Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Brother in Arms


"And when Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said unto Abner, the captain of the host, Abner, whose son is this youth? And Abner said, As thy soul liveth, O king, I cannot tell." I Samuel 17:55


On December 22, 2005, the day before I left town, Josh Omvig put on his Army BDUs, climbed into the cab of his truck, put the barrel of a beretta into his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 22. His obituary was published in the Des Moines Register on Christmas Day. Because I had gone to Alaska, I didn't hear about it until a month later.

Josh, whom I always called Omvig (and he always called me Harper) had returned from Iraq about a year before and gone through his own PTSD by going on a six month bender. Then, as unceremoniously as he had begun, he stopped drinking and went back to the job that he left when he deployed, for a private security company. And that was where we met.

I was twice his age, but he rose quickly up the ranks in the company and became a watch commander. In early 2005, when I was going through the terminal stages of an abortive engagement, I went off a deep end of my own. Because of his friendship, which he gave without question, his integrity, which was unmistakable, and his powers of persuasion, he kept me from getting fired when I committed the normally unpardonable offense of a "no call, no show."

I last met him in November when I was hiking past his office in Urbandale because my car had once again broken down. I had finally quit the company by then, and was on my way to an appointment for another job. He saw me across the road and before I knew it his truck pulled up to the sidewalk and he told me to get in. He not only gave me a ride to my appointment, but he waited until I was done and gave me a ride all the way home. A few weeks later he called me to announce that he, too, had quit the company. My last words to him were in a message I left on his voicemail, telling him that I was leaving Des Moines and going to live with my sister in Alaska.

As I would have expected, he gave me no indication of his emotional travail. All I heard was that a fellow soldier back in Iraq had died. One of the things that civilians can't understand is that however much a soldier longs to be home, half of him wants to return to combat with his brothers-in-arms. I can only guess that this was part of what drove Josh to his deadly decision.

His family created a
website and a foundation in his name to help other soldiers with their readjustment to civilian - to a civil - life, and to give them a place to tell their own stories. Because of the outpouring of responses, and the realization of the enormity of the problem, an Iowa representative introduced the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act. It was passed and signed into law in 2007.


One of the untold accomplishments of the two wars Americans are fighting simultaneously on the other side of the world and at great expense of dollars and lives has been to further alienate the experience of soldiers from the undisturbed lives of the rest of us. A few well-intentioned movies have tried to bring it closer, but the pictures could as well have been captured on Mars.

Returning soldiers have always had to deal with the unreality of a home front that is untouched by the horrors they were subjected to. In a sense, the soldiers endured the horrors just so the homeliness of hometown America would remain intact, exactly as if one of them was real and the other a nightmare from which they have suddenly awakened.

A film that confronts the disconnect between the experience of soldiers in combat and the strip malls and strip joints of home is The Valley of Elah. (The title refers to the scene of an ancient battle between the Israelites and the Philistines chronicled in the first book of Samuel.) A man (Tommy Lee Jones) whose son was murdered upon his return from Iraq recites the Bible story to a boy whose mother (Charlize Theron) is investigating the murder.

The outcome of the investigation reveals the full extent of the war's impact on the soldiers. The film allows us to infer the identity of its David and its Goliath. But as America's wars dwindle towards their close, I am left to wonder that maybe Goliath has slain David this time, and that the Philistine is us.

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