Don Coolidge’s dog tags remain hidden, buried deep inside a metal workout locker in Manhattan.
Coolidge, 26, is not ashamed to be an Iraq War veteran; he is proud of the nine months he spent as a Marine. What he’s wary of are those who judge him — as violent, conflict-prone, scarred, erratic — because of his national service.
And so Coolidge has struggled to pass as just another guy in Bushwick.
“When I got back, people would corner me in the hallways between classes,” he says. “’How was Iraq? Did you kill anyone?’ It’s not a question that you could answer briefly.”
Now Coolidge helps organize the Veteran-Civilian Dialogue, which brings veterans and non-military folks together to talk about war.
“I want to know why you’ve turned me into a self-hating, self-defeating leper,” one veteran cried at a civilian during a role-playing exercise. A civilian piped in: “We didn’t know how to relate to you when you got back.”
Then a soldier: “I get angry when they say, ‘Welcome home.’ Who says I’m home?”
The program has also helped Coolidge explain his experience to others.
“Talking to other people that aren’t in the military, you realize that when they ask you a question, they are interested,”?he said. “They want to know what you’re going through.”