Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Profile of an American Hero

Justin Black, of Norwood, Massachusetts, is a 25-year-old veteran, and one of my closest friends. While growing up, he was no different than any of the other kids in our neighborhood. He loved playing sports on summer days and building igloos in the winter. Until today, we have never spoken of his experiences at war.

Civil service runs through the Black family. Justin’s father, Mike, is a Vietnam War veteran who spent thirty years as a police officer in the city of Boston. His oldest brother, Mike Jr., served in the Gulf War, following in his father’s footsteps as a police officer. Steve, the second oldest, was medically discharged from the Marine Corps due to a chronic and severe hip condition. Joey, the baby of the family, is 21 years old. He is currently serving his second tour of duty in the Middle East.

For as long as I can remember, Justin has wanted nothing more than to continue the family tradition. As a kid, I was busy fantasizing about being a professional athlete; Justin was set on joining the Marines. I remember a few days after the September 11th attacks. We were playing baseball in the backyard, squeezing in as much play as we could before the fall weather would end our season. We discussed how the baseball players from Yankees and Mets were doing all they could to help the city of New York. I told Justin of my dream to one day be in those player’s shoes and give back to the community. “That would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it?” Justin replied. “I can’t wait for the day I can serve my country too. When it’s my turn, I’m going to give those Taliban some hell.”

Justin signed up for the Marine Corps following high school graduation. In May 2006, at 20 years old, he finally got his wish to serve his country when he was deployed to Iraq.

“I was nervous, but really excited. I knew that there would be a lot of danger involved, but I didn’t care. This is what my father and my brothers did. I wanted to be just like them, and make them proud. All those months in training really got my blood boiling. With every run, pushup, or sit-up we did, we all had one thing in mind: we were getting ready to kick some ass.”

Things were quiet during the first few weeks of his deployment. “It was tough,” he said. “We all just wanted something to happen already. We would go to bed hearing bombs going off, and we all knew it was just a matter of time before it was our turn. The nerves were unbearable. But there was nothing we could do, we just had to sit and wait.”

One afternoon the sergeant told Justin and his crew that if they should try to get some rest before the sun set. When Justin heard of this, he knew that the time had come. In only a matter of hours, those weeks of frustration and fear would come to an end.

“It was show-time and we knew it. None of us got any sleep. How could we?”

Justin had grown close with all of the men in his squad. That night, he would lose three of them to gunfire.

“It was horrific. I lost my best friend that night. He and I were in basic training together on day one, and we never left each other’s side. His name was Dan, but we called him ‘Arky’ because he was from Arkansas. I just wasn’t the same after that night, and I haven’t been since. It was as if something went off in my brain that turned me zombie-like. Almost like a machine. It is something that I am working on to this day, even though I’m at home.”

Justin served in Iraq for two and a half years and had many nights where he lost men. On his left arm, he has a tally of the enemy casualties he caused. He says it was something that helped him deal with the trauma. He has been home for almost three years, but he still has not completely found comfort in being home. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, something that consumed him entirely until only recently.

“A year into coming home, I would get out of bed in the middle of the night and start staring out the window. It was like I was waiting for someone or something. It was as if I was in those first few weeks in Iraq all over again. The war was in my past, but I was still consumed by dread.”

When I asked Justin what he planned on doing for a career, he dismissed the idea of becoming a police officer, stating that violence is something he can no longer tolerate. He is currently enrolled in a local state school and works as a bartender. He believes that by avoiding certain career choices and continuing to work with his therapist, he can come to peace with his past. With Veterans Day approaching, he knows it will be a trigger for his demons.

“I want you to tell me why Veterans Day is important to you,” I say.

After a long pause, Justin exhales deeply, clears his throat, and licks his lips. For the first time in our interview, I could truly see the pain in his eyes.

“Veterans Day is important to me because of all the people that never made it home. Obviously I am a veteran, but this day is not about me. Hell, in my eyes, it has nothing to do with me. It is that father, mother, son, or daughter that lost their lives in the line of duty. Those are the heroes. Yeah, you know what? I came home a little messed up. But I came home; those guys didn’t. It is a day I plan on spending alone. My therapist and I decided it would be best if I took some time to reflect, remember, and appreciate everything that I have.”

“What about everyone else? What do you think others should do on this day?”

Justin finally squeaked out a smile. It was the same familiar smirk that I remember from our childhood, something I had not seen since his return from his tour.

“If it was me that didn’t make it home, I would want everyone to throw a big party the night before. I would want you guys to go out and have some fun on my behalf. Then you could sleep in, eat a big breakfast, and spend the day appreciating your family and your freedom.”

I will not be with Justin this Veterans Day due to his wish to be alone. However, I will spend every moment appreciating the things that Justin has fought for.

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