(in which Jed Berman reads the diary kept by a Maine soldier named Nathan Thibodeau, who served his country faithfully, then came home and killed those he loved most)
He wrote in great detail. The first letter was dated September 13, 2001, two days after the now infamous 9/11 attacks, the day he mustered into the Army and boarded a bus to Georgia for basic training at Fort Benning. Nathan Thibodeau signed on to be an infantryman with the 198th Infantry Brigade. He told his parents he didn’t want any special treatment, just a chance to defend those he loved against anyone who hated America.
In that first letter—which he appears to have written while he was on the bus—he reminded himself why—at the age of 27—he was on a bus heading away from everyone he loved in this world, so he could be beat up and abused for fourteen hard weeks by calloused drill instructors in Army basic training. He talked about how much his family meant to him, and how angry he was when terrorists shattered everyone’s security by attacking the World Trade Center towers. He confided that he essentially made the decision on his own. He didn’t discuss it with his wife because he knew she would never voluntarily encourage him to go away from her or the kids. He praised the Army recruiter who helped him complete the paperwork, and who inspired him by reciting the values held dear by the Army: loyalty, duty, selfless-service, honor, integrity, and personal courage, values Nathan said he already lived by.
He talked about how much he appreciated the Army already; he wrote that the recruiter even offered him advice on how to buy running shoes so he could start getting in shape before he reported to Fort Benning. As it turned out, Nathan was on the fast track. He wanted to get to work, and he figured he was already in good enough shape to handle basic—all the Army asked was that he be able to do thirteen pushups, twenty-five sit-ups, and run a mile in eight minutes or less. No big deal for Nathan Thibodeau.
He wrote that he missed his wife and the kids already, and that he felt a little bad about splitting so soon without making sure all the finances were in order, but his parents had said they’d look after Jen, and he’d have his pay direct-deposited back in Maine, so he figured she’d have enough money.
After he got to Georgia, Nathan wrote about the orientation sessions that preceded actual basic training. He was impressed by an officer who told his group Fort Benning was committed to imbuing him—he wasn’t quite sure what that word meant but he thought he got the gist of the rest of it—the Army was going to imbue him with a warrior ethos. They were going to train him so well that he could dominate all enemies no matter where he found them, and they would provide the ideal environment for him to grow into a lean, mean fighting machine. That sounded good to Nathan.
He recorded assorted military trivia early in his diary, like the history of saluting, which he said Romans started, greeting each other with their empty right hand, evidence they came to speak, not assassinate. Nathan added that he was more than willing, while he was in the Army, to salute officers, the flag, and our country. It was one of the first things he learned, and he told his diary that he was getting pretty good at it.
Another day he wrote about what he considered the inspiring history of the 198th. They had a pretty good kill rate during the Vietnam War, he said, but they’d done a lot of other good things, too. As part of the pacification efforts, they helped harvest rice in Que Son Valley and managed to capture more of it near a place called Tam Ky. They distributed rice to friendly Vietnamese, and also commandeered and gave out tons of salt. And, Nathan wrote, they built schools. He said he hoped the 198th was still doing those things in the war on terror.
He wrote about how boring it was waiting to actually start training. And then he wrote about how tired he was when they really got into it. When they got to bayonet training, he described how they all ran around a room with their bayonets attached, yelling, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” He confessed that he felt a little funny about that, but he said he figured he’d better get with it if he was going to do his new job right.
Not long after that, he wrote about learning to shoot an M-16. Guns were not new to him; he’d been hunting all his life with his dad. But he admitted, in the diary, that firing at silhouettes meant to look like the enemy made him a little uneasy. He explained that he didn’t have a problem with killing animals, but he’d always approached all of that from a Native American point of view. He wrote that he actually knelt beside the deer or the bear he’d brought down, and thanked the animal and the Great Spirit for letting him have the meat. He said he took considerable grief from some of his hunting buddies when he did it. They laughed at him and called him Sitting Bull, and sometimes asked him if he did the same thing when he was chasing mosquitoes in the summer with a can of pesticide.
When basic training was nearly over, he wrote about how anxious he was to go home and spend time with Jen and the kids before he shipped out. He even kept at it while he was with them, recording everything every member of the family did, so he could remember them when he was sleeping in a tent in the desert. In some of the entries he wrote while he was in Iraq, he mentioned having re-read those early pages and he said it made him feel closer to everybody.
Nathan did two twelve month tours in Iraq. His unit saw a lot of action, and he lost a number of his comrades. He wrote about those moments in the same detail that he described his kids riding their skate boards on the front sidewalk. As time went by, the entries grew darker. He described the day they fired rockets into a house where intel had confirmed several insurgents were hiding out. The blasts leveled the structure. When they walked through the debris, Nathan found the mutilated bodies of three children, alongside a woman who might have been their mother. They also found five dead insurgents and a pile of weapons. Nathan noted that, but he wrote nearly half a page about how he felt knowing he had helped to kill the children. He admitted he didn’t sleep well on nights like that.
Nathan was home for six months between his two trips to Iraq. In his diary, he mentioned that Jen and the kids wanted to know all about his time over there, but he didn’t want to talk about it. He wrote that he still had dreams about what he’d been part of. He said he now had more sympathy for the old World War Two vets in his neighborhood—the ones who’d seen real action—who always changed the topic when he asked them to tell stories about their fighting days. He said he was still committed to his family and his country, and he knew he was fulfilling the values instilled in him first by his parents, and then reinforced by the Army. But he couldn’t find real peace about it in his mind.