Brooks: A Bystander On The Inside

by David Brooks | 11/6/13 2:34pm

“Why do you think you’re here?” Two students filming a documentary on student veterans asked me this in a recent interview. All student veterans have asked each other the same question when contemplating our place at Dartmouth. Veterans are an interesting group in society. We receive protection based on a status we once held — even firefighters and police officers are not afforded this special status. The College wants us to provide diversity in a similar fashion that other students do, which is sometimes an odd situation to be in. I’d prefer to be viewed as Dave rather than solely as a veteran. I’m a veteran, student, son, brother, musician, fraternity brother and writer, among other things.

However, I understand that I am partly here to help bridge the military-civilian gap. Most of us are not keen to talk about our experiences, and I do so hesitantly. There are veterans with more interesting backgrounds than mine, but their experiences are not easily relatable to most civilians. I respect that. However, Veteran’s Day is approaching, and I’ve had many students ask me to write about being a Marine, so I’ll tell you a story from an event that made a lasting impression on me. There’s no valor, triumph or heroism, but the military isn’t always this sensational life you read about in books or see in movies.

The day had come for my boys to return home. My first duty station was in Okinawa, Japan, and I worked with 15 people who were my age. We were a tight group, so when my boys were tasked as the Commanding Officer’s detachment for 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion’s deployment to Fallujah shortly after I was called up to work in Division operations, I was pissed. No Marine wants to see their friends scurry off to combat while he or she wastes away in an office.

Okinawa is split into many different bases, and I made the bus ride out to Camp Schwab to welcome the boys back home. My friends were young and unmarried. There were no family members, wives, girlfriends or other people to welcome them back. They came back to an island where all they had was each other. I was going to be damned sure someone was there to give them a hug and a high five.

The buses pulled up and the Marines began to embark. I’ll never forget the first time I saw troops come back home. There were many happy families reunited. There were also kids fearfully crying in the father’s arms because they had forgotten who their father was. There were men meeting their babies for the first time.

One of the men who never stepped off the bus was 1st Lt. Nathan Krissoff. A Williams College graduate, he was a smart man who tried a little too hard to impress us junior Marines. However, he actively sought to be a good leader, and he was obsessed with going to combat. My fondest memory of him comes from when we were deployed in support of humanitarian operations in the Philippines. There was a National Guard contingent with brand new M4 rifles, which the Marines did not yet have. As we unloaded, they stupidly stacked their rifles without a guard — something you never do.

“Hey Sir, you see that?”

“What the f**k? Nasty.”

“We should steal them.”

“If this was Vietnam, I’d be right there with you.”

We never stole the rifles, although I imagine in the right era we would have. 1st Lt. Krissoff was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb. His father, a 60 year-old doctor, joined the Navy to treat Marines and would later deploy to Iraq himself.

I carried my friends’ gear back to their rooms, where they all had six-packs of beer waiting for them. I figured they’d spent seven months carrying enough gear. We partied into the early morning, trashing barracks. They shared the good times and the bad, some of which will remain in that night. The next morning, I called work and made an excellent excuse for my absence, which for space I’ll leave out.

I’ll never forget that day, being the bystander on the inside. I hope this Veteran’s Day you’ll think about those boys. They weren’t any older than you, and maybe in different circumstances, not so different either.