March 12, 2010

Someone we’ve met before

By Deacon Patrick Moynihan *

I have to say that I was quite happy with the Oscars.  Not only did the hype of “Avatar” fade, but, against the odds, “The Hurt Locker” won.  Many doubted the ability of this relatively limited release and low grossing film to make it in the final round.  Yet, “The Hurt Locker” won six awards, including Best Director and Best Picture.  Bravo!

“The Hurt Locker’s” win over “Avatar” was not just a victory for its cast, writer, and director. It was a victory for humanity and truth.  Unlike “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker” tells a true story.  In the story, the truth was not so much in the details as it was in the presentation of a soldier whom we have met before—the soldier who cannot go home.

In this case, his name is Staff Sergeant James, a bomb diffuser.  Like the thousands of real men and women he represents, James is a very human soldier, not without flaws, who stays on his mission even in the face of the extreme danger and the complexity it creates in his life.  James is neither a mindless patriot nor a warmonger; he is a compassionate individual looking for purpose in the toughest of circumstances, in the hurt locker.  In the end, he is wrenched from our reality, relegated to a space between here and the hereafter.  His only home is his mission.

I was first introduced to this soldier by Hemingway.  His name was Krebs and his story was told as part of the American classic, “In Our Time.”  Hemingway’s version starts after the “hurt” has happened.  He does not give us a window into the events of the war. Instead, he focuses on the question: where is a soldier’s home once he has been through the hurt locker? Unable to reconnect with civilian society and with no war to return to, Krebs lives in a limbo, surrounded by non-descript people living in an unnamed Oklahoma town.

I reencountered this soldier in the movie “Blackhawk Down.” This time, his name is Master Sergeant Hooten, and he is played by Eric Bana.  From time to time, he comes in from the shadows to mentor Sgt. Evers Mann, the main character who is veteran Delta Force. Hooten’s solution to the confusion and pain is to return to the hell where what to do is clear.

I met a live version of Krebs and Sergeant James while attending Culver Military Academy.  His name was Sergeant Major Hart.  When I met Sergeant Hart, he was a plump, unassuming man who reviewed leave requests and handled discipline for the commandant of cadets.  However, there was a depth in his responses to even the simplest of questions that gave him away.  He was by no means a simple man.

Like Krebs, Sergeant Hart would say nothing about his past. It took some time to learn what had happened to deepen the well behind his eyes. Eventually, I learned that he was a “returner.”  Instead of coming home after his tours in Viet Nam, he signed up for another and another.  Thank God, that war finally ended and he found his home with toy soldiers who kept a respectful distance in awe of the flourish of stripes on his sleeves and the stars for valor that spoke of the quality and length of his service. 

In the end, the term “hurt locker” is just the newest term for the essential fact of war: War hurts and this hurt changes its participants forever.  It carries them out of our existence.  It is no wonder that many men and women who have seen combat often find it hard to reconnect with home.  What has become their home is an elevated reality that is far more intense than anything found in normal life.  They have disconnected with us because they have connected with something beyond us.

For those who have seen too much, there are only a few options. The blessed can head to the monasteries. The lucky can bury the past and start again. But, some, unready for home or heaven, can only head back into the hurt, soup, or whatever we choose to call it at the time for another look.

Essentially, Bigelow captured a reality that Cameron can only fantasize about.

Deacon Patrick Moynihan graduated Culver Military Academy in 1983, from Brown University with BA in Sanskrit and Classics in 1987, and from Providence College with an MA in Religious Studies [Theology] in 1999.

He taught Latin and English in a Catholic High School from 1987 to 1990, traded commodities, futures and options for an international trading company from 1990 to 1995 and directed a free Catholic mission school in Haiti for academically gifted children from the poorest areas around Port au Prince from 1996 to 2006.

Deacon Moynihan was ordained in October of 2001 as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Rockford [IL] where he was the director of formation and later the Office for the Permanent Diaconate from 2001 to 2006. He has since gone back to Haiti and is currently the president of The Haitian Project.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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