AMMAN, Jordan — It was almost midnight and I’d been gabbing with a U.S. Army captain for several hours in an empty mess hall in Iraq when he leaned in close and asked if I’d ever heard of “Joe D.” He said the name cautiously, like a kid looking into a mirror and saying “Bloody Mary.” I’d never heard of him.
“Joe D. is the man who steals your wife or girlfriend when you’re deployed,” said the captain. “For a lot of the younger soldiers on their first tour, Joe D. is like Santa Claus. They refuse to believe he exists. They think he’s just a myth. But after one or two deployments, everyone believes.” He went on to explain that Joe D. could be anyone — a stranger, a trusted friend, your brother, anyone.
At the time I was single and had been for years. Joe D. seemed like just another soldier story. But soon I was seeing signs of him everywhere, namely in the phone room. Typically, a soldier would call home and instead of his wife, a strange male would answer, resulting in an outburst of expletives from the soldier.
To be sure, Joe D. has probably been a part of every war throughout human history. One could argue that Odysseus returned home from the Trojan War only to find his house full of Joe D.'s pining after his wife. But unlike any other war, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have given soldiers unprecedented access to cheap calls home and regular internet access.
Most soldiers can call loved ones in the U.S. almost everyday and get real-time updates about everything happening at home, good or bad. As a result, problems that in other wars would have appeared in a single “Dear John” letter now drag out for months.
Judith Broder is the founder and director of The Soldier’s Project, which offers free, anonymous counseling for veterans. Among the soldiers who seek out her help, she estimates that at least half of them are dealing with relationship issues, either from problems arising from prolonged separation or because the soldier returned home a changed person. While Broder said the ability to remain in constant contact was meant to be helpful, it can create serious distractions from soldiers who are unable to escape unfortunate news.
“When there are problems at home it is extremely disturbing,” she said. “Each of those emails
[about the issues] is another disturbance everyday. With letters, even if you were getting a disturbing letter once a month, it’s still only once a month.”
Joe D. isn’t such an abhorrent figure to soldiers simply because of the infidelity. Rather, they fear him because they're powerless to do anything about him.
If you cheat on someone while you’re sharing a house or in the same city, chances are your partner will find out sooner or later, or at least the affair will require a serious effort to keep things secret. If you catch your partner in the midst of an affair, you can do something to intervene. But Joe D. can be as careless as he wants while wooing a committed woman and if the soldier discovers him he can't intervene.
I once knew a soldier who called home and Joe D. answered. He admitted that he’d been sleeping with the soldier’s wife but claimed he didn’t know she was married. The soldier informed him that she was indeed wed and he was her husband. Joe D. thought about it for a moment, challenged the soldier to do something about it, and then hung up. With months left before the end of the soldier's deployment and his mid-tour leave already come and gone, Joe D. was right: There wasn’t anything the soldier could do.
In one unit I embedded with, a Joe D. story was circulating that seemed completely improbable yet somehow believable. A soldier had been married for 17 years when he deployed to Iraq. His wife was a crack addict years ago, but she had since managed to kick the habit. During her husband’s deployment, her ex-boyfriend got out of jail, she started sleeping with him, he got her hooked on crack again, moved into the family home, sent the kids to live with their grandparents, and turned the soldier’s home into a crystal meth lab.
To me, a mild-mannered, tofu-eating kind of guy, these stories were almost otherworldly. Kind of like watching an episode of Jerry Springer when you find yourself saying, “Really? Who throws a chair at their ex?”
I knew Joe D. was out there, but in the same sense I figured I’d probably never go on the Springer show to get surprise news from a loved one, I didn’t think I’d ever have to deal with Joe D. In the event that I did, I figured I could do it without shouting expletives into a public phone.
I was living overseas and embedding frequently when my girlfriend went back to the U.S. to work on a project. Several months after she’d been in the U.S. and a couple weeks after she’d asked for what I understood to be a break, I called her from a remote U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Joe D. didn’t answer, but I’d heard enough stories to know that he was there even without hearing his voice. Several days later, we talked again and she told me that Joe D. had started sending her love poems and gifts when he learned that we were having problems, and now she was giving up on us and moving in with Joe D.
I listened to her in a military phone room talking to me from about 8,000 miles away. In the phone booth next to me, someone was talking about his brother’s vacation. I was still just part of the phone room murmur, but somewhere in the middle of her explanation of how she got involved with Joe D. the frustration of knowing how little I could control the situation flipped a switch inside me that I didn’t even know existed. I erupted into stream of four-letter words. When I got up to leave a soldier who’d heard the outburst gave me a sympathetic nod.
When you finally learn to believe in Joe D., in a way, it really is just as upsetting as learning for the first time that Santa Clause isn’t real. The world you once thought you knew will never be quite the same.