Late 2020, Gabe Hudson emails.
Gabe is about my age, our military era was the same, and his first book came out a month before my first book, in 2002. We didn’t know each other then but have found each other since.
Apparently, Gabe’s mission in life is to keep everyone’s Chin Up. He bounces around Twitter and tries to make our days better because soldiers and writers both can be a bunch of moody fucks and Gabe thinks cheering us all up will cheer him up too and we’re thankful for him. But today he skips a Twitter DM and shoots me a good ol’ Gen X email. A bunch of young vets home from Afghanistan and Iraq who are now undergrads and grad students at Columbia are starting a new lit journal, he says. I should send something, he says. If not for myself, for them.
I’ve been out of the army longer than some of them have been alive, I says.
The last time I published something some of them hadn’t yet hit puberty, I says.
I am anxious, I am depressed, I am newly in Recovery, and my dog has died.
Gabe says: If not for you, for them.
I don’t have anything to send anyway, I says.
“Fucking write something.”
Gabe calls a bunch during pandemic.
We talk about our dogs.
We talk about the state of publishing.
We talk about other writers on Twitter.
We talk about our shared membership in the tribe of writers-who-take-a-very-long-time-to-publish-their-next-book.
We talk about our weird identity as writer/veterans. An identity that is accurate (real news), unexpected (we grew up just wanting to be plain old writers), and—twenty years on—not always wanted. I mention to Gabe that after my first two NPR pieces ran, Jacki Lyden emailed both with a compliment and a warning: “Pivot soon,” she said, “or you will forever be the soldier-writer.”
“You pivoted pretty quickly,” Gabe said. “Didn’t matter, did it.”
Writer/veterans is who we are. Something we are eternally grateful for (we survived our service! we got a book out of it!), and something we are also sometimes quite sick of.
So it is a bit of a surprise when, at some point in 2021, Gabe says to me, “I’m writing about it again. War. And I think you should, too. I think you might be surprised by what you have to say.”
There are so many writer/veterans now. The Forever War.
It wasn’t that way with us. There was Vietnam and Tim O’Brien and Thom Jones and then nothing for a very long time. That’s a symptom of a momentarily more peaceful world, I guess. Not a bad thing. What it meant for us Gen X soldier-scribes, as the world started heating up again, was that there weren’t many of us. Tony Swofford, Joel Turnipseed, Gabe, me. Something we have in common, besides our generation: we all joined a military that was not at war, that had not been seriously at war in a very long time. We joined, and things changed.
Gabe says it bothers him, a lot, how politicized the current military has become. I’m so far removed, I don’t even know. Gabe talks to everyone, I talk to no one.
“Is it?” I say.
“Let me ask you something, Chris. What did you watch in the morning, in the barracks? After PT?”
“The Today Show. All of us. PT at 0600. Today Show at 0700. Chow at 0745.”
“Why the Today Show?”
“Because Katie Couric was cute.”
“Exactly. They watch Fox News now. And not because anyone on Fox News is cute.”
I ask Gabe: One wonders—I wonder—do editors ever wonder about the state of the sender?
I don’t mean the obviously crazy or fucked-up: cigarette burns and wine stains splattered across pages of copy.
I mean the seemingly innocuous manuscripts. Because you never know, right? What darkness lurks in the hearts of even the cleanest of manuscripts (I was a soldier; believe me when I tell you that my manuscripts are very clean).
Anyone can string some coherent query submission words together.
And Gabe was right: anyone can string an essay together, if you get off the phone, get off Twitter, and just sit down and write it.
The friendly young veterans/writers/editors at Columbia don’t need to know I sent the essay Gabe requested of me about four hours into my first dose of Lamictal, and when I stood up from my desk after hitting SEND I fell over from the dizziness side-effect.
You don’t need to stand up to write, though, do you.
On our grumbling days, our identities as soldiers—a Marine, in Gabe’s case, Army for me—goes significantly deeper than we want it to. It’s in how the world looks at you, what they decide about you, right or wrong.
It creeps up unexpectedly in bad ways.
And in good.
Gabe Hudson was a Marine, so none of how he interacted with me should be a surprise.
It took Gabe 15 years to write his second book, and based on what he told me it might be a decade before he was ready with a third. He seemed pretty grounded with that—it is what it is, after all, and don’t I know it—but I also remember one conversation where he equated it with casualty. “Some writers fly forward, dodging incoming like a dancer. And some go down. The question, Chris, is whether they stay down or not.”
What Gabe did for me (and what I now understand he did for so many) was to refuse to leave me behind, even though he considered himself somewhat left behind. It’s a ridiculous cliché, the wounded Marine crawling back to drag another casualty to safety. But that is exactly what he did. My guess is that in trying to save me, save us, he saw a potential path forward in saving himself. But the grateful saved don’t spend a lot of time questioning the motivations of the savior. Because it doesn’t matter. Gabe Hudson—always vulnerable, always worried about you—reached out a hand to me, to us, and was there in my hour of greatest need.
This piece is adapted from “Twenty,” a nonfiction work in progress.