Christian Davenport ’95, a Washington Post reporter since 2000, embedded with National Guard troops in Iraq and Kuwait twice, lived in a “can” with three Black Hawk helicopter pilots at Al Asad airbase, and accompanied them on wartime missions over the desert in their choppers. All fascinating experiences.
But none of that was as interesting to him as the moment the women and men of the Guard returned to Virginia and Maryland, slipped keys in their front doors, and reentered life in America. What is it like, he wondered, to return from combat and resume life in a society that is so disconnected from the fighting that your service was virtually invisible and is unfathomable to neighbors and colleagues?
That question formed the premise of Davenport’s first book, As You Were: To War and Back with the Black Hawk Battalion of the Virginia National Guard (2009). Solid, professional reporting, it is full of surprises, pathos, and not a little outrage.
Davenport was first exposed to the bifurcated lives of reservists and National Guard members when he wrote about them right after 9/11. “They’re parents and have civilian jobs—schoolteachers and lawyers and plumbers one minute, and then soldiers who are marching off to war the next.” In 2005, he said, they made up more than 50 percent of the ground forces in Iraq. “I felt their sacrifices, as the wars continued in Afghanistan and then into Iraq, largely were being ignored.”
Suspecting that the reentry phase after a deployment would be fraught with struggles, he came up with a different take on the now-familiar role of embedded reporter: “Nobody’s told this story of the home front, so I wanted to be the first journalist embedded not only in Iraq but on the home front as well.”
The book is written in three sections. First he introduces two women and two men before they’re called to active deployment: a College of William and Mary sorority girl, a 58-year-old grandfather, a 25-year-old college sophomore beginning to pull her life together, and a Virginia Military Institute graduate recently enlisted in the Guard.
From interviews and from his time embedded at Al Asad in Anbar province, in section two he describes daily life including tedium and trauma in a war zone. He also covers what it’s like for the 58-year-old pilot’s wife, who’s trying to cope with flooded basements and maddening military bureaucracy back in Maryland. The pilot asks a friend to check in on her, worried she’s having a nervous breakdown.
The third section follows the sorority sister to Brown University for a master’s program, describes the older pilot realizing his wife was changed by his absence, and puts the reader in the room when the VMI grad tell his mother that he’s going back to war.
The characterizations are so empathic and the reportage so thorough that the reader is invested in the fortunes and feelings of the citizen soldiers. The insensitivities and injustices they face back home sting. These are not soldiers of the 101st Airborne who return to base life as a unit with shared experiences and camaraderie. They are individuals—students, schoolteachers, civil servants—dropped back into the life of malls and offices, left largely to fend for themselves.
“One of my missions as a journalist is to grab readers by the lapels if I can and tell them this is a country at war, even though it doesn’t feel like it,” Davenport said. “And it bothers me that as a culture, as a society, we’re so disconnected from this war and we’re so divorced from the military. I kind of went with this in mind [from the post-9/11 reporting], but being over there just reinforced that.
“I think it’s unhealthy for democracy to be so disconnected from war—if we have no skin in the game and we can just turn our heads away and ignore it.”
Elevating and uniting the profiles and anecdotes to a solid book-length work of nonfiction is Davenport’s historical account of the National Guard since Colonial days and the catalogue of insults perpetrated by an unresponsive and at times dishonest military bureaucracy. Kate gives up in frustration after trying to get desperately needed counseling. Miranda enrolls in an Ivy League master’s program that will cost $100,000 only to have the Army Reserve renege on a promised $40,000 bonus.
The title of epilogue hints at the author’s indignation: “Citizen-Soldiers: The Conscience of a Nation.”
In the words of NPR host Diane Rehm, when she interviewed Davenport in July: “Thank you, Mr. Davenport, for what you’re doing here to raise the consciousness of the American public on this subject.”