The Man in the Ghillie Suit - by Greer Clem

Every summer for the past 16 years, my dad has taken me and my siblings on a camping trip. We're usually joined by two other families: Doug and his daughter Emma, my childhood best friend, and Carl and his son Porter. The campsite we go to is extremely remote, as in you-need-a-four-wheel-drive-car-to-get-across-a-river remote. It’s tucked away, high up in the Sierra Nevadas surrounded by the mountain's largest meadow. 

Some years we have the campsight to ourselves, but more often than not other campers are scattered along the river with us. This particular trip about ten years ago began like any other. We were making breakfast on the first morning when we noticed a pickup truck pull in a few campsites over. Two guys got out, one dressed in typical camping garb, khaki quickdry pants and a flannel shirt, and the other in a ghillie suit. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with a ghillie suit, it's basically a bush costume, a type of military camouflage used to hide among brush and shrubs and  typically worn by snipers or soldiers. Now, while I agree the place to wear a ghillie suit is probably the woods, this was an unusual sight. But hey, it's camping - people are weird and we didn't think too much of it. Until later that day when we were walking out to the meadow and passed another campsite on our way. At the last site before the water, a group of large, burly men stood talking with grave expressions. They were huge, hulking figures with military stickers and lots of gear. My dad asked if everything was alright and they told us that the guy in the ghillie suit had wandered over to their camp this morning with his bow and arrow. Now, a man in a military ghillie suit armed with an hunting bow and a quiver of arrows is alarming to anyone. To a group of enormous, tattooed former military men trying to enjoy a quiet weekend, they immediately were on high alert. The ghillie suit man had fallen on their tent and they in turn had taken his arrows away and snapped them in half. He had retreated with various threats of "I'll be back" and "you all better watch yourselves." "The guy's not right," said one of the men.

This fact had not gone unnoticed by us. Whether he was drunk or high or mentally ill, we couldn't really tell, but to a man with small children just a few campsites down, my dad didn't like to hear this guy had been walking around armed and making threats. We decided to go out into the meadow to fish and hopefully we would return later to a calmer climate.

When we got back to camp that afternoon, all was quiet. We started up a campfire and were sitting around reading, whittling, hammocking etc. when the ghillie suit man came stumbling out of the bushes with a shotgun. Seeing our group gathered around the fire, he made a beeline and began telling the story of his altercation that morning. He was irate and gesturing wildly, seemingly ignorant to the fact that he was holding a gun. With wild eyes he kept saying, "They broke my arrows, man. They broke them." My dad, as calmly as I have ever seen him, said to our friend Carl, "Hey, why don't you take the kids on a little walk over the hill." Carl, wasting no time said, "Great idea, come on kids." We knew this was no ordinary walk; my dad wanted to make sure we weren't around in case something happened. So Carl, putting on a good display of normalcy, marched us over a little ridge where we sat down out of sight but still within earshot of our campsite below. "We're just going to hang out here for a bit, kids," he said. "Just until that guy calms down a bit." 

I'm the oldest of three kids. At the time, I was probably twelve years old. My sister was only eight and my brother, still a baby, had stayed home with my mom. Me and my best friend Emma were tasked with entertaining the littler kids, building stick houses and showing them our whittled trinkets to keep them quiet. Carl had his eye on the camp below. 

My dad and Doug both grew up in small rural towns. Guns are not foreign to them, nor were they usually considered dangerous. My dad always told me, "A gun is a tool, not a weapon. Only a person makes it a weapon." But the ghillie suit man had a different idea. He was ranting about going out in the meadow to hunt Osama Bin Ladin and snare rabbits. He kept saying he had to go back and show those military guys he couldn't be pushed around. My dad and Doug played sympathetic; they listened to him and told him they understood how he felt, that it didn't feel good to have someone push you around. "But," my dad said, "we've got little kids here, man. I know how you're feeling but we don't want to have some sort of blowout." Slowly, slowly, the man was calming down. And then the most extraordinary thing happened: the ghillie suit man collapsed into Doug's arms and began to weep. Doug is a tall, lanky man who smokes Camels and only shares those thoughts he deems pertinent. To say he and my dad were surprised would be an understatement.  Just then, the man's camping buddy came walking out of the woods where he had been collecting firewood. Upon seeing the scene, he dropped the wood and hurried over, taking the gun from his friend and unloading it. "Damnit!" he exclaimed, "what's wrong with you?" The ghillie suit man was still crying in Doug's arms, weeping about how upset he was. "Go get in the car," his friend said, and he slunk off, wiping his face. 

His friend apologized profusely and explained that the man in the ghillie suit had served in Iraq and was suffering severe PTSD. He had brought him here hoping the quiet would be good for him, away from too many people. "I know he's not right," he said, "but he's really not a bad guy." My dad and Doug were understanding, but they still had kids they had to think about. The end result was that the friend decided he and his buddy would leave to ensure nothing else happened. However, as they drove out of the campsite and past the guys at the end of the river, the ghillie suit man called from the truck that he would be back for them. Then the pickup crossed the river and they were gone.

We came down from over the hill and the dads put on a stoic display of normalcy. Emma and I had a million questions but eventually quieted as my dad told us, "You guys are the big kids, we don't want to be talking about this in front of the little ones." We took our roles of maturity very seriously and devoted ourselves to having a normal evening. That night, however, the fire at the other end of the river never went out. The military guys stayed awake all night in shifts, making sure the ghillie suit man did not return to make good on his promise. My dad had told them he really thought they were gone for good, that the guy had been troubled, but he himself later told me he had stayed awake for most of the night. 

Needless to say that when we returned home the moms were not thrilled to hear this story. For the first few years after the incident, we downplayed the dicier moments so as to allow for continued camping trips. We still talk about it today, in a "wow, that was crazy" kind of way. But lately I've found myself thinking of it differently. There's a picture that sticks in my mind whenever I think back to that trip; it's the image of the man in the ghillie suit crumpled in the arms of my friend's father, my dad patting him on the back. I had taken a peek over the hill where we were hidden just in time to see this moment and I remember being so confused. Now when I think of that image, I am filled with a profound sadness. I am so sad for that man and for what he was experiencing. And I am so grateful that my dad and Doug and Carl were the men he happened upon in the woods. And let me tell you one thing: another gun was the last thing we needed in that situation. It was compassion and conversation that ended that crisis, not the threat of another weapon.  As my dad said, "Bringing a gun to a situation says that you've already decided how this is going to go. Listening is in itself an action."

My point is this: our students don't need to see their teachers carrying guns. They don't need more armed guards at their schools. They need people to listen, safe spaces where they can go and not be judged. I think now about school shooters, about Adam Lanza and Nikolas Cruz, young men who were in desperate need of help and whose cries fell on deaf ears. To be sure they brought senseless suffering and tragedy to our communities, but we failed them too. We can hate them, we can despise them, we can wish they were dead. But none of that prevents another one. Guns made them feel powerful, like they finally had a say in a world that had done them wrong. The only power the man in the ghillie suit knew was the power of a weapon in his hand. But perhaps if we had been listening to Adam or Nikolas, if someone had stood and looked them in the eye and said, "I hear you," they too would have fallen into our arms and asked for help.

Greer Clem