Matthew Cohen for Reader’s Digest
He told me he’d once contemplated suicide. He wasn’t one to open up about himself like that. He could tell a great joke and loved talking about hunting, but forget about anything more personal than that. He’d been a student of mine the year before, and after he’d finished the veteran reintegration class I teach at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, we kept in touch. We’re about the same age, and he and I both have young kids, so I saw him more as a peer than as a student.
He’d thought about suicide after getting home from his fourth deployment to Iraq—the last one. He had been over there so many times that sometimes he struggled with the dates. He’d been part of the American invasion force in March 2003 and ended up in Mosul, and he remembered the Sunni uprising and its violent aftermath. He’s proud of a lot of what he did, but he feels guilty sometimes, too, about some of what he did and saw. Unless he has had a drink or two, he doesn’t talk about that stuff.
One night, he and I were sitting in one of those quintessential northern Wisconsin taverns—dartboards to our right, pool table to our left—catching up. The walls were covered in vintage beer signs and neon lights. A row of slot machines pinged and rang behind us. Behind the bar were three tiers of bottles filled with clear or brown liquors, illuminated by yellow lights. There was a basketball game on TV, but I can’t remember who was playing. It was a weeknight, snowy and cold outside. A few seats down from us sat a pair of older gentlemen, maybe my grandfather’s age. They didn’t talk much. I saw faded tattoos on the loose skin of their forearms.
Two or three beers in, my friend and I got to talking about the class of mine he’d taken. He had been a great student—one of my best, in fact. He was a little older than the rest, and he had a reserved wisdom his fellow students respected immensely. One of his…