Washington Post reporter and author Christian Davenport has told a deeply raw and emotional story in his new book As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard. This book does not focus on battlefield heroics but rather it captures the essence and value of the citizen- soldier. Most importantly this account unveils through narrative, the pride, the pain, and the harrowing trials of the life of America’s guardsmen and reservists. Davenport tells the stories of Mark Baush, Kate Dahlstrand, Craig Lewis, Miranda Summers, and Ray and Diane Johnson. He tells of their deployment and return home. For some it means the end of a marriage, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnoses, career and schooling problems, getting gamed by a grueling bureaucracy, and perhaps most common, a disconnect from the society at home after deployment.
Davenport focuses on some very important themes related to the disconnect some soldiers feel. It may be that guardsmen and reservists experience it to an even greater extent than soldiers in the regular Army. They in fact live and work in the civilian world. One example from the book is Craig Lewis, a former teacher who tries to find a job after his return from Iraq. He performs above and beyond the call of duty as a Blackhawk pilot, is promoted and given command of a company in the guard. But in the civilian world he had immense difficulty finding any sort of quality employment. Davenport notes:
Federal law required that employers, and even small companies, hold jobs for deploying reservists. Swept up in the wave of patriotism after 9/11, many sent their citizen-soldiers off to war with pats on their backs, flags waving. Many employers even made up the difference in pay. But as the wars slogged on, and soldiers were called to active duty again and again, the word reservist suddenly had a stigma attached to it.
Miranda Summers’ story in some ways mirrors the experience of many guardsmen and reservist in college at the time of deployment. Summers balances academics, social and sorority life, and her National Guard commitment. She is a student at The College of William & Mary, and later a graduate student at Brown University after her return from Iraq. At William & Mary she is asked when somebody finds out she is going to Iraq, “I thought only poor people go to war?” At Brown the experience is a little different when a student proclaims, “I have never met anybody in the military.” The opening of this book is deeply moving, when Davenport tells how Summers is embraced by a World War II veteran at the memorial commemorating that conflict in Washington D.C.
There is a saying that was put on a dry erase board at a Marine Corps operation center in Iraq which read, “America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.” It conjures up all the frustration some in the military feel about the lack of sacrifice on the American home front and the general disconnect. It’s an alien concept to the total war of World War II or even the draft obligations of Vietnam. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines currently represent an all volunteer force. The Founders understood the dangers of the disconnect and Davenport makes note of this in his account:
The framers, having thrown off a king who could wage war without the hindrance of popular sentiment, knew this, and they had designed the system so that burdens of war were spread through out the population. Citizen-soldiers, then, weren’t a mere check against executive power, but rather the conscience of a nation. The cause had better be worthy of their sacrifice.
Davenport cites the famous Robert E. Lee quote, “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.” He sharply then notes a concern shared by some military and civilian leaders alike, “What happened instead is that America had grown ignorant of war, which was just as dangerous, if not more so.”
But it is the masterful ability to tell a story that makes this author shine. Davenport hauntingly captures the pride, emotions, and frustrations of the citizen-soldier. Some of the stories can be quite heartbreaking and the reader feels sympathy for those profiled. At the same time, Davenport is able to articulate the pride and importance the characters feel towards the nation and their service in it. My own brother Chris was a reservist in the Marine Corps who served in Iraq in an intense combat environment. He said the disconnect and alienation is real. “It’s not like you can just go back to whatever it is you were doing and things would be the same,” he told me. Kate Dahlstrand not only had her husband leave her when she was in Iraq, she suffered nightmares and flashbacks after her return. When she tried to contact Veterans Affairs for help, she was brushed aside. Kate was able to remarry and eventually receive some quality help after meeting James Peake, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
This is an amazing book and the theme that examines the isolation and brokenness that some soldiers feel is very penetrating. For the Christian, and being somebody who has worked in ministry and studied for the ministry myself, I had one overarching thought through this entire account. And it’s an appropriate thought especially during the coming Christmas season, and that is Christ felt all of the emotions of pain, hurt, loss, abandonment, abuse, and betrayal. Augustine said of the incarnation, “nothing was lacking that belongs to human nature.” The account by Davenport is also a reminder of the complexity and the enormous task so many military chaplains face in the Armed Forces. On this Veterans Day it is important to remember all our service men and women, and Davenport has achieved that by telling the unique stories of just a few who represent so many.