The Army Medic in the Hole

He wanted to be a man with a story. He wanted to do things, see things, to have a history. He wanted to be like his grandfather, a hero of the Second World War who flew dozens of bombing missions with the 15th Air Force and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross. Most of all, he wanted to be something more than he thought he was.

The best way to become a man with a story, he convinced himself, was to blow up his old life and set out on a new path. Five years into the “war on terror,” Adam Linehan dropped out of college, joined the Army with ambitions of becoming a combat medic, and found himself, four years later, in an abandoned “mud and cowshit” village in middle-of-nowhere Afghanistan.

Then he fell in a hole.

Literally.

I met Adam last November at the Boulder Crest Retreat Center, a beautiful compound nestled into the foothills of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. It was built exclusively for combat veterans and their families to come and stay together—and to help those who have been wounded and traumatized by war to find some semblance of peace. I was there to teach a small group of former combat medics and corpsmen how to tell their stories. Adam was there to learn.

Adam Linehan works on a writing piece during a War Horse writing seminar for medics. Photo courtesy of Evy Mages.

We stood in the corner of a large gathering room in the retreat center’s main building. The floors and walls were wood, the ceiling vaulted. We were the only ones staying there that week. The air outside was chilled and silent.

I stood a large whiteboard on a metal easel near our table and told each of the seminar fellows to draw a small self-portrait of themselves on a yellow sticky note. Then, on a blue sticky note cut into the shape of a thought bubble, they were to write what they most wanted to learn during our week together.

Adam looked exhausted. His chin was stubbly, and his cheeks were pale. Disturbing, unresolved memories seemed to lurk behind his darkened, bloodshot eyes. It looked to me that he had marked himself with a kind of scarlet letter.

It was at that moment that Adam’s brain began to race. This would be his story.

I waited until nearly everyone else had gone before I asked Adam to stick his notes to the whiteboard and introduce himself. As he brushed past me, I smelled booze, as if invisible alcohol vapors leached from his pores.

The face on Adam’s self-portrait was smiling. He was not. “I want to work on writing about myself,” his thought bubble read.

When David Chrisinger asked a group of medics about their goals, Adam Linehan said, “I want to work on writing about myself.” Photo courtesy of Evy Mages.

A few days later, just before dinner, Adam pulled up a chair next to mine. He wanted to talk about his story, about how to start. By that point I knew a little about what he had been through in Afghanistan. Eighteen soldiers in his battalion had been killed. Three of his friends died right in front of him. A man hiding a bomb beneath his white robe had walked into the middle of their formation and blew himself up, leaving nothing behind but a pair of severed legs.

“Have you ever heard of Kurt Vonnegut’s man-in-hole?” I asked him. He shook his head.

“It’s this theory that he had about a story where there’s a guy and everything is fine,” I explained, “and then he falls in a hole and has to figure a way to get out. It’s the getting-out part that readers love the most.”

Adam leaned back in his chair and adjusted his flat-billed cap. He took a deep breath. His eyes got big.

“Dude!” he said. “In Afghanistan, I fell in a fucking hole. Like a literal fucking hole. I thought I was going to die.”

Four years after he had survived the firebombing of Dresden, Vonnegut was studying anthropology in a graduate program at my alma mater, the University of Chicago. He had this idea about what he called the “shapes of stories.” To put it simply, Vonnegut was convinced that the main character in any story, regardless of where or when it originated, will go through a series of ups and downs that can be graphed to reveal a sort of taxonomy. There were only six main shapes, he argued, and man-in-hole was one of the most popular.

In “A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut included the transcript of a talk he gave on the six story shapes. He explains “man-in-hole” this way:

“You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again. … This is encouraging to readers.”

Several months after the seminar ended, after I returned to Chicago and Adam to New York City, and as our cities began to emerge from coronavirus-induced lock-downs, Adam and I chatted over Zoom about the day he fell in the hole.

“It was maybe a month or two months into our deployment,” he said from his crackerbox studio apartment overlooking the Statue of Liberty. “Before things started to get real—in terms of people getting hurt and killed.”

“Three of us went into this courtyard,” he continued, “and my squad leader’s leg went through the ground suddenly. Me and my friend Popovich ran over there to pull him out.”

After they freed the sergeant’s leg, Adam and Popovich stood over the hole, looking down into the blackness. Adam shined his tactical light, but the beam wasn’t strong enough to reach the bottom of what he described as more of a portal than a hole.

It was such a strange feeling, he told me. One second he and Popovich were standing there, gawking. The next, it felt like the earth had swallowed him. He remembers hearing a loud rumbling noise. Then he and Popovich were pulled in, gulped down.

“It felt intentional,” he told me. “The brain can’t comprehend the randomness.”

Fifteen feet they slid. Caught in the throat of the hole, it took a minute for Adam to make sense of what had happened. He was crumpled atop Popovich. And Popovich was caught on the top of a metal ring that had once lined the well.

Popovich was in shock, wrapped up in his rifle sling. Adam used his knife to cut him loose. The walls around them started to crumble.

Adam Linehan. Photo courtesy of the author.

Adam Linehan. Photo courtesy of the author.

“That’s when I was like—oh my God—we’re going down into the earth and we’re in the middle of nowhere. No one is going to rescue us. They don’t have the tools.”

It was at that moment that Adam’s brain began to race. This would be his story.

“I can’t believe this is how I’m going to die,” he thought. “I joined the Army to be this fucking hero … and I walked away from a perfectly fine life. And now I’m on the other side of the world, in the middle of an abandoned village that no one gives a shit about—that has no fucking actual strategic value to America—and I’m going to die because I was an idiot and fucking stepped on a dry well.”

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David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. In 2016, he edited an essay collection—See Me for Who I Am—that bridges the cultural gap that divides veterans from the American people who have not served.

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