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The post 9/11 veteran at midlife: A different kind of 'transition'

The post 9/11 veteran at midlife: A different kind of 'transition'

Marine John Waters' debut novel reflects how an 'ordinary life' can remain out of reach, even decades after combat.

Analysis | Media

Many veterans of the early Iraq and Afghanistan Wars who went to fight at the age of 20 to 25 are waking up to the realities of what was once considered “midlife.” John Waters, a lawyer and editor for the news site RealClearDefense, felt this was fertile enough ground for a story.

A Marine Corps veteran who served as a sniper platoon commander in Afghanistan and later with a Marine Expeditionary Unit guarding the U.S. embassy in Baghdad at the end of the war in 2014, Waters has just published a novel that captures the collision of two life crises: that of midlife and the loneliness of a clearly broken military-to-civilian transition, 10 years out of service.

In “River City One,” published by Simon & Schuster and released this week, Waters, 37, invokes the spirit of Greatest Generation writers John Updike, John Cheever, and John O’Hara in a twist on the suburban middle age x-ray: the veteran who is clearly misfit for his “perfect” set-up, sapped by the banality of modern American life and the compromises of everyone around him. Above all, his military service is both an unwanted hitchhiker and the only real identity he has, and respects.

We chatted with Waters about his influences and how he reflects on the military, and his own service, today.

(This interview has been edited for length.)

RS: So how about we start simple. Can you tell me a little bit about your own military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Waters: I deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 as a ground intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. I was a second lieutenant. There were no spots for me at an infantry battalion, so I deployed three or four months after arriving at Camp Lejeune with the Second Marine Division staff. I gave a brief ad hoc one evening to General (Lewis) Craparotta. And from that time on, I was a lieutenant who briefed and wrote to Gen. Craparotta and his staff. And that was a year, and when I finished it, they asked or my boss asked, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "I want to lead a Scout Sniper platoon." I went and became a Scout Sniper platoon commander for a year and was sent over to a platoon that just finished a difficult deployment to Marjah, Sangin in 2012. I had to rebuild the platoon. I promoted to captain, and I left the platoon to become the battalion intel officer and deployed in 2014 on a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and we did training, theater security cooperation in Oman, in Jordan, and Spain with Portuguese military, and then we were responding to crisis, as ISIS reportedly was on the march in summer of ‘14, overtaking Mosul. A company of us deployed off of the ships to Baghdad in summer '14 to reinforce Baghdad and the embassy complex. I came out of that deployment in late ‘14 and then exited the Marine Corps, January 2015, just roughly six years of service.

RS: What happened that you had to 'rebuild the platoon'? What does that mean?

Waters: I took over the platoon at a time when there was a video that surfaced of Marine Corps Scout Snipers in Musa Qala from Third Battalion, 2nd Marines who had videotaped themselves urinating on Taliban corpses, and there was a Marine Corps-wide effort to clean up Scout Sniper platoons. When I got to my platoon, my first instruction was get rid of them, basically rebuild the platoon, weed these Marines. These Marines need to move on. And that was my instruction. And what I found with the Marines is that they had done combat tours. They had all been affected by things and they were changed from who they used to be. And about a third of them I made a case to retain in the platoon because of their time in service, because of their ambitions, maybe because of their willingness. And then two-thirds of the Marines I helped transfer or process out of the Marine Corps, whatever the case was.

RS: What was that like for you? I mean, it seemed like you had a lot of control in terms of determining the next steps of these Marines' lives. Was that difficult?

Waters: Yes, I thought, how do they come home from this? How do they go on from this? The Marines once you got into a sniper platoon, and I felt it myself as their platoon commander, you kind of feel like wow, there's nothing else I've ever wanted. I love being in this group of people. We feel like a brotherhood, a family, we feel like we're on our own. We feel like we're select. We really were special. I don't know if it's everyone, but it certainly fulfilled a lot of my own needs at that time. And I felt the same for them. And so there were questions at least I asked myself internally about what becomes of these people? And, and so yes, to answer your question, it was a lot of responsibility.

RS: So you went through law school in Iowa, but then to Nebraska after that, to pursue a legal career?

Waters: I did. I was recruited through law school by very nice lawyers in Omaha, Nebraska. They were generally familiar with me as a high school student, at a Jesuit prep school in Omaha. And I was happy to see some of them. I recognize their names and their brothers or sisters, and it was sort of a fun, familiar experience to reacquaint with people like that, and they invited me back and I had a very nice couple of summers with them. I lived with my parents, and I was in the literal process of reintegrating myself to American life at that point.

RS: So that brings us to your book. When did you feel it was the right time to revisit your war experiences, and why did you choose a novel instead of a nonfiction account?

RS: Chance encounter. A lawyer at the law firm where I worked, a senior lawyer — he was very sociable, because he was semi-retired, and he had the luxury of not being on the billable hour. He had the luxury of being sociable. He invited me to his house for a fundraiser for the opera company in Omaha. At the end of the evening, two people came forward in his parlor. One was a director for the opera company and another a woman who sang in the opera. And she sang "Danny Boy" and it was a cliche event I felt, but it was also powerfully moving. It was a beautiful song. And I was leaving the parlor, and she stopped me and we chatted. She explained that, in her view, the song was about a mother watching her son march off to war. And I told her I had been to war. And eventually she said something like, "Do you believe a soldier comes home from war?" And I did not have an answer and the question nagged at me, and it wasn't long after where I felt like I had a spark and I started writing.

RS: So the story picks up 10 years after the protagonist John Walker’s service, and some time after he went back to school, got married, had a child. It's obvious to me that you're trying to capture a point in the combat veterans’ post-war journey, like a specific point. It's not right after they get back, it's not many years in the future, reflecting back. Can you talk a bit about what point this is, and what you were trying to convey?

Waters: Transition. That was the word I heard all the time in the Marine Corps toward the end of my time, the transition. When you come home from deployment, you receive warrior transition training. Life moves so fast in this country, it's like you have to be catching these transitions or you're like falling behind, or you're not continuing to move forward or make progress when you want to. And when I got out of the military, it was preparation for transition, and then it was in the transition and guys are chiming in on social media, “hey, how's the transition?" And I felt like I was in a very non-literal transition. I followed the steps. And yet I was having a serious like, emotional experience that was beyond anything one can prescribe for or delineate or instruct. I knew that was a very rich place to be in for story. And so yes, I wanted to capture that time.

RS: Given the age and place and time in his career and life, John is clearly ripe for a midlife crisis. How much of the book is about midlife crisis and about that military transition not working out very well? Why is that transition for John not working out very well, even though it seems as though he made all the right steps after he returned?

Waters: I think your identity changes slower than time moves. And a person coming from the military is a prime example. His language, his style, his self image, his persona are all very well honed by this very unique thing called the U.S. military for a purpose, a good purpose. When he leaves or she leaves that doesn't just disappear, you carry it around with you, inside, no one can see it. And the new people, they see only the outside which looks like them. And so you're at this disjuncture between who you are on the inside and who others think you are. To midlife crisis, I was reading this stuff nonstop in law school. I was picking up Philip Roth, John Cheever, John O'Hara, Jim Harrison, Jim Salter, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan. I couldn't stop reading their stuff about the man with lofty ideas, about how his life should unfold and finding that those keep crashing into reality and making a mess.

RS: How much of John Walker's story is your story?

Waters: Less than one may think, but it's not a good answer. I would say to me, the highest point in the writing of this is a scene about the experience of an IED explosion. And I felt like I had realized as close as I could what I wanted in terms of doing something creative. I wrote that scene and I didn't experience that. I didn't have that combat experience of surviving an IED strike. I heard about it. I observed it and I imagined something. I didn't live through the events I write about.

RS: How old is your son?

Waters: He's seven. I dedicate the book to him.

RS: It sounds like you wouldn't discourage him from joining the military. Today, If he was 18 years old and said, "Dad, I want to enlist," would you blink an eye?

Waters: I would have an idea about where he should go and it would probably be different. It might be different than where I went. I would be proud of him. I would give him information. I would hope he makes his own decisions.

RS: Do you believe the military does as much as it can do — whether it be the transition that we talked about, or more serious issues like PTSD or other injuries — to support veterans?

Waters: I think the military is exceptional. Despite the challenges you've noted, exceptional at recruiting people, especially the Marine Corps. They're exceptional at training people, turning them into, in the Marine Corps’ case, warfighters. But you're not prepared to come home. There is no preparation for that. You're on your own.

(Shutterstock/PhotoCreo) and "River City One" cover (Simon/Schuster)

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