Every lucky once in a while, I see a story playing out before my very eyes.
This happened in 2010 when I started seeing United States Marines returning home from bloody combat in Afghanistan. They were coming back through Camp Pendleton, which abuts Fallbrook, California, where I live. I saw a lot of them.
Some of the returning troops were part of the legendary Darkhorse Battalion, the 3/5, which had distinguished itself at Belleau Wood in World War I. By the time I began talking with them, the 3/5 had returned from a seven-month battle in Sangin Valley — the hottest of the Taliban hotbeds in deadly Helmand Province. They had taken the heaviest casualties of any combat battalion in the war in Afghanistan. One hundred and fifty were wounded, with many amputations. Twenty-five were killed outright. But they had restored some order in Sangin.
As I got to know some of the Darkhorses and other Marines, I was struck by their humility and politeness, as well as their genuine belief that they were not heroes, but were simply doing a job and fulfilling a commitment in fighting overseas.
As I got to know some of them better, they told me about the deadly patrols, the elusive Taliban, the nerve-punishing knowledge that you might step on a buried IED and have your foot, your legs, or your life blown out of you in the time takes to blink. Or that a friend would die. Hour after hour. Day after day, for seven months.
Now, back up just a second and see the small town that these young men were returning to. Fallbrook — 35,000 people, is a humble, a "Main Street" kind of place. Most of the businesses are mom-and-pop concerns. It has a mix of races, cultures, and ages. It houses the prosperous and the poor, the retired, young families, white, brown, black, native American, legal immigrants and illegal too. It always struck me as a shrunk-down version of our republic.
But by 2010, the Great Recession had taken its toll. Jobs were disappearing. "For Lease" signs were going up all up and down Main Street. Mortgages were going unpaid, homes abandoned or sold at bargain basement prices. People were loading up their cars and leaving, abandoning lives they could no longer pay for, moving back in with parents, brothers, sisters.
So, when talking to the Marines about the war, I also asked them how they were going to go forward in this troubled place. With that simple question — how are you going to find your way back into your country? — my next story was born.
"Full Measure" is a novel about one Darkhorse, Patrick Norris, age 22, who comes home from Sangin and tries to do just that. He’s beset by a haunted psyche, a shattered family, a faltering hometown.
And these are just the beginnings of his travail.