Sometimes poingnant, sometimes gritty, sometimes hard to follow, and sometimes just a plain scream inside the head, Soft Spots: A Marine’s Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the confusing mess that comes home with the men and women who are trained for war but not trained to survive coming home from it.
“Sometimes I shot when I shouldn’t have; other times I didn’t shoot when I should have. There was no way to explain why I did either. Everything happened so fast. Decisions had to be made. After I got home I began to see things in slow motion, see the actions that might’ve been mistakes.”
I have a hard time reading books like this. Books that take you into the heart of a man who is at war. At war with a country. At war with himself. I just have a hard time and usually avoid them. It hits me in all of the feels every single time. For anyone who has ever been lost inside their own head after surviving a nightmare reality, this book will be understood. It was written in a chaotic manner to show how hard it is to be trapped in your head when demons and memories are tearing you apart.
This memoir kicks off with him having returned home with the monsters inside his head. He went to war a cold-blooded warrior and came home a veteran with regrets and moral compunctions that he just could not reconcile.
“When I got back from Iraq, and saw my Grandpa, we talked about war again. However, we talked about it in a different manner than we had years earlier. We talked about the places we saw, and the friends we gained. We bypassed the death and shooting. Our wars were sixty years apart but weren’t really any different. It didn’t matter how many years separated our wars or where we traveled to fight them. Blood still dried the same way around wounds, and charred bodies still crusted over the same as they always have. It didn’t matter that he’d fought in a “good war” and I’d fought in a controversial war; because the effect turned out to be the same: Neither of us could find anything praiseworthy about combat.”
This memoir definitely played with the narrative. It reads a bit like one of those free writing exercises they suggest in therapy sessions–except one that has been edited. Do not get me wrong, there are some very real, raw parts to the story (view spoiler) but when he goes into the ‘analysis’ after drawing us through those raw moments…well it just feels forced and unnatural. In my opinion, Van Winkle writes best when it is pouring from his heart instead of coming from his head.
“I guess I was always looking for something. What it was, I didn’t know. I wanted help from the VA, but didn’t want to go back, didn’t want to be subjected to that second-rate treatment any longer. I wanted to find peace within myself, but didn’t know how or where to locate it. I wanted to be a sergeant again, a writer, less angry, a better husband, and to ward off the constant bombardment of war-related thoughts.”
As we travel with Van Winkle in his struggles to keep his sanity, his career, his marriage, and his very life on track in a world of arguing bureaucrats and unsatisfactory doctors, we also discover his growing contempt for “arm-chair warriors” and “people who slap ‘Support Our Troops’ stickers on their cars and then drive to the mall.” He takes refuge in the brothers that he has not seen in months but are more real to him than the wife he sees every day.
“Who supports the troops? The troops support the troops.”
The overarching lesson to this book is that no matter how a man goes to war, he will not come home as that same man.
For me this story was incomplete. He goes from fighting against acknowledging that he has a problem to suddenly accepting it to being all better. The epilogue with his controversial PTSD treatment also seemed out-of-place–like he did not know where to put it in his story but wanted us to know about it. It is HIS story, so if he wants to leave bits out then that is his choice. But it would almost be better as a novel versus this diary type memoir. Then he could have the creative license to fill in the holes in the story and skip the analysis of his actions.
Still, overall this was a great look into the minds of our troops coming home different. It highlights the problems with a broken system and the heartache of a fractured man. A good read for anyone whose particular reading taste lends itself toward a soldier’s stories.