Veteran Town

The stars of Bush's inauguration have scars

At Fran O'Brien's, a cavernous restaurant in the basement of the Capital Hilton, Cindy Dwyer asked Bain, who was tending bar, for a Manhattan. He seemed more confident around simple drinks, like Jack Daniels and Coke. Dwyer, a real estate agent, had befriended several young soldiers, and she and her husband frequently had them over to their home for meals. "You've got to remember something," she said, as she tasted her drink, carefully. "All the scars don't show."

On a previous night here, Paul Wolfowitz had stopped by and stayed late, meeting the soldiers and their parents, chatting easily with the boys he had helped send to war. Everyone seemed anxious to meet him, and he gave them more than a few minutes.

This night, with Bain playing bartender, ended earlier, or at least moved on to its next phase sooner. He and his friends left the dining area for another part of the restaurant with a bar, and Steve Cobb, a Vietnam vet who's a regular at these events, stayed behind nibbling on a leftover steak dinner.

Chris Bain, a veteran of the war in Iraq, hopes to meet President Bush on Inauguration Day.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Chris Bain, a veteran of the war in Iraq, hopes to meet President Bush on Inauguration Day.

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Related:

  • Read Kareem Fahim's blog, Winning an Earthquake.
  • Cobb is an officer in the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He earned four in Vietnam, and wouldn't mind if some of these kids joined his organization. But that's not why he comes here. Approachable, with a gentle voice, Cobb projects tranquility among all the drinking and heartache. The night Wolfowitz made the rounds here, Cobb spent what seemed like half an hour gently massaging the skull of a young vet who'd been through major head trauma. The boy's mother stood next to them the whole time, saying little.

    Today, Cobb spends a lot of time driving out to Andrews Air Force Base, where he meets the wounded before they're transferred to the hospital, and offers them all manner of assistance, from clothing to advice to a hug. He's trying to find more "breakaway" clothing for the injured, like the sweats basketball players wear.

    "These guys are going to need help," said Cobb. "They might not know it yet, but we need to be there for them. There's nothing like the combat bond between veterans. It's instant, often nonverbal, and it usually lasts."

    And then, as if on cue, a kid who had lost his leg hobbled over on crutches, and offered to grab Cobb a drink. "Thanks," Cobb said.

    "No," the kid replied, "thank you, for all you do for us."


    Outwardly, Chris Bain is a lot luckier than his friends. His scar, while nasty, isn't immediately visible. He can walk, and he can see. He drives his car without a problem, and can hold a fork, albeit delicately and with the wrong fingers.

    Bain traveled to Iraq in January 2004, assigned to a different unit from his normal one. "The guys didn't necessarily like me," he said, because he was the chemical and biological weapons expert. That means he trains his soldiers in the "gas chamber," where they conduct painful exercises with CS, a potent tear gas. Bain said he works his soldiers harder than most.

    In Iraq, his unit was stationed at Al-Taji, north of Baghdad. "I was on the road most of the time," he said. "Mostly supply runs. It was scary. If you're not scared when you're outside the wire, there's something wrong with you."

    Bain said he got to know only a few Iraqis while he was abroad. One was a barber who cut his hair every week on the base. "He used a straight razor," Bain remembered. "I remember sitting down in that chair the first time, as he sharpened up and down the leather belt, and thinking to myself, am I going to be OK?" The barber, whose name Bain had forgotten, spoke a bit of English—once, the two even got into an argument. Bain later found out that the barber had been killed when he went home one day, a fate shared by many Iraqis who work with the Americans. "He was a nice guy," said Bain. "I wish I could remember his name." There were other Iraqis working on the base, two men Bain remembers named Muhammed and Ali.

    "Some days, they wouldn't show up for work," he said. "That usually meant we were going to be attacked."

    The day Bain almost lost his arm, and nearly his life, was the first time he saw his brother in Iraq. "We spent almost the whole day together," he said. Then his convoy headed back to Al-Taji, arriving safely. Ten minutes later, they were attacked by mortars, and Bain ended up under a five-ton truck, with three feet of clearance. "I was a magnet for lead that day," he said. "It felt like it was raining." He put his head down and faced the blast, as the rounds fell closer and closer. His left forearm was a mess of "meat and tissue," his right ring finger was severed, and his right elbow was bleeding, having at some point been shot clean through. Someone would find Bain's wedding ring and put it in his pocket while he was unconscious.

    Today, when he looks at the scars, the scene comes rushing back, with all its fear and blood. It is not the only image that haunts Bain, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder; he has started taking Zoloft to control his temper and clear his head. He talks about a family he saw killed after a truck in his convoy lurched away from an explosion. About an 11-year-old boy he flattened with the butt of his rifle, when the boy got too close. And a dog he saw by the side of the road, severed in half and dissected like a fetal pig.

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