He is from Lynchburg, Virginia, which has a main drag that goes quiet after 5 p.m. He and his friends call it the City of Churches. When Wilson was home on leave after the video came out, he took his grandmother to their church—the Jerry Falwell–founded Thomas Road Baptist Church, which looks like a movie theater with big-screen televisions and a projection wall and theater seats and a giant imperial choir. During a hymn, she slid Romans, chapter one—which warns against those who rebel against God—onto his lap, and Wilson said, “Jeez, Grandma, are you accusing your grandson of being gay?”
Today is one of Wilson’s last days of leave before he ships out, back to Iraq via Atlanta via Kuwait, where the boys switch from commercial planes to military planes and it’s a whole crew of camo kids loading themselves in like gear. He’s driving through Lynchburg in his welcome-home present to himself, a black 2010 Mazda6, and he has the air-conditioning cold and high. In Iraq, it was dry-death hot, and here in Lynchburg a few days after Memorial Day, it is wet-dirt hot. Wilson drives by his college, Liberty University, which is attached to his private high school, Liberty Christian Academy. He points to the high school, which is dwarfed by a planetary football field, and says, “You get fined if you have a picture holding a drink on Facebook. It’s that kind of place.”
They are rabid consumers of pop culture. when they are not on patrol, They live on the web. They are there and here at once.
He graduated in 2006 and couldn’t wait to get to college. But in his junior year at the academy, he let himself get recruited. “My recruiter was a genius,” he says. A lot of the soldiers paint their recruiters as highly intelligent men who read their brains and knew exactly what to say. Wilson was 17 years old and the kind of kid who was trying to wrap anomalous muscles around a small-boy body. “He saw my ego glowing. He said, ‘Boy, did you know you could go to boot camp while you are still in high school?’ I was like, ‘What?! You can? How many other people do it?’ He goes, ‘Almost nobody!’ ”
So Wilson signed up for the National Guard, partly for the money (a $6,000 bonus plus tuition for school) but mostly because he was flattered to be asked. He has been deployed twice: a year the first time, and it will be eight months when he comes home for the last time, in August. In Iraq, he is in the communications department. He is also often the gunner when they do convoy missions across the country.
The last night before he ships out again, all of Wilson’s friends and some ex-girlfriends and maybe a prospect or two have gathered at Buffalo Wild Wings off Route 460 near the Lynchburg airport. It’s a big hall of a restaurant, and there’s a southern band playing and two big tables full of his friends eating 45-cent wings and drinking Blue Motorcycles, which contain all the clear alcohols plus tequila and blue Curaçao.
Here is Mike, who is in Wilson’s company in Iraq. They hang out in one another’s chu’s a lot. (That’s Containerized Housing Units.) There are two to three boys in each. They have their beds and their laptops and their mini-fridges and their huge tubs of strawberry protein powder and their DVDs and their iPods. Music, they all say, saves them. They talk about stuff going on at home, but mostly they don’t. Girls, family. “It’s easier,” says Mike, “when you don’t think about what you’re missing.”
Wilson’s friend Amy Richardson is a combat medic, 22 years old. When she’s home in Lynchburg working retail for American Eagle, that’s when she’s lonely, she says. She thrills to being in the field. “You don’t need to know the person you’re walking beside,” she says, “but you know they’ll give their life up for you, and you would die for them.” That makes her feel the opposite of lonely.
All of Wilson’s civilian friends think he’s doing something honorable. But Wilson just wants to be done with it, so he can make the rest of his life happen. He is ambitious and understands there is more than one way to get to the place you want to end up. One is to pick a controversial subject and spoof it on YouTube.
A few weeks later, back in Iraq, it is just after the Fourth of July. In Lynchburg, there were barbecues, red and white and blue Jell-O shots, beach volleyball and flip cup and hot dogs and music and green grass. In Iraq, it is hot and red—110 degrees and there is never a cloud in the sky so it’s like you are constantly on display, a naked totem of flesh sticking out of a wide-lens panorama of sand.