Photo: Laine Durr
I didn’t notice him right away—a scruffy haired kid that came in one Sunday night last fall. But with football season in full swing, I couldn’t get the attention of the other men around stage, whose eyes were glued to the TVs.But he had come there to see naked women. So I sat down and talked to him. He looked like a construction worker, possibly for one of the local unions. Barely out of his teens, he weighed in at maybe 150 lb.
What he didn’t look like was one of the deadliest men in the world — a Marine sharp shooter with dozens of confirmed kills and nightmares of the Middle East that haunted his nights. And his days. He was also a single father—the primary caregiver of his young daughter.
I talked to him for my whole stage set. I didn’t mean to. I was antsy, still trying to get the attention of the older guys who were in the place but he kept talking. Afterwards, he did a bunch of lap dances—maybe six or seven. Then he wrote his number down on a dollar bill and handed it to me. I went to sit with him afterwards. We talked like friends—as if he had forgotten I was naked or as if it hadn’t ever mattered at all.
That was when I learned about his military past. He joined the Marines at 17, before he would have been able to vote—not that it would have mattered. He’s 23 now. We’ve been in Iraq for almost half his life. He was 12 years old when a plane struck the World Trade centre.
By the time he was old enough to drink he had seen things most people will never see. He talked about how the men he had killed had families, children like his daughter, he said. Men who had killed his brothers-in-arms, men who don’t believe in Western democracy, and while they were men who would see all women in burkas, not in G-strings, they were still men with families.
He explained that he couldn’t sleep when he first came back. He’d be awake for days at a time. The things he had seen and the things he had done wracked him with guilt and remorse. Not entirely unfamiliar with the two emotions, we connected deeply.
I wanted to tell him that he did the right thing, that it was his job and sometimes just doing your damn job is the best you can do. But I didn’t, because what the hell do I know what it’s like to have 69 confirmed kills and raise a daughter alone.
His buddies, his shrink, his superiors, they all told him he shouldn’t feel guilty. It didn’t ease the pain. It just made him feel guilty about feeling the way he did.
Most returning soldiers don’t come into strip clubs to talk about their past. They come into strip clubs to escape their disciplined days. To be frivolous. Something both ridiculous and normal and worlds away from the military life. They come to see girls who’ve been running around naked for so long, they’ve forgotten they’re nude. They come in to the type of place that doesn’t exist in most countries we fight. Most guys don’t seem to need or want me to justify their acts of war. I imagine most guys don’t have 69 kills.
But he was telling me all of this because of the dollar bill he had handed me with his number on it. He wanted me to call him, but he wanted me to know that if I did that he was a damaged and dangerous person. At least, that was how he saw himself. PTSD was as foreign to him as our enemies are to me and I think he was as afraid of this mental state as he ever was of the Iraq and Afghan soldiers. Maybe more so.
He could trust the enemy. They were trained to do the same thing he was. Kill or be killed. What he couldn’t trust was his own feelings. He couldn’t trust the things he saw. He was afraid of how he might act or the things he might do.
He failed to convince me that he was dangerous—just a kid with the misfortune of having good aim and a country that would take advantage of that.
In a few years, we will send kids to Afghanistan who don’t remember September 11th. They will not remember a world that was not marked by a terrorist attack on our home soil.
But they will continue to fight for our right to run around naked.
They will continue to pay a heavy price for that freedom.
They will continue to have scars.
I can’t fix those scars, but I can offer one piece of advice. Don’t put your phone number on a dollar bill. It will accidentally get slipped into the vending machine for a can of Diet Coke.
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