The earth skitters under us as we speed onward. Like children on a swing set, we lift our feet into the wind and feel the night air rush by. We smile into the night; the ancient land we travel over is indifferent to us, and the joy we feel is indescribable. Walk with me reader, into the empty space. All are silent as we close on the target. I wonder if they know we are coming. As they lay down in the silent stillness, they wonder about the things we all do. The things that keep us up, that stand in defiance of sleep, that make rest a far-off impossibility. We live now without distraction, minds set forth with terrible purpose. In the midst of all this, we sit and enjoy the ride. We shed the electronic coil of devices, of those at home, free of distraction and overwhelmingly alive with calamitous intent. How can anything after this compare?
The crew chief passes the one-minute call, some wake from the nap they take in full kit; knights in camouflaged armor. Why is this so relaxing to them? What kind of man sleeps surrounded by death? Who finds comfort draped in the tools of destruction? We are those men. Those that sit in the door look out towards the target wondering if the enemy hears us coming. Surprise will help keep us safe, we will be landing on the X, on the enemy’s doorstep. We like it this way, a blinding fast assault covered by the shock of explosive breaches and concussive blasts of blinding white light. You get turned on by the smell of freshly opened printer paper and crisp ink from printed documents; a new phone and fresh coffee. We smell the stench of burnt primer and RDX gas, and think, what power we have; our madness is honed and tempered. Our breachers are masters of manipulating chemical compounds; they work terrible dark magic with explosives, bending and pushing metal at will. They perform their black art with maniacal satisfaction, what good will your gates and ramparts do to stop such men?
We return from this night, as the sun rises and kisses our dust-covered and weary faces. The kind of exuberant fatigue one has after making love, adrenaline spent. How can I ever have a job where my eyes only hunt numbers on a spreadsheet? We knocked on the gates of Valhalla and as soon as struck we were exiled. How do we return when we must live outside its walls; refugees in our own homeland who must now struggle to assimilate? We slap our young ones on the back for a job well done and chide others for mistakes made and lessons learned. You will never know a love like this, to stand shoulder to shoulder with strange brothers of this misfit family.
I look behind me and see the hoplites of old, the armored cataphract, the disciplined legion, the painted warrior. This is the lineage that casts its shadow as I live in fear of its disappointment. I look to the now, to the present, and see the men who humble me as I am unworthy of them. They lift me up, and I lead them, they allow it. If I were unfit they would let me know, these men cannot be tamed. The leaders made here will be counted on by our countrymen to share what they have learned; time is the only barrier and a willingness to listen is the key.
We walk away of our own will hoping for a new life closer to what we left behind. We seek to work for meaning, to have our life’s work matter, and to be surrounded by the best. We look down at the hands we wash in our new jobs restroom and wish they were still caked with earth and sweat, even blood. We are intimate with death and see life with the eyes of someone who has seen the last light leave our friends’ corporeal forms. Their last breath a funeral dirge played in lonely rhythms on their voyage home. Our longboats fly instead of sale, carried on currents of air and thrust instead of the wild sea. The metal coffins draped in the bloody stripes of our flag, are a reminder that they are not alone in their sacrifice. The sanguine ribbons are a simple homage to this immortal fraternity. One of us will guard them in lonesome travel home standing watch over the sarcophagi of these American warrior kings.
You perhaps now see why those like me are truly never happy in the occupational trappings others seem to be so satisfied with. How can I make you understand more? Our experiences are so different; we are made of different metals but could be melted down and forged for a similar purpose. We volunteered to serve with unknown consequences, never heeding the warnings of the concerned parent or loved one. We served in a selfless capacity; that we should expect nothing in return, and must not give in to harsh judgments of those who did not stand with us. We are not all meant to hold watch along the wall. There is a great divide that expands every day between citizens and soldiers. I can only do the best I can to help you see what I saw and to understand the feelings and thoughts of a group that I probably have no business speaking for.
I fumble through these memories, nostalgia being a familiar trap for overly pleasant thoughts. I know that I am grateful for every job and opportunity that has come my way in my new life. Yet I am still on a journey to find that thing to fill the hollow soul, a rock to seal a mausoleum I have built within populated with the ghosts of my past. To quiet those wretched specters who always demand more of me. To find an occupation that gives purpose enough to silence their need for meaningful benediction.
Dear reader if you are still here, I hope you have taken something from this verbose assemblage. We walked in the weightlessness of a vacuum, in combat and in training; we stepped boldly into the unknown abyss. Instead of being pulled helplessly and willingly into its embrace, we returned from whence we came anointed in our deeds. I hope we understand each other a little better reader, I hope you drink deeply of the breaking day and find your chance to walk along the abyss.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on February 11, 2017.
A sniper of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, U.S. Army, takes aim while on patrol on an urban Iraqi street, on 13 May 2004. Source.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.