In July 2006, four young American Army officers sat at an Italian restaurant in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., about 20 miles from Ft. Drum. Three lieutenants and a captain, they were all friends, all platoon leaders in the 10th Mountain Division; one of them was my younger brother, Jeff, then 23 years old. It was their last meal together before deploying to Iraq.
Two years later, none of the infantrymen remembers what he ordered that night; they all remember what was said: "Statistically, one in four of us is going to get injured or killed over there."
A month later, they arrived in Baghdad, right before the "surge."
On Oct. 2, 2006, Capt. Scott Quilty, 26, was leading a foot patrol in Rustimullah, a town south of Baghdad. An improvised explosive device, or IED, detonated near him. He lost his right arm and right leg.
On Dec. 21, 2006, Lt. Ferris Butler, 26, my brother's roommate at Ft. Drum and in Baghdad, drove down a road in another town along the Euphrates River. Ferris and Jeff's careers in the Army had paralleled each other's -- basic training, officer candidates school, Army Ranger school and now deployment. That day, Ferris "got hit." Another IED. He lost half his right foot and, to use the military acronym, had a "BK" on his left leg, a below-the-knee amputation, which soldiers universally agree is the best worst injury to have, as long as it's just a BK on the "nondominant" leg and the rest of your body is fine.
Lt. Gregory Cartier was my brother's neighbor at Iraq's Camp Stryker. They'd been in the same platoon in Ranger and Airborne school. On May 8, 2007, Greg was on a mission to fill potholes and IED craters in Iraqi roads. Soldiers handed sandbags down a fireman's line, with Greg in the first position closest to the hole. After throwing in several sandbags, a bomb in the hole exploded.
Greg awoke in a bed a week later. He couldn't see anything, but he heard a familiar voice and felt someone touch his arm. "Greg, it's me, Scott, can you hear me?" Greg's first thought was, "What is Scott doing back in Baghdad?" He didn't understand that they both were at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Greg had wounds all over his body; he lost his left eye and suffered a traumatic brain injury ("TBI," in military speak).
My brother, now 25, returned to the United States in November after completing his 15-month tour. He survived more than 200 combat missions -- on the same roads, in the same towns, in the same Humvees -- and received a Bronze Star; his three friends also received military decorations with high honors for their service.
I first heard the story of their eerie 2006 conversation when I met all four together for the first time in Atlantic City in December 2007. It was a dark reunion of sorts. Ferris and Scott were in wheelchairs, a position they were unaccustomed to; Greg wasn't quite himself; and all three were still living at Walter Reed. My brother, Jeff, living back at Sackets Harbor, would visit them on the weekends.
When I saw them this spring, great changes had occurred in how they were dealing with the aftermath of the war. Greg was on his way out of the Army and into law school. Going forward, he said, he no longer wanted to be defined as "a wounded warrior -- I'm just a guy who got injured in a war." Ferris was out of the wheelchair and walking, had met a wonderful woman who had come to volunteer at Walter Reed, and felt he was a completely "new person." Of the hard-nosed military breed who doesn't put too much stock in introspection, Ferris was on his way out of the hospital, with an internship on Capitol Hill lined up for the fall, his application to business school accepted at the University of Maryland. My brother was preparing to leave the Army for medical school.
Scott -- with injuries more severe, outlook perhaps a bit different -- had started working for the Survivor Corps, formerly the Landmine Survivors Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to "helping each other overcome the effects of war and violence." He gave me a book its president, Jerry White -- himself a land-mine survivor -- had just finished writing called "I Will Not Be Broken: 5 Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis."
The book gives advice on how to handle those "unavoidable moments that divide our lives into 'before' and 'after.' " For White, that encompasses those who've fought cancer, got blown up or suffered a tragic loss. White tells the stories of the survivors he's met who haven't just gotten by but have felt life's profound devastations and thrived. The "super-survivors," he calls them. It's a tough-love, self-help book that demands that we not allow ourselves to stay the victim for too long. It gives some answers to the question: How do we go on? These soldiers answer that question, each a bit differently, every day.
This was the first time I'd really gotten to know other Americans who live with the consequences of the war. While I was in Iraq covering the war for Newsweek for two years starting in 2005, the woman I planned to marry was murdered in Baghdad by insurgents on Jan. 17, 2007. Her name was Andi Parhamovich; she'd come to Iraq to work for the National Democratic Institute, an NGO. After she was killed, I returned to the U.S. and started writing. It was an act of survival, a way for me to try to make sense of what happened and to give the beautiful woman I loved a lasting tribute.
We -- Andi, me, Jeff, Greg, Scott, Ferris -- all chose to go to Iraq, volunteers for our respective causes. We were under no illusions about the risks, though that's a glib way of putting it. I don't think anyone can fully grasp the risks until whoosh, wham, through the looking glass you crash on the way to the rehab center at Walter Reed or a funeral parlor in Ohio.
Iraq often gets treated by pundits, writers and politicians -- all those thoughtful cheerleaders turned war critics -- as an intellectual exercise. It's not. Hundreds of thousands live personally with its consequences every day. The tens of thousands of Iraqis who've been killed, the families of 4,074 American servicemen and women killed, the more than 900 contractors killed, the more than 29,000 U.S. wounded. The individuals who make up such statistics -- and those who loved them -- understand what the war actually costs. How paying that cost feels.
Back to the Italian restaurant in Sackets Harbor.
"Statistically, one in four of us is going to get injured or killed."
That stat about infantry officers got turned on its head; three of the four got injured. My brother thinks he said the line that evening at the restaurant. Greg and Ferris think he did too. Scott disagrees, though, and claims it for himself.
Scott suspects that they attribute it to Jeff because he never landed at Walter Reed -- it's a trick of mental revisionism to make everyone's fate seem inevitable, not the random chance of life.
Or as Jerry White writes: "Life explodes, and nothing is ever quite the same."