All photos/art by Jonathan Kozowyk
He wonders: How wide do his shoulders need to be? How open his heart? How deep his soul? Can he ever really understand what it’s like to lose a child, even as he looks parents in the eye and lets them fold their grief into his arms?
He has been telling me about a time when Vermont National Guard soldiers were patrolling Ramadi, considered the most dangerous place in Iraq, and how “basically their mission was to walk beside convoys and draw fire. They were walking targets. Just waiting to be killed. And,” he added, “no matter how good a soldier you are, if they want to blow you up, they can do it; it just depends on which vehicle you’re riding in.”
And then Jon Coffin, Vermont National Guard colonel, one of only six psychologists in the country’s National Guard system, stood up and walked away from the table, shaking his head, choking back tears. It was late June 2010 and he had just turned 65, the oldest soldier in the Vermont Guard. He knows that therapists are supposed to distance themselves from those they help, but this is his dilemma: Jon Coffin does not do distance.
We were talking at the Howard Center in Burlington, Vermont’s largest social-services agency, where in his civilian life he has worked since 1973. He’s tall and lean, gone bald, dressed as always in combat fatigues. His specialty is alcohol- and substance-abuse counseling. But since 2002, when the first Vermont Guardsmen deployed, thousands of ordinary citizens have been thrust into extraordinary danger. They’ve seen not only their own lives but their families’ in turmoil because of wartime deployments. Now Coffin’s work is to help citizen soldiers prepare to leave, and to be there when they come home; to help them, he said, “leave their hauntings behind.”
He listens to soldiers in the first raw hours after they fly back from war, before they rush into the happy embrace of family. On bases distant from Vermont, he and a small, hand-picked team coax out the anger and the memories that nobody wants to talk about–the memories they cannot now or maybe never will share with family, friends, co-workers.
He brings them into a circle, 10, 15, 20 soldiers at a time. He asks: “Where were you? What did you do? … What was the worst part for you? How did you handle the worst part? … How did it feel when you walked off the plane? Down the steps onto the earth? … What lessons have you learned to take with you?”
Each soldier will have a short story and a long story. The short story begins: “I was justa … I was justa gunner … I was justa medic.” “Not good enough,” Coffin will say. It’s the long stories he goes after. He and his team have done this, more than 100 different sessions, three hours at a time, morning, afternoon, and night, during a dozen different demobilizations, listening until he wore out, and those helping him wore out. He calls it a “sacred time,” the last time many of the soldiers will still be together. He said he has watched as soldiers reunite with their families, walking away and turning their heads, looking back for one another.
“The guys I worry about are the ones who say, ‘I’m fine, and I don’t want to talk about it,'” Coffin said. “They believe that if you think about it, it gets worse; that if you talk about it, it gets worse. I don’t think that’s a great idea.”
Coffin uses everything he believes in–spiritualism, mysticism, Eastern philosophy, Western philosophy–to help Guardsmen cope with the conflicted choices combat soldiers often face. He may tell them about his own personal struggles: two failed marriages, his early battle with alcohol, his search for meaning after the Vietnam War. Whatever it takes he’ll try. What he won’t say is that the people who know him best worry about him; that his two grown children, who live in Maine, worry about him; that he worries, too.
“As soon as we sent troops over, I got involved,” he said. “And it started to tear me up. I started to over-identify. One young soldier said to me, ‘I thank you for your concern, but frankly, sir, I am f—– . All of us are f—–.’ A 21- year-old kid said to me when he got back, ‘What’s the point, sir?’ He felt he had lost his soul, with no redemption. That we sent him to hell and now he can’t get out. These wars are journeys to the gates of hell, and I wanted to go there with our soldiers.”
“‘Tortured’ is not too hard a word for how Jon struggles with the burden he’s carrying on his back and in his heart,” said Todd Centybear, Coffin’s longtime friend, colleague, and, as the Howard Center’s executive director, the one who funds Coffin so that he can devote himself full-time to soldiers. “Never have I seen him like this, trying to alleviate the burden of the men and women he’s working with. He’s paying a price. It’s used up not just mental resources but physical. But it’s a price he’s willing to pay as part of his duty. It’s his personal deployment. Is it the right burden? I don’t know. I don’t know if he can make it through.”
By this June morning, the Vermont Guard had lost 11 soldiers, their names engraved on the Vermont National Guard Fallen Heroes Memorial wall at Camp Johnson in Colchester, six miles from Burlington. Coffin works with those who return with hidden wounds, unable to shed what they’ve witnessed, or done; those who have lived a year as if crossing a street blindfolded, never knowing when they would be struck, and can’t find a way to be normal again.
“Nobody comes back unchanged,” Coffin said. “Nobody. You know that 80 percent of what they do over there may be good, but it’s the other 20 percent that will stay with them, and maybe 1 percent of that could haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
He seeks out not only combat soldiers, but also those whose pain could stay hidden–like the ones who must deliver somber news. “The hardest work,” Coffin said. “They’re the dark angels. Nobody wants to see them. There are people who beat on them. Others collapse on the floor.”
He told me about one notification in a small Vermont city. The soldiers arrived at an office and everyone in the cubicles started crying. They knew who had a son overseas. But the father seemed oblivious. He kept thanking them and saying he would write his son and tell them how kind they’d been to visit. The young soldier assigned to say, “We regret to inform you …” couldn’t utter a word. He tried three times. Finally the chaplain with them took the father aside. “That experience will linger with them,” Coffin said.
He told me about a Guardsman assigned to stand vigil beside a casket in a small-town armory. “It was one of those cases where we recommend that the remains not be viewed by the family,” Coffin said. “But the family has a choice. So it’s the middle of the night and the wife shows up and wants to view the remains. And [the Guardsman] is all by himself. The wife is clawing at the coffin. He calls the soldier’s father. He comes right down there. So they’re all around the casket. And the boy’s father is trying to persuade her not to open the casket.”
Coffin stopped. He rubbed his hands over his face. “There’s no book on this one. The father was able to get her to come to his house and sleep, telling her they were all crazy with grief. But there’s that soldier still standing vigil. Whom will he talk to about this?”
It’s no secret that Vermont has drawn some of the toughest assignments–their elite mountain training seemed to demand it–and it’s no secret that for the size of its population, the state has suffered more losses than any other. Nearly everyone seems to know someone whose life has been forever changed by war. “We’ve been put in some awfully tough places,” Coffin said.
I replied that the ripples must touch nearly every town in Vermont. “Not ripples,” he corrected. “Tsunamis.” He shook his head, and stopped until he gathered himself. “We just had the largest deployment of the National Guard in Vermont history–1,500 soldiers. Many were just starting to re-adjust to being back home from Iraq, and then we had to crank them up again for Afghanistan. There’s no state of the art for this. I’m emotional because it’s too much.” His hands engulfed his face again. “Too much war,” he said. “Eight years in, it’s too much.”
He said that the soldiers who had left five months earlier, in January, would come home in time for Christmas: “When we see them off, I say, ‘We’ll be waiting when you come down the stairs.’ It’s profound when these guys get off the plane. It’ll be 3:00 in the morning. Almost every soldier says it’s unbelievable to see the welcome. First thing I say is …” For a moment he couldn’t speak. “First thing I say is: ‘I love you.'”
On July 1, 2010, eight days after I met Colonel Coffin, Ryan Grady, a 25-year-old Guardsman from West Burke, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He was the first from the January deployment to die. On August 22, the news came again. Steven DeLuzio, age 25, a Connecticut native who had attended Norwich University in Vermont and wanted to serve with a Vermont unit, and Tristan Southworth, age 21, both members of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, had died together in a firefight in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.
Southworth, who only three years earlier had been the starting pitcher in the state championship baseball game, came home to the Northeast Kingdom in a convoy that wound its way east from Burlington through the village of Walden, where he’d grown up, before halting just northwest of there, in Hardwick, where he’d attended high school. Its sidewalks were lined with people clutching flags. Our Hero You Will Never Be Forgetten read a banner across the front of the small inn in the town center.
He was buried on a blue-sky morning. Helicopters bearing officers in their dress uniforms landed on the green lawn of Hazen Union High School, whirling dust into the air. The gym overflowed with mourners, and all was stillness and heat and solemn military ritual.
His high-school teammates, dressed in their baseball jerseys, sat together; his family sat in front, their faces set hard in determination to make it through the morning. An officer knelt and handed them their son’s medals, including the Bronze Star. After the service, everyone walked silently out into the searing sun, where volunteers offered chilled bottles of water, and then the long, slow procession bore them away to the cemetery.
After the gym had emptied, Colonel Coffin lingered behind, his face weary and drawn. He stood beside a memorial to Tristan Southworth: boyhood photos, his basketball jersey signed by teammates, a story he wrote honoring his cousin, who had received the Medal of Honor after giving his life by falling on a grenade in Vietnam.
Coffin wants to be the last one to leave a service, the last to leave the cemetery. “I’m looking to see if somebody is hanging back,” he said. “Most likely they’re hanging back for a reason.” Lately he has suffered headaches, at times he has been unable to read or to sit at a computer. A pain specialist told him it was because his eyes never stopped looking, as if he were afraid he’d miss something–so vigilant, so tense, he was a cord ready to snap.
He remembered one summer funeral when he was waiting at the cemetery: “I saw two young guys, country boys dressed up, a tie and zippered jacket. ‘How you boys doing?’ I said.
“‘Not quite done yet?’
“‘No, no, want to just say goodbye.’
“They told me that when their friend was home on leave, he’d bought a new hunting rifle. ‘He gave it to me to take care of for him,’ the young guy said. ‘I cleaned it last night. And I turned it over and over in my hands. And now I don’t know what to do with it.’ And his buddy put his hand on his shoulder.
“And what came to me, I just said, ‘Look, there’s nobody better in the world than you to have it.’ And I think that made a difference for him.”
He remembered another summer day in Vermont, another young soldier killed by a roadside bomb: “I saw an honor guard standing alone, leaning against a tree. I almost didn’t see him. He was maybe 22 at best. I thanked him for his service, and I could see he’d been crying. ‘I should have been the one who died,’ he said. ‘It was my job, and we switched. It should be me in that ground over there.”’
Coffin said he sometimes questions himself: “Who am I? I’m just a psychologist, and this is spiritual. What should I say? And then it comes to me: This is my gift. Step up … [I said to him,] ‘What would he say to you, right now? What is he saying right now?’ And that young soldier found a way, I hope, to know it wasn’t on him.”
On this day, the sun was burning the grass at the cemetery on Main Street in Hardwick, as Tristan Southworth entered the earth, and the slow notes of “Taps” rang out, and the quiet followed. Coffin waited, and after everybody had left, he walked for a while in town, people nodding at him in his uniform. Then he drove west, alone, through the hills to a friend’s house, where he lives in a single room. He’s not a man of few words; his phone messages to his children can exhaust their voicemail systems. But when he’s asked to put into words what he–a man who asks this of soldiers all the time–feels, he says simply, “My heart is broken.”
When Jon Coffin came home to his native Maine from the Vietnam War, where he had commanded a listening post in Thailand, there were no welcome-home ceremonies, no counselors waiting to tend to their readjustment. They were sent home alone and on their own to figure out what would come next in a country that for the most part was hoping the war and those who had fought in it would vanish like a stain in the wash. He had joined the R.O.T.C. while at Middlebury College, where he’d played football, scraped by in classes, and then, like a number of his friends, headed off to Southeast Asia.
Once home, he soon moved to Vermont with his first wife, a Thai woman he had met during the war, and with whom he would have a son and a daughter. He went back to school for the first of three graduate degrees and began working with substance-abuse offenders. In 1973, Coffin joined the Vermont National Guard medical corps, partly for the “quick $500” and partly to find meaning again in what he considered a “brotherhood.”
The Guard had never seen anyone quite like him. Sometimes while in training, Guardsmen would awaken and peer out of their tents and see Coffin doing yoga or tai chi or meditating in a clearing. He spoke of spirit guides and read deeply–poetry and philosophy and spiritualism, and especially the writings of Robert Bly, author of Iron John, who felt that modern men had lost their way. He always placed at the top in fitness tests, and even as the years passed, he could still finish 75 sit-ups in two minutes. In 1993, he took command of the elite 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, for two years, and tried to hide the fact that he feared heights. With a guide, he pushed himself to ascend an ice wall used in training at Smugglers’ Notch. Lieutenant Colonel David Manfredi, the current mountain battalion commander, who once served under Coffin, recalled how the unit stood in fierce, penetrating cold and how Coffin gathered them together and said, “The difference between you and everyone else is one quarter-inch–that quarter-inch that lets your chest stick out in pride.”
“I never forgot that,” Manfredi said. Coffin ended his phone messages with one word: “Blessings.” The soldiers called Coffin “Monk Rambo.”
The elements of his life merge in his office. One wall is draped with news clippings, photographs, obituaries–friends from Middlebury who died in Vietnam, National Guardsmen and regular Army personnel, too, who have died in the Middle East–his personal wall of men he misses, of graves he has stood beside. Each photograph, each clipping, carries a final memory. Here is the 21-year-old whose funeral was held in the same village church where only a year earlier he had married his childhood sweetheart. They had ridden the schoolbus together since first grade, had been each other’s first date.
“The army chaplain spoke,” Coffin recalled, “and said that that morning he and his grandson had seen a bottle sticking out of the earth, all crusted with ice. So he’d chipped away at it and gotten it out, and something had caught his eye. It was a note. He had a hacksaw in the car and cut it open: ‘I’m glad you found me–Adam.'” Coffin’s voice now was a hoarse whisper: “That was the soldier’s name. And then the chaplain walked off the pulpit. You could hear a pin drop. When, when, was the last time you found a note in a bottle?”
Here is another, one of the first Vermonters to die in Iraq. He left a wife and a son: “We were at a ceremony at the Fallen Heroes Memorial. And I see the boy. He’s now maybe 11. I see he’s wandering around by himself. I say, ‘How you been?’ Quite a day to be here, huh?’
“‘Yeah, I don’t understand it all.’
“‘Well, you belong here.’
“‘Yeah, I know. What is this wall here?’
“‘All the guys who’ve been killed in the war, their names are on the wall.’
“‘Oh, so is that what those plaques are?’
“It occurs to me that nobody’s brought him up there to see. It was one of those moments where I say to myself, ‘Who am I? What should I say?’ I say, ‘Do you want to go up and take a look?’ And he holds my hand and we go up.”
A second wall in Coffin’s office is filled with eight self-portraits, drawn under the tutelage of a Santa Fe artist. They’re vivid, strange, luminous–a man with eyes so large they’re like wild moons within a face. “Something emotional comes out when you do these,” Coffin said. “It’s a guy I’ve dreamed about. There’s not a good name for it; maybe he’s an angel or a spirit ally. I call him ‘Rondal.’ In a dream I was climbing up a deep, circular turret made of stone, like a dungeon. Out of the corner of my eye, there’s a guy with a knife waiting to kill me. And my guy, my spirit ally, took care of him for me. Sounds crazy, but I sure like having him up on the wall surrounding me.”
In his own way, Coffin has also been the protector of soldiers he feels should stay home. One soldier’s father lay in a hospital bed in the family’s living room. His wife, with two small children, would need to care for him. “He wanted to go,” Coffin said. “Nearly all want to go. They train together; they’re in this together. But I had to make him understand that there can be a nobility in taking care of people here, too.”
Another soldier had already deployed once; his wife said that if he deployed again, she would leave. “The three of us went to a quiet place for coffee,” Coffin said. The more he listened, the more he realized that there were compelling reasons beneath the surface for the soldier to stay and keep his family together. He made sure the soldier didn’t deploy. Coffin didn’t tell them that once when he and his second wife were out to dinner with some other couples, “one of my wife’s friends said to me, ‘What’s more important, your marriage or your work?’ I made the mistake of answering truthfully.”
On this November day in 2010, Coffin was scrambling to get everything ready before leaving in three days for Camp Atterbury in Indiana. Soon the first wave of Guardsmen would arrive home, and then every four days another planeload, until the final plane would land just before Christmas. The Army had just told him that most of the support he’d thought he’d have had been, in military terms, “deleted”–budget cuts. Coffin now knew that he couldn’t accomplish the long, intense debriefing sessions; too many soldiers, too few days, too few trained people to help. “All the strikes are against us,” he said. “I had vet-center people coming, I had counselors from the Howard Center, and I haven’t had the courage yet to tell them they can’t come. I’m going to be the only f—— psychologist there.”
Who he would have would be a small group of nurses, including Colonel Janet Thomas, a school nurse with nearly 30 years of Guard duty behind her, who had been with him on previous demobilizations; Major Tom Johnston, a semi-retired dentist who would be pressed into counseling duties, and Staff Sergeant Jason Cleveland, a smart, hard-nosed bear of a man who had served two intense and bloody tours. “He talks to soldiers from his bones,” Coffin said.
Cleveland had also once flown back from war and found Colonel Coffin waiting. “I thought, ‘Who is this kooky guy who wants to hug me and tells me he loves me?'” But he saw how Coffin got to him and his fellow soldiers, and he wanted to be part of it. “He got the importance of it,” Coffin said.
Cleveland wears the combat patches on his sleeves, one from Iraq, one from Afghanistan, that tell soldiers that whatever they went through, he did, too. When he tells them that therapy saved his marriage; that he thought he could escape 12 ounces at a time; that you can tell a soldier to f— himself, but you can’t say that to your wife; that your family deployed with you and worried about you every day; that he lost half his squad in one day and that he locked himself in a room in Iraq with the rest of his team and they drank and played video games until they couldn’t feel; that he knows about nightmares and feeling as though you’re living on a cliff; that “you can’t just file what happened to you in a drawer and walk away”–when he tells them those things–he has their attention.
So in Indiana, Coffin and his small team would have to fan out: find soldiers who served with Grady and DeLuzio and Southworth; find others considered at possible risk to themselves or to others. Before leaving Afghanistan, the Guardsmen had filled out a questionnaire, and nearly 300 had been identified as in need of followup counseling. Coffin and his team would have to find them in the barracks, in the mess hall, walking across the barren base.
Coffin packs stacks of cards with his phone number, which he hands out to soldiers, along with hugs. The cards say Exchanges of Significance. What he hopes to do in Indiana is “sow the seeds; have conversations. What they’ve been doing is dehumanizing. But you try and get people to come back and be human.”
There’s that. And then there’s this: On his desk was a booklet about suicide in the National Guard, which is rising at an alarming rate. What he has said to Jason Cleveland is what he tells everyone who comes to work beside him: “Talk to everyone. Don’t ignore anything.” And he always adds, “You’re going to save a life while you’re down here.”
To reach Camp Atterbury, you drive 32 miles south of Indianapolis, past the silos and the snow-veined fields, with semis bullying past on I-65. Outside Edinburgh, its mall all lit up for Christmas, you come to the base, 12 miles long, 4 wide, a town unto itself. There in the early dark of a raw mid-December night, Colonel Coffin pulls his rented sedan in front of a barracks. Two young men, waiting outside, quickly slide in. They’re in their early twenties, and they’re from small towns near Lake Champlain. They’d lost their driver’s licenses before they deployed because of DUIs. To re-enter civilian life, to have a chance at a job, they need their suspensions lifted. This is why for the second night Coffin is escorting them to an AA meeting about 20 minutes away. When he sees these young soldiers, he sees himself long ago, back from war, full of questions without answers.
What the soldiers don’t know is that the colonel who’s driving them can’t see well at night, especially on an unfamiliar road. Nor do they know that Sergeant Cleveland remembers a time when Coffin was driving him to the airport. Coffin had trouble holding the lane, drifting back and forth. When they finally got on the plane, one of the medical team peered at Coffin and his glasses. “Sir,” he pointed out, “do you know you’re missing a lens?”
“He just loses himself in soldiers,” Cleveland says. “He forgets everything else.” Now Coffin drives warily through the Indiana night.
There’s nothing Jon Coffin wants to do more than talk to soldiers. “Nothing else feels as real to me,” he says, and for a month they’ve been everywhere, knit caps pulled over their ears, walking from barracks to mess hall, from meeting to meeting, sometimes just walking in groups feeling the air; four days here, then a plane to Burlington and the family reunions, with reporters and cameras capturing the moment. What worries Coffin is what happens after the moment.
When Coffin and the two young men arrive at the AA meeting, they sit in the back, beside the brewing coffee, and watch in silence. When the meeting ends, people press close and thank them for being there, for serving. On the way back to the base, Coffin takes them to Chili’s. They want Wendy’s, but he wants soup and pulls rank. The young men order burgers and fries, and while they eat, one soldier keeps texting his girlfriend, breaking into a smile whenever he looks down at her reply.
The other is trying to piece to-gether a future that is less certain than when he left. He had been with a woman who had a child, and he had left her his bank card for emergencies; she took the child, took his savings, and moved west while he was 6,000 miles away. “I wanted to have a life with her,” he says. “I wanted her child to be my family. I was young and foolish in life.” He takes a sip of soda. “But I’m over it,” he says. He admits that he’s worried but tells Coffin that he hopes for a good job using the training he got in the Guard. He’s taken a technical test as part of a job application and scored near the top. “I won’t have to worry about money,” he says, “if I get this job.”
Coffin knows better–that the young soldier may need to worry, job or no job. He has seen it time and time again. A month passes, and all seems fine in the bubbly relief of being home; then three, six months pass and many are still fighting shadows. Guardsmen might have been in charge of multimillion-dollar equipment, might have made life-and-death decisions, but while they were at war, seasons changed, lives continued; sickness, death, infidelity, sorrow, birthdays, anniversaries, spouses picking up the slack and making family decisions. Kids have grown taller, some doing well, some not. Coffin believes that “most of our battlefields aren’t in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of our battlefields are right here, at work or at home.” He makes a note to himself to check back on the young man in three months.
When Coffin drops the two soldiers back at their barracks, it’s past 9:00. When he arrives at the hotel where he and Cleveland are staying, three miles from the base, he says he hopes he can sleep.
Shortly before 11:00 p.m., my phone rings. He can’t sleep. Soon he’s sitting in my room, still in his fatigues, a small yogurt container in his hand. Before I came to Indiana, his Howard Center friend, Todd Centybear, had said to me, “If you think he’s not doing well, if you think he’s in trouble, call me, call me right away. Tell me what you see.”
I see a man who keeps rubbing his arm, and closing his eyes between sentences; a man too tired to sleep; a man whose life seems to be an extension of the names and faces on the walls in his office; stories to be told in a hotel room on a cold night. He says that a few weeks earlier in Burlington, he went alone to see the documentary Restrepo, about an American platoon in Afghanistan, and that when the lights came on, he “stumbled out to Church Street,” unable to talk. He talks about other demobilizations, when soldiers found words to fit what they had gone through and how life-changing that felt.
“The first time I did this was at Fort Benning, Georgia, ” he says. “This was 2002-03, very early in the Afghanistan war. We met these 13 people, and we stood together. They were a bunch of lost boys, the dust so deep into their skin you’d think it would never come out. For a half-hour they shouted about their uniforms: how they had been given only two and the regular Army had ten, and they had been better soldiers than any of them. It seemed to be all about their uniforms, how they were all ragged and in tatters.
“And then it came around that it was about a lot more than uniforms. They were the toughest guys I knew, and everybody was crying. And then I knew that this work was important. At Camp Shelby, [Mississippi,] after a session, sometimes the nurses would go outside and cry in the grass, and sometimes they would be ill. They were embarrassed because they were soldiers, too, but I’d feel sick, too. There was so much anger in the room: anger at the tour, at their mission, at their commanders, at what they saw, at what was done to them, at what they did.”
When he gets up to leave, it’s nearly 1:00 in the morning. “You know, when they come into the room, I tell them, ‘I know many of you don’t want to be here. But there are one or two of you who need to be here, and that’s why I need you all to be here.’ They get it then.”
There’s a joke told in the Vermont Guard that when they see Colonel Coffin approaching, they duck and hide. They don’t always want a hug or to be the focus of his concern, but they also have never, as Staff Sergeant Cleveland said, “met a more caring individual when it comes to soldiers.” It wasn’t long ago that if a soldier needed therapy, he’d lose security clearance or a chance at promotion. The hard core still feel that it shows weakness to admit to troubles, but post-traumatic stress can be like a storm knocking down everyone in its path; it’s Coffin’s gift (as it has become Jason Cleveland’s gift) to listen to one soldier’s story and then use it to find others who need help. A soldier will call them, “and talk about the weather,” Cleveland said, “but it’s not about the weather.” Coffin calls them “doorknob” conversations. “We’ll talk for 49 minutes,” he explained, “and then he’ll be ready to leave. He puts his hand on the door: ‘Oh, one more thing. I’m going to kill my mother-in-law.'”
The Indiana morning arrives with blue skies and puffy clouds, and when Coffin and Cleveland meet in the hotel over coffee, Cleveland is feverish and hoarse, unable to do anything but take to his bed; for Coffin, a long day is made longer.
Coffin wants to talk more with the medic who, when he got off the plane, told him that his final memory was of trying to save the life of an Afghan man who’d been injured in an explosion. He had come in bleeding, blinded, a leg gone, his arms shredded. There was little the medic had been able to do to help him, but he had tried and had called for a medevac. Soon after, the medic flew home. Coffin finds him in the medical records building, a blade-thin, boyish-looking man in his forties. “I made a pact with myself,” the medic says. “No movies, no reading about the war. I tried to see The Hurt Locker, then walked out. I had seen bodies blown apart. I didn’t need to see it on film.”
The heat in the building is blasting, and Coffin unbuttons his shirt. He sits down with Tom Johnston, the Woodstock dentist pressed into being a counselor. Johnston is friendly, soft-spoken, the son of a minister. He used to be an Army helicopter pilot; in 2008 he sold his practice and later that year joined the Guard. “I just wanted to give good service,” he says.
There’s a soldier they need to find. His wife had called, worried; the soldier had told her not to come to the airport. He had seemed very angry. “We need an immediate diffusion of anger,” Coffin says. This would have fallen on Cleveland, but now Coffin needs Johnston.
Johnston asks quietly, “Wouldn’t this be better for you?”
“I’ve got too many people to see,” Coffin says. “He needs a nice guy like you to say, ‘People are worried about you. What can we do for you?’ If he’s not safe to go home, call me. Use your sense of smell. If it smells like trouble, call me.”
Coffin heads to the mess hall, where sooner or later everyone comes. He goes table to table. “You made it,” he says. “I hear you did great.” He sits beside Sergeant Major Neil Roberts, age 46, a wiry, intense man, with a wife and two young girls at home. Roberts says that he walked miles each day just “saying hello, just building relationships. The Afghan culture is built on relationships. Close physical touching, and here I am a Vermont guy, and I had to learn that.”
He talks about bringing fresh water to the villages, building a hospital but having no doctors. “Doc,” he says to Coffin, “the people are beautiful, so you want to take their pictures and give them to them. You bring them a book about Vermont with pictures of foliage and give it to a man who owns a small restaurant and they’re friends for life. I cried when I left, and not many guys say that.” They’re quiet together for a moment. “Know what I fear?” Roberts says. “The outside world. In the Army there’s always a mission. Mobilize; demobilize; go to war; come home. When I re-upped for 36 months, I felt a weight come off. I have no skills. Doc, if you get an idea for me, write me.”
Coffin nods. “I don’t have any idea what I’m going to do after this,” he says. “That’s why I keep extending. If I’m not a part of this, what am I a part of?”
We drove through the winter snow, Cleveland at the wheel, Coffin beside him, Johnston and me in the back, stopping at an empty corner of the Indianapolis airport. We arrived before 9:00 tonight, when the plane was due; we’re sitting in the car, heater running, eating cold Pop-Tarts and beef jerky. Now it’s long past midnight, and Lieutenant Colonel Chris Evans informs us that the plane will land at 1:30. Evans also once thought that Coffin’s groups were “hokey,” but changed his mind when “I saw my guys crying. I didn’t know what they were carrying.”
Snow falls steadily as the plane lands, and one by one the soldiers descend the stairs in the ghostly light of a remote runway as though they’re being hatched. Neil Roberts waits on the tarmac along with Coffin and the others, and there are hugs and chest bumps and handshakes. “Glad you’re back alive,” Coffin says. “Glad you’re home.” He says he forgets faces these days, but for some reason nametags imprint on him like glue: Hackley, who tells him he can’t wait to see his horses; Cantwell, Sullivan, Leonard … 46 nametags to remember.
After everyone has gathered inside, their duffels on their shoulders, Evans announces to cheers that he’ll try to get them home in three days. The snow is piling up, he says, but they’ll go 30 mph, and “linens are on your bunks waiting.” Coffin hugs Brigadier General Jon Farnham, who says proudly that he’s the first Vermont Guard general to come home with troops since World War II. “You wish you’d walked off the plane, too, don’t you?” I say to Coffin.
“Yes,” he replies, “but that’s the immature Jon–the Jon who wanted to be in on the action, to be with the troops. I know my worth is being here, not there.”
In the morning, I see Coffin in blue jeans and out of fatigues for the first time. He tears up talking about seeing everyone get off the plane. He has extended seven times and now must decide whether he can keep going. In the late afternoon he’ll meet with the Guardsmen and he’ll thank them. He’ll tell them he loves them. And a few days later, he’ll fly home, a few days before Christmas, and have the feeling, he’ll say, that he is “disappearing.”
How do you know when it’s time to walk away? To start over? First you need to know what that means.
For months after leaving Indiana, Colonel Coffin tried to find the answer. The headaches that had all but vanished in Indiana came back like spears. He tried craniofacial therapy and massage and acupuncture, anything that held out hope of relief, and still it seemed that he needed to close his eyes to see. Paperwork piled up. He could still get to the base, and the need for him remained: three suicides, including “one of the best mountain soldiers I’ve ever known,” that had shaken everyone. His own counselor at the vet center urged him to get out: “He said to me, ‘Jon, your work is done. Your job was to get guys ready to go and to bring them back and to get them support. You’ve done that. It’s time for the next generation.'”
He finds himself weeping while he’s talking, weeping while he’s trying to watch a movie, and he’s unsure sometimes whether the tears belong to the past or the future. He needed surgery on his foot, and when he left the hospital in a wheelchair, he thought, “I’m getting wheeled out of my life.” He has spent much of his life helping soldiers cope, and yet he felt at a loss to help himself. “I didn’t have a good appraisal of my own limitations,” he said. “On a bad day, I think I’m going to have to pay for that; that this is going to be it for the rest of my life. I’m remaining optimistic, trying to apply all the things I’ve said to other guys.”
Friends urged him to spend the next few months “giving blessings” to people, to check in with everyone one more time, then say goodbye. “I’m going to miss this,” he said. He knew, as well, that being unable to read paperwork or sit at a computer also meant that his nearly 40 years at the Howard Center had come to an end. One more time he would have to find the courage to climb the steepest wall of all and find what lay on the other side of his life.
On a June day in 2012, a conference room in South Burlington fills with soldiers and friends. Colonel Coffin sits uncomfortably in the front row, beside his son and daughter. There are many gifts–flags and medals and citations–and words of love and respect to keep through the years. Major General Michael Dubie speaks, he says, for everyone in the Vermont National Guard: “There’s not one person who has touched as many lives in a positive way as you have. And I know it has come at a cost. Because it’s not easy to help so many people. And I know that vicariously you have carried the burden of so many of our brothers and sisters. At your expense, they’re doing better. We collectively salute you for caring deeply about people.”
The speakers continue. Coffin receives a citation with three words: “Comforter, counselor, healer.” Finally he faces the room. He speaks without notes, and, anyway, he wouldn’t have been able to read them.
“People have asked me,” Coffin says, “‘How did you do it? How did you do seven extensions past age 60?’ I’ll tell you how I did it. I saw you seeing me in each other. I couldn’t have made it a day without you. I love you. So now we are at the end of something.” And then Colonel Coffin, who always said that he had to be the last man standing, drops to one knee, his arm outstretched: “Thank you, my friends, my sisters and brothers, for all you’ve shown me. It’s been the opportunity of a lifetime. Thank you.”
In late October, Colonel Jon Coffin (Retired) boarded a plane for the West Coast. At a Middlebury College reunion, he’d met a woman who’d been a classmate a lifetime ago. They’d been talking ever since, two, three hours a day. He calls her his “lady friend.” He’d just moved back to Maine, living in an apartment only minutes on foot from his son and daughter and his three young grandchildren. His landlord had told him that he could dig up a strip of turf and plant flowers, the only release he’d ever found from work. He’d brought with him three dahlias that he has kept since the wars began.
“They’re redemptive” he said. “You put them down in a quiet basement, let them regenerate. They can look dead; you may even throw them in your compost. But come spring, here they are. They’ve come back. They’re alive.”
He plans on staying out West for a week, maybe two, seeing where it all leads. Maybe he’ll find a way to finally gain distance; maybe he can bless himself; maybe he’ll find what he has tried to give to soldiers for so many years, what all soldiers yearn for, but what in the end remains so elusive.