Foreword to What They Signed Up For

What the 18 narrative accounts in this book bring home to us is that experience of combat in war – like all human experience, but surely even moreso – is unavoidably and ineradicably personal to each individual. There certainly is, and should be, a politics to whether, when, and how a society should or should not send its young people into combat – and, as citizens, we all should be engaged in that difficult politics. But the personal meaning of combat belongs to those who experience it.

It’s that meaning – or, rather, those meanings – that combat veterans are in a position to bring home to the rest of us, sharing hard-won spiritual nourishment with us who sent them to Iraq, Afghanistan, or both (multiple long combat tours being far from unusual in today’s American military). The home-front politics of our wars – whether you or I “support” or “oppose” our country’s military involvements – feels awkwardly beside the point, even in bad taste, next to the things we stand to learn if we allow ourselves to be still and listen to the vets in this book and others like them.

What does it mean to say that veterans bring our wars home with them? It’s not only about them, but also about us who stayed home. Emmanuel Wright lays it out for us:

I was back as a corpsman at the Naval Hospital in San Diego and I had a difficult time regulating my responses at work. Everything was intensely serious to me, a matter of life or death. I don’t know just how I was acting with my colleagues, all I know is that I was no longer the person I had been. All I know is that the nurses and doctors looked at me strangely. All I know is that I couldn’t make sense of people anymore, that life had become incomprehensible, and that the dead children of Iraq haunted the hallways and the examination rooms, the sidewalks of San Diego, the streets and highways, the bars and restaurants, the apartments and houses, and my own bedroom.

The dead children of Iraq haunt the sidewalks of San Diego. The American home front, until recently so stubbornly determined to remain placid and pleased with itself, is intimately and permanently connected to Iraq and Afghanistan, in ways we’re only beginning to understand. Veterans bring home a dark thread in our national story. But it’s not like a story on TV; these stories are not offered for our titillation, to provide a pleasurable frisson of fictional danger or darkness. What they rather offer is something we had better confront and come to terms with and integrate into our collective nonfiction narrative, just as each of these veterans is doing on an individual level. The varying reactions from veterans in this book to the film American Sniper are instructive. I thought it was an excellent film, but what do I know? I have no credibility regarding either the depiction of combat or its effects on a human soul, and I’m not sure Clint Eastwood does either. The people who do have credibility are the people in this book and the many others like them who live in your American community and mine. Justin Shults explains it very directly: “PTSD is a reminder of what it is that we did.”

Finally, a note on what Jeb Wyman signed up for. An editor is any book’s first reader, and as such he or she serves as a surrogate for every eventual reader. That is the nature of Jeb’s service to us. Jeb teaches writing at a community college – he describes the genesis of this project in his Afterword – and is a very good editor. He also serves us as a representative middle-aged, middle-class, Middle American civilian citizen who signed up, on behalf of the rest of us, to make the effort to know combat veterans and their stories. This book is the fruit of his earned personal education over some three years of hard work and often wrenching emotional involvement. It’s my honor to publish What They Signed Up For, and I thank Jeb for his service.

Ethan Casey

Publisher, Blue Ear Books

April 2017