MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
I'm Alex Chadwick.
I met the writer Whitney Terrell last year when we did a series broadcast from Kansas City. Now, Whitney is turning his writerly skills to work for us. He recently visited Fort Hood, Texas to say good bye to a young soldier who is a writer friend, a man making his second deployment to Iraq. And here is a note to consider, some of what you are going to hear in this story is quite graphic. Here's Whitney Terrell.
Mr. WHITNEY TERRELL (Writer): In 2006 I embedded with a young Army lieutenant named Nate Rawling in Baghdad. Nate wanted to be a writer, or filmmaker, but at the time he was a combat engineer whose job was to search for IEDs or clean up after them.
Captain NATE RAWLINGS (Army): So, we found pieces of the driver. We found his face. We found what was left of his skull. We found...
Mr. TERRELL: This is Nate describing a truck bomb that had hit a barracks that year. How do you find somebody's face?
Capt. RAWLINGS: It was actually plastered to the side of a big round pole that was holding up power lines. The force of the explosion, since he was literally sitting on top of the bomb, had turn his face in kind of a angular pattern so it was sort of - two thirds of his face kind of cut diagonally with one ear still intact, a big clump of hair.
Mr. TERRELL: Is there something that you turn to for solace, or hope, when you are faced with something like that?
Capt. RAWLINGS: Well, that's where it's a blessing and a curse to be a writer because you sort of think that anything you are doing now might have some use later on in life. That was the great quote from John Irving, from "The World According to Garth" that, "a novel is place for anything that you can't use in your own life if you are a writer."
Mr. TERRELL: OK, just to be clear, I am a writer and I'd have no idea what I'd do if I found a face like that. I want to hear Nate's story, I do think, wow, aren't I the one who's supposed to be quoting John Irving? It's not the first time that I felt that the war has somehow flip-flopped my generation. I'm 40 and Nate's at least in terms of maturity.
(Soundbite of soldiers)
Unidentified Man #1: Washcloth.
Unidentified Man #2: A pink towel.
Mr. TERRELL: A day after this conversation, which Nate and I have in his apartment, just outside Fort Hood, we drive over to the Fort itself, and visit his company. They are heading back to Iraq for fifteen months, and the sergeants, some of whom I patrolled with in 2006, are out advising privates on how to pack.
(Soundbite of people shouting)
Mr. TERRELL: Like Nate, they all look impossibly young. But many of these soldiers are on their third or fourth tour in combat. As for Nate, he planned to leave active duty this spring and go to graduate school, but he's been stop lost, so like everybody else, he's heading to Baghdad. That means no grad school this or next fall, since he probably won't have time to apply. It also means he is one of the few 26 year olds in America who is looking forward to his 30s.
Capt. RAWLINGS: My uncle, when he came back from Vietnam, and he was 25 or 26, told his parents I want to go to medical school. And I think a few friends told him you are way too old, you'll be 30 by the time you are going be a doctor. And my grandfather's response to him was, well, when you turn 30 you are going to turn 30 anyway. And, so, I will turn 30, hopefully as a filmmaker, as opposed to - or at least a film school graduate, as opposed to just turning 30 when I turn 30.
Mr. TERRELL: All right. Before I give the impression that Nate is some kind of incredibly patient saint.
Capt. RAWLINGS: I've worked pretty hard, when I was sober, which was a good period of the time, at least more than half.
Mr. TERRELL: I'd like to point out that at Princeton, which is where he was sober half the time, he lived like a typical college kid. He wrestled. He played rugby. He was an officer in Princeton's version of "Animal House" which is an eating club called Tiger Inn.
Capt. RAWLINGS: I was in charge of 200 to 300 extremely intoxicated people who liked to do stupid things.
Mr. TERRELL: This part of Nate still exists. He loves a crowd. He's only alone when he comes home to sleep. And it is here, in the shadowy, half-empty apartment Nate rents outside Fort Hood, that I start to notice the ghosts that have come to populate his life in the past two years, like the dozen or so, men who died on his last deployment, or his friend from Princeton's Rugby team.
Capt. RAWLINGS: I had a friend who I played rugby with in college at Princeton and he was wounded in an IED strike, I guess about a year ago, and he's been recovering down at the Brooke Army Medical Center at San Antonio. If he's still there when I come home from the next tour, I certainly will visit him, but for now, as I am sort of preparing myself to go back, I have chosen not to.
Mr. TERRELL: Do you feel guilty about that?
Capt. RAWLINGS: The one thing I always did fear wasn't death, I mean if you die, you die, but you know, being so disfigured that you cannot then function you just don't want to see too much of what is possible before you have to go, because you know there's very likely a chance you'll see it yourself, with your men when you're over there on patrols.
Mr. TERRELL: Conversations like these make me wonder just exactly how much the war, and this premature introduction to death is going to change Nate. Not just as a person, but as the writer or filmmaker he hopes to be. It's like watching a photograph develop before your eyes. He's different, certainly, than the young man who wrote flowery emails back to his Princeton professors describing moonlight glimmering on the Euphrates when he first arrived in Iraq. In those letters, which I've read, he sounds like a naive college kid, off on an adventure.
Now his language has grown darker, leaner, more direct. Before we shipped out, he wrote me, toward the end of his first tour, I talked to my guys' families. Many of the mothers, my own included, admitted that, more than the loss of a son, what scared them most was their little boy would die alone, scare, and in pain.
(Soundbite of mess hall)
Mr. TERRELL: I wait until we're at dinner that evening, however, before I actually bring up my own concerns about Nate. Because I worry, I'm going to talk about Nate like he's not here. I worry about how this stuff is going to affect him. We've driven an hour into Austin, Texas just to have dinner with Nate's best friend Rob Peligrini and Rob's fiance, Jen. Rob has just returned from Iraq where his battalion lost close to 20 men.
Mr. ROB PELIGRINI: I have not seen very many changes in Nate. He's an (beep). Oh, is he here?
Mr. TERRELL: We are here because Rob and Nate trained together. And Nate has told me if anyone can explain how the war's changed him, Rob's the man.
Mr. PELIGRINI: Hopefully he was a little jumpy, and a little jittery, and a little stand-offish to society. And I say that because I think Jen's experiencing that with me, but hopefully we're at the tail end of that. But I've snapped a few times, and she's been like, whoa, there's the couch, buddy!
Mr. TERRELL: OK, so basically Rob doesn't really answer my question. But then something interesting happens. I look across the table at Nate and I can tell that he's disappointed in Rob's answer, too. Clearly, there's something about their relationship that he's trying to get across to me. Then, to my surprise, Nate begins to tell me a story about a phone call he made to Rob when he was in New York City.
Capt. RAWLINGS: I was on the subway listening to my iPod, and I remember, I got off the subway and I called him and I was like, why am I having, this is so enjoyable to walk around New York City walk around Manhattan, listening to music? It's like I've never walked around New York before.
Mr. TERRELL: And here, for the first time, I've seen Nate respond to the war, to what's happening to him, as a writer or a filmmaker would. Because, if you want to get across an emotion in fiction, the best way is to come at it obliquely. Like through a phone call you had about music with your best friend, when you're on leave from Iraq.
Capt. RAWLINGS: He said, because that allows you to be in a crowd of people, and be completely alone, and be fine with it. And the whole time I was in Iraq I thought about it every time I listened to any kind of music. You know, either thought I was absolutely alone, or in a crowd of people if I could pop in the headphones, I felt fine with it. And I took a lot of comfort in that and that helped get through a lot of it, a lot of the craziness.
Mr. TERRELL: And yet, inside this story, this apparently iniquitous story, I think if you listen closely you can hear:
Capt. RAWLINGS: To be in a crowd of people and be completely alone.
Mr. TERRELL: What it feels like for a soldier like Nate to be around the rest of us, that vast majority of Americans who have not fought this war, even when he does come home. For NPR News, I'm Whitney Terrell.
CHADWICK: Captain Rawlings will be answering questions about his experience in Sadr City, over the coming months. You can submit yours at npr.org/daytoday. And there's more to come, after this.