Nightmares are back. But they are different this time.
When I returned home from a deployment to Afghanistan in 2008, I remembered specific scenes of ambushes, an IED explosion, or an incoming enemy grenade. Now the Taliban are no longer targeting me in my dream world. Instead, I see them celebrating like they’re heroes in a Hollywood movie.
As a child of the 1980s, I lived with a constant diet of movies in which the good guys always beat the bad guys. More than anything, I wanted to be the puncher Roy Hobbs in The Natural. I wanted to hit the winning home run and trot around the basics to the sound of inspiring music and enthusiastic fans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t crush the ball over the fence, let alone in the lights.
In the spring of 1991, while living in Hawaii, my Little League practice was interrupted by applause, screaming, and car honking. My teammates and I dropped our poles and gloves and ran off the field to get a better view of the celebration. What we saw was the simplest parade possible, no marching, no marching band, no artillery salutes, no flyovers. Instead, a long convoy of buses carried real GI Joes from the First Gulf War. As the convoy passed us, I could see the Marines dressed in their desert camouflage uniforms. Nothing could have brought us back to the ball field. I knew then that I wanted to be like those real heroes who stick their heads and hands out the windows, smile and wave at the crowd.
I would eventually enlist in the military and deploy to Afghanistan. I did my best there, like so many of my veteran colleagues. For 20 years, politicians and generals have praised our services there and honored the sacrifices of our fallen comrades.
Today, they tell us that the sacrifices we made, as well as those of our Afghan allies, were not in vain. In a way, the lies continue. I know what we have done in Afghanistan has been in vain. With the cable gossip classes stuck somewhere between anger and bargaining, I accepted it.
I am faced with the reality that the Taliban not only won victory in Afghanistan, but sort of became Roy Hobbs: They hit the spectacular home run and circle around the bases while our enemies cheer and sparks rain down. broken spotlights.
I used to jump from planes as an army paratrooper, a dangerous way to make a living. The mid-August image of an Afghan falling to death from a C17 from the very plane I used to jump makes me question everything, from the meaning of my service to the way we could betray our Afghan allies and let that happen.
And yet: although we did not achieve the victory, veterans should still find something positive in their service. In my case, I didn’t turn into my Hollywood hero. But I am reassured that my service has changed me. In many ways, it made me stronger. I am a better citizen, father and husband because of it. Perhaps this is because the military is preparing you to deal with misery: you eat horrible food, live in poor housing, and work in a hostile environment.
After the news of the suicide bombing that killed 13 servicemen and dozens of Afghans on August 26, I took a break to watch the unfolding tragedy. I needed a pick-me-up. I dropped the drink or two shots and decided to watch The Natural again.
Watching him as an adult evoked different emotions than I felt as a boy. And I noticed something different this time. Roy Hobbss’s winning home run isn’t the end of the story. In the final scene, after the big game, time flies. We see a ball forming in slow motion in the air over a farm field. Hobbs plays wrestling with his son while his wife watches and smiles. It’s a simple act, but for me it’s the one that now delivers the big emotional payoff.
These days, the work I do as a screenwriter closes a circle on much of my life experience. There will be no victory parade for me and those with whom I served in Afghanistan. But I also know a lot better now that real stories have complicated endings.
Brian M. Thompson served as an infantryman in the US Army, 82nd Airborne Division. He is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting at Boston University.
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