Before I relocated to American Siberia, I used to frequent a cigar lounge, not surprisingly located inside a large cigar store, in the East. This was at a time when I was brutalized by the malice, viciousness, and outright dishonesty of people I had thought were my friends, and I’ve struggled with post-traumatic stress ever since.
Going to this cigar lounge helped me a long way in the early days of my efforts to recover. When I entered the store, someone greeted me, often by name, and sometimes someone even patted my shoulder or shook my hand. I’m not ashamed to say the first time this happened, I cried. Normalcy is a wonderful healer, especially when it is constant.
The men who frequented this lounge were from various professional, educational, cultural and religious backgrounds. The conversations ranged from instructive to hilarious, matter of fact to profound. It was often difficult to leave at the end of my day.
Among the smoky throng of smoking men was a small group I would like to talk about to-day. They were former Marines (there is no such thing as an ‘ex-Marine’). They seemed to project a strength and sense of self-discipline that I envy. Several of these gentlemen (and they were Gentlemen) had been snipers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and not surprisingly, suffered from PTSD. They never talked with each other about battles or missions—the horrors were instantly understood. They did sometimes discuss places they’d been (I learnt that in one of Saddam’s palaces, he had a solid gold toilet, which is grist for many jokes about the economy, I’m sure), and how they were doing now.
As I observed these men, it was easy to see that, even though they might have just met, there was a bond between them. They were brothers in arms, with disparate yet shared experiences. There was no doubt in my mind that in an instant, they would have each other’s backs, regardless of the crisis.
I envied them their camaraderie.
Their PTSD was another bond between them. They talked about their experiences in muted tones, not to hide their own difficulties, but to respect the privacy of the other fellow. It was one more common experience.
And because they recognized that I had PTSD too, they made me, for a time, part of their brotherhood. I was never too-something, overly-something else, or inadequate in other ways. I just was. They received me with warmth, compassion and understanding, and it was amazing to me that they accepted me at all. They had known real battlefields. One gentleman said to me, ‘In the Marines, I had to do things of which I am thoroughly ashamed and for which I will spend the rest of my life trying to atone.’ I can’t imagine living with so great a burden. In comparison to them, my trauma was a flea bite, but they thought no less of me or my experience.
One does not imagine the military being compassionate or particularly caring. We hear about battles, numbers of deaths, and we’ve become familiar with the names of lethal weapons like IEDs or RPGs. In meeting these men, however, it is difficult to imagine that one could NOT feel tremendous respect and even admiration for them and the many others like them.
There are very few times or places for which I feel any nostalgia, but I miss that cigar lounge and its smoky throng of smoking men. I miss the Marines. They personified so well the Marine motto, Semper Fi.