“War Veteran.” I cringed at the words and the blatant disregard for privacy. Scribbled in pencil across the top of the resume, they’d been written by my boss, who handed me the paper so dismissively that I knew the interview was a meaningless exercise.
He smelled of motor oil, and there was dirt darkening the undersides of his fingernails. His crinkly smile had been stained by the sun – the skin was prematurely wrinkled, giving the grizzled look of someone nearer forty than his actual twenty-something age. As he extended a rough hand, I noticed the tattoo on his forearm – striking against the pale skin there – of a skull backed by wisps of night ~ a black wind.
I’d been informed that he’d had a “rough time of it” during his tour. When caught in a burning tank, he simply froze – had to be dragged out through the flames. So much for privacy. I was also told he didn’t want to talk about his time there, which was fine with me.
The weathered lines of his forehead ~ those deep creases, furrowed by wind and sun and flying sand, will be with him from now on, but they do not mar his face as they might others. Despite these lines, he’s still a kid – barely old enough to sit in a bar, yet he’s seen more people die than most octogenarians. One moment he was sheepish, shy, withdrawn – the next outgoing, outspoken, almost inappropriately exuberant. I wondered if this was an effect of the war.
I liked him immediately – not for his history, nor his open friendliness, but for his mere existence – for having gone there, for having the fortitude – untested or not – to accept and meet his orders – and especially for having been unable to deal with it. There is no cowardice in that. If anything, there is something greater for those who can’t abide.
His earnest hope moved me. Just a few years younger, he retains that hopeful outlook, even after having lived through all of that.
He sat slightly hunched over for the whole of our interview. After giving the introductory spiel, some small talk banter, and a few requisite smiles, my boss launched into his short list of questions. I watched the man work out his answers,
When challenged, he retreats, choosing flight over fight, and killing his chances with the company. I almost cringe at his hasty withdrawal, sensing the otherwise-imperceptible shift in my boss to my left as he quietly ends the interview then and there. The rest is cordial formality. The soldier has sealed his fate, and all of his fighting has been for naught.
He doesn’t know this – can’t read the boss like I can, and that’s the way it’s been designed. This young man, in spite of his possible capability, will never work for us. I know that, the boss knows that – only the soldier is unaware. His fight goes on – his is the only fight that goes on.
When he shakes my hand on his departure, I wonder if maybe he does know – his smile is sadder, his grip a bit more desperate, and his eyes are wild with hope – ignited fervor from a prayer – and somehow resigned – dejectedly accepting of his fate – as fallen soldier, as failed hero, combat disaster.
A few weeks later I run into him again on the street, shamefully averting my eyes and pretending I don’t see him. The company has hired someone else – a kid fresh out of college, with a sharp suit and tie, and a briefcase that he never opened.
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