Rod Deaton is a psychiatrist who cares for veterans in Indianapolis. He also writes the blog, Paving the Road Back: Serving those who have served in combat.
I follow his blog to gain insight, to find solutions, to share stories.
This time it’s one of his veterans who taught Deaton and me a lesson. It all started with the New York Times tribute to those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq with the photographic reminder, Faces of the Dead.
I encourage you to read Deaton’s full blog entry, but I’ll start you off with a portion:
BY ROD DEATON
I knew that I would end up having to write about this experience. But before I could even get enough breathing room to consider doing that, within hours of my having viewed that screen, I was sitting before my patient.
He is not doing well.
He is not suicidal. He is not giving up. But he is tired. He wants to move forward in his life. He wants at least some of it, the pain, the memories, please, God, to stop.
I debate whether to say anything to him. He is distressed already, after all. Yet I also wanted him to know that I had not forgotten, neither him nor the name of his best friend.
“Have you seen the pictures in The Times?” I asked.
“Would you like to?”
He looked at me, an odd mixture of blankly and knowingly. That was such a dangerous move for a therapist. I’d taken the risk that he’d say “yes” for my sake, not his. I might have misstepped.
“Yes,” he finally said.
I believed he meant it. I was tempted to check that out. I kept my mouth shut, though. What’s done was done. He didn’t owe me any more assurance than that.
He scooted his chair next to mine, and we both turned to my Government-issued monitor. Type, click, type, click. Page found. Search box clicked, state typed, menu appears. I began scrolling down. I saw the first name, but was that the last name? I continued to scroll down quickly. There, another with the same first name, but, no, I was sure that was not it. Scroll.
“You just passed it,” he said quietly.
My eyes focused. Indeed I had. There it was. I clicked. A picture appeared on screen.
I looked at my patient.
He was staring, nodding every so slightly. He was not smiling, yet he was not frowning, either. He swallowed. He looked at me.
“Yes, that’s him,” he whispered. No smile, no tears, no distress, just acknowledgment.
His friend had not been the only one who had died that day, in that place. I knew that.
So I turned to the screen, shifted the cursor one pixel to the right, to a new box, new name, same date. I clicked.
He looked at the picture with the same expression on his face. He nodded.
“Yes,” he whispered again.
I moved right another pixel.
More than one group of men perished that day. They served in different branches. Yet whenever I clicked on a pixel and saw the particular branch of my patient come up in the side bar, I looked at him.
When I did, I saw the same nod, heard perhaps a name whispered, watched a man watching a screen. I would then turn back toward that screen and move the cursor over another pixel, creating another box. A couple times he whispered the name before I clicked, then nodded at the picture, almost imperceptibly, yet with an ever-so-slight satisfaction that, yes, he’d been right.
Finally, I hit a box with an earlier date. I stopped.
I turned to look at him. He was still staring at the screen, not exactly lost, but not exactly there, either.
“You all right?” I asked.
He nodded, still looking at the screen. Then he looked at me.
“Yes,” he said. He was right there with me. Or at least I guess you could say that.
“How was that for you, seeing all them?”
He shook his head ever so slightly. For an instant, he even had the glimmer of a smile, more one of pity than anything. Pity for me.
“Doc,” he whispered. “I see them every day.”
That, I was not prepared for.