Sex and the Wounded Soldier

sawWhen I first met Pete Yazgier, he was fond of wearing an olive-green novelty T-shirt that read, “WANNA PLAY ARMY? I’ll lie down and you can blow the hell outta me.”

The shirt scanned differently on Pete than it might have on most other active-duty U.S. Army specialists. At the time, the Somerset, N.J., native boasted a stark gash across the left half of his skull, from where he had, in fact, just had the hell blown out of him; during his deployment in Baghdad, a rocket-propelled grenade collided with Pete’s Humvee and nearly took his life. Amidst the blur of surgeries that followed, his doctors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., discovered that, along with severe cranial trauma, Pete, in his late twenties, had brain cancer to boot.

That was five years ago. I mentioned Pete’s case in a piece I wrote for The Washington Post’s “Outlook” section at the height of Iraq’s unraveling, exploring the rise in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries among returning troops. Back then, in early fall 2007, the “Surge” had just crested, and those now-familiar acronyms of wartime trauma — PTSD, TBI — still had an aura of relative newness about them. But at the time, I wasn’t sure how to write about the abstract wound with which Pete seemed most preoccupied. It was the one that he’d intended his T-shirt to make an awkward joke out of; the one that surfaced late at night on the smokers’ patio outside the hospital, when Pete would ask, repeatedly, “What kind of girl’s going to want a guy with a broken head?”

For the record, Pete was a sweet and sheepish guy, a fisherman and a skilled mechanic who told good stories about his pet wolverine. There were certainly women who took an interest in him, enough so that when he would sink into a funk at Walter Reed, posting pictures of his war wounds on MySpace with captions like “Scar looks ugly,” several of them would inevitably rush to reply, “Aww, don’t sweat it sweetie,” and “Its ur sexy battle scar.” But no amount of coaxing relieved him of the question that had come to define his private war. It was a question of the wounded body’s ability to be loved.

*****

In the months, then years, I spent getting to know injured veterans at Walter Reed, I heard Pete’s anxiety echoed over and over again by soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. One was a young man from Maine whose father carefully tended his colostomy bag, after the soldier’s rectum was torn out by an Explosively Formed Projectile (EFP) that left him wheelchair-bound. Another was a suicidal Army chaplain who asked to meet for lunch in the Walter Reed chow hall after reading my Post story; he’d tried to strangle his wife in his sleep amidst post-deployment nightmares, he said, and he wasn’t sure his marriage could recover. I met soldiers barely out of their teens who’d lost both limbs and genitals after stepping on landmines in Afghanistan; some were living with complex “poly-traumas” that earlier generations of veterans rarely, if ever, survived. My friend Wasim Khan, a sergeant with a shrapnel-peppered leg who lived at Walter Reed over the course of more than 20 surgeries, put it this way: “Everyone here, in some way, is wondering whether someone’s going to want them now.”

To get a sense of how this facet of war was handled in the past, I found myself walking through the National Museum of Health and Medicine on Walter Reed’s old campus, just around the corner from the hospital. In the vast collection of wartime propaganda on display there, the military’s anxieties about sexuality and its soldiers appeared, historically, to have trended in the direction of containment: not a fear that combat would strip “our boys” of their sexual sense of self, but rather a concern that it would turbo-charge them. The museum, for instance, displayed a series of World War II-era posters designed to curb troops’ STD rates. “Intercourse is NOT essential for health,” one warned. “Smart soldiers know that ‘easy girls’ can give them a venereal disease,” chided another, which continued, “Hours lost by treatment aid the Axis.” To the extent that soldiers’ sexual lives interested earlier generations of military leaders, their chief concern was one about the perils of excess, and almost never about privation (or, God forbid, personal pain).

But in the museum’s dusty private archives, I found a file kept by Donald Canham, an orthopedic mechanic who worked for J.E. Hanger prosthetics company. Canham’s records offered a different view. In an enormous old scrapbook spanning from the 1940s, he had collected stories that touched on themes of how wounded veterans, particularly amputees, sought wholeness after war. He clipped everything from cartoons to editorials to frontline dispatches, and he’d focused on amassing profiles of an armless bowler, fiddler, trombone player, pheasant shooter, golfer, boxer, skier, basketball star, and jitterbug dancer. Some of the stories were tacky and objectifying; a typical headline read, “Armless kid war hero can’t fondle new riches.” But among the clippings and other archival files in the museum’s back room were countless items that dealt with war’s mark on intimate life, on matters of love and partnership and sex and self-doubt.

One set of stories marveled at how the presence of young female volunteers at Walter Reed – those who approached wounded vets with un-averted eyes – helped the men’s self-consciousness to melt. Some addressed the therapeutic effects of dancing lessons in the hospital. “The first few weeks, I hated the world and I didn’t give a damn what happened next,” an amputee patient told reporters. “Dancing helped.” “Don’t say it can’t be done,” read another quote from a soldier, in Walter Reed’s own campus publication, urging the wounded not to give up on their powers of flirtation and seduction. “This … applies more than ever to you disabled birds who think you’re out of the game just because you’ve a leg or an arm gone.”

Among Canham’s clippings was a grainy photo of a cross-dressing amputee dance troupe, “The Amputettes,” who performed at Walter Reed’s annex in the aftermath of World War II. Across the top, a headline read, “‘Amps’ Shake a Shapely Leg.” Beneath it, a caption described the vaudeville routine of six “lip-sticked” men on prosthetic legs, “whose antics reveal what rehabilitation can do.” The portrait fascinated me for so many reasons. Above all, it appeared to mock the conventions I’d noticed at the hospital across the street, among them the subtle pressure to hole up with one’s battle scars as if it were a warrior’s duty to keep them from broader view. If the photo was any sign, the Amputettes had refused to designate their war wounds as private parts; instead, they had turned them into a public spectacle. They’d even gone so far as to make a joke out of war’s emasculation – weren’t they dressed, after all, in ladies’ bonnets and bikini tops? I managed to track down one of the men in the surreal photograph. His name was Eddie Bertash, and he lived in Windsor, Conn., with his Vietnam-veteran nephew, Ray Kuchas. The two men agreed to have me for a visit.

On a warm afternoon in early summer 2009, I drove with a friend to Ray and Eddie’s quiet suburban home. Out front, a dilapidated American flag hung from a branch in the front yard. “It’s beaten down, just like me,” said Ray, as he greeted us in the driveway. Inside, Eddie sat in a wheelchair in his darkened kitchen, a thick tube sock pulled up over his prosthetic leg. “He has a hard time talking lately,” Ray explained of his 85-year-old uncle, who still suffered pain in his stump. Then Ray took up the task of narration. His uncle had lost his leg to a landmine as a 19-year-old deployed to Italy. The brief stint Eddie spent as an Amputette at Walter Reed, Ray said, had been among the sole periods of life when he’d found camaraderie with other World War II vets. “The rest was isolation,” Ray remarked, explaining how his uncle had fled to the West Coast and kept little company throughout his life besides his parakeet and his purple heart. “He tried to run and hide.” (On this, Eddie remained silent.)

“I think it’s basically PTSD,” Ray explained; “I know since I went through the exact same pattern.” Ray was drafted into Vietnam as a self-described hippie. Serving as an artilleryman, he survived firefights, physical deprivation, and the knowledge of his own role in lethal bombardments. Later, when he returned to Connecticut, he suffered from debilitating flashbacks. He fell in love with women, then fled; fell in love, then fled. “I turned down two marriage proposals,” he told me. “Very good women … I wasn’t in the position to tell them, ‘I live in another world.’ So I just told them, ‘I’m sorry.’” In 1990, after years of this, Ray checked himself into an inpatient PTSD clinic in West Haven, Conn.. “They put me back together again,” he recalls of the yearlong intensive treatment. “But still, now, I’m alone.”

To be clear, war had not destroyed either man’s capacity for intimacy. There was a lucid tenderness in the way the younger veteran clearly doted on the older one: recently, Ray had bought Eddie a new parakeet to replace the one his uncle loved so many years ago, and when I’d arrived, he was in the process of building an outdoor ramp for Eddie’s wheelchair from scratch. Most days, Ray watched TV with his uncle, got his meals, kept track of his sponge baths. When Eddie woke up crying some mornings – “Why’d it have to be this way?” – Ray knew how to talk him down. He got it. “I was supposed to be a peace and love guy,” Ray mused. “I wasn’t supposed to go out and fight for my life.”

When I mentioned the young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans I’d gotten to know at Walter Reed, the guys like Pete Yazgier who worried about girlfriends and sex and whether they’d get left behind by it all, Ray replied, “No man wants to hear about another man’s war.” But then he said something that felt right on the mark: “I’m still living Vietnam,” and Eddie, more than 60 years later, was still living World War II. Projected forward, his implication seemed crushing: if the estimated $3 trillion in total costs for the Iraq war could be multiplied by the conflict’s future weight in sheer human loneliness, what kind of exponential curve would we be facing? And what, then, when we added Afghanistan?

*****

After my visit to Connecticut, I began keeping a Donald Canham-like file of my own. On my desktop, I clipped news articles, websites, and quotes from movies and novels that alluded to themes of war and intimacy. When I went to Iraq and Afghanistan myself as a journalist in 2010, I saw the issue almost everywhere. I noticed it in the routine isolation of bathroom-stall graffiti, of the sort photographed by my friend and combat photojournalist Peter Van Agtmael: “I love my wife but she is cheating on me. So I have to divorce her.” I heard it in soldiers’ nonchalant conversations during foot patrols, about guys in their unit who’d gotten their legs blown off, then immediately asked the doctor on regaining consciousness, “Do I still have my junk?” And it surfaced in the perennial genre of the so-called “Jody call,” the long-standing genre of military cadences that refer to a male civilian back home – a guy named “Jody” who steals your girlfriend, sleeps in your bed, and drives your car. “Ain’t no use in going home; Jody’s got your girl and gone,” laments one. Or else: “Your baby was lonely, as lonely could be; ‘Til Jody provided the company.”

These are as real a part of America’s wars as more conventional fixtures of the trauma story. According to disability expert Dr. Mitch Tepper, for instance, some 75% of suicides among active-duty military men and women are tied to the failure of an intimate relationship. What’s more, the last several years in Afghanistan have seen a radical uptick in precisely the kinds of “private” injuries people don’t want to talk about. As David Wood has chronicled for The Huffington Post, genital trauma has become one of the war’s signature wounds, with the number of incidents leaping from 153 in 2009 to 299 last year alone. In June 2011, in a report by an emergency task force, the military acknowledged the scope of the crisis and called for further research and “greater spiritual involvement in the healing process.” But when asked about the matter by The Washington Post, the Army’s chief of public affairs actually insisted that to speak openly about the rise of genital wounds would be to aid insurgents. “While these types of injuries are a reality of the combat we now face,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Lanza reportedly said, “detailed discussion … can potentially provide insights to our enemies …”

On Veteran’s Day, such institutional silence reverberates. There are certain themes that aren’t supposed to ruffle the war fighter – sexual loneliness, for instance, or romantic unravelings. But now that even the nation’s most untouchable four-star has lost his vaunted career to sexual missteps, perhaps America is ready to reconsider. Already, pundits like the Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen have ventured to diagnose retired Gen. David Petraeus as a potential victim of “TMI,” or “traumatic marriage injury, caused by wars whose burdens have been borne by so few Americans.” Perhaps the media is also ready, at last, to look for a language fit to address the questions Eddie Bertash asked after his war (“Why’d it have to be this way?”), and the ones that Pete Yazgier, two generations later, echoed after his (“What kind of girl’s going to want a guy with a broken head?”). Both men have since passed away; Eddie died three years ago this week, and Pete died later that same month, at age 30. But both men’s voices reverberate for me in the Civil War notebooks of Walt Whitman, who wrote, after his days as a combat nurse in Washington’s hospitals, the truest words I can think of this Veteran’s Day: “The real war will never get in the books.”