By Dustin Jones
A friend of mine, a Marine from my unit, killed himself in the parking lot of a restaurant in 2013. Two weeks before Christmas. He shot himself in the chest while his sister was in the building checking their availability for a table of four. He shot himself while sitting next to his girlfriend in the backseat. His sister's boyfriend was perched up front awaiting her return. Nobody saw it coming.
Fifty Marines showed up to send our brother into the afterlife and to show the family support. We were hurting, but we couldn’t imagine what the family was going through. We drank before the funeral. We drank after the funeral. For about 12 hours. Around 5 in the morning I found myself sitting across the table from my friend’s mother, her life newly in shambles, telling her stories about her son. A few smiles crept out from everyone sitting around us, accompanied by a laugh or two, then an awkward pause. His mother looked down at the table for a moment and then raised her head; our eyes met. We sat in silence for what felt like minutes. “What did you all see over there that would make him do something like this?” she asked. I bowed my head and stared down at the table. I didn’t have a response.
I enlisted in 2006 into the delayed entry program, a program designed to give an enlistee up to one year to prepare for the rigors of boot camp, with a Marine infantry contract. I left for boot camp in July 2007 and graduated that October. In the last days of basic training, the drill instructors focused more on mental conditioning. There was nothing left that could prepare us physically.
I remember sitting on the floor with the rest of my platoon, eagerly listening to our drill instructors. They were speaking to us as Marines now, as human beings, no longer as recruits. “There are some people who won’t agree with what you are doing,” our drill instructor told us. “There are many who cannot, and will not, understand. Most of you will find yourselves overseas, and when you come home, people will have questions. It’s up to you what you decide to share with them.”
At the time I didn’t know, nor could I know, what he meant. I assumed he was being literal: Talk to them, or don’t, easy. It wasn’t until almost three years later that I was able to put his advice into practical application, after returning from my second deployment.
Not much happened on my first deployment to Iraq. We spent the standard seven months overseas. We took one casualty, and the loss of that particular individual would continue to hurt throughout the years, but by all relative standards, we were lucky.
My second deployment was different. We received fire most days and walked over IEDs that had dead batteries or faulty wiring. When we left Afghanistan, five Marines and one journalist had been killed in action. After that deployment, we continued to lose guys to overdoses, suicides, and deaths without any official ruling. This deployment was what the drill instructor had referenced. What, I wondered, would I tell everyone back home?
While deployed, I’d had occasional use of a satellite phone. Other than letters that came and went at whatever pace God saw fit, I would try and squeeze in a 10-minute phone call with my parents every week or two. When I spoke to them I would lie, outright, and tell them that patrols were boring and things were pretty safe. I felt that I was protecting them by sparing them the details.
I left the Marines in 2011 to give college a chance. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had landed in one of the most liberal cities in the country. The city claimed to be full of progressive individuals and self-proclaimed subject-matter experts. The women there were almost too attractive to wrap your head around, and many students had a monthly substance/drug budget larger than what I spent on rent.
At parties and social gatherings the inevitable question of whether or not I’d killed someone would come up, typically from a guy—fueled by alcohol, bravado, or sheer ignorance. I would examine him—sometimes her—to determine what words to use, but my response was almost always the same. I would laugh and say, “You don’t wanna know, and I don’t wanna tell you.”
When a girl asked me to share a story, she was usually trying to show off the badass guy she was sleeping with. It’s hard to think that anyone could sweep a girl off her feet by sharing stories of walking through the human remains of what was once your good friend. It’s harder to stomach hearing people you care about discuss certain things behind your back that you might have let slip while in a drunken stupor, like that time you almost shot an innocent kid during a firefight—poor range estimation being your saving grace.
I think about who I was before I enlisted and what my parents think they know about me now. They know I’ve changed; it’s to be expected. But as far as what’s changed and why? That’s up to me to share. I like to think that family, friends, and loved ones want to help. They believe they should know things, intimate things, maybe hoping they can help shoulder the burden. What they don’t understand is that even if they were to become privy to the impact those four years in service have had on me, it wouldn’t help them understand.
When I find myself looking at a fresh start—new school, new job, new coworkers, and so on—I often leave my time in the service out of the conversation. I’ve had to explain to my parents and others that people look at you differently after hearing about your military service. They may admire you, despise you, or fear you. But I have fears of my own, that my family and friends will look at me in a negative light, as either the pop culture stereotype, and all-too-reality for many, of the struggling, PTS-ridden vet, or as the alcoholic prone to violence vet who cannot get out of his own way, both of which are prevalent in the public eye these days.
I’ve heard other veterans claim, “If people want to see what war is like, they can sign up and find out.” I’ve heard another philosophy that it’s a veteran’s job to help educate the public. The idea being that sharing stories and hardships would not only educate the public, but it could help the veteran’s healing process. If the latter is the case, then where do you draw the line? What do you decide not to share? If a service member is burned alive in a helicopter crash, should the family know the truth, or is a white lie acceptable to try to bring them comfort?
I lie to family and friends about my experiences in Afghanistan partly because I simply don’t want to share it. My parents saw a video that I made after our deployment, which had firefights, IEDs, and a few bodies in it. My mother was in shock. It went against everything I had told her about that deployment. She didn’t need to see those things.
I lie to them also, I think, because I want to spare them. If nothing happened while I was overseas, then there’s no reason for me to be anything less than fine now that I’m home. Why shouldn’t I be?
We don’t tell children about some of the more horrible things adults do, and when I returned from war that metaphor rang true for me. We had experienced something most people won’t. We were adults, and, to a degree, I’ve felt like I’m protecting my family and other civilians, as though they were children. It is in their best interest. I know it’s important to share certain lessons from my time in service, the perseverance and appreciation for the little things I learned, but there is nothing for them to learn from some of our stories. Some things are better left unsaid.
After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan during his four years in the Marine Corps infantry, Dustin Jones attended the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studied journalism. His interest in journalism developed during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009/10, where New York Times journalist C.J. Chivers and photographer Tyler Hicks were embedded with his unit. Several months passed before Dustin was able to read the articles and see the photos that the team produced. A story about his comrade’s funeral service by Chivers, accompanied by photos from Hicks, had him hooked.
He is currently a reporter in the small Montana town of West Yellowstone, and he is working on a book that focuses on the transition from military to civilian life. He has a dog named after Patrick Swayze.