Easier to Die

When I was twenty I dated a girl named Abigail whose father was a colonel in the Corps. She was adorable, but wouldn’t have sex with me. Our brief relationship ended with my deployment overseas, where chastity was viewed less as a virtue and more as a punchline.

After a few months came the inevitable you-have-hurt-me-more-than-you-could-ever-know-you-heartless-bastard-letter. Back when people still used mail. In an unusual display of wisdom, I elected not to respond.

I decided to stay deployed as long as possible. Months turned into years, by which time I was having too much fun with the unchaste women of the non-American world to remember Abigail or her father. I’m pretty sure they forgot about me.

Abigail lived in one of those pseudo-affluent brick-faced D.C. suburbs where every man is an amateur Civil War historian and every woman bakes pies. Her mom and dad were nice enough people.

Her uncle was an alcoholic who lived in a station wagon on the other side of town where everyone is an amateur chemist and no one gives a damn. He too was a Marine (once a Marine, always a Marine). He had served in Korea with Chesty Puller and won a Silver Star for capturing a company of Chinese by himself.

At the Battle of Chosin, the First Marine Division got themselves surrounded by a foe that outnumbered them ten-to-one, and had to fight their way out of some of the worst conditions man has ever faced in combat, not the least of which involved a fifty mile movement by foot through a series of mountain passes in the middle of a blizzard blown down from Siberia that lasted fourteen days.

Temperatures dipped as low as -35F, too cold for many weapons to function. Men fought with axes and bayonets, and over 7,000 Marines died from exposure to the cold alone. Fourteen Medals of Honor came from that single battle.

Abigail’s uncle Hank was on watch one night while his platoon was sleeping. He was manning a machine gun position behind a snowbank while everyone else was hunkered down in their tents, all mostly buried in the snow. When the end of his watch came, he went to wake up the guy who was supposed to be his relief, but he refused to get out of his sleeping bag.

It was just too damn cold.

He tried to wake someone else, but no one would get up. Hank went back to his post. About a minute later, he smelled the Chinese coming. The Chinese used a lot of garlic in their cooking, so if you were paying attention you could smell a patrol before you could see them.

He tried to wake another Marine, but no one would come out of his tent.

“It’s not that they didn’t understand we were about to be slaughtered,” he said. “It was just a lot easier to die than to face that fucking cold.”

Hank ran back to his machine gun, hunkered down, and waited until almost all of the patrol was in view. Then he fired every round of ammunition he had from his machine gun, decimating that Chinese outfit. There was no place for them to run.

The ones left standing when the last round on that ammo belt snapped off went down to their knees. They threw away their weapons. The Marine grabbed his carbine and rounded them up. One man versus a company.

Hank died right before I went overseas.

He froze to death that winter in the back of his station wagon in his nation’s capitol. His car was found parked a few blocks from the Marine Memorial. Hank’s body was in the back in a sleeping bag frozen around a bottle of vodka.

I’m not sure I buy the traditional PTSD/homeless vet line anymore. In some scenarios, sure. But in many it’s just fucking hard for a real warrior to return to the inconsequence of regular American life. It’s not that he couldn’t get over Korea – it’s that he couldn’t get over a country full of people who couldn’t rouse themselves from bed to save their own lives.

When every day is spent working in an office cubicle for eight hours, commuting home through traffic to a nagging wife and ADHD kids, freezing to death in the back of a station wagon doesn’t seem so bad.