“No, no, no. People don’t eat dirt.”
They do, by the way. He stood, eighteen years old, and watched in a damp Haitian evening for the first time the true meaning of poverty play out. People doing what they had to do. Today Rob Coburn is five-feet-nine inches of hard northeastern grit, with a propensity for getting heavy objects up off the ground and helping others do the same. He too is still doing what he has to do. He is a man devoted to his dogs and his clients, tearfully and fearlessly dedicated to helping people escape suffering, through the adoption of suffering.
When I met Rob I was in the worst shape I’d been in my life and slipping. I’d joined a new gym and was offered a free consultation with a professional bodybuilder and had decided what the hell? When I walked in I knew that Rob was supposed to sell me something and was full and ready to tell him to fuck right off. After thirty minutes I was not only sold, but energized, motivated for something I’d not been motivated for in a very long time.
Rob grew up in Maine, which, if you’ve been to Maine, you know a thing or two about the people who come from there. It is, quite literally, way up there. Even with modern tech, surviving the winter is a thing to be praised, an achievement to be celebrated. A winter’s survival not only requires a hearty amount of self-grit, but the support of a wider community willing to lend various hands in a place where there isn’t any other help for miles around. His existence there was not different from many children of the 90s and early-2000s — split family, economic angst, caught somewhere in an America that always seemed to be doing worse than everywhere else. The next natural step after the towers fell was the United States Marine Corps.
What I didn’t want to do was get my civilian rocks off from the great and heroic war stories the man has, or to ask him to recall anything he doesn’t quite wish to recall. It doesn’t take much to look around and realize that most folks who were “over there” don’t have any interest in playing troubadour for those of us that weren’t. From my first probe of wartime questioning I could tell that he was hesitant to go there. “I’m not going to get too into that, '' he told me, which was fair. But the longer we spoke the more he began to share a little of the things he experienced starting in a place not nearly as glamorous as the fabled sands of the middle-east. His Marine journey began 706 miles from Miami, in a place that most Americans are quick to pray for in times of tragedy but slow to do anything more. Haiti is the mini-America that never got its footing. The world’s first successful slave rebellion, that has since seen itself battered time and again by insecurity, storms and failed foreign aid. This is the place where Rob Coburn watched people eat dirt for the first time, an experience that left him with real, scarring memories, different from those of combat but equally as credible. “When you see something like that it’s hard to complain about home,” he told me. He explained how the Hatian people live in a state of being literally “dirt poor.”
Next stop, Iraq. 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment — “the tip of the spear.”
“We lined up on the train track outside the city that first night,” he said, “and I swear it was like something out of a movie.” The night had a dead silence to it. Nothing but sand and and a sweeping wind that whipped across an open place that used to be, by the rest of the world’s standards, beautiful, desirable. A bastard call to prayer cast from the speakers within the city limits calling for the heads of the men standing outside. Through a translator, Rob and his countrymen came to understand the true nature of what was about to go down — real people were in there who wanted them dead, and who were willing to do anything to make it so. When the fighting began, he explains, it continued to look and feel like he was just watching a movie. Red tracers going away from them, green tracers coming back at them. “Just like Star Wars,” he said. It wasn’t though, it was real gunfire in a real war. Eighteen years old. What came next was a 30-day, building to building, blood-drenched slog through the city of Fallujah under the ruthless Iraqi sun. Death behind doors everywhere. Grown men, tearful beyond reasons why.
Back stateside, I was nine years old, in a third grade classroom where we held drives to collect compression gear and candy bars to send to the boys overseas who were doing God’s work. All I knew about Operation Phantom Fury was that there were some very bad men who hurt us and our nation’s finest were out to get them. U.S. leadership has always done a fantastic job of marketing our wars, and I slept sound at night knowing there were real life superheroes out there doing the hunting for me. But back in Iraq it was a different story. The only thing I knew about death at the time was that the quarterback of the local high school had died tragically in a drunk driving accident. I remember a pillar memorial at the corner of his death marking the duration of his life and doing my best to wrap my head around someone only living to see their seventeenth year. Everyone I’d ever known had grown old and died, and meanwhile there were folks far away trying their best not to let go of life each day. “Eventually you just accepted that it was probably coming,” he said, “and it became about how long we could just keep the next guy alive. It was really the truest form of brotherhood.” He explains time in the heat of combat where tough young men would break down crying, overtaken by the prospect of imminent death. The only way through a bout of this, he says, were the words of a brother. But of course, then it was right back to shooting. Not for God or Country, but for each other.
The next few years saw plenty of combat for Rob and his men, the majority of which he has no desire to talk about with anyone. It’s alway been my belief that it isn’t the job of the civilian to speculate about the inner-workings of war. In a country like the United States, the “glamour” of war extends endlessly. It is in our music, in our movies, in our best-selling books. As a child, I knew the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” and through a young Texan president in the dust of a fallen city skyline promising justice. I know what I’ve been told, but I wanted to know from the Marine’s mouth straight up what the American people do not understand about war. He tells me that what the people don’t get is that, for the most part, the boots on the ground don’t want to be there any more than their enemies want them there. That although a young recruit may be excited to send home a picture in his dress blues for the first time, it is an entirely different story when the shit hits the fan.
When his time came to be released back into civilian life, here is the protocol Rob was assigned: Two days in a theater, powerpoint after powerpoint. You’re welcome for the trauma, best of luck, try not to kill yourself. I can tell in our conversation that Rob does not want to bash the military for its history of veteran care. He’s mature, and he understands the progression of things historically. But his explanation of the military’s response to PTSD for homecoming troops went like this: “hey,” he was told, “look at the Vietnam guys, they never complained about that stuff.” And that was that, until much later. Along with this, civilian life came with an array of unique challenges for men returning from combat situations. From noise sensitivity to the retackling of defensive driving, the whole thing was just altogether different from what it was before deployment. Frustration, dissolution, a lack of understanding from anyone who wasn’t “over there.” It didn’t take long before he knew he had to go back, and so he enlisted in the United States Air Force in 2007, now a man in his mid-20s, college educated, and a little embarrassed to be going for it again. But the story doesn’t get triumphant yet. The after-effects of a million different things finally caught up to Rob, and he saw a string of events happen in his 26th and 27th year that would follow him to this day. Among these, run-ins with the bottle, with the law, and with numerous beds in numerous hospitals. By 27, Rob Coburn was a burnt up man, needing to change.
He told his friends that he was going to go cold-turkey on the drink and that if they could just be on the other end of a call if needed that would be great. His body had other plans, having become so dependent on the stuff that it went into seizure and sent him right to the care of a VA hospital. It was at this point of the story where I figured I would just have given up if I was him, accepted myself as a broken man and let it implode completely. But Rob Coburn didn’t do that, and since his 27th year has not had a sip. A move to Florida and an honest doctor’s visit found Rob sober but unhealthy, not overweight but on scores of blood-pressure and cholesterol meds before his 30th birthday. He needed a challenge again, and he found it in the form of iron. Only three and a half months later, with the help of a trainer, Rob was not only off the meds but trending upwards in the way of a positive life. He’s since taken that blessing and redistributed it tenfold, becoming a trainer himself, a bodybuilder professionally, and now, the general manager of a gym, one that I get to walk into each day and feel something like the feeling of family because of a culture built by a seasoned man. You can’t walk in without somebody saying hello, and you can’t walk out without somebody telling you to have a good day, and for people who don’t have very many of those, that can make all the difference.
I wanted to ask Rob about the future, fascinated to see if someone with that crowded a past can have much hope for the future. He tells me that it’s not all that much about hope anymore, or about changing the world, but about tending to his corner of the earth and making sure it's a positive place for the people who pass through it. The goal is to do one’s best, and die empty. I ask him about his frustrations with the fitness world all of which basically boil down to the need to be gratified as quickly as possible. “People turn to drugs too quickly, and expect results before they are naturally able to occur.” He says. “Other than that it’s a lack of knowledge.” He goes on to explain that maybe it isn’t necessarily even a lack of knowledge, but an overdose of it. The modern fitness community is enormous, and it takes only a phone and an app to know this is true. What’s lost, he believes, is the skill of picking a program, following it, and tweaking when needed.
There is too much to be said about masculinity in an expanding climate of opinion, so much so that I find myself wondering if the term will ever truly hold a static definition ever again. As a result, I choose to observe traits in the people I meet rather than in literary definitions.
Masculinity for me is a guy like Rob, a guy who has seen the very worst the world has to offer and still finds it worthy to reach out a hand. Someone who is unafraid to love, to work, to speak what he believes to be true. Someone who greets the world as it is, with his shoulders back, ready to suffer for some sort of future good. That first time I met Rob, he asked me on a scale of one to ten how motivated I was to get myself back in shape. I told him that I knew I was supposed to say ten, but realistically I knew I was at about six. I’m a logical thinker with logical expectations, it’s the way I choose to manage happiness. He told me that he didn’t understand why somebody would even show up if they weren’t at a ten, and for the first time in a long time I agreed, and felt like an idiot for what I’d said. There are days when I’m still down there at six, truthfully, but if a guy like Rob can still get up and give it a ten, well, then I suppose I can too.