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The Trenches at Home: Touring Washington D.C. with a Vet Court Graduate

I sat quietly during the opening ceremony of the first annual Veterans Court Conference. When it was over, I sprang into action. I wanted to grab all of the speakers for at least a comment or two for this eventual series. Eric Gonzalez, a Marine corporal and a VTC graduate, disappeared shortly after the ceremony.

I passed along my phone number to the Justice for Vets’ staff, asking them to put me in touch with him. Less than an hour later, my phone rang and I answered. “I hear you’re looking for me,” the stranger’s voice said, stern and more than a little ominous. After a moment, the speaker laughed. “It’s Eric, Corporal Gonzalez,” he said and asked where I wanted to meet. It was close to lunchtime and the hotel lobby was packed, but we found a corner.

As I interviewed him, I noticed that despite his cheery disposition, he wasn’t enjoying being a spokesperson. The way he kept tugging at his uniform’s collar was a perfect example of his discomfort. After about 15 minutes, I ended the interview and suggested we talk again later.

The next morning, I made my host-family start their day a full two hours early, so I could make it to the hotel in time for the morning mediation session at 7:30 A.M. I was late, so when I entered the room everyone already had their eyes closed, hands on their thighs with palms facing the ceiling. Eric was among them.

For the majority of the conference, he didn’t have much to do. However, Justice for Vets had set up a tour of the monuments in D.C. It took place in the evening—evening tours are the most popular because people enjoy seeing the memorials lit up—and I offered to go with him. We boarded the bus, sitting near the back. The tour was populated with vet court administrators and some veterans themselves.

I asked Eric if he had ever seen D.C. before. I had been to the city numerous times. In fact, it is something of a rite of passage in Pittsburgh to take the fifth-grade field trip to D.C. Eric, being from the West Coast, hadn’t. We stopped at a number of monuments, but many were missed as we drove past them on a bus with fogged-out windows.

While walking through one of the many monuments—The FDR Monument, I believe—I asked Eric if he wasn’t excited to see it all. He had been reluctant to go on the trip in the first place, I think preferring solitude to a forced-group activity. He sighed, “Nothing really gets me excited anymore.” Still, as we walked down Pennsylvania avenue, he pointed out different styles of architecture. Pointing to two nearby buildings opposite the Old Executive Building, Eric laughed and then said “Look, it’s like Roman meets French architecture.”

As the tour drew to a close, I couldn’t let his comment about nothing exciting him any more go. As I questioned him—discreetly—he eventually admitted that he feels most “at home” when working as a sound engineer. In fact, Eric was one of the first people to take a VA-sponsored art class as part of his VTC treatment. In the class he painted a simple flower, he thought he was done but then—for reasons even he isn’t sure—surrounded the flower with blue black streaks. It was as if a world of darkness descended on it, threatening to crush it.

When I last spoke to Eric, he told me that he was taking a semester off from school and working on some freelance sound-mixing projects. He has an extensive collection of vinyl records, he listens to them for their sound quality. “I prefer analog,” he told me over the phone, “digital is too clean.” For Eric—and other veterans like him—his preference for analog is unsurprising. The world itself isn’t perfectly tuned or clean so why should its art be any different?

Photo via Wikicommons

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.