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The Fog After the War
Veteran Back From Iraq Takes Halting Steps to Start Over

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

The Marines went silent. Young dropped the Maxim magazine he was reading and started to cry. One of his best friends was gone, and so was their fantasy. Part of him knew that the stories they told each other were all just a dream, a way to get through the hell of Iraq. In truth, from the time he got there he thought the more likely outcome was that he would die.

It was sometime after Fallujah, as his war was winding down, that Young realized he was going to make it home. It was a happy revelation but also something of a surprise. He wasn't really prepared for civilian life, especially without Ziolkowski.

They were supposed to be doing this together.

Together, Yet Alone

Right after he got out of the Corps last May, he headed to Ocean City. It was senior week, and a bunch of his high school friends from Catonsville were celebrating their college graduation.

For five days, he partied, hung out on the beach and partied some more, thrilled to be free. The recent grads treated Young, who started a goatee to go along with his military crew cut, as if he were one of them. Yet for all they had in common, he couldn't help but feel different. Among them, he was a celebrity -- the Marine who had been in Iraq. They bought him drinks and toasted him. But there was no way they could understand the war -- and he wasn't about to try to explain it.

"People would try to talk to me, but I wouldn't go into detail," he said.

Even after four years in the Marines and combat in Fallujah, it seemed as if he were younger than them. They were done with college and moving on. He was just about to start school again. It felt as if he had been passed by.

"Everyone tells me all the time, 'Oh, your life experience beats ours like crazy,' " he said. "And I guess they have a point. . . . I feel like I'm starting over from high school."

When senior week was over, he carried on the way he said he would. He moved into the house he was supposed to share with Ziolkowski, went to bartending school and started inquiring about classes for the spring semester.

The Towson University course catalogue was intriguing but also daunting. What to study? Religion? History? Education? He was glad he had decided to wait until the spring to enroll. There was no way he could have gone to school in September, just a few months after getting home.

Still, he had to do something productive. He tried getting a bartending job, but even with his training, nine pubs he checked out said no. Finally, one bar owner said his brawn would make him a good bouncer.

It wasn't great, but it got him out of the house and put a little money in his pocket. Those were the only virtues of his other job: patrolling movie theaters, looking for people using video recorders.

Many hours of the day were still unfilled. "I was just feeling worthless," he said. He tried reading "just to finish something, to feel like I'm actually doing something with my day instead of TV," he said.

He'd sleep past noon, "just because I can," he said. "It feels good at first. And then I said, 'You're so lazy. I wasn't like this before. I was a Marine. I should do better than this.' " He said he thought, "It should be easy when I get out. It'll be clear sailing. . . . Well, after three months of doing nothing, it's not that easy."

Friends told him he deserved to take it easy. Relax, they said. But he was sick of relaxing.

"I was trying to find something that stayed intact from before I went in, something that feels the same," he said. "Because everything is so different."

His girlfriend suggested he try acting again. Maybe the Timonium Dinner Theatre has a show coming up, she said. He thought about it for a couple of days, then looked it up on the Internet. The Web site said tryouts were that afternoon.

A Stage Presence

The director was impressed with Young's a cappella rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." This young man clearly was comfortable onstage and had an authoritative bearing, director Roger Siskey remembers thinking. He would be perfect for the part of Mr. Macy, the patrician owner of the famous New York department store where much of the play is set. He offered Young the part.

He memorized his lines, the choreography, his songs. The old feeling returned. He didn't know what he was going to study, or what he was going to do after college, outside of vague notions of working for the FBI or the CIA or of becoming a teacher.

But pretending to be someone else felt familiar. It reminded him of his past life and became one of the only "things not tainted by everything else," he said.

So Young threw himself into the into the feel-good holiday tale, which could not have been more removed from the world he left. "If my [Marine Corps] buddies were here and saw this, they'd kick my a -- ," he said during a recent rehearsal.

Others in the cast knew that he was a former Marine, but little else. Which is just how he wanted it. To them, he was not Patrick Young the Marine Corps corporal or Patrick Young the Iraq war veteran. He was not even Patrick Young.

He was Mr. Macy.

The Curtains Rise

Opening night. He arrives at the near-empty theater two hours early on a Friday evening earlier this month. Just a couple of the other cast members are backstage with him. One of them, a cute 7-year-old girl who plays one of the kids who sits on Santa's lap, says in a lilting voice: "Are you excited, Mr. Macy?"

"I am excited," he replies, his eyes widening to mimic hers.

"Good," she says with a smile. "Me, too."

It's showtime. The crowd hushes as the lights go out. He waits for the theater to become pitch-black before stepping out onto center stage. Then the spotlight shines on his face and casts a long shadow behind him.

The music begins, and Mr. Macy starts to sing.

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