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July 1, 2009 | 12:00 p.m. CST
It’s sometime in the afternoon and the walls of the hospital are white and Sgt. 1st Class Calvin Miles is in a hospital bed. All around him are cookies, cards and sinister-looking tubes that form a disjointed fence, an ominous display of construction paper and Hallmark stationary, green cellophane and clear fluids. Poised beside him is his 7-year-old niece. She reads from the book that she holds in her lap, and her high-pitched voice passes softly, deliberately from word to word. Calvin’s eyelids are drooping under the weight of the drugs and hers are wide open, and Calvin is groggy and vulnerable. He doesn’t like the sensation of helplessness that he feels; it’s altogether new and unfamiliar and perfectly unbearable. He’s always been the eyes above the bed, the caregiver, the worrier, the teacher, the superior, the vigilant father of so many families that go far beyond his own flesh and blood.
But this is the man after the fall.
It’s a few weeks before in the spring of 2008 when I first meet Calvin, and he smiles. He smiles and that’s it. It’s wide and it looks like it uses every muscle in his face. It’s there and it’s infuriating because it’s hard for someone on the outside looking in to find a reason that he should be smiling. Because at 51, Calvin’s on the verge of being deployed for the third time since 2003. Because he spent 18 months out east and down south on a deployment that should’ve been 12. Because he went down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and saw things that he won’t, can’t, talk about when the waters came through and leveled buildings and people.
We’re sitting in his office at Grant Elementary School in Columbia, and he’ll answer questions, but he’s careful with his words. He’ll respond, but he won’t say anything more than is necessary. Nothing more than the question requires. Nothing that breaches the surface. Nothing more than he feels that he can let slip and still keep face. And he smiles. He refuses to break apart. Every few minutes, his hand passes into the air, and he waves to children walking outside his door who then come in and have a chat with Mr. Miles.
And as the day draws to a close, there’s more and more of them, a constant influx of fast-talking children and tearful members of the faculty, and he reminds them all that he’ll still be there tomorrow. He tells me about all these kids and faculty who’ve prayed over the coin bearing the likeness of the school’s namesake, Ulysses S. Grant, a coin that’s lodged in the folds of Calvin’s wallet at all times. And all these people — all these people who walk freely through his door — just go to show how many lives Calvin has touched since he’s worked at Grant Elementary and how many roles he fills.
In the afternoons, Calvin meets with students who need tutoring and counseling. He coaches the basketball team, runs the safety patrol and arranges the walking school bus, a service that organizes students passing through potentially perilous neighborhoods to walk to school in groups. And most mornings, Calvin visits the homes of single mothers, the homeless and those located in the housing projects, where he fulfills his duties as a home-school communicator, a mediator between the students, teachers and parents.
But here’s the thing: when he first started as a home-school communicator, Calvin was met with cracked doors and excuses — “the house is a mess” or “maybe some other time.” Over time, however, he has been able to establish relationships and trust within those communities.
Jim Hogan, a “success coach” who after teaching at Grant for 13 years retired in the spring of 2007 and now works at the school part time, says that Calvin is a veritable walking encyclopedia — he knows exactly who to call and when to call them.
“Sometimes I’ll say, ‘you know, I think I’ll call Mom,’ and he’ll go, ‘oh, Mom’s not the person to call. Call Grandma or call Aunt such-and-such’ Or, ‘Mom’s not the person to talk to right now. This isn’t a good time for her.’ Or, ‘let me take care of that.’ Like I said, that’s just all that he carries around in his head. You can’t replace that,” Hogan says.
“The fact [is that people in the National Guard] have careers, and when they’re gone, there’s a hole there,” Hogan adds. “Calvin’s not the only one. You know, Calvin’s in a very unique position perhaps as far as his job, but there are Calvin stories all over the United States.”
Calvin Miles’ story is one that’s been told time and time again, that’s found in the inked-up diagrams and digits that tick across the bottom of television screens and get printed in the paper so we know the count of casualties and dollar signs. His story is the sort that can be found in the lamentations of soldiers’ wives and husbands who have seen their loved ones depart for foreign lands and places in this country that are far from their homes. But it’s not just about Calvin.
It’s the story of the father and the mother, son and daughter, the community leader and the mentor, husband and wife and coach, the people spirited away for months at a time to lands that are beyond or within the borders of this nation. It’s the story of 45,000 members of the army National Guard sent down to New Orleans within 11 days of Katrina’s landfall. Or 168,213 mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001 — 33,714 deployed more than once –– of the total 351,400 members (as of September 2007) of the Army National Guard.
When the city of Warrenton holds a parade for the departing soldiers of the National Guard’s 3175th MP Company, Calvin’s company, it’s a number that’s made a bit more real when the streets are lined with strollers and balloons, quivering miniature American flags and yellow ribbons wavering in the breeze. The resonating cacophony of the parade sweeps over the asphalt, a progression of dissimilar ensembles: the brief, flickering whines of police sirens, the bitter rumblings of the Patriot Guard’s snarling hogs, the upbeat cadence of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” And the people who line each side of the street are the families of the soldiers. And it’s painful to think that every one of those families will feel the absence of a family member during the coming year.
But here’s the thing: it’s not just about the soldiers, because the stuff they bring home from war doesn’t sit idly on the thresholds of their homes.
When Calvin came home for the second time, everything was supposed to be as it had been before. When he came home, all the problems were supposed to have been resolved: the pipes would be fixed, the kids would cease to have discipline issues, and there would be communication between Calvin and Robin, his wife, that didn’t need to pass through wires. If all of that had happened, things as they are would be very different today.
If things had gone as planned, Robin and Calvin wouldn’t have separated because of an insurmountable barrier that barred communication. Instead, they were faced with the trouble that accompanies a returning soldier.
“People think that they come back and life returns to how it was, but it’s not,” Robin says. “They have a whole different demeanor when they get back. They have to get back into civilian mode because they’ve been in military mode. They’ve had to stay focused, alert, alive — that’s what they concentrated on and it’s hard to come out of that.”
When the deployed soldiers return, everyone — the families, the soldiers, the colleagues, the neighbors — is affected by the absence and reintroduction of the soldier.
The normal patterns of military living that work like clockwork, the fixed routines that are both vital to attitude and survival, cannot simply be turned off and on like a light switch. And it’s just as difficult for the spouses and families back home to make that transition. Robin says that, in order to cope with that often overwhelming absence, the families become independent and aren’t always ready to give up that self-sufficiency when the soldiers come home. It takes education and counseling to be able to overcome this. They have to learn to speak again.
“You would think that I wouldn’t have a problem the way that I talk all the time,” Calvin says with a laugh. “But it was very difficult.”
When deployed, Calvin says, it’s natural for soldiers to be aware of everything that’s happening around them. It’s what they have to do to survive. In the mind of the active solider, there’s a constant thought that sears the mind: there’s a threat, and it has to be dealt with. But when the soldier returns, the soldier has to once again get accustomed to what Calvin calls “tunnel vision,” to focus on just one thing. The soldier has to realize that the threat is no longer there.
To this day, Robin has a vivid memory of life when Calvin came home. There were nights when he would wake up, just as if he was getting up for work, go through the morning routines at 3 a.m., sit at his desk and drown the page in a feverish scribble because that’s the only place where he felt he could go and drain that stuff out, the stuff that he can’t shake loose from his mind or filter into speech. He’ll find out later when he hears the diagnosis that it’s got a name that’s been emblazoned on newspaper headlines and ignored. It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
But, as might be expected, those symptoms couldn’t be contained within his home. Calvin says that in the beginning, he had to be careful in his interactions at the school. He had to remind himself that the young children who idolized him and came to him with questions were not his soldiers. They were children.
It took the words of a colleague to remind him where he was.
One day not too long after he’d returned from New Orleans, a school secretary told him, “I’m so glad you’re back, but we’re not really sure how to relate to you.” It was at that point that he was able to open his eyes to his surroundings and realize the need to readjust, to pay attention to what he was doing.
When Calvin’s in the hospital bed, he’s almost silent. He’s breathing and telling me that I really should take some cookies because he’s got too many of them already. He’s in the bed, Robin’s on the side; the two remain close despite being separated. His eyelids are drooping and hers are wide open, and it goes against what you might think considering the sleepless night she must’ve had sitting in a hard plastic chair beside her husband and his aneurysm.
That’s what it was — an aneurysm. Wasn’t a bullet. Wasn’t damage taken in the line of war or something that’d get him a purple heart. It was an angry little blood vessel stuck in his head that made him crumple to the floor as he packed his suitcases to report for training. Calvin and Robin didn’t know what it was at first, so they packed off to the hospital. And it was at the hospital that the doctors found it. They swiftly called in the best, courtesy of the military’s dime.
So, Calvin won’t be going away. He’ll stay in this hospital for about a month, and then he’ll transfer to the rehab center that his body needs to heal, but he’s impatient. He’s impatient because he’s better than this thing, and he’ll beat it. Because he needs to be with his guys. He says that the nurses tell him that he needs to take it slow, that he’ll get better eventually, but it’s tough.
Downstairs in the hospital lobby, Robin says that Calvin’s impatience is just a part of being a soldier.
“It’s that military mentality, I’ll say it to the end, you know? A soldier just keeps struggling to the bitter end,” Robin says. “That’s what they do.”
“He will walk to the end of the earth if he thought he could. But when someone returns that favor, it’s like, ‘this is so embarrassing.’ … He can help, help, help, help, but it’s hard for him to be on the receiving end of that.”
Today, this is Calvin more than a year later, in June 2009. He’s across the street from his parents’ house, and he’s sitting in the garage with the neighbors. He’s wearing a backwards, yellow cap with “Mizzou” written across the back in yellow thread, and he walks with a four-pronged cane. It’s a beautiful day, wind in the trees and vibrant greens and blues.
The hat just slightly stretches out the creases in his face that might otherwise betray his age and the wear and tear of experience like an ocean rushing over rocks.
“This sucks,” Calvin says as he walks across the street, first at a brisk pace before he slows and stops to take a breath on the edge of his driveway. “This really sucks.”
He had another surgery on April 27, almost a year after the first one when everything got all twisted up in his brain. He told the doctor not to sugarcoat anything, that he wanted to know what was going on in his own body. The doctor told him that if a clot started blotting out the flow of blood vessels, he’d die if the stent wasn’t placed.
On the bedside table in his room is a clear plastic box with 30 spaces for pills. There’s a digital recorder beside it and that’s what he says helps him to keep going. Robin gave it to him so that he can keep a part of himself on it, so when he has bad days or when he has good days he can listen to the tape recorder and hear himself.
His smile falls when he says that his life’s been hell over the past year. It falls when he says that he fights a battle in his head against a foe that he doesn’t understand and that wants him to fail and wants him to give up. He says that side is the one where he’s blind. Just like he can’t see out of his left eye, his peripheral vision is severed and he takes a chance every time he turns to the left, that he doesn’t understand what’s there.
“And I’m fighting so hard against this person who wants to give up, and I’m fighting so hard to stop this person from giving up.” He’s been seeing a psychologist because Lord knows he needs the help. That thing packed into his skull, that thing that wants him to fail — the thing that has a name.
“It’s just like the day it happened. The deaths. The fights. The tragedies I see. The people I try to help, but my hands are tied because the government won’t help me. … They tell you to shoot someone who’s just trying to survive.”
His speech is peppered with halting interruptions. The words still don’t move through his lips like they once did, but the words he says are the same for the most part — because for every word he says about how much he’s suffered, there are 10 about his family. He still talks about the kids at Grant more than ever. He still talks about his guys in the Guard who just returned from Kosovo. He still talks about his own family, how he’s helping his son develop a business.
And now I understand the smile. The smile is something fueled by the families. So the dreams still wake him up at 3 a.m., but when he has to get up in the middle of the night, his dad’s there, too. “He keeps me going,” Calvin explains. But it’s all of them. It’s his mom and his wife and all of them that keep him going. It’s even the thought of his guys in the unit and it’s his kids at school that keep him going. He aches when they’re not with him because even though they might be of different race, creed or gender, they’re family.
“I hold onto my patch, I hold onto my coin, I hold onto my pictures, I hold onto my prayers, and that’s what family’s about,” he says. “I may have lost a lot. I may have forgotten a lot. But family has always been there for me.”
At the end of our visit, we move toward the door and his family’s in the living room — people and photos and various manifestations of the people he loves. And as he shuts the door, Calvin smiles.