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Soft Spots
Cover of Soft Spots
Soft Spots
A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

A powerful, haunting, provocative memoir of a Marine in Iraq—and his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a system trying to hide the damage done

Marine Sergeant Clint Van Winkle flew to war on Valentine's Day 2003. His battalion was among the first wave of troops that crossed into Iraq, and his first combat experience was the battle of Nasiriyah, followed by patrols throughout the country, house to house searches, and operations in the dangerous Baghdad slums.

But after two tours of duty, certain images would not leave his memory—a fragmented mental movie of shooting a little girl; of scavenging parts from a destroyed, blood-spattered tank; of obliterating several Iraqi men hidden behind an ancient wall; and of mistakenly stepping on a "soft spot," the remains of a Marine killed in combat. After his return home, Van Winkle sought help at a Veterans Administration facility, and so began a maddening journey through an indifferent system that promises to care for veterans, but in fact abandons many of them.

From riveting scenes of combat violence, to the gallows humor of soldiers fighting a war that seems to make no sense, to moments of tenderness in a civilian life ravaged by flashbacks, rage, and doubt, Soft Spots reveals the mind of a soldier like no other recent memoir of the war that has consumed America.

A powerful, haunting, provocative memoir of a Marine in Iraq—and his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a system trying to hide the damage done

Marine Sergeant Clint Van Winkle flew to war on Valentine's Day 2003. His battalion was among the first wave of troops that crossed into Iraq, and his first combat experience was the battle of Nasiriyah, followed by patrols throughout the country, house to house searches, and operations in the dangerous Baghdad slums.

But after two tours of duty, certain images would not leave his memory—a fragmented mental movie of shooting a little girl; of scavenging parts from a destroyed, blood-spattered tank; of obliterating several Iraqi men hidden behind an ancient wall; and of mistakenly stepping on a "soft spot," the remains of a Marine killed in combat. After his return home, Van Winkle sought help at a Veterans Administration facility, and so began a maddening journey through an indifferent system that promises to care for veterans, but in fact abandons many of them.

From riveting scenes of combat violence, to the gallows humor of soldiers fighting a war that seems to make no sense, to moments of tenderness in a civilian life ravaged by flashbacks, rage, and doubt, Soft Spots reveals the mind of a soldier like no other recent memoir of the war that has consumed America.
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  • Copyright © 2009 by Clint Van Winkle..

    Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press.

    All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is...

    RUM AND COKE SPLASHED onto the tiled floor when I bent down to pick up a dress blues blouse. The midnightblue top, with its high-neck collar, red piping, and thick white cotton belt, had been tailored to fit snug around my trim body. Things had changed, though, primarily my waistline, and it would have taken some sort of divine intervention to get the anodized buttons anywhere close to their corresponding buttonholes. But that didn't stop me from trying.

    No luck. I threw the blouse in the corner, rooted through the rest of the uniform pile. A desert-patterned boonie cover with a faded Marine Corps emblem ironed on the front was one of the few items of clothing I knew I could still fit into. I found the floppy-rimmed hat tucked beneath a pair of gabardine trousers, and slid it onto my head before finishing what little remained of the watered-down rum and Coke. "You're all fucked up," I said when I saw myself in the mirror. The baldheaded reflection staring back at me resembled the eighteenyear- old boy who'd showed up for training at Parris Island in 1997 more than it did the twenty-five-year-old sergeant who had commanded a section of amphibious assault vehicles during the initial invasion of Iraq. Sergeant Van Winkle, the Marine Corps martial arts instructor, had disappeared long ago and left behind an out-of-shape college student named Clint—a person I'd grown to dislike.

    The first year home from war had not gone smoothly, and with the redeployment of my old unit imminent and my younger stepbrother Matt still a few months away from completing his first tour in Iraq with an Army Scout Cav unit, I couldn't help but believe that I was letting everyone down by hiding out in a university classroom.

    After pouring a fresh drink, I walked down a short hallway to the office and sat in a swivel chair. In the clutter on the desk lay a dusty Ziploc bag that contained an equally dusty notebook. Most Marines carried the same green notebooks. The small hardcover books were almost as important as rifles and ammunition. With so many "moving parts," relying on memory was a surefire way to fuck things up. I took the notebook from the bag, flipped through its weathered pages.

    February 14, 2003: the first entry. Corporal Shawn Kipper was sandwiched between Staff Sergeant David Paxson and me, stuffed uncomfortably into the middle seat of a Boeing 777 that the U.S. government had chartered to fly our battalion to Kuwait. Rifles and pistols were stored haphazardly in the overhead bins, mixed in with pillows and kiddy-sized blankets. Deuce gear—war belt with canteens, first-aid kit, and butt pack full of miscellaneous supplies—lay tangled like a pile of spaghetti around boot-clad feet. Openmouthed, resembling a pair of oversized flytraps, Paxson and Kipper slept.

    According to the onboard navigation screen on the bulkhead in front of us, the Celtic Sea was thousands of feet below. I looked out of the window, wondered if I would ever again get the chance to see the region. Only a few faint lights were visible from my vantage point, but looking at them sparkle made me think of what it would be like to be in a different situation: trolling in a fishing boat in the choppy water below, wrestling heavy nets of fish out of the sea. We were flying across the world to free a nation, but I only thought about our freedom. It was Valentine's Day, but all I could envision was death.

    "Welcome to Kuwait," the first sergeant said over the plane's loudspeaker. Jet-lagged and stuffed full, we gathered our weapons, deuce gear, and gas masks and headed for the exit. Heat seemed to press against my body when I...
About the Author-
  • Clint Van Winkle served for eight years in the United States Marine Corps, earning the rank of sergeant. While in Iraq he served as an Amphibious Assault Vehicle section leader, attached to Lima Company 3rd BN 1st Marines, and commanded eighteen other Marines. After two tours of duty, he returned to earn a BA in English from Arizona State University, then a MA in Creative Writing and Media from the University of Wales-Swansea. He is the author of Soft Spots: A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He lives with his wife in Chesapeake, Virginia.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    December 15, 2008
    This memoir of combat in Iraq, and the post-traumatic stress disorder that followed, contains more literary touches than most, and it’s an admirable effort. Marine sergeant Van Winkle (who earned an M.A. in creative writing after returning from Iraq) emphasizes that every marine’s desire was not to spread freedom but to come home alive, and while the book describes some firefights, there are even more incidents of Van Winkle and his comrades blazing away at vehicles or distant figures only to discover they had killed civilians. After discharge, fearful memories and violent rages drove him to seek help from a surprisingly unhelpful V.A., but the passage of time, a few sympathetic therapists and a loving wife set him right. The text jumps back and forth between Van Winkle’s war experiences and postwar life, when marines from his unit, some dead, reappear to badger him. Most readers will forgive this exercise in creative writing techniques because it presents a vivid picture of what many vets endure.

  • The Washington Post
    "Nothing gets held back in Soft Spots, Clint Van Winkle's account of his two years of duty as a Marine sargeant in Iraq...lacerating honesty, the narrative is dreamlike and surreal."
  • The Officer

"More than just a retelling of one individual’s war experience: it is an account of the psychological absurdities of warfare, including the feelings and emotions of participating in combat and the sense of impossibility involved in coping with survival as well as being in such close proximity to death. [Van Winkle] doesn’t attempt to analyze the wrongs or rights of the Iraq war, to engage in political arguments, or to blame politicians. This is an account of a veteran who rather miraculously returns from war physically intact, only to find that his sanity and peace of mind are no longer intact."
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A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Clint Van Winkle
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