by Nathaniel Fick; New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, 384 pages, $25
Dr. Graves is medical director at Washington County Mental Health Services, Inc., in Montpelier, Vermont.
But on the battlefield that night, long history marched unchanged into the 21st century. Strong men hauled heavy loads over rough ground. There was nothing relative about it—no second chances and no excuses. It was elemental and dangerous. It was exactly why I had joined the Marines."
"The future disappeared … I existed only in the present. The one thing keeping me going was being part of a group…. The epiphany struck one morning the next week as I locked my body in the …'up' pushup position. Sergeant Olds put the whole platoon in that posture while he berated a candidate…. The message wasn't in Olds's words; it was in recognizing that this wasn't about how much we could take, but about how much we could give."
"Our values were being inverted, and it threatened to destroy us. Good Marines were sent on a stupid mission governed by harebrained rules of engagement…. Our actions were being thrust in our faces, and the chain of command was passing the buck to the youngest, and most vulnerable, of the troops…. If they got killed or went insane, I had to be able to look at their mothers and explain that they hadn't been victims of their own comrades' mistakes. Those Iraqi boys could die, but I couldn't let them die in our hands."
These marvelous passages are a few of the many that await a reader of Captain Nathaniel Fick's book, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Captain Fick takes us from his days as a classics major at Dartmouth, through myriad Marine training schools, 9/11, a tour of duty in Afghanistan, a tour in Iraq as a reconnaissance officer, and finally through his exit from the Marine Corps and return home. The book is replete with insights into sociobiology, various cultures, psychology, and the genesis and effects of posttraumatic stress disorder. It could be read for those reasons alone.
It is notable to me that the one command during training that inflicts too much pain upon Fick and his comrades to bear is to feign being a "psychiatric" casualty. Fick is ordered to pretend to break down, but he cannot bear the separation that comes from continually pretending to let his comrades down, and they cannot bear or understand his absence. One confronts Fick and curses him. At this point Fick tells them of the ruse, and they cover for his breaking the order. This is instructive for people in the field of mental health as we consider the alienation wrought in our patients by illness and injury and the pain of the stigma they must endure.
Further, the book is a detailed piece of history that occasionally reads like an adventure story. It will ring true to anybody who has been in or has family members in the military. For example, in reference to listening to his own artillery fire, Fick states, "I slipped back to sleep under a comfortable blanket of outgoing death and destruction." This is an almost an exact quote from my father who served in World War II.
But in the end One Bullet Away is a book about a person and a war and so is inevitably sad and lonely. It is a message in a bottle from Captain Fick to us. One could read this book for all the above reasons, but most of all it should be read for the honor of meeting Nathaniel Fick.