Don Coolidge's dog tags remain hidden, buried deep inside a metal workout locker in Manhattan.
Don, 26, is not ashamed to be an Iraq war veteran. He is proud of the six years he's spent as a Marine, including the nine months he spent at war. What he's wary of are those who judge him—as violent, conflict-prone, scarred, erratic—because he's served abroad.
And so, since leaving the sand-swept province of Anbar, Don has struggled to pass as just another guy in Bushwick—to allow his roommates, his fellow graduate students, and his neighbors to meet Don the Civilian before they know Don the Soldier.
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“When I got back, people would corner me in the hallways between classes,” he says, “'How was Iraq? Did you kill anyone?' It's not a question that you could answer briefly. … It's something that, if they do ask it, you want them to be able to understand it in the correct way.”
It was these often callous confrontations that led Don to take on an organizing position at the Veteran-Civilian Dialogue, a New York City-based program designed to get veterans and non-military folks to come together and talk face to face about the impact of war.
There are nearly 60,000 veterans living in Brooklyn, a number that will swell as men and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan to take advantage of the borough's diversity, universities and support services. As Americans struggle to understand the complex needs of those individuals, the Veteran-Civilian Dialogue has taken flight.
The most recent dialogue, held in Manhattan in late January, saw more than 80 participants. The next talk, scheduled for March 15 in Washington, D.C., is already full. And though the next New York City dialogue isn't until May, Don and his colleagues are scrambling to move up the date, responding to demand from participants.
The dialogues are three-hour meetings among people from disparate parts of the political spectrum, and involve music, role playing and a heavy dose of emotion. They are sponsored by Intersections International, a nonprofit that runs several conflict resolution programs.
“This is the national conversation about war that we've never had,” says Scott Thompson, a former Army chaplain who started the program in 2008, along with Lawrence Winters, a Vietnam veteran. “This didn't happen after Vietnam.”
At the dialogue in January, the atrium at Intersections International was crowded with salt-and-peppered Vietnam veterans and burly young men with buzz cuts. A menacing bulls-eye tattoo graced the back of one man's head.
“I want to know why you've turned me into a self-hating, self-defeating leper,” one veteran cried at a civilian during a role-playing exercise. A civilian piped in. “We didn't know how to relate to you when you got back.” Then a soldier: “I get angry when they say, 'Welcome home.' Who says I'm home?” Tears rolled down the cheeks of lanky man fresh from Iraq. Several middle-aged women hugged him like a son.
For Don, the rawness of the events has been surprising. The intimate discussions with both veterans and civilians has helped him identify conflict within himself: to accept the end of a romantic relationship that suffered deeply from his deployment; to recognize the guilt he feels at for not seeing combat; and to understand why he might choose put on those dog tags once again—this time to go to Afghanistan.
“Combat—you're aware of how detrimental it is, how violent and ugly it is, and it's something that that everyone should want to avoid,” he says, “but there's that certain itch there that makes you want to test yourself.”
The program has also helped him explain those conflicting thoughts to others.
“Talking to other people that aren't in the military, you realize that when they ask you a question, they are interested. They want to know what you're going through. A friend would ask you that same question,” he says. “It's a little easier to talk to people about stuff now because of that.”
Brooklyn Edges features people and organizations living on physical, political and cultural boundaries within the borough of Brooklyn.