The Fog After the War
Friday, November 11, 2005
He couldn't remember the words to any of the songs he used to sing. The scores to "Grease," "Oklahoma!," "Annie," "The Sound of Music," all the musicals Patrick Young had performed in school, had simply vanished. They were tunes from another life -- before he joined the Marine Corps and went off to war in Iraq.
Here onstage at the Timonium Dinner Theatre, Young was trying to be an actor again, auditioning for -- of all things -- a musical production of "Miracle on 34th Street."
He was a civilian for the first time since he enlisted four years ago right out of high school. And he was beginning to realize that the staff sergeant who tried to talk him out of leaving the Marines was right: "It's tough out there." The transition was going to be hard.
After Young returned home last May, he felt lost. So many days slipped by on the couch that he started to think, "If I don't do something, I'm just going to waste away."
"What's next?" he wondered.
It wasn't clear. He was 22 and starting over again, one of a new generation of veterans coming home from war.
Perhaps acting, which he had done since he was 8, would feel right. He needed something to connect him to the simpler life he led before the war. So he drove up to the theater one day in September, and in a voice turned baritone from tenor by all the yelling he did in the Corps, he sang the one song he could remember by heart: "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The Fun to Come
After they got out of Iraq and the Marine Corps, life was going to be great. Young, who was strong and stocky with a cleft chin that accented a full, round face, had planned to share a house with one of his Marine buddies, Nicholas Ziolkowski, who also was from Maryland. Ziolkowski's father and brother owned a house in Towson that they could rent.
It would be a real bachelor pad, perfect for two guys just home from war, Ziolkowski -- nicknamed Ski -- told him. They'd party, go to bartending school, meet women, exult as free men. College, which they planned to attend together, could wait. The house was even within walking distance of a Hooters restaurant, with waitresses in tight shirts and short shorts.
Hooters in walking distance . It became a mantra as they envisioned the life waiting for them. As Young patrolled streets with rotting corpses and body parts strewed on the sidewalk, he thought about the house. Hooters in walking distance . When he was pinned facedown in the dirt by insurgent fire, with only a shrub for cover and "wishing I could become part of the ground," it was there: Hooters in walking distance .
In Fallujah, word of men killed in action spread quickly, unit to unit. A few days into the fight last November, as Young and a few of his platoon members rested between skirmishes at the mayor's complex, a Marine approached and said he had bad news. But he refused to give a name. They all knew this one, he said, and he was afraid of upsetting them. Young and the others badgered him until he gave it up.
"Ski," he finally said.