A Review of Seriously Not All Right: A Memoir of Five Wars in Ten Years from Dario DiBattista
In the typical Hollywood myth of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from a soldier who fights in a war, a service member sees something horrible one day and then becomes messed up for life. A single event, it seems, has scarred their lives forever. It’s a template — however contrived, erroneous, or stereotypical — that fits into a two-hour screenplay. But what about a true story from the modern wars where it’s typical for a service person to do multiple tours in multiple theaters of combat? And what if, for that service person, being a soldier was just their part-time job? What if in addition to them being an intelligence officer for Army they also worked for the Foreign Service and traveled to even more wars all over the world in their “off-duty time?” What happens to a mind that endures many separate wars in decade?
Seriously Not All Right: Five Wars in Ten Years is the memoir of Veterans Writing Project founder Ron Capps that explores the tangible and internal conflicts of being in that wild reality. It’s a must-read for those who care about our nation, its wars, and the men involved in them. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another story like this one.
After enlisting in the military after dawdling around in college and “playing guitar and singing in bars in Virginia Beach,” Capps becomes an officer in the Army Reserve and in the Foreign Service. His experiences take him to Kosovo, Central Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Darfur. His memoir engagingly covers all the aspects of his many different roles in each war zone – from intelligence analyst, attaché, foreign observer, and many other responsibilities – but that’s not entirely what this book is about. It’s about the futility of war, the inability to ever truly control or stop it, dealing with decisions made and not made that might’ve affected thousands of lives, and what happens to the mind of man whose job more often than not is to bear witness to war’s innate inhumanity and share those reports.
This is seen immediately in the Kosovo section, a particularly powerful section of this important book, where Capps encounters war dead for the first time. “Yellow. Their skin was yellow,” Capps recalls. “They had dirt under their fingernails and their feet were dirty,” but those were the details that never have made it into his crisp governmental report of that day. Nor did the one person missing from the group: a child, who was eaten by dogs.
Images like these, after time and being compounded by seeing so many war dead, are what cause Capps to begin to not be “All Right.” In Afghanistan, his third war zone, is where his brain essentially breaks down, plagued by traumatic visions. He writes, “The Taliban have launched a couple of rockets toward the base during the week, so we are all a little on edge, but that isn’t what’s keeping me up. I am bundled into my sleeping bag, trying to control my racing heart, and trembling because the dead have come to talk to me.”
Because of the unique nature of his work and the fact he has a top-secret clearance, Capps, knowing he is not well somehow, has to choose between seeking treatment and possibly ending his career. Someone with access to classified information can lose those privileges if they take certain medicines or receive a diagnosis that could cause them to not be trusted with the responsibility of having classified information. Capps, luckily, is able to find a military doctor in Afghanistan who treats his case with discretion. One of the doc’s suggestions includes for Capps to complete a daily documentation of how he is feeling. So, for this task, Capps creates the scale of “All Right,” “Vaguely Not All Right,” and “Seriously Not All Right.”
He’s able to oscillate between the three and be “All Right” enough until, even more years later, in Darfur, Capps is with a French lieutenant and is taking pictures of two dead men for visual record — their shirts lifted to reveal bullet holes and bloody chests, one of their eyes open — and that’s the moment Capps decides he’s “Seriously Not All Right” and everything changes.
Later, the choices he makes during “The War at Home,” including creating a new life as the Founder of Veterans Writing Project to help himself and other’s own their own story and share it with an often all-t00-apathetic American population, is where the book puts an exclamation point on its already considerable merit. “I don’t want to forget,” Capps writes. “I want to remember, but I want to be in control of the memories which is something I have been unable to do for years … Writing is the most effective tool I’ve found to help get the memories under control.”
Reading this story, just the same, is one small but crucial part everybody can do to bring about the national healing we all need after we’ve all been over a decade at war.
Purchase Seriously Not All Right, Schaffner Press, on Amazon.
Ron Capps, the author, on Facebook