Ringo and Wildman are kickin’ it with Jo-Jo, Hazy, Sergeant D, and the rest of the Devil Dogs in the rec room at Maxwell Hall when who should come through the hatch but the old man himself, Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell, the guy for whom the barracks was named.
Thick-shouldered and squared away, Maxwell is dressed in his digital cammies—the sleeves of his tunic rolled cleanly to his biceps, the trouser cuffs banded securely around the shanks of his sand-colored suede combat boots—the uniform of the day aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Forty-two years old with nineteen years in (twenty-three if you count ROTC), Maxwell did five deployments overseas without a scratch. Then one afternoon in 2004, three months into his sixth, in the southern Iraqi town of Kalsu, he decided to take a power nap—fifteen minutes after chow. He’d heard about it somewhere: Many leaders through history had done the same, a short pause to refresh.
Now he pauses just inside the door of Maxwell Hall and looks around, smiling his slightly crooked smile. The right side of his face still lags; it might come back or it might not—there is no way to predict. The room has been recently repainted, the windows replaced. The new carpet is due soon; the workmen have moved on to the fitness center next door. It is July. Outside, the temperature and the humidity are both in the high 90s. Tree frogs bark, cicadas sing their familiar summer song in the lush and tangled undergrowth. In here it is air-conditioned, a cool 69 degrees.A couple dozen enlisted men and NCOs are hanging out—shooting eight ball, playing Call of Duty on the new Xbox 360, watching a cable movie on the big flat-screen TV. One group is huddled together on the doctor’s-office-variety chairs, talking smack, scratching, waiting for pizzas to be delivered so they can eat their afternoon pain meds, which need to be taken with food. (The chow hall is just across the way. Nobody eats there, even though the cost of meals is deducted from their pay, which runs about $1,700 a month for a corporal, $1,300 for a private.) A couple of the guys are racked out on the new leather sofas. One kid with his mouth wide open is snoring loud enough to interrupt the dialog of the movie, Risky Business, about carefree high school boys in the affluent suburbs. Two more guys luxuriate in the massage chairs, fancy models like something from Sharper Image, the hum of which is clearly audible beneath the raucous, clubhouse din generated by this assembly of young men, most of them in their late teens and early twenties, most of them damaged beyond full repair. In conversation, Maxwell calls them “my marines.” He has a thickish Southern drawl that he picked up from some mysterious recess of his brain when he began to recover his speech after in the injury. In fact, he was born in Ohio.
Maxwell spots the guy he’s looking for, moves in that direction, his gait powerful but uneven, like Chesty the bulldog with a limp. He has a strong jaw and piercing blue eyes; there is a large scar on the left side of his head, a ropey pink question mark that runs like concertina wire below the hedge line of his high and tight military flattop. He has trouble reading and taking instructions. His short-term memory is shot. I t took him forever to build the little fort in the backyard for his son, he had to keep rereading each step of the directions over and over again. He tells his daughter to put refrigerator on her tuna sandwich. He refers to the airport as “the place where people come to fly,” and to Somalia, where he once served, as “that country in Africa.” His hernia, which he kept a painful secret so as not to miss his final deployment, is “that problem with your nuts.” He calls the family’s new dog Magic instead of Miracle (though he can remember perfectly the name of their old dog, Bella). His right arm and right leg are functional but “clumpy.”He can still run several miles on a treadmill; he does three sets of ten bicep curls, thirty-five pounds each. Though his IQ, his reflexes, his limb strength, all of his measurable functions are down from their “factory of original,” as he likes to put it, he is still within what doctors tell him are “acceptable ranges.” Acceptable to whom? Maxwell wonders. He will never be the same. He will never be as good. It weighs on him, you can tell. He is the type of man who has spent his whole life pushing and striving, trying to raise his score or to lower his time, a man who never took the easy path: As a high school kid, he wanted to play lineman in football, even though he weighted only 140 pounds. He took his undergrad degree in engineering and a masters in statistics, even though he struggled with math. He eats “morale” pills (he tried four varieties before settling on Effexor), anti-seizure pills (five varieties), more pills every day than he is capable of recalling. All the pills have side effects. Here is the list for Effexor: constipation, dizziness, dry mouth, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, nervousness, sexual side effects, sleepiness, sweating, and weakness. Ask your doctor if Effexor may be right for you. Ooh-rah. Sometimes, his brain starts to crash—that is his word for it. His speech becomes slurry; he gets this look on his face like a guy who has been up for several days doing alcohol and drugs. He just has to shut it all down and go to bed. It happened earlier this week, after he drove the six hours in his old green Land Rover to Quantico, Virginia, to meet his new boss. He is still on active duty. He’s due to report to his new billet in one week.
Corporal Justin Kinnee is sitting on one of the sofas, staring at the flat-screen through a pair of dark Nike sport sunglasses, the kind issued to troops in Iraq. Several of the guys in the room are wearing them. Extreme sensitivity to light can be one of the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Ddilated pupils, another cause of light sensitivity, can also be a side effect of some prescription drugs. In previous U.S. military conflicts, 14 to 20 percent of surviving casualties reportedly suffered TBIs. Of the twenty-eight thousand American troops injured so far in Iraq, anywhere from a quarter to a half are estimated to have suffered TBIs. Another statistic: The marines, which is the smallest of all the US armed forces, has sustained nearly one-third of all the causalities in Iraq, due to assignments in sectors like the Anbar Province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency and the deadliest place in Iraq for US troops thus far in the war. In bygone days, after you got whacked, the Marine Corps gave you a Purple Heart—the medal that no marine wants—and a discharge. Then they sent you on your way to deal with the Veterans Administration for the rest of your life. Now, due to Maxwell’s efforts, there is not only a barracks for wounded warriors aboard Camp Lejeune (and another aboard Camp Pendleton in California), there is also a brand-new Wounded Warrior Regiment in the Marine Corps. That’s why Maxwell is moving—he’s joining the general staff as an advisor. Though none of the men know it yet, this is his last day in Maxwell Hall.
Before he enlisted, Kinnee was a sheriff’s deputy in Cherokee County, Georgia. He’d been in Iraq three months when a piece of shrapnel ripped open his neck. He lost five of his six quarts of blood, stroked out, died in the dust. Somehow, they saved him. There is a precise-looking scar on his head, just right of center—running from the front hairline to the back, like a part scissored into his crew cut, which he has trimmed for seven dollars every Sunday after church—where they removed a portion of his skull to allow his brain to swell after the stroke. Now he has an acrylic plate and twenty screws, “five screws per manhole cover,” he likes to say; you can feel where the plate starts. As a result of the stroke, his left arm doesn’t work. He takes special meds to keep it from becoming palsied; at night, he also sleeps with a brace on his hand. After he sits down, he will typically use his right hand to reach over and pick up his left arm by the wrist and place it on his lap, this inert thing attached to him that must be managed.
“How you doin’, Kinnee?” Maxwell asks. He cops a lean on the arm of the sofa opposite, crosses his arms.
Kinnee looks up, groggy at first, uninterested. Then he realizes who’s in front of him and snaps to a seated form of attention. Though he can’t fully dress himself without help (the fussy rolled cuffs and trousers ties, the calf-high lace-up boots; “try putting on a sock with one hand,” he says in his typical challenging tone, the result of personality changes and disinhibition caused by the death of the right hemisphere of his brain) he is one of the more motivated marines in Maxwell Hall, at least when it comes to doing chores and maintaining military discipline. Having joined later in life than most of the guys, Kinnee, twenty-six, is more serious. He made corporal in only two years. This was going to be a career for him.
“Fine and dandy, sir,” Kinnee answers dryly. There is a cast to his face, a waxen awkwardness, as if the left side and the right side are expressing different emotions simultaneously. Think of your mouth after dental surgery. He always carries tissues or a napkin to mop up any moisture. Kinnee’s tongue is tricky, too, as is Maxwell’s. The words come out with some difficulty.
“Did you start that morale pill we talked about?” Maxwell asks. “That shit is intense.”
A puzzled expression: “How so, sir?”
“How much did the doc give you per day?”
“I’m not sure. I told him what we talked about. How I was concerned, you know, about how my brother was saying I seemed to be more short-tempered than before. I got some concern that I don’t wanna change too much or I’ll push everybody away.”
“Give yourself about two, three weeks,” Maxwell advises. “After that, if you don’t like the side effects, or if you think it’s making you feel too weird or whatever, go back to that fuckin’ doctor and get yourself another kind. I had to try a few different kinds before I go this one, I can’t remember the frickin’ name—my wife told you, right? Temper is what they started giving it to me for a long time ago, actually. So give it a shot. But don’t expect a miracle.”
“I’ll try, sir.”
Maxwell regards him a moment, sizing him up the way mother might at the end of a long school day. “Your morale seems better,” he says. “That trip home musta did you good. Did you get that ball for your hand?”
Maxwell thumps the corporal playfully on the shoulder. “Come on, man.” Before he was injured, Kinnee was bench-pressing 225 pounds. He carried heavy field radio equipment. He studies his boots.
“How much does it work?” Maxwell asks, his tone bright and encouraging.
Looking up: “What?”
“The arm. How much does it work? Does it have some utility?”
“I can squeeze the hand shut but I can’t open it,” Kinnee says. He doesn’t bother to demonstrate.
“Fuckin’ brain injuries,” Maxwell says, shaking his head. “You know that, um—what’s that chubby kid’s name?”
“Reynolds,” Maxwell repeats, tapping the front of his broad forehead with his fingertip. “Reynolds. Reynolds. Before I leave, I have to go around and get everyone’s picture and label them. I can’t remember anyone’s frickin’ name.”
“I can only remember what I knew before, sir,” Kinnee concurs.
“Anyway, R-R-Reynolds,” Maxwell says, struggling with the name, his jaw working awkwardly on its hinge like a man with a bad stutter. “R-Reynolds’ hand didn’t work at all and his leg didn’t work. But look at him now. He got a lot of it back.”
“We’ll see,” Kinnee says, not at all convinced. In the images he’s seen of his brain, the left side is entirely white, rhe right side is entirely black. “That means it’s dead,” he’ll explain later.
Maxwell searches the ceiling for a lighter topic. In earlier phases of his military career, he often found himself out among the troops, polling them, taking stock, reporting back to superiors. He likes to see himself as an idea man, as a guy who understands a little bit about what people need. Like the day he came across that young Devil Dog alone in his barracks, crying. The rest of his unit was still in Iraq. This boy was back at home, injured and alone, fighting his own fight, trying to recover. Wounds in combat are not like the ones in the movies. You hear about the amputees, the burn guys. But one bullet through the arm can turn a bone to sand. The nerve damage creates pain enough to make a junkie. The limb will never be right again. From day one in training, they teach a marine that there’s no I in Team. They teach him that he’s only as good as the man on his left and the man on his right. They teach him to be a lean, mean, killing machine. But what happens after the machine is broken?
So it was that Maxwell took his idea up the chain of command. He was assisted by his wife, Shannon, who had started a support group for marine families, and by Thomas Barraga, a former marine and a local legislator in Suffolk County, New York, who worked with Maxwell to write a proposal for a “medical rehabilitation platoon.” Within fourteen months of Maxwell’s injury, by order of Lieutenant General James F. Amos, then-commanding general of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, there was a new central billet for injured marines. Maxwell Hall was open.
Maxwell checks his watch. His arm rotates awkwardly; he also took shrapnel to his left elbow. “A’ight,” he drawls, “I gotta get going to the next item on my checkout list. I’m almost done. I gotta go to the C, uh”—he stumbles over the initials—“CSI.”
“What’s that, sir?”
Maxwell thinks a moment. “Oh. CSI is a movie. About cops.”
“You mean, frickin’, uh—” Kinnee gestures in the air with his hand, pointing generally to the west.
“Yeah. You know. The, uh—” an open palm, wrist rotating in the same direction.
Nodding conclusively: “Yeah.”
“Okay, then. Catch you later.”