had a hidden war in me. In war, there were deep bonds. And yet, when I returned, I carried a void. The war often shows up, unseen, in my new life on ‘the home front’.
I arrived at Newark International Airport just before Thanksgiving at 0100 hours, and some Italian tourists were staring at me as if I was some stale calzone from Ray’s Pizza. There were no United Service Organization (USO) ladies to greet me. I wasn’t wearing crisp Alphas (a type of garrison uniform) like the ones seen in war movies.
I remember the Alpha uniform in the old Life magazine photos of troops returning from the Second World War. Unlike many who served in the ‘Good War’, I had no kiss waiting for me. I wasn’t even near Times Square.
I was far from Iraq’s heat. It was cold, and I was wearing dull military fatigues that came from the lowest level of Dante’s Ante-Purgatory. I was more of an excommunicate in my own country than in Dante’s world of limbo.
As I tried to live out my new life back home, I noticed peculiar things about myself and I sought help. I struggled to accept my life in New York City. These days, I know why I volunteered to stay in Iraq during my deployment. So much for the yellow ribbon often seen on the television.
I received little help from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. I tried other veteran readjustment programs. The Give an Hour program is good, but through it, I had therapists who didn’t know a damn thing about war. One of their therapists even wanted my insurance card, though the program was heavily advertised as free for returning troops.
Even faith-based programs were lacking. I showed a faith-based program’s social worker a war-related newspaper article, and she became frightened of me. This made me feel cursed, for I’d volunteered for Iraq during the surge. Ironically, this therapist was part of some church-based counselling program near Wall Street.
Don’t get me wrong, I was open to help. I was invited to a few veteran’s retreats. One retreat sponsored by some trauma guru author tried to charge me $300. Well, hell, I could sit by the Hudson River and meditate on my own while playing the Apocalypse Now soundtrack without paying $300.
I finally got to attend a free veteran’s retreat at the posh Omega Institute. I did the wrong thing by asking about romantic relationships, and an angry former monk/war veteran like me dismissed my question, and appeared to need help.
Looking for help—and love
My quest to feel better led me to public-space open forums. There was one forum titled “Veteran-Civilian Dialogue” at some ritzy church on Fifth Avenue. I questioned these forums.
Sure, I tried to find a girlfriend at the forums. I was acting like I did during my church camp days at First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach. I came from a Charismatic Roman Catholic home and tried to be a Southern Baptist because of the pretty Baptist girls of my youth. I was never outed for my sin of omission.
The sin of the veteran-civilian forum involved becoming cracked open emotionally by the forum facilitators. Veterans, including myself, were enticed to discuss deployment and were even filmed while being ‘cracked open’. I felt like an exotic poodle in the Westminster Kennel Club Show. Veterans were observed as some dog show. We weren’t treated as warriors, we were just a spectacle.
And my fantasy of meeting a woman with empathy at the forum was an (un)lucky strike!
Actually, I was a bit scared to ask a woman out on a date. I was afraid that she’d ask about my sleep issues or about the G.I.-issued knife I used to carry all the time in those days. Enough! But why did I keep pretending that I was living the dream? I like that ironic military slang phrase, “living the dream.”
Find a good woman and forget the war!
Ultimately, I was on my own and I decided to hide from my war. I lived in a mental bunker. Though I wanted to heal, I questioned these so-called ‘healers of war’. Readjustment roadblocks led me to desire the war-movie myth: Find a good woman and forget the war!
Yes, I was home, but I was on a mission. I’d had ‘great loves’ before the war, and it was time to pursue a ‘great love’ after the war. And yet, I was still in the bunker.
Before the war, I’d been a friar monk. I came from a good family that had fought well for their American dream in an unforgiving American economy. I’d studied at elite schools such as Norwich, Yale and Columbia. I’d worked in an advanced position as a young clinician. Also, ironically, I’d had prior military experience. I’d served in the military twice, as an elite ANGLICO Marine and Coast Guard officer during the late 1980s and early ’90s.
I’d lived a robust life before the age of 30. My life as a friar monk were to be the last chapters of my life. I was to serve God. And yet…
Cecilia was my religion
Before taking vows as a friar monk, I met my dream, Cecilia. The ramparts of my faithful heart fell when I first laid eyes on Cecilia and saw myself dancing a slow Bob Wills Texas Swing with her until eternity.
I wanted to be her “hombre”! The Mexican rock group Maná has a song called “Eres mi religión” (“You Are My Religion”). For three years, Cecilia became my religion. I chased her. I gained and lost her several times, much like my faith in God.
I met Cecilia while I was an aspiring friar monk. I was willing to give up my calling for her. I was willing to let go of my visions of the black friar’s hood of mystery and white robe of purity. I’d give up carrying interesting monastic books such as Compendium of Theology and The Summa Contra Gentiles.
With Cecilia on my mind, I was dedicated to my path, but I wanted my flesh to rule my spirit. An ancient monk, Saint Augustine, once asked God to, “Make me chaste Lord, but not yet.”
My new mantra became “not yet, not yet, not yet”. Not even the constructive discipline I ‘d learned as a military cadet at the Norwich Military College of Vermont could stop me from pondering the mantra “not yet.”
Life as a friar
Providence has a way of dealing with human beings. Cecilia’s unclear feelings towards me eventually led me to discern that I needed to pursue the black hood, the white robe and the esoteric books. But I taped a photo of Cecilia in my worn leather breviary (prayer book). The cracks on my small black prayer book came to represent each time I made love to Cecilia.
And so, this was my life before going to war. With my burning desire for a woman, I returned to God because I discerned that a higher love waited for me. My new life was waiting for me with open arms.
I became a friar monk. I was to live out my existence as a penis-less angel in a black hood and white robe until my ultimate destiny—a burial plot at the Dominican Friars’ cemetery in Rosaryville near Ponchatoula, Louisiana. My legacy and soul were to be guarded by the rugged oak trees on the grounds of the Rosaryville Dominican cemetery.
My life as a friar was joyful and provided great meaning. I experienced the contemplative life of prayer, service and study with great contentment. As a friar, I lived my vows until I knew that I needed to leave the community, due to some changes in American history.
No love in my heart
It was the time of the surge in Iraq and few volunteered to serve in the military. The Marines weren’t even meeting their usually high quota. After I volunteered to serve my third term of military service, I noticed that I was half the age of other troops in the war zone. Yet, I was determined to serve my country one last time.
I envisioned returning to the friars after my stint in Iraq. I could go back to my former existence: an astutely educated and trained, penis-less religious friar.
At one time, I envisioned returning to the friars after my stint in Iraq. I could go back to my former existence: an astutely educated and trained, penis-less religious friar.
I survived Iraq, but I afterward felt a void and I truly felt like an excommunicate in Dante’s Ante-Purgatory. But I didn’t have a prayer in me like Dante’s ‘Manfred of Sicily’.
After Iraq, I was contacted by the friars to rejoin the Order: Father Marty, Father Alberto, Brother Herman, Father Caron, Father Emiliano, Father Orlando and others displayed great love for me by asking me to return to the Order. My brothers wanted me back, but I didn’t have it in me anymore. I’d lost my calling. What was I going to tell them about Iraq? I hid the war from my first love.
I couldn’t picture myself sharing a meal with other friars and discussing the Poetics of Aristotle. I couldn’t see myself taking orders from those whom I once had loved. The truth: I had no love left in my heart. But I wanted to love again.
I could see myself barking at people and not having empathy for any of my brothers in the cloister. I could see myself not showing up to morning prayer and not truly being present within the conventual life I agreed to live out with my beloved brothers.
I could no longer find peace in singing the Psalms. The Psalms were sung every morning in the friars’ chapel. The smell of incense left no ascending scent for me in those days of emptiness.
This is what happened to a monk who went to war. I could only picture myself as a quiet friar, watching the other friars lead their lives of divine calling. I didn’t see such love and passion in my own being.
I hid the ideas I had about myself from others. Who had I become after Iraq? I hid from a love that was offered to me, countless times, by the friars. Even in my infidelity by following ‘her’—the war—the friars offered me, over and over again, a special love not experienced by many.
I hid from my brothers and didn’t have words for them to describe the state of my soul. The Psalms had died in my heart and I lost my prayer stall.
Keep an eye out for Part 2, which will be published next week.