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To the Unknown Soldier
I am thinking about Ben today. We became fast friends in the second grade, somewhere between home plate and second base. We forged a lasting bond over an exchange of salted sunflower seeds and a half-eaten pack of Grape Big League Chew. In time, we became inseparable. And I knew better than I knew the back of my own hand.
Ben didn’t come from much. His daddy was a rambler and his mamma was a rambler. So he spent a lot of time with his feet under my grandparent’s supper table, pretending he had a family. And for all practical purposes he did. We took him on vacations with us, and made sure he always had a place to go for the holidays.
Sometimes you meet a person and say, “How are you doing?” And they will reply, “Alright, under the circumstances.” Ben was the kind of fella who never saw any need to crawl “under the circumstances” and be crippled by their weight. He was always ready with a joke, and had one of those grins that made him look like he was perpetually up to something. And most of the time he was.
I changed schools in the 8th grade, but we still remained as close as kids can who don’t spend 7 hours a day together. We made up for it on weekends. Walking from his house in the woods up to the Pine Hill Grocery to get a batch of crickets for fishing, or riding four-wheelers and playing War in the fields on Old Man Sutter’s place.
On Sundays, we would pick Ben up for church, and he would sneak a pack of his daddy’s Marlboro’s for the boy’s Sunday School class. I don’t think he ever really understood what was going on in the services–prayer was as foreign to him as a cherry blossom is to the North Pole, but he seemed to enjoy having a place to belong.
When Ben’s daddy died in 2001, he wasn’t left with much. Just a dilapidated trailer house with no way to keep the lights and water on. He was 17, so he quit school and worked for a logger who paid him in cash until his birthday.
After the Towers fell, he joined the army. Not out of patriotism, but for the promise of a paycheck. I have a letter he wrote me from Basic Training. It is short, simple and all Ben: “They make us do a lot of running. Yell at us a lot, but hell, I’m used to that. Food ain’t very good and there ain’t no girls here.”
He was sent to Iraq shortly after that.
But this doesn’t end as you might suppose. He was not among those many boys who fell on foreign battlefields, their stoic young faces forever etched in our memories as we last saw them in their dress blues and greens and buzz cuts. Ben made it home. But he didn’t make it home whole. The best parts–the jokes, the innocence, the mile-wide smile, were buried beneath the desert sands somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates.
After he returned, he said less and drank more. He stopped coming around much. We didn’t understand the world as he knew it to be, and so could never understand his disaffection with it. Ben was war wounded in ways that were past articulation; carrying shrapnel in his soul, unseen and unknown to all but himself. We didn't know the extent of the damage until we found his last letter lying on a table beside an overturned bottle of Old Charter: “It’s just too much.”
But when I saw him for the last time, he was smiling again. I sneaked a small sack of sunflower seeds in his folded hands and prayed that he made it safely to Heaven. I told God that if there was baseball up there He needn’t look far for a good second baseman.
Ben wasn’t killed in war, but by it. All of those who make it home are to some extent strangers to us and to themselves. In the most important ways, they are all unknown soldiers.