A couple of years ago, I got pretty close to a group of Marines stationed in Iwakuni, Japan. My girlfriend was talking to one of them, you know, romantically, and he asked her to the annual Marine Corps Ball. She accepted, and he set me up on a blind date to the same ball with his best friend. The ball turned into an after party, and the after party turned into all night dancing in Hiroshima, and all night dancing turned into a 7am train ride back home. In this one night, Callie and I spent 12 hours with these guys. I learned more about the men behind the uniforms than I ever expected.
In between celebratory drinks and boys cutting in for another dance, these guys opened up to me about their fears, mindsets on America’s wars, duty to their country, and what I mean to them as an American citizen. Every one of these guys, alone, away from their friends, told me in their own words that their life is less than mine, that they exist so I can teach safely in Japan, so I can go home to America and feel safe in my house and neighborhood. They had their own opinions on the Marine Corps – it’s harsh, brutal, but a brotherhood stronger than blood. The ferocity in their eyes when they told me, over and over, they’d die for each other and would never leave a brother’s side, no matter what they faced – well, it scared me a little, but it also humbled me. These men and women, our troops, are soldiers. And that means something to them.
I was reminded of this experience while reading Ben Fountain’s bestselling novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel about the heroic Bravo Squad, back in the US from Iraq for a short media-intensive tour after a video of them in a ferocious firefight goes viral. The entire novel takes place in the Dallas Cowboys stadium, where the Bravos are invited to attend a game. Billy Lynn is 19-years-old, and has a massive hangover from partying the night before. As the novel opens, all he wants is some Advil that everyone is too busy to get for him.
As his headache wears on, exacerbated by the lights and sounds in the stadium, we’re taken back in short snippets to the firefight that brought him here. We experience Billy’s PTSD terror alongside him – the lights are being ambushed in Iraq, the sound of the players warming up kicking are shots that he can’t stop, the frenzy of the pre-game activity is him on a battlefield, moving through the chaos without thought, relying on his training.
In the time span of one Dallas Cowboys game, Billy hobnobs with the team’s wealthy owner and his colleagues, a Hollywood producer that’s determined to make the Bravos’s story into a mega-hit at the box office, and in the midst of it all, falls hopelessly in love.
Like the Marine friends I made, Billy’s thoughts are complicated and nuanced and intense. He questions the Army, America’s role in Iraq, his life and existence, what he could be when, or if, he returns. He’s thoughtful and bright. Above all else, he always comes back to what it means to be a soldier. To be a soldier, a brother, a member of the Bravo Squad means something to Billy. Being a soldier is an intrinsic part of his identity, and his search to understand what that means is why the novel and the Marines left such an impact on me.