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How the specter of "Joe D." haunts soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I once knew a soldier who called home and Joe D. answered. He admitted that he’d been sleeping with the soldier’s wife but claimed he didn’t know she was married. The soldier informed him that she was indeed wed and he was her husband. Joe D. thought about it for a moment, challenged the soldier to do something about it, and then hung up. With months left before the end of the soldier's deployment and his mid-tour leave already come and gone, Joe D. was right: There wasn’t anything the soldier could do.
In one unit I embedded with, a Joe D. story was circulating that seemed completely improbable yet somehow believable. A soldier had been married for 17 years when he deployed to Iraq. His wife was a crack addict years ago, but she had since managed to kick the habit. During her husband’s deployment, her ex-boyfriend got out of jail, she started sleeping with him, he got her hooked on crack again, moved into the family home, sent the kids to live with their grandparents, and turned the soldier’s home into a crystal meth lab.
To me, a mild-mannered, tofu-eating kind of guy, these stories were almost otherworldly. Kind of like watching an episode of Jerry Springer when you find yourself saying, “Really? Who throws a chair at their ex?”
I knew Joe D. was out there, but in the same sense I figured I’d probably never go on the Springer show to get surprise news from a loved one, I didn’t think I’d ever have to deal with Joe D. In the event that I did, I figured I could do it without shouting expletives into a public phone.
I was living overseas and embedding frequently when my girlfriend went back to the U.S. to work on a project. Several months after she’d been in the U.S. and a couple weeks after she’d asked for what I understood to be a break, I called her from a remote U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Joe D. didn’t answer, but I’d heard enough stories to know that he was there even without hearing his voice. Several days later, we talked again and she told me that Joe D. had started sending her love poems and gifts when he learned that we were having problems, and now she was giving up on us and moving in with Joe D.
I listened to her in a military phone room talking to me from about 8,000 miles away. In the phone booth next to me, someone was talking about his brother’s vacation. I was still just part of the phone room murmur, but somewhere in the middle of her explanation of how she got involved with Joe D. the frustration of knowing how little I could control the situation flipped a switch inside me that I didn’t even know existed. I erupted into stream of four-letter words. When I got up to leave a soldier who’d heard the outburst gave me a sympathetic nod.
When you finally learn to believe in Joe D., in a way, it really is just as upsetting as learning for the first time that Santa Clause isn’t real. The world you once thought you knew will never be quite the same.