An Army of One
I FIRST noticed that he was unusually polite when I brushed by him to get into my middle seat on the plane out of Los Angeles. Then I saw the rose at his feet. It was a long-stemmed red rose. I'd nearly stepped on it. I showed him how to roll it in a magazine and we put it safely in the seat pocket. He looked at my newspaper and said he was interested in Iraq.
"Why?" I asked, though I could tell by now.
"I just came from there."
His eyes were a clear, pale, unusual green. His cheeks thin and sunburned. He could not keep still. His fingers fluttered, his eyes darted to each person who entered the aisle. He told me that he'd graduated two years ago from his high school outside Seattle on a Friday and that he had enlisted on the following Monday. "Because I'm sort of patriotic." With a shy squint he pulled up his sleeve to show that his arm was tattooed with a brilliant Stars and Stripes, a mint-green Statue of Liberty and a frowning eagle, all woven together.
He had just returned from the Sunni Triangle near Falluja and was stationed now in the West. His roommate had been killed — as well as a friend on his third tour of duty. At another point, a Humvee he was riding in had been half-melted into the street by a roadside bomb.
Though there was e-mail, the whole battalion would curtail its communications with the outside world when there was a death, so that the two men in dress uniform could be the first to deliver the news to the family back home.
"Sometimes I get mad when my family says I'm changed," he said carefully. "But they have changed, too. While I was there we caught lots of bad guys, right? I don't want to go back and start all over. A Pennsylvania Guard unit has taken over our work and so far they're getting hammered. Back when I left, I didn't have a girlfriend ..."
I looked at him and thought there was no way they wouldn't send him back. He looked at me; then whatever he saw made him quiet. The plane landed in Seattle. He carefully retrieved his rose. "I brought her a whole big bouquet last time," he said, "but by the time I landed it was all messed up, so this time I just got her one."
"One is more eloquent," I said.
He got up. "After you, ma'am." So I left first. In the terminal, I saw him once again. He was bent over his backpack, hitching something onto it. He straightened and put his cap on backward, bill down his neck. He was carrying a skateboard on his back, a red rose in his fist, and the war.
Louise Erdrich is the author, most recently, of "The Painted Drum."