What Being A War Veteran Taught Me About Pandemic Grief — And Pandemic Recovery
The plywood boards nailed to the storefront were covered in CBD ads. Graffiti was scrawled across the awning. A sign reading "FOR LEASE" tried to entice anyone bold enough to rent an empty store in the middle of a pandemic. "Another COVID-19 casualty," I thought to myself as I stood in front of the former Army Navy surplus store on Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake in November 2020.
This was the place where Michael Douglas's character had killed the Nazi store owner in Falling Down. For 68 years, it was an island of military paraphernalia, becoming ever more anomalous as the neighborhood transformed from a working class Latino enclave into a hub of bougie hipness. To me, the store felt like a gear locker on a Navy frigate.
During my last visit, in August 2020, I was greeted by the smell of grease, sweat and gunpowder. Racks of World War II-era olive drab dungarees stood at attention near tiger stripe camouflage boonie covers from Vietnam. I rummaged through piles of clothes and found a pair of U.S.M.C. desert digital cammies, the same uniform I wore as a Navy Hospital Corpsman in Fallujah in 2005.
I located a small eagle, globe and anchor insignia printed between pixelated squares, signifying the garment was authentic. In the pocket, I found some lint. It felt like "moon dust," the powdery sand that was ubiquitous in Iraq. It may be hard for civilians to understand but as frightening as it was to serve in the Iraq War, I periodically needed to reconnect with it.
More than half a year after my final visit to Surplus Value Center, I felt a familiar sense of dread as COVID-19 began to leave its mark on Los Angeles. Unlike the surplus store, would the city be able to come back?
When California's lockdown had begun, I told myself that I would treat it like a deployment. Downtime in Iraq had consisted of long, boring days cooped up in a forward operating base with nowhere to go. We would clean our weapons, wait in long lines to send emails on the handful of shared computers and watch bootleg DVDs that we had bought from an Iraqi guy in Camp Fallujah. Now, instead of being sequestered with a squad of infantry Marines watching Full Metal Jacket hundreds of times, I was cloistered in a one-bedroom apartment with my wife and three-year-old daughter. With playgrounds off-limits, our extended family not visiting, Frozen 2 on an endless loop and almost everything closed except for grocery stores, our apartment started to feel like our own forward operating base. We spent hours walking around our neighborhood with no destination, avoiding the local park. Caution tape had been tied like a ribbon around the gates, turning it into a sad present that my daughter wanted but couldn’t have. At least the weather here is good so even as we passed once talkative neighbors with a silent nod, we had a chance to breathe some fresh air.
My monastic approach to the shutdowns worked — at first. I didn't mind sacrificing movies and restaurants for what I thought would only be a few months. When Mayor Garcetti issued L.A.'s Safer at Home emergency order limiting non-essential movement, I focused on the big picture. This was the price we had to pay to stay alive. But as the pandemic dragged on, eerie parallels with Iraq began to emerge.
In Fallujah, we always had to be on guard. Insurgents hid improvised explosive devices beneath the sand. They sometimes sent suicide bombers to try to kill us, detonating their devices when they thought we were in range. COVID-19, invisible and potentially carried by anyone, could be just as lethal. Whenever I found myself inside someone's six foot social bubble, I leapt out of the way as if proximity equaled death.
COVID-19's devastation wasn't measured solely by its body count — more than half-a-million dead Americans, 24,000 of them in Los Angeles County. In 2020, L.A. County lost 437,000 jobs and at least 15,000 businesses. The surplus store was only one of them but for me, it had been a refuge. Now, like countless other local businesses, it was a husk. Standing in front of the store, I mourned its loss.
Sure, I could go to another Army Navy store to model combat boots or try on vintage uniforms that made me feel like I was at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir but this store was as historic as the clothes inside it. It wasn't just veterans like me who had spent more than half a century walking through its aisles. The store attracted movie stars, hipsters, outdoorsmen and regular people who had come to L.A. to find their piece of the American dream. I was there right along with them.
Life under COVID-19 shared another parallel with my experience in Iraq. Like my deployment, when the pandemic eventually ended, adapting to what came afterwards wouldn't be easy.
When I left the Navy in 2008, I moved to L.A. so I could make a fresh start in a new city. I got a job working at the Getty, where I met my wife, and let the residue of the military fall off me. It wasn't easy. For the first few months, I couldn’t sleep much past 7 a.m. and I felt dirty if I didn't shave. When my wife and I went out to dinner, I had to force myself to chew slowly because in the military we had to eat fast. When coworkers complained about dealing with an annoying visitor or working late, I wanted to scream at them. We weren't under threat of getting shot by a sniper or being hit by a roadside bomb. What were they whining about? But I knew better than to say anything so I kept my mouth shut.
I eased my way back into civilian life but nearly a decade later, I was still having flashbacks, anxiety and difficulty coping with everyday stress. I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD and I started therapy with a counselor at the Vet Center. Working with him these last four years has been revelatory. It has taken a lot of effort but it has helped me process the trauma I experienced in Iraq. I've learned two lessons from the recovery process and I think both of them might help people as we emerge from the pandemic.
First, we need to acknowledge that the trauma of a large-scale, slow-moving pandemic is not dissimilar to the trauma of war. After a disaster or an act of mass violence, people often have difficulty readjusting. Maybe they've watched loved ones die, been sick themselves, been forced from their homes, lost jobs, lost friends, lost contact with the people who kept them anchored. Even those of us fortunate enough to be financially stable and not catch the virus have lived in fear of doing so. Although we don't know what the long-term effects of the pandemic will be, we know it has triggered a profound level of stress for people around the world. If the post-combat experience of many veterans, myself included, is any indication, we need to prioritize mental health care as intensely as we prioritized the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
The second lesson is that we need to commemorate the people we lost. Grief is difficult at the best of times. During a pandemic, it can be overwhelming. In Iraq, 13 Marines in my battalion lost their lives. I remember transporting a Marine from another battalion to the morgue after a landmine destroyed his tank. These traumatic events occupied my mind and made it difficult to move on. Luckily, our battalion held a memorial service for every Marine who was killed. We would all gather, set up a battlefield cross and read a prayer. Then, someone who was close to the fallen Marine would say a few words. I had to hold back tears as I stood at attention, listening, but I was always surprised at how much better I felt afterward. Hearing our fellow Marines' names read aloud gave us a chance to come together and reminded us we weren't alone in our sorrow. Even though they were gone, we would always remember them. I don't believe in ghosts or supernatural spirits but it felt like they were there with us one last time.
During the pandemic, many people who died of COVID-19 did so without loved ones beside them. For surviving friends and family members, this has made it even harder to find closure, a fraught concept in the best of times. President Biden's memorial service honoring Americans killed by COVID-19, held the day before his inauguration, was a good start. But we need to officially recognize what has been lost.
This includes constructing public memorials where families could reconnect with lost loved ones the same way the Army Navy store helped me reconnect with Iraq. Those family members need to be given time and space to grieve. Over the next year, employers should allow them to take time off as they need it, especially on the anniversary of their loved one’s death. The rest of us need to make an effort to check in on our friends and neighbors, and see how we can help them. We will never be able to fill the hole that has been left by someone's passing but maybe we can make the recovery process a little bit easier.
Although trauma never fully disappears, we can grow from it. I am living proof. The protests after the murder of George Floyd and the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol are symptoms of problems that have been metastasizing for years. Although the pandemic didn't cause these issues, it forced many of us to face them. I hope it also created a space in which we can address them. If we do this recovery right, a renewed urgency to confront racism, police brutality, economic inequality and the restoration of the fragile democracy we often take for granted could be as much a part of the pandemic's legacy as the people we've lost.
A new business will eventually replace Silver Lake's departed surplus store. It's more likely to appear in a Tik Tok video than a big-budget movie and it probably won't bring as much joy to an idealistic veteran but whenever it opens its doors, a small piece of Los Angeles will reopen along with it.