By Drew Pham
Looking back, I can’t help but feel responsible for my brother’s decision to join the Army. I remember when he was five, he would sit in my lap while I played war games on the family computer. We often sat together on the couch watching war movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon.
In high school I was in Junior ROTC. I wanted to be a soldier. I hoped my brother would choose another route. He was even tempered, confident, witty—things that I wasn’t. He ran varsity track; listened to ska and punk; and while I was too busy to notice, he developed a passion for cooking. When I left for college, my brother joined JROTC. After I joined the Army, I forbade him from enlisting just as my mother had forbidden me. He enlisted in secret as soon as he turned 17. She signed the papers without argument. Maybe I had worn her down. I was secretly proud of him.
The first time my brother deployed was difficult. I had just returned when he left in 2012. The strange landscape of a loved one’s deployment meant being at war in the walls of my own home—a blue star in the window, a calendar to count off the days, checking war coverage the way most people check the weather—while knowing that just outside, America hardly resembled a nation at war. When my brother returned, he posted a quote on social media from Apocalypse Now: “When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” I knew exactly what he meant. When I left Afghanistan, I felt like someone had carved off a chunk of my heart and buried it in the sand. Now that the Army has sent my brother back, I wonder how much of his heart will be carved off this time and how much will remain when he returns.
I visited him not long after his first deployment in 2013, while he was on leave. Our mother implored me to help; he was coming home drunk every night, and she didn’t know what to do. My brother kept everyone at arm’s length, which frayed his relationships. I remember coming home one night to see him standing alone in mom’s living room, smelling of grain alcohol, breathing heavy, lost in some thought or memory. Watching him in the dark, I was helpless. It didn’t matter that we had grown up together, had both fought in Afghanistan, or even that he looked up to me, I couldn’t go back in time to undo what he’d endured. He’ll never be the same, he’ll never be my kid-brother again.
On Thanksgiving in 2016, my brother told me he planned to go to culinary school after he left the Army. A new life. A fresh start. I texted him in March to ask if he was ready for civilian life. He said he wasn’t getting out, the Army had involuntarily extended his contract for a deployment to Afghanistan. My family planned to meet him in Richmond, the month before his unit departed in July.
My brother moved through the world like a stray cat that week in June, ready to fight or flee at the slightest provocation. He said little, avoiding people around us, watching the terrain, driving as if an ambush lay just around the bend in the road. He was only at ease after a few drinks, and even then, he didn’t talk about the war with my mom or sister.
My sister took us sightseeing, though it was mostly for my mother’s benefit—my brother’s silence worried her. On our second day together, we were stranded in an art gallery by a summer storm, thick pellets of water striking the steaming pavement. During a lull, my brother left to get his car to pick us up. Five minutes turned into 30. My mother panicked. She wanted to call the police, something must have happened. My sister and I went looking for him instead. When we finally found him, he looked like every hair on the back of his neck must have been standing up. I’d seen that look before—in soldiers shocked by IEDs, after a first firefight, and once in a man who had just taken a life. My brother never liked diagnoses and labels like PTS. He called what he’s experienced—that simultaneous yearning to return to war and return to normalcy—as soldier’s heart. I liked that—soldier’s heart.
That night my sister treated us to dinner at the Italian restaurant where she waits tables. We ordered drinks. My brother finished his cocktail as soon as it came. Then another, and another. I’m sure there were more, but I stopped paying attention; I wanted to ignore the truth for at least one night. Diners in starched button-downs and cashmere sweaters talked about corporate mergers and weekends at vineyards. The storm outside rumbled, and I thought about people a thousand miles away who were killing each other. Though surrounded by family and a hundred strangers, I felt alone, as if my war had cut me off from what was right in front of me. Although I had only spent one year in Afghanistan, I felt as if the world had passed me by, that my youth had dissipated, and my life had run its course. Over the years, I’ve watched my brother, hoping he would never feel the same way. I needed to speak to him alone, man to man, but he avoided me. At the end of the night, my brother gave me his keys, he was in no shape to drive.
The following night, we went to see my sister’s band perform at a punk-house. In that damp malt and hops perfumed basement, we were encircled by military-aged youth nodding and shifting to the singer’s hoarse screams, the vibrating guitars, the machine gun rattle of the drums. The music and crowd activated the manic heat of combat in me, thrown into sharp relief by the young punks huddled around us, so disconnected from the war my brother and I fought. From the corner of my eye, I watched my brother exit the room. After the first set, we agreed to leave after my sister’s performance.
Outside the mouldering punk-house and stopped outside his car to smoke. I tried to tell him that whatever he was feeling, I felt it too. I said the summer heat, the crush of bodies, and the adrenaline-fueled rock set off my fight response, but the more I opened up, the more I felt him closing off. I understood what he was doing—he’d been pushing us away the whole trip. As we smoked, my brother told me he was considering extending his tour. He said he wanted to see his men through the entire deployment. I was proud of his selflessness. I was ashamed that I wanted him to be a coward. Ashamed that I could not stop his impending departure.
The morning I left Richmond, we exchanged few words. He drove me to the train station and stopped at the curbside to let me out. He stayed in the car. We didn’t share an embrace, instead he shook my hand, his eyes still locked forward. I understood then what my wife has known ever since I returned from Afghanistan six years ago. When soldiers go to war, they take us—siblings, lovers, friends, and parents—to war with them, and when war wrests a part of them away, it takes a part of us too. When will I learn to embrace what he has lost at war? To love this void in him as much as the fair freckles he shares with my mother and sister, his quiet wit, and my childhood memories of him?
Drew Pham is a Brooklyn based writer and contributing editor at The Wrath Bearing Tree. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Follow Drew on Twitter @Drewspeak.