Few writers have captured the grief and suffering of combat veterans making the transition from war to home better than journalist Joe Klein.
His 1984 book, Payback, traced the lives of five Marines as they struggled to adapt after Vietnam. Now, with Charlie Mike, he follows the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan as they fight through guilt, injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Much has changed between Vietnam and America's two latest wars. Veterans now have behind them the bulk of public opinion, which Vietnam vets could not count on. But the percentage of Americans who join the military is much smaller than before, leaving fewer people to relate to the demands of service.
Much of the veteran's lot remains the same, however. None can forget the searing experiences of war, of seeing their friends die horribly or suffer grievous wounds. They often live in constant agony, their memories flashing back a stream of horrors that sleep can't soothe.
In Charlie Mike, a term that means "continue the mission," Klein's main focus is two veterans whose seem to represent the best American has to offer. Jake Wood, a former offensive lineman at the University of Wisconsin, is a huge, strapping specimen of American manhood — tall, muscular and intelligent. Eric Greitens, an Oxford-educated Navy SEAL and intelligence officer, had the smarts and charisma that made him a natural leader.
Wood led a sniper team in Afghanistan, while Greitens returned to Iraq as an intelligence officer after his SEAL service. Both served honorably; both saw war steal their friends.
Klein shows how their service changed them but also propelled them to serve others once their military service ended. For Wood, it meant joining up with Marine buddies and heading to Haiti shortly after the January 2010 earthquake that flattened much of the country. Their freelance aid mission would eventually become Team Rubicon, Wood's group of veterans that acted as a team of early responders to some of the world's toughest disasters.
While Wood and Greitens drive most of the narrative, Klein shows the effect of combat on more typical representatives of the military experience. Clay Hunt and Mike Pereira overcame attention deficit disorder and turbulent home lives to find greater purpose in military service. The military accepted them and forged them into vital parts of a war machine, but their experiences also shocked them to their cores.
For Hunt, the return home was loaded with difficulty. "School was hard," Klein writes. "He was having real problems holding his attention in class, writing essays, taking tests, remembering anything. ... He wasn't sure if it was the traumatic brain injury, his old ADHD, or the combination of drugs the VA was giving him, but something was making him screwy. He was having erectile problems, too, he admitted. But he was trying, really trying, to keep it together."
It should surprise no one, given the rising number of suicides of veterans, that not everyone survives the transition. When one veteran stops answering his phone, we fear the worst, and those fears are justified.