On a recent flight, I decided to watch the movie Logan again. For any of you unfamiliar with the film, it’s the final installment of the Wolverine character arc (at least with Hugh Jackman as the lead) from the various X-Men movies that have come out over the last two decades. Set in the year 2029, the eponymous hero is now sick and dying, essentially being poisoned by the metal grafted onto his bones.
After a lifetime with the ability to rapidly heal, his body can’t do it anymore. He’s isolated himself from society, living in the middle of nowhere outside El Paso, working as a limo driver. He looks awful—a shell of his previous formidable self. He drinks excessively and seems committed to exacerbating his condition and accelerating his demise through self-destructive behavior. He even carries around a single adamantium bullet for an obvious purpose.
Despite all this, he engages in one final mission with extreme reluctance by helping a young mutant girl (who we find out was genetically engineered using his DNA) escape the clutches of an evil corporation designing killer mutants to be used as weapons. He agrees to take her to a place called Eden in North Dakota, even though he insists it’s not real but purely a fabrication of comic books only loosely based on the actual exploits of the X-Men.
As I watched the film, I thought about our recent withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years of war. As a retired Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but feel like this character is reflective of me and many other veterans out there. From a timing standpoint, his journey almost directly coincides with service members fighting recent conflicts. The first X-men movie came out in 2000, a little over a year before 9/11. Logan is the final chapter, where his journey as a member of that elite force finally ends.
His personality also hits close to home. He’s a reluctant hero—a man who, despite being an animal, can’t help ultimately doing the right thing. We like him because, supernatural abilities aside, his actions are common. He drinks alcohol and smokes cigars. He’s prone to angry outbursts. Often, he doesn’t like himself.
I know this man. I see so much of my former self in his younger version and sympathize equally with the older Logan. I don’t recover the way I used to. My body hurts. I have difficulty concentrating at times. I’m tired and dizzy a lot. On most days, I prefer to be alone in my house.
Here I am, now some semblance of Logan. At the end of a decades-long war in which I played a tiny part, I don’t know what to think of myself. Did I do the right thing? Am I a good guy? Sometimes, I feel like the answer to those questions is no. Consequently, I’ve had times when I welcomed my death and contemplated ending my life. Either because I felt like it was what I deserved or because it would be a way to make all the pain, both mental and physical, finally disappear. After all, I used to be a superhero of sorts. Now I’m not sure what I am.
Like Logan, I also get frustrated with the comic book treatment of my fellow warriors and me; the media-driven pure good versus pure evil simplistic narrative of the world; and the tendency for people to call me a hero based on who they think I am or what they believe I did. I do appreciate that last sentiment, but it also makes me cringe.
Wrestling with these types of thoughts is a struggle I don’t think is unique to me or even to veterans. But ultimately, they aren’t the right questions to ask. We did what the nation asked of us to the best of our ability. Regardless of the outcome, we forged our effort with honor. For those we lost, that should be enough. But for those still here, the more significant issue becomes, what do we do now?
As for Logan, in the movie’s final scenes, he saves the day one last time before succumbing to his wounds and dying in the service of others. Something is appealing about that, but it’s an option no longer available to me. And I don’t have a death wish; I want to have a purpose.
I don’t know if Afghanistan was worth it (whatever that means). But I eventually realized I could make my small part in that conflict valuable through my actions now. With that in mind, this is the message I would pass on to my fellow veterans…
You may not be as strong or as fast as you once were. Your memory might slip at times. But you don’t have to lock your identity to your past. You can inspire others with whatever you do today. You can teach people what you’ve learned. You can pass on the wisdom that only comes from experience. You can do your best to ensure children become productive members of society. You can epitomize qualities that don’t degrade with age, like honor, humility, and generosity. And you can be an exemplary parent, spouse, or friend. In short, you can be the best version of what you are, not some version of what you were. Logan never evolved in this way. I dare you to do better.
You can also realize that the thoughts popping into your head are no different than any other form of media. If most of the nonsense on television and the internet these days makes you roll your eyes, then take the same approach to your mind. Logan is just a story. It’s not true. Whatever you are telling yourself most of the time isn’t either. It’s a narrative—a series. Don’t subscribe to it.
For everyone else, I think most veterans like me appreciate you thanking us for our service. But we didn’t join the military for recognition or medals. We did it to serve, defend, and be an intrinsic part of something greater than ourselves. And most of us still want that. So we would prefer you focus on what we can still do instead of what we did. Some of the most ethical and hard-working people you will ever find now ask to be put to good use at home when what we can offer is sorely needed here instead of overseas.
At the end of Logan, I broke down and cried. The first time I saw the trailer for the movie, I did the same thing. The juxtaposition of imagery and music was so powerful. The various scenes from the film are overdubbed with the Johnny Cash cover of the song Hurt by Nine Inch Nails. Those lyrics are pretty well aligned with the way many of us veterans feel these days and have felt for as long as humanity has been fighting wars:
I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here
I think we can repair broken thoughts. Or we can choose to ignore them, which is just as good. It may even be the same thing. To that point, Hurt ends with a message of resentment that we might repair by thinking about it differently:
If could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way
For many of us, the United States can often feel like it’s a million miles away from Afghanistan, literally and figuratively. Things may not have turned out the way we wanted over there. But there aren’t any more guns in the valley. Now we are here. Maybe we should all view it as a place to start again. To realize that we can rapidly heal our invisible wounds if we desire. To keep ourselves. To find a way.
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DISCLAIMER: RARE SENSE content is not medical advice. Nor does it represent the official position or opinions of any other organization or person. If you require diagnosis or treatment for a mental or physical issue or illness, please seek it from a licensed professional.
This is touching, heartfelt, and incredibly wise. Thank you for sharing and putting into words what so many are experiencing. You are doing a great service and I intend to share your work with those who need it.
Chris, this is great and very heartfelt. We are reaching the phase of life where we have built/"taken" a lifetime of experiences that have shaped who we are. The good, the bad, the success, the failures. We are now in the phase of giving, sharing, passing along our life lessons as a parent, coach, friend, mentor, etc...the next generation. We can continue to serve our family, friends, communities in many ways. Big props to this work you are undertaking! Big hug to you.