“Ask Jenkins over there,” said Nelson, the VFW post commander, a WWII and Korean vet, gesturing toward a group chatting in one corner of the lobby. “You won’t get the usual.”
For the tenth year in a row Adam Standard had been sent to interview veterans at the Fairfield Memorial Day ceremony. He’d heard several good anecdotes today, but of a familiar kind, confirming his suspicion that he could have written his story before he came. Still, he headed off to talk to this Jenkins.
Standard knew Neal Branson’s account of a miracle would play well, but he’d also like something to reach readers less in love with battlefield heroics. There were, he believed, other military heroics that deserved attention. And he wanted to speak to the post-draft generation that had happily turned over military service to one percent of the nation’s citizenry.
Branson, new retiree in the area, recounted watching a buddy go down in an assault on a Viet Cong tunnel complex. Before a hail of bullets, the man’s head snapped back, his helmet flew off, and he fell backwards into the jungle grass
Standard didn’t want his subscribers’ heads to snap back when they encountered his story in the newspaper, but he did want to have them thinking about the piece after they’d read it. He didn’t anticipate the Central American rewrite of the Montagues and the Capulets he uncovered.
More than three decades ago Branson had crawled to his friend and looked for the wound, praying it wasn’t fatal. He couldn’t see blood, but his buddy’s fatigue jacket was ripped open on one side. Lying by his friend, he rolled him on one side. Diggs’ eyes flickered open.
One round from an AK-47 had hit the center of the man’s helmet, knocking him unconscious. Another, nearly spent, buried itself in the New Testament he always carried in his chest pocket. In those days, all recruits received the holy book at basic training; but this was hardly the use for which it was designed. Happily, Diggs would be fine, though this was not the “million-dollar wound” that would have sent him home permanently.
Standard, an Army veteran himself, recognized such tales were life-defining for the individuals involved, retold at every reunion event. But a larger civilian audience would simply nod, thinking they understood what they couldn’t. He was seeking an experience more readers could identify with, something an ordinary Joe, not G.I. Joe, would have endured.
He approached the group of men Commander Nelson had pointed out. They were gathered around a slender, middle-aged Hispanic woman holding forth about America’s doomed efforts in the Middle East. “We’re at war in dry hot places instead of hot wet places. We repeat history with a vengeance.” Standard wondered which of her listeners was Jenkins.
One balding white man nodded. “Tell us what we don’t know. This administration is full of those in our generation who ‘had other obligations’ when it was their time to serve. Now they’ve been looking for somewhere to counter the memory of Vietnam but with not a clue about what they are getting us into.”
An elderly black woman added with a grunt of disgust, “Still, those draft dodgers have provided some surprises, like extended tours for regular troops and overseas assignments for the National Guard and the Reserves.”
The small woman who’d initiated the discussion nodded. Her feet were planted wide; her fists were set on her hips; and her face showed a determined look.
Standard eased himself into their circle. “Mark Standard, the Fairfield Daily News. Any of you want to go on the record about this today?”
The woman looked at him with some intensity. “Maria Jenkins,” she asserted. “I might have a few things for you. My father served in the European theater, WWII; I’ve got a son in Kuwait; a husband in an undisclosed location further east. Plus, there’s me in Panama fifteen years ago.” Her look challenged him. “We’re an Army family.”
“Interesting. My editor will balk at anything too political, if that’s what you’re up to. But if you can provide the perspective of history for my readers, maybe we can sneak a moral in for today.”
Again, she inspected him closely, perhaps judging his character. “Well, I’ve got a story, what I was just telling these guys.” She smiled, and a few looked down at their feet. “I’m new to this group. Did some training years ago at Fort Leonard Wood and am back in the area for a few months as a civilian consultant.”
Standard’s editor, like other influential town citizens, wanted to attract more well-off retirees to the community—low demands on services, high tax bracket. So, Standard was told, among other things, to get testimony that Phipps County was an especially good place for members of the military to settle at the ends of their career. Standard was pushing a different goal at the same time, hoping to show the varied challenges and rewards of service.
“Could we sit over there?” Mark gestured to a small table.
Maria shook her head. “Stay right here. These guys will hang around until we’re done.”
Again, they smiled and shuffled, as if unable to ignore her orders, even though this did not seem to have been their plan. Soon they wandered over to the table of refreshments.
She began. “As you know, I’m sure, war stories are about soldiers and civilians, opposing forces and friendly fire. But war often breaks out where there are long-standing antagonisms, and that generates what I call ‘lost losses.’ We don’t include them in later statistics.”
“You don’t mean ‘collateral damage’?”
“No, those casualties we do count, usually taking the low estimates. What I’m talking about are losses away from the battlefield, but where war indirectly stimulates motive and promotes opportunity.”
Standard wasn’t sure. “I’m listening, but I need a specific example.”
She lifted one leg and planted her foot knee-high on the wall behind her. He flipped a page in his notebook, mentally recording town dignitaries off to his right shaking hands, smiling, working the crowd.
He knew all these local officials, as well as the empty platitudes they served as comfortably as the triangular chicken salad sandwiches and the pink lemonade prepared by the ladies’ auxiliary.
“Think of it this way: in 1815, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Some 50,000 soldiers from both sides were wounded or killed. Individuals injured in the extended disruptions that followed throughout France, though, are not included in any battle reports.”
“We have to make some distinctions, though,” suggested Standard.
“Yes and no. Compare this to the effects of Mount Tambora’s eruption in Indonesia in the same year. During 1816 and 1817, volcanic ash spreading across the globe brought lower temperatures to places as far away southern England, New York, and Rhode Island.”
“Okay, I can see that, but what does this tell us?”
“These cooler temperatures contributed to significantly increased rainfall over the next two years; but then, as warmer temperatures overall returned, a significant period of drought came, which in turn increased fatalities due to things like malnutrition. Those things wouldn’t have happened without the eruption of a volcano thousands of miles away.”
Standard was skeptical. “So, the effects of war, like those of natural disasters, can continue after the bullets stop flying; but how far away and for how long can we call them war-related?”
“That is the question,” Jenkins admitted. “And, by the way, I want to consider how soldiers as well as civilians are affected by the long arms of war. It’s something my father told me about, but which I had to learn for myself as well.”
Standard began to think this might turn into “not the usual.” He said, “So delayed, long- distance PTSD?”
“Something like that. For example, I was part of US forces invading Panama in 1989, what was officially dubbed ‘Operation Just Cause.’ A few years later, I returned with a group from the Catholic Church trying to determine the number of Panamanians dead.”
“I remember there was debate about that issue, as is usually the case. Something you saw during the operation inspired your desire to investigate?’
“If you mean, did I know of lost losses? Well now, that’s a yes and no.”
Like most reporters, Standard disliked ambiguity from those he interviewed. He wanted the facts, though he acknowledged he would shape them in his presentation. “Okay. Now is this second visit connected to your earlier tour?”
She ignored the question. “When you’re on a supply mission with Blackhawk helicopters, the plan is to go somewhere, deliver or get what’s needed, fly out quickly. But more often than you like, things don’t always go as planned.”
“I thought women didn’t fly Blackhawks.”
“Well now, they did and they didn’t at that time. But that’s not to the point.”
He shrugged, thinking this wasn’t going well after all.
She went on. “So, let’s say that, for an unanticipated personnel matter, I went with a ranger unit to a remote village of Chiriqui province. Intelligence suspected that a key man from the Noriega inner circle had slipped out of Panama City and was hiding in the area.”
“You didn’t walk into an ambush, I hope. Or call in airstrikes. Or mistake a water buffalo for an enemy vehicle.”
She laughed. “Nothing so routine. In fact, we realized pretty soon that our intelligence was bogus. The people out there had only a sketchy idea of the U.S. engineered coup in the capital and would have told us of any strangers in the area.”
“If you found nothing related to the political situation and there were no combatants, it sounds like there’s no story for me.”
“Imagine you’re in a similar situation right here and now at the Fairfield Civic Center, and a small woman, one of the workers in the civic center, for instance, goes to an upstairs utility closet just as everyone else is leaving, stops up a sink, turns on the water. Monday you find the building seriously damaged top to bottom.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Well, a malicious act, surely, but part of a war effort?” She seemed to have been waiting for him to say that. So he added, “But you’re telling me it could be related to some overseas conflict?”
“Again, yes and no. But if it turned out the woman had a relative in Iraq, friendly to Saddam Hussein’s reign, we might look for connections between what she did and our invasion, right?”
“I suppose that would make sense. But do we go so far as to call this destruction of property an ‘act of war’?”
“It depends on the particulars, to be sure.” Standard knew she wasn’t answering the question directly, but waited for her to go on.
“So, in that little village in Panama I later returned to . . . to . . . uh, learn about a woman who had diverted a creek, flooding her neighbor’s farm. The year’s crop was lost.”
“There’s a connection to the invasion?”
“I learned that the two neighboring families had been feuding about where the boundary ran between their properties for generations. And in a loose sense, the farmer was allied with the current regime, the woman less so.”
“Still, it sounds as if this was the product of a local situation.”
“So it might appear. But as I interviewed more residents, I came to see many felt the upheaval of war elsewhere in the country had created an atmosphere in which there was uncertainty about the future, about what might happen.”
“So, an act of sabotage was less of a surprise that it would have been had conflict not been occurring miles away?”
The look on Jenkins’ face was confirmation. But it also made him conclude that she did not see this as an abstract case for legal historians to chronicle. Somehow it was a personal, or at least a family matter for her.
“Well,” she admitted, “her attorney did try to use her patriotic anger at the U.S. as a motive; and he claimed her impulsive act fit in with a general climate of national crisis. But she was convicted and spent fifteen years in jail.”
“And you’re certain she would not have done what she did without the invasion?”
“When war breaks out in one country— or between two countries—most everyone is affiliated with one side or another. Think of this country’s Civil War. There was no real neutrality. Even far from the front lines everyone knew what their neighbors felt. And even without invading troops, ordinary rules of restraint can break down. And some people take advantage of general social disorder to exact a personal, private revenge.”
Standard found this a good argument to a point, but still not exactly what he’d hoped to find. “So, you say many negative events in a time of war, but not of a war itself, should be recognized as lost losses?”
“There’s one more thing,” Jenkins went on, again with a wistful look. “If you’re a good Army soldier, and a smart soldier, you learn this. You go on your first missions accepting the fact that you’ll inflict and suffer casualties you can see. But over time you also come to realize the ripple effect of your actions that spreads the number and range of injury among people you never see.”
She took a deep breath. “And here’s the thing: you carry that guilt—that knowledge—with you wherever you go, in or out of service. Your hand struck down enemies, but also friends you had no intention of harming. And no one counts these lost losses.”
Standard began to see the pain that came from this specific case. He asked, “The man in Panama whose crop was lost—a friend? a relative?”
“Yes and no,” she answered. “The woman who flooded the field was my mother. The man would have been the father of my husband.”
I thought for a moment. “So your part in the removal of a dictator led to calamity in your own family.”
She faced him, stuck out a hand for him to shake, then turned around rejoined her fellow veterans who quickly made space for her. She was, Standard concluded, from an Army family.