Eyes Brown, the Color of Rattlesnake Skin: A Conversation With Veterans

I sat with the three men on a porch in San Antonio. Glaring rays of sunlight raced from the western hills, parallel with the ground, blinding where they slipped under the trees. The floorboards of the large porch creaked as the men shifted their weight.

“So who did you serve with?” C asked the other two. C was balding, forty-ish, with a bear-trap handshake. He had recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan – this explained the glassy eyes, the ingrained “yes-sir,” and the feeling that some part of him had been pretty badly sand-blasted by the middle eastern deserts.

Both men replied “Navy,” although both served longer with the SEALs than as regular servicemen. There’s something about SEALs, even retired, who divulge just enough information to be polite, and no more.

“Right on,” C replied, leaning back in his chair.

“And you?” K asked. K was tall: 6’ 6” at least with broad shoulders and a stride that easily matched two of mine.

“Army, sir.”

“We won’t hold that against you,” K said, laughing.

“That’s for sure,” C retorted, a sarcastic glint in his eyes.

The other SEAL, A, smiled gently. His Native American heritage gave itself away quickly: coarse, black hair; dark brown eyes the color of rattlesnake skin; his affinity to talking about the wind and the spirits. But his peacefulness wrapped around a part of him, as if there was something broken that was just growing back, and he wanted to protect it.

A had traumatic brain injuries taken in the line of duty. His left side worked, but only with some coaxing. As he talked, he gesticulated with both hands, but the fingers on his right hand often had to go over and adjust the fingers on his left hand, or reposition his left arm. Only after spending the day with him did I start to realize he was trying to keep me to his right – all vision to his left was gone. And he wore a beret – it looked sharp, added to his image, but also served to round out the caved-in side of his head, where he had been shot.

The three men shared short snippets of battle stories. K’s conversation prodded C for any signs of PTSD. Nothing surgical, just innocent questions. The men laughed too, and when they did I could see them drinking it in, the same way my children drink grape Kool Aid.

“There was one guy on my team,” K said, “and when the bullets started flying, he wasn’t worried about being killed. He didn’t experience fear. But one thought flashed through his head: ‘This is why my mom wanted me to be a banker.’”

This struck them all as being hilarious, but their belly-laughs slowly died down into silence.

“It’s the wives who get it the worst,” K said. A nodded.

“Yeah,” C said. “When I got him from my first tour I opened all the cabinets in the kitchen and just stared at them. My wife came in and said, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ I told her, I just couldn’t remember where stuff was. I told her I had to get my old memories back.”

“Life is therapy for everyone,” A said, adjusting the fingers on his left hand so that they formed a fist, then laying the fist down on the table. “We’re all born broken.”

It seems that when a discussion is going on between men who have seen war, the quiet spaces between the spoken words are longer and more meaningful. There isn’t a rush to fill the peace with just anything.

C excused himself, said how proud he was to have met them, and broke all their fingers with his handshake before driving off in his truck.

“He’s got the eyes,” K said, his mouth a flat line of regret.

“There’s a lot going on inside that man’s head,” A said quietly.

“He talked about his wife but he’s not wearing a wedding band,” K observed.

“It’s the same old story, over and over and over again.”

The two retired Navy SEALs sat quietly in their chairs, staring at one another as if they were communicating without words. Then K leaned back and looked up at the porch ceiling. A stood up and walked off the porch – his left leg obeyed him better than his left fingers, and he walked with only a slight limp.

“I got his number,” A said over his shoulder. “I’ll call him sometime.”

“Don’t push him,” K said. “Don’t pry too hard.”

The San Antonio wind raced over the lake. The sun dropped behind one of the green hills, turning the sky purple and orange and pink.

6 Replies to “Eyes Brown, the Color of Rattlesnake Skin: A Conversation With Veterans”

  1. This is some powerful storytelling, Shawn. Thank you for inviting us to sit quietly on the porch and listen in, respectfully. They say so much with so little…as do you in the retelling.

    So respectful. So important.

  2. Painful, poignant…..especially on this day.
    Some gave all, and all gave much.

    Thank you Shawn for reminding us.

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