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    waves of sand

    Rubicon

    A review of Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home by Jake Wood

    By Scott Beauchamp

    February 22, 2021
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    I’ve known more veterans who’ve died by suicide than were killed in war itself. The years I spent in Iraq as an infantryman have some kind of strange half-life, like radioactive isotopes furtively trailing death across vast stretches of time. It’s gotten to the point where social media groups for units I’ve served in are mostly a way to keep track of funeral arrangements; some studies say veterans are more than twice as likely as civilians to commit suicide. But why? What does this mean?

    People offer explanations: Medical improvements in treating battlefield trauma mean the gravely wounded have a better chance of survival, for example. But how do better methods of stopping blood loss in Baghdad explain the discrepancy between veteran and civilian suicide rates in Baton Rouge? Are those who have survived grave physical wounds more likely than other veterans to take their own lives?

    The moral injuries inflicted both by killing and by being in prolonged proximity to death and violence might account for some instances, but there’s something much more elusive at play here. Most veterans I’ve known who have chosen to murder themselves were not haunted by violence. They separated from the military, returned to the towns that they had called home, floated around without thriving, and eventually sort of drifted away until they were gone for good. They weren’t haunted by the reality of the past; they were haunted by the promise of a rich and fulfilling civilian life which never came to fruition. Theirs were deaths of civilizational despair and community collapse. They killed themselves because the world they returned to was lonelier and, in many ways, more brutal than war itself.

    “You knew your fellow soldiers would die for you; you’re fairly sure these people would plant their Italian loafer on your back as they stepped over you onto the ladder’s next rung.”

    Former Marine sniper Jake Wood, founder of the nonprofit Team Rubicon, is tragically aware of this dynamic. In his recently published memoir, Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home, Wood writes that the grisly numbers of veteran suicides – since 2012 more have killed themselves than have died in combat – are a “stunning statistic and a sobering rebuke – and many Americans have never heard of it. This epidemic cannot be fully explained with clinical diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder. To understand, we must look more broadly to the dearth of purpose and self-worth some veterans experience upon return.” Young people join the military for a number of reasons: patriotism, education, community, adventure. But these motives share the desire for a mission, a sense of service. The military offers young people both ready-made community and larger goals, both practical and altruistic.

    Unfortunately, the experience fades as quickly as it comes. One day you’re getting screamed at in basic training, the next people in an airport are thanking you for your service. And then it’s over, almost like a dream, and you’re plunged into the cold hostility of civilian competition. As Wood writes, “civilian life confounds and frustrates you. Were people always so self-involved? Instead of protecting life and liberty, you’re supposed to muster enthusiasm for socializing with your coworkers with an eye toward that promotion. But this new set of norms feels like a step in the wrong direction. It’s hard to form bonds with people who are more interested in greasing the wheels of their career than forming a real brotherhood. You knew your fellow soldiers would die for you; you’re fairly sure these people would plant their Italian loafer on your back as they stepped over you onto the ladder’s next rung.”

    As dire as this sounds – and it is grim – it also suggests something positive: that desire for a community of higher purpose doesn’t disappear once people leave the military. This is a blessing: to be without it would be to be less human. It is a good thing, which requires guidance and organization commensurate with its nobility. Swords aren’t to be thrown away. They are to be beaten into ploughshares.

    Wood’s exploration of how to do this informs the narrative of Once a Warrior. It begins as a memoir, vividly telling of his experiences playing football at the University of Wisconsin, the horrific shock of 9/11, his decision to join the Marines, and his experiences deployed. But we follow him as well through his discovery of a way to continue fruitful service. Toward the beginning of the book Wood describes feeling vaguely lost living in Los Angeles after his time in the Marines. And then one otherwise normal morning he watches news of an earthquake in Haiti. He’s transfixed by the reporting, by the images he sees on the screen. A phone number scrolls by: call here to donate.

    Chaos. Destruction. Hopelessness. It seemed . . . familiar. I reached for my phone and, clicking it on, noticed hours had passed. I looked at the eggs and coffee, untouched and long since cooled. I punched in the ten digits and waited. “. . . due to heavy call volume . . .” And then, finally, a voice.

    “Yes ma’am, my name is Jake Wood. I just got out of the Marine Corps after four years and two tours. I’d like to go with your organization to Port-au-Prince. I can help you with any number of things and you won’t have to babysit me. I’ve got all of the necessary equipment, my inoculations are up to date, and I can leave immediately.”

    “Thank you, sir, but we’re not taking any volunteers right now. I can direct you to our website, where you can make a donation . . .”

    I hung up in despair. I should do something. I must do something.

    Some veterans feel that desire to “do something” clawing at them and find no community or task to satisfy it. Wood, through skill, sheer determination, and not a little bit of luck, created that community himself from scratch. He looked up an old friend and convinced him to fly to the Dominican Republic. There they met up with others, creating a kind of ad hoc organization of first responders, mostly veterans, to move into Haiti overland. They called their group Team Rubicon.

    The Rubicon is the river separating what was Roman Gaul from Rome itself, which Caesar crossed with his legion, bringing his military imperium into the civilian Roman world. Cross this line and there’s no going back.

    The line for Wood and his compatriots was the Artibonite River, at a small crossing point called Jimaní. Once Wood’s team made their move and passed through Jimaní into Haiti, there was no going back. “When people ask me how Team Rubicon was formed,” Wood writes, “I often tell them it was by accident. The organization, I say, wasn’t conceived on a conference room whiteboard, or as a class project for business school. It was born out of an impulse to act.” In the decade or so since its founding, Team Rubicon has provided first responder services free of charge to vulnerable communities affected by natural disaster around the world. More than 130,000 volunteers stand ready to deploy anywhere they’re needed, which most recently was to Midland, Texas where Team Rubicon helped to set up a warming center in Horseshoe Arena for folks left without power by the ice storm. “At Team Rubicon,” the organization website reads, “veterans are the agent of the mission, not the object.” By serving others from within a community, Wood realized, we also nourish ourselves. In fact, it might be the only way to truly do so.

    Once a Warrior is a riveting story about the experiences of a man driven by the desire to serve, but its significance is much more profound. The book deepens our understanding of war by showing us that most people who join the military aren’t necessarily interested in violence or combat but in challenge, service, meaning itself. That veterans find the combat zone richer soil in which to flourish is a powerful condemnation of contemporary American culture. Team Rubicon, and Once a Warrior, are Wood’s ways of trying to actually do something about that.

    “Why is it that once a disaster fades from memory, we retreat into our corners? What if Americans rose to the occasion every day?”

    “Pacifists,” William James wrote in his essay “The Moral Equivalent of War,” “ought to enter more deeply into the aesthetical and ethical point of view of their opponents. . . . So long as antimilitarists propose no substitute for war's disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war, analogous, as one might say, to the mechanical equivalent of heat, so long they fail to realize the full inwardness of the situation.”

    It’s a point to ponder, but the point is to do more than ponder. Realizing the “full inwardness” of the situation of returning veterans ultimately means helping them enter into communities in which their natural instinct for service and communion are put to productive ends. And this ethos must not be limited to times of extreme emergency. “If people acted every day like they do after a disaster,” Wood writes, “we’d live in a truly special place. So then why is it that once a disaster fades from memory, we retreat into our corners? What if Americans rose to the occasion every day? Yellow ribbons and COEXIST bumper stickers are not enough.”

    He’s right. Once a Warrior makes the case for the reorientation of society towards selflessness, service, and community. It might sound like an impossibly tall order. But it is what we must do. The Rubicon, after all, was not just the point of no return. Its crossing was also what told those legionnaires, that general, that they were home.

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    Contributed By Scott Beauchamp Scott Beauchamp

    Scott Beauchamp is a writer and veteran whose work has appeared in Paris Review, Atlantic, and New York Magazine, among other places.

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