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"I Know You Don't Mean It"
By Brock McIntosh
One time I approached the mountains to wash off in a snowy spring. It reminded me of Arkansas, mountains without the green. I know you speak from ignorance. Your words you can't understand. The beauty of life is everywhere. Even in Afghanistan.
Jacob George and I accepted an invitation to meet with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers in Kabul shortly after the Arab Spring. In some sense, whatever we did for Afghanistan, we wanted permission from the Afghan people and to honor their voices. I was lucky that Jacob beat me back to Afghanistan. Whereas I am quiet, reserved, and carry a serious demeanor, Jacob overflowed with an energetic happiness. He greeted people by hugging them, beaming from ear to ear. He wanted to know your story and listened like you were the only person who mattered. When a person speaks, he is expressing what is in the mind and the heart, and that's where Jacob wanted to be. He wanted to feel what you felt, and understand the legitimacy of your thoughts. More than with anyone, Jacob wanted to feel that connection with Afghans. This is why he had to go back to this place so far from Arkansas that reminded him of home — this place that haunted him, yet aroused his spirit. He wore Afghan clothes and donned a pakol when he stayed in Kabul because he wanted to physically put himself in the experience of Afghans. Empathy was integral to Jacob's concept of warriorhood.
When Jacob and I visited Kabul's internally-displaced person's camp, many of the people we met were farmers from Helmand and other provinces where much of the heavy fighting was. They were uprooted from their homes and their land because of drought and war. Being a farmer, Jacob understood what land meant to a person on a spiritual level and how one can live off of that land. He could imagine his own family losing their land because of war and drought, having to leave the mountains to be "a refugee in my homeland." One of his favorite memories was meeting Abdulai. He couldn't believe it, Abdulai a mountain boy, Jacob a hillbilly. They had both just finished tending the fields and discussed the insanity of farmers killing farmers while the world starves.
Many people didn't know how much pain Jacob carried home from the war. I think what tears many people up about Jacob's suicide is that he was such a caring, wise person who could love people so effortlessly. He understood moral injury and healing so well. How could this happen to him of all people? I think about where Jacob was before he began his journey with peace, when his enlistment ended after three deployments. How alone he felt. How he dreamt about death and images of terror in Afghan eyes. How he kept his story and his feelings to himself. How he couldn't hold down a relationship. How he self-medicated with alcohol to deal with the pain, and how angry that made him. I don't think he was ever able to shed that pain. But I know that he was proud of some of the changes that he was able to make toward the end. When Jacob and I walked through Shar-e Naw Park, he showed me a tattoo that read, "I don't drink the bottle. It drinks me." It was a reminder of a time when his life was full of sorrow and when he couldn't find any relief but through drinking. And he was grateful that in his later years, this sorrow was punctuated by frequent moments of overwhelming joy, companionship, awesome wonder, and enlightenment—moments he may have never had if he never started riding his bicycle around the country. He was very proud that later in life, he achieved sobriety and could find relief without the bottle. He was proud that he stopped his brother from going to war. And I know that he cherished each and every one of us who knew him. But there are many sources of pain in a person's life, and only he knows the story that led up to his last decision.
Jacob did all he could as a warrior to speak and to warn about the dangers of war. Jacob spoke to me often of moral injury, and he once told me about meeting a Vietnam veteran who felt that every war was his war, who blamed himself for not stopping each war that happened, one after the next. Jacob felt that burden. I don't know why Jacob did what he did. But I know that he was disappointed in his country because of its treatment of veterans. I know he was worried about impending war. I cannot help but wonder if he blamed himself for the current warmongering in Iraq and Syria. I am angry at the world. Whatever Jacob was dealing with, I know that the world made it harder for him.
I'll never be able to ask Jacob about those final days. All that I have left is my memories and his music. I remember the endless conversations we had about truth and justice and healing. Do not for a second wonder how fiercely he believed in those things. They may not have made him immortal, but without a doubt they lifted him up in those final years. My fondest memories are of Jacob playing his banjo and belting out a song in that unforgettable voice. I listen to his music on repeat, teaching me how to be a better person and warrior. I will never stop learning from him and striving to live up to his example of humanism and conscientious labor. We cannot know the hurt he felt or the course it took. I know that he would not want us to dwell on his pain. He would want all of us to keep fighting for a more loving world that values peace, justice, and dignity above all else, to listen with open hearts and open minds, to be open to change and to grow. And most importantly, to love and to smile.
Brock McIntosh is a veteran of the Army National Guard. He completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan during his 8 years of service. He has a bachelors in History and Sociology from the University of Maryland and was a 2012 Truman Scholar. He is a member of IVAW.