From the Atlantic Wire
by Alex Horton
Josh Martell doesn’t look like the popular kid anymore. His thick neck protrudes from a muscular body that once led the Preble Hornets of Green Bay to consecutive all-conference football titles. Tattoos now crawl up and down his arms; a collection of luck-themed designs pay tribute to a Las Vegas jaunt, where he won over $3,000 on a single bet at the blackjack table. The winning hand is etched on his right forearm opposite the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign on his left.
It might have been luck that saved Martell during a patrol in Baquba, Iraq, a lush, rural insurgent paradise nestled in a river valley 40 miles northeast of Baghdad. A bomb targeting foot soldiers detonated near him during the bloody summer of 2007, when American casualties reached an all-time high. He was knocked unconscious from the blast but didn’t suffer injuries beyond a concussion. Lucky.
“Who would want to be my friend?”
Martell spent just over three years in the Army, including a 15-month tour in Iraq as an infantryman. Now 27, he has since left the military, and his second daughter was born earlier this year. He juggles his welding job and family with a full load of courses at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he majors in communications.
He doesn’t talk about his encounter with a jury-rigged bomb — or any war stories for that matter — with his classmates. Most of them were worrying about prom dates and acne while Josh trudged through open sewers, took sniper fire, and saw his fellow soldiers mangled and killed. He definitely doesn’t mention the time four roadside bombs detonated next to his Stryker assault vehicle in rapid succession, where each explosion felt closer to the one that would tear open the steel underbelly like a sardine can and vaporize the men inside.
Universities have long been a place where young people develop a purpose in life. But for older students with wartime experience, those lessons have already been learned.
But it’s not just the discussion of war he omits from other students. He has quarantined himself almost entirely. He shows up for class, takes notes, and leaves, most of the time without communicating with students or professors. In the first three months of his first semester at UW-GB, he never said more than a few words to anyone. “I’m almost 10 years older than everyone. I’m not a college kid partying on the weekends. Who would want to be my friend?” he told me over the phone as his own kids played in the living room.
His reclusive behavior on campus betrays the man who was once my roommate in a dilapidated Korean War-era barracks at Ft. Lewis, since renamed Joint Base Lewis-McCord, a verdant mega base that sprawls along Interstate 5 near Tacoma, Washington. His backstory seemed to be assembled from cliché high school movie plots: the big man on campus, the Type-A jock all the girls gravitated towards. Since then, the King of Preble High has transformed into an introvert, and his story is remarkably similar to those of other war veterans I spoke to for this story.
The challenge of societal reintegration after war has mystified soldiers throughout recorded history. The saying “War changes people” is a profound understatement of the issue. It also displaces the sense of belonging to any number of groups, from peers to the countrymen who stayed behind. When Odysseus returned home after 20 tumultuous years of battle and incredible journeys, a sense of unfamiliarity overtook him: “But now brilliant Odysseus awoke from sleep in his own fatherland, and he did not know it, having been long away.”