Author Bob Moore
I led the group down the steel steps into the basement of the VA building, our steps echoing. I had written the room number on my hand, as the basement was two long hallways shiny with emptiness, punctuated on each side with anonymous windowless doors. Our door was unlocked, dark inside but warm. I flipped the wall switch and the room lit up with the harsh overheads, and the air smelled of ozone. During the day, if the whiteboard was any guide, the room hosted an English class. Following me, Sarah and Wilson and Mackowsky all dropped their winter coats on a desk and got to work moving seats into a circle with the groan of dragged chair legs.
“Sorry about this,” I apologized “I don’t know what happened to our usual meeting place.”
“Asbestos mitigation,” said Devon Wilson, a veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, currently a receptionist. He had begun buzzing his scalp, a topic I hoped he’d bring up, and it was very pink. “Whole fuckin building is riddled with it.” Devon was an alcoholic clerk who’d volunteered for combat. He’d come back from an uneventful patrol in Baghdad, drank down a bottle of Jim Beam and shot up his barracks. I had him for six months of observation before his inevitable confinement in Leavenworth. He’d stayed sober and was helpful, which might ease his tentative sentence of five years.
Sarah looked irritated at him. She had requested an agreement to limit profanity, to which the others had shrugged agreeably, which I chose not to enforce.
“Where’s the coffee machine?” asked Makowsky, who drank it like air. Makowsky was the oldest member of the group, a Vietnam veteran, tall once but bent with age, gray hair and a deeply lined face, his gravelly voice reflecting a lifetime of cigarettes. Our normal meeting room had a coffee maker just outside the door. I had never been in the basement, and wasn’t even sure where the rest rooms were. “I don’t know, Mack. We have a few minutes before we start. You might want to explore the coffee situation and report back.”
He tossed off a quick salute and left. I think he knew it got under my skin.
Sarah took a seat near the door, set her purse on her lap, and put on her relaxed smile. Her short cut blonde hair was showing gray roots. She’d been a nurse on an aircraft carrier just off the Pakistan coast, until recently. She’d attacked a Pakistani doctor with a scalpel and, when left alone in a holding cell, tried to kill herself. Her wrists were still bandaged. She’d accused the doctor of raping her. He’d denied it.
We could hear the others coming down the hall, talking and swearing as they looked for our room. “Where the fuck are we? I am so fuckin’ sick of doing this bullshit,” I could hear Jesus say, and Miguel responded with some slang I didn’t know, but he sounded supportive. Many of my patients were reluctant, but they usually kept their bitching to themselves. I could have stepped out into the hallway as both beacon and disciplinarian, but we had the only open door, and I am careful about confrontation, so I sat in the chair farthest from the door, waiting.
They called themselves the Three Musketeers, though I suspect their connection was to the candy bar, not the tale. Claude Facile, Jesus Cabrera and Miguel Toro, three Iraqi War vets, all members of the same National Guard unit out of Queens, all being observed before final sentencing for shooting up an Iraqi town. With their arrival the group was complete. I held up my cell phone. “Phones off. There’s no reception down here anyway. Sorry about the last minute change of venue. Devon says our normal meeting room has asbestos.”
“Where is he?” asked Claude, a well-tattooed, well-muscled grunt. “Where’s Mack? Emptying a coffee machine somewhere?” He laughed at his own wisecrack.
“He’s looking for coffee. I’m sure he’ll be back shortly,” I said.
Jesus lit up a cigarette. We were in a non-smoking building, but I’d long ago surrendered that front. All of them smoked. “I’m surprised he came back tonight.”
“Makowsky?” asked Devon. “Why you surprised?”
“That bullshit about heroism. How being wounded don’t make you a hero. How serving don’t make you a hero.” Jesus leaned forward, already agitated, looking down, then from side to side. “I’m a hero, and don’t forget it.”
Our last session had run out of time. After four weekly meetings with this contingent, I hadn’t been able to trigger much discussion, and had the idea, which I now regretted, of tossing a conversational bomb. “Some civilians consider us all heroes for serving. Do you agree with that?” I’d ended that session, and a shouting match between Makowsky and Claude, when we were over by ten minutes and Claude was sputtering profanity and balling his fists. “Since when does shooting up a village make you a hero?” charged Makowsky, to which Miguel and Jesus sing-songed, “baby-killer, baby-killer.”
Makowsky came in with a cup of steaming coffee. “There’s a vending machine room down the hall. The coffee tastes like shit but it’s hot.”
“Any donuts?” asked Claude. He was wearing a new prosthetic leg tonight, the only physically handicapped member of the group.
“Sorry, man. No donuts.” Makowsky took his seat and slurped coffee. “There’re candy bars.”
“So, asshole, you ready to back up your bullshit opinions?” Jesus challenged Makowsky.
Sarah frowned and looked at me, expectantly.
“Let’s remember the ground rules, people,” I said. “Our last session got out of control, for which I apologize. No abusive language. Everyone’s opinions are valid. Jesus, you want to reframe your question?” I looked at him pointedly, remembering his hallway comment. “And keep in mind I control who stays in this group.” That was my power, my only real power. Except for Makowsky, they all faced dishonorable discharges, and this was part of their sentencing guidelines to getting back to simple discharge. If I kicked them out, they were on the street with bad paper. I was the therapist, the guiding light, but thus far these people weren’t really taking guidance.
Jesus bit his lower lip, staring at the elder soldier. Makowsky had been in the group the longest and I hadn’t seen any changes in his behavior. He said he needed us ‘to keep his head clear’.
“Yeah, okay. So, Sergeant Ma-kow-sky, you said I was not a hero for being in Iraq. I say I am. What you got to say about that?” The other two Musketeers high-fived him. Jesus leaned forward, looking like he was going to launch himself from the chair. He was the one member of the group for whom I wrote scrips, specifically tranquilizers, and moments like that I suspect he was selling them.
Makowsky, unfazed, took another slurp of coffee. He had tremendously bushy eyebrows, white and dark wiry hairs, and he leaned forward, lowered his head and spoke from under those clouds, “Well, what’re the opinions of the villagers of Al-Raghib-“
“That topic has been covered, Mack,” I interrupted. I’d first met with each of them, individually, to discuss their crimes and their possible remorse. There were other vets I counseled who were still strung out; these were my healthiest patients. The budget pressed me to move as many as possible from individual into group counseling. I’d hoped for some therapeutic breakthroughs, but I’d screwed up with that hero question. They got quiet again. I need to get another female in here, I thought, not for the first time. Sarah rarely spoke, Makowsky always had an opinion, and the young soldiers were always complaining about regulations and why they had to be in the group.
Mack nodded to me, then at Jesus. “You maybe too young to know this, maybe not. Look up on your innernet what happened to Vietnam Vets. The kind of homecoming we had. We did good things, we did bad. But all anyone remembered was the bad. So we got spit on, folks called us baby-killers because a few bad apples went really bad. The VA dragged its ass helping us. They all just kinda wanted us to go away. It was a long way from being called heroes.”
“Well, maybe that’s because you were the first Army to lose a war,” taunted Gabriel.
Makowsky looked at me. I cleared my throat. “I think we can agree that the outcome of Vietnam was the responsibility of the leadership, not the soldiers.”
“As for this hero shit,” the grizzled vet said, now to Miguel, “you were a wetback, you enlisted so they wouldn’t send you back. You’re hardly a hero.”
Mumbling, “Mother-fucker,” Miguel started rising from his chair, but Claude pulled him back, and easily. Makowsky was a burly guy, Miguel stick-thin. If fists flew, the outcome was a given, and I’d still be obligated to kick Miguel out as the aggressor.
“You said yourself you wanted to be assigned to Human Resources,” Makowsky laughed a smoker’s hack. “Who the fuck joins the Army to get into Human Resources? A hero wants front-line action, maybe even being a medic. You were looking for an easy ride to citizenship. You got sent to Iraq like everybody did, but you still wormed your way into an office in the Green Zone, a fuckin’ clerk in the safest place in the fuckin’ country. And what was your primary responsibility? Ordering office supplies or something? You kept your head low and you made it back. You ain’t no hero. You’re a survivor. Like the rest of us.”
The Musketeers looked at each other, faces tensing, sharing Makowsky’s insult. “So when someone on the street calls me a hero, am I supposed to say, sorry, Sargeant Makowsky, war criminal, says I’m no hero?” taunted Miguel.
Makowsky’s smile faded. “War criminal? Who taught you that big word? And what you got to back up that charge?” His fists balled up and he leaned forward.
“My Lai, was you at My Lai?” asked Miguel.
Makowsky sneered. “Do you even know where the fuck it is? No, I wasn’t at My Lai. I never shot up a village.” He said, as if under oath, “I fired my rifle in combat and from what I saw I killed the enemy. I dragged a few buddies out of the shit. I was in Infantry, Mr. office temp.”
Sarah cleared her throat, her usual warning that she would be speaking. After my private prodding she tried to speak up at least once per session. She twisted around in the awkward desk. “So, Mack, who is a hero? To you?”
These people needed to build positive self-images and, especially for the Musketeers, hero was an image to which they clung.
Makowsky looked at her shyly and forgot the taunt; he had a crush on her, and he always managed to sit by her. They were only about ten years’ apart, and both were single. “Well, darling, I’ve been in this group for eight months, I’ve seen people come and go. I know where most of them served and a little about why they’re fucked up, post-traumatic-stress whatever. Combat fatigue, that’s what my Daddy called it.” He sighed, he sounded tired. “In that time, nobody ever came through that door,” he looked at our entrance, “claiming to be a hero. Not until you clowns showed up.” The Musketeers looked at me but I let it pass; they’d gotten some nasty digs in. “Let’s say you enlisted, and you requested Infantry, and you went to battle and killed the enemy and maybe saved a couple buddies. You were doing your job. Hero is a title for someone going above and beyond. Way beyond. The fact is both me and you,” he nodded to Jesus, “have been out where the bullets are flying. That’s scary shit. But if you enlisted, you volunteered.”
“Y’know,” said Devon, a rare contributor, “other day I was watching the president pin a medal on some guy, back from the sandbox. He said, he didn’t think he was a hero. He just reacted.”
“I saw that. Guy was a gunnery sergeant.” He raised a bushy gray eyebrow at the Musketeers.
Devon spoke. “I didn’t say anything before, but I’m kind of on Mack’s side. I ain’t done nothing heroic, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here.”
Or none of us would be here, I could read his mind.
He smiled shyly, and they all smiled or looked away. “When I hear what trouble these medal recipients find themselves in, saving twenty injured guys under fire, and they say they didn’t think about it, they just acted. I believe them. And not everyone does that, under fire. So they are heroes.”
I was pleased with Devon, who rarely spoke. “So you can tell the heroes by the medals they got?” asked Claude. He patted his prosthetic. “I got a Purple Heart. I walk on a plastic leg. How about that?”
“I’m honestly sorry you lost your leg. But there’s thousands of Purple Hearts. Probably millions. You’re still a survivor,” Makowsky said gently.
“But he spilled his blood for the country,” said Sarah, now clearly pursuing the topic. “I was taught that was special.”
“Yeah, maybe it is.” Makowsky upended his coffee cup and got up. “I need to hit the can.” He stopped at the door, hunched over, a reminder of his age. Looking at us all, “Keep in mind, I was in a real different Army. Most of us did not volunteer. There was a draft. And Vietnam, it was different. There weren’t no oil, and the religion didn’t matter.” He left the room.
Makowksy took the air out of the room. While he was gone I tried and failed to get another line of discussion started. “Sarah? You said, a couple weeks ago, that you still haven’t told your father you’re stateside. Have you told him yet?”
Sarah frowned. “No. Enlisting was the first thing I did he approved of. I can’t tell him I’m back, because then it’ll come out why. That I’m awaiting sentencing, for murder. And, this may sound funny, but the worst part for him will be my dishonorable discharge.” She seemed to shudder. “That’s not something he’ll be happy to hear. And he’s eighty-two, so I don’t want to kill him.”
And then, God forbid, I had another idea. When Mack returned, I cleared my throat. “I would like each of you to state whether you feel you’re a hero, and if you think anyone else here is a hero.”
I happened to be looking at Jesus. “Okay,” he said. “I’m a hero. That’s that.”
“Is anyone else here a hero?”
Jesus eased back in his seat. “I ain’t into nobody else’s business. If you think you’re a hero, sure.”
Sarah held up her hand – such habits die hard – and I nodded. “I’m not a hero,” she said, “but I think some people here might be. But I don’t want to embarrass anyone, so I’m not going to name names.” She smiled slightly, glanced at Mack, then was still.
Miguel spoke, “I didn’t want to enlist, but I couldn’t get a decent job nowhere. I tried for the Air Force, but I failed their entrance exam. I passed the Army one. I did my job, followed orders.” He looked pensive. “I don’t know anymore who’s a hero.”
“I’m a hero,” said Claude. And he looked around. “So is everyone in this room.”
I was impressed with his sudden generosity. The others smiled slightly.
Jesus got up, mumbling, “coffee that way?” and Makowsky pointed and nodded. I was pleased to see that they were on speaking terms.
And then, because I knew the answer, I asked. “You’ve reminded us about the draft. Sergeant Makowsky, were you enlisted or drafted?”
Makowksky hesitated. “Well, let me explain it to you. Nineteen-seventy-one, I was nineteen and horny as hell, and I picked up this redhead chick hitching outside of Joplin, MO. Jody, she said her name was. She was stacked. And she said, show me a good time. I figured out she meant, let’s stickup a liquor store, get what’s in the register and as much liquor as we can carry and just raise some hell. She was very persuasive.” He smiled faintly. “I had a little 22 pistol, so we hit a liquor store and helped ourselves to the register and the stock. Then we drove from Joplin to Pensacola, for five days we drove around in my Pontiac GTO and fucked and drank and… then the cops caught up to us.” He was still smiling at the memory. “We were in a motel, room had a view of the gulf. Warm and nice. I hadn’t even bothered to steal new plates for the Pontiac. I was a young dumbass. So, I go to face the local judge, he reminded me of my grandfather, tough old bastard, hair slicked back, good Baptist. And this was normal for the time. He said, jackass, you are damn lucky nobody got hurt. I got your record here. You’re a high school dropout? And one count of armed robbery, public drunkenness, evading arrest, and being a public nuisance, and we had a couple stickups hereabouts that I can pin on you.’ Then he starts sounding friendlier. ‘I can give you a choice. You can either do two years in the state penitentiary, which I do not recommend, ‘cause around here that means hard labor, young man, or you can join the Army and make something of yourself.’ Like I said, it was normal for the time.” He looked at us all. “So, you tell me. Was I enlisted or conscripted?”
“What happened to the redhead?” Sarah asked, enjoying the story like the rest of us.
“Probation. She was only seventeen. And if you can believe this, it was her first offense.”
“Ever hear from her again?” she asked.
Makowsky shook his head. “We didn’t have what you call a strong relationship.”
It was a few minutes early, but the damage from the previous session seemed contained. “And I think we’re done for tonight. Good work folks. Good night,” I said, and waited for them all to leave so I could lock the door. The Musketeers bolted the room as usual. Sarah smiled goodnight and left, car keys clutched in her right hand like a weapon.
“So, Doc, what’s a hero to you?” Mackowsky asked.
“Well, my opinion doesn’t really count here.” God, I chafed at times under the ground rules. I read your file, you escaped a prison camp with three others. In the process of escaping you overpowered a guard, and used his rifle to kill at least three enemy guards pursuing you. You were, in my opinion, drafted, so if you aren’t a hero I start to lose any grasp of who might be.
Sarah appeared in the doorway, and she said to Mack, “you usually walk me to my car, and I was almost out the door when I realized you weren’t following me.” Was she flirting? Had something kindled between them? She said, in a gentle voice, “You were in a different war. But I think you’re a hero, Mack. And I think Jesus, who lost his leg, is a hero. Even if you were conscripted and he enlisted. And Miguel is a just whiny little shit, and Claude is just Claude. You ready?”
Mack smiled as he pulled himself to his feet, nodded to me, and offered his arm to Sarah like a gentleman courting a lady. She smiled to accept, and they headed down the hall. I smiled as I emptied ash trays, turned off the lights, and headed out into the cold.
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