That urge never subsided. You know the one I’m referring to. It’s a fire that burns so deep within, a fire that drives you to do something positive with all of that pain and anger you shoved down for so long. If the military wasn’t an option, I knew I wanted to serve in some capacity, so I did the next best thing. After applying and testing for several Police Departments, I was eventually hired by the police agency that responded that night my brother took his life. Ironic? A little. Coincidence? Not hardly. There are no coincidences in life. “This is it,” I thought. This career is going to fill that bottomless hole I feel deep in my soul day in and day out. The hole that feels like someone reached inside of me with their fist and gutted a portion of my heart, like the way you gut a fish when you clean it.
I felt like I was filling that hole, that void, so to speak. Becoming a street cop, trying to do right in the world for others in their time of need, and serving justice on a silver platter somehow seemed like the answer for my void. My first week on the job in-field training, “Day 1 of week 1” you know what kind of call I got sent to? You guessed it. A twenty-something-year-old Army Veteran who shot himself inside his apartment. Walking into the sight of that kid’s brains and a lifeless body laying on top of a mound of clothing, mostly his military apparel, hit me like a pillowcase full of bricks right in the face. I was not mentally prepared for that, or the other 60 suicide calls I have responded to since that one. In all of those calls, I saw my brother. That place I buried my emotions, my grief, my anger… it was surfacing. It was oozing out of the crevices of that dark place I thought I had buried it.
I absolutely hate the term PTSD. It’s an over-diagnosed and overused word in my opinion. The term is thrown around in today’s society more than a blowup doll at a Vegas pool party. It is all too often used in the Law Enforcement community as well. Is it real? Abso-fucking-lutely. Do I believe my brother ended his life due to his inability to cope with this shit in his mind that haunted him long after he left the military? You’re damn right I do.
Not only did he have the inability to cope with his demons, but he also had a hell of a time trying to adjust to civilian life. I finally had the audacity to reach out and see a counselor for the things I never dealt with. The things I never faced head-on, that decided to surface 7 years after my brother’s suicide. Do you think you can run from that forever? Go ahead and try it and then come talk to me about how that worked out for you. Those things, your grief, the pain, the loss, the anger, they never go away. I thought I was losing my mind. It’s been 7 years, why are his death and his loss progressively getting harder for me to cope with?! I couldn’t make sense of it. Some days, I still don’t.
This counselor, bless his heart, was a police psychologist, and dealt solely with the Law Enforcement community and current and former military personnel. Then he mentioned the words “post-traumatic” and I instantly shut down and tuned him out. “There goes the fucking word again”, I thought. Call it selective hearing if you will, or maybe it was the way he wore his preppy sweater and the fact that I pictured him coming from a little house on the prairie type lifestyle by his mannerisms and way of communicating that I couldn’t quite get past.
Bottom line, I have a hard time spilling my guts to someone who comes off as having zero life experience. Needless to say, I made it about 6 visits and decided it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t helping with this gaping void I still had. On my last visit with this counselor, he had said something that led me to a decision that brings me to where I am today. My brother’s birthday was approaching, December 26 (the day after Christmas…as if Holidays weren’t hard enough) He said to me, “This year, for your brother’s birthday, why don’t you give him a gift. Nothing of material value, but something or personal value, something you can do in your life to honor him.”
I left thinking “what is this guy talking about” and thought about it through the duration of my commute home. I spent the entire next week thinking about what I could possibly “give my brother”. Here I am, a single mom who has her shit together, raising an amazing little girl, and serving as a Police Officer, what more could I do to make my brother proud of me?! Despite all I had going for me, I began to feel insignificant and pathetic.
I dug out my brother’s box from the top shelf in my closet. A box I kept special sentiments of his in, photos, boot camp letters, cards he gave me, etc. As the quote goes in the movie Act of Valor, “Put your pain in a box and lock it down”… well, that was this box. I was looking for some inspiration, a sign, fucking something, anything to reach out to me and make sense of this all. I read his boot camp letters over and over and over. That kid had more heart than anyone I know. SO much drive, so much passion. His words still hold relevance and weight in my life today. I spent a good hour going through that box of pain until I couldn’t anymore and I put it away, still with no answers to my questions about how the hell I was going to honor him.
I went to work the next day for my normal patrol shift and had a conversation with my partner at work, who is a friend near and dear to my heart to this day. He is a former Army Ranger with 6 deployments under his belt. Needless to say, he gets it. He understood my pain.
“Continue the Legacy for your brother,” he told me. These words resonated so sound and clear to me. Continue the legacy. It’s that simple. “You want to honor your brother? You’re doing it every goddamn day without realizing it. Live for him because he cannot.” He undoubtedly made a choice, an ugly one that left irreparable damage in the lives of those who loved him. That doesn’t mean I can’t live my life in a way as to honor him and who he was. It was like someone turned on the lights for the first time after the electricity had been shut off for years. It finally hit me. Like that sack of bricks.
A week later I found my ass in the Army Recruiting office enlisting in the reserves. That fire that I mentioned earlier, the one that burns from the inside out, it fuels your drive, that relentless desire to put all of that shit-stirring in your mind and heart into something meaningful and purposeful. Don’t ignore it. Use that pain, the agony, the anger, and the sorrow… use it as fuel to drive forward and create something beautiful with it. When I decided to enlist in the Army, all of the dots connected. It was like the stars aligned and I felt a sense of relief, and a sense of purpose, like the pieces, finally fell into place as they were meant to. It felt like the step I needed to take to navigate through the anger and grief and I had yet come face to face with.
This all came full circle when I shared the news of my enlisting with my parents. I was then given my brother’s dog tag and my father said, “Make sure you get your own.” I was then made aware of the Army Commendation Medal my brother received for his meritorious service overseas. My brother never mentioned a word about it. I began to read the recommendation for the award. One of the acknowledgments stated he regularly manned the M240B machine gun by himself (which is typically a 3-man operation) because their unit was so undermanned and overworked.
“Jones showed great heroism and valor by returning fire and killing the enemy” during one of their operations to secure the Pakistan border. I completely broke down. I was so proud of him, yet so torn up inside that I never had the chance to tell him how proud I was. The next thought I had? This bracelet I wore all of these years finally made sense now. My brother was an anomaly whether he knew it or not. A rare breed, he was a warrior and a fighter who eventually grew tired of fighting the battle in his head when he was home.
That brings me back to there being no coincidences in life. Turns out, while I was enlightened to all the above, the operations my brother received an award for, were the same operations my buddy’s Ranger unit was on. They were at the same damn combat outpost in the middle of that God-forsaken country at the exact same time. Fast forward to today, I end up on the same police squad, over a decade later with someone who fought and served with my brother overseas. They didn’t know each other or directly interact. My brother’s unit provided exterior security for my buddy’s Ranger unit while they performed their operations.
The mere fact that any of this is even possible is mind-blowing. Life sure is funny in that way. Needless to say, my buddy, my partner at work, has become family. You mean to tell me this shit “just happens”?! Prove me wrong. Might I add, I’ll be heading to Ft. Benning for Basic Training. Coincidence? My ass.
You see, that void, that black, daunting, empty, darkness that sits inside of you when you lose someone significant in your life, it never goes away and it can never be filled. Take my word for it. Hell, I tried to fill the damn thing for years. You can’t fill that fucker. Nothing you pour into that void will fill it. It’s like pouring liquid into a bottomless cup. It has taken me 7 years and change to realize this one thing. What you can do, is take the torch that was passed to you and carry it for them. Take that torch and keep going, keep fighting, and fight like hell. Even when you’re tired. Do it for them, do it for the people in your life, and do it for yourself. You can’t go back and change the things you regret doing or not doing, you also cannot re-write the past. You will spend a lifetime re-living the painful ‘would have-could-have, should-haves.’
They say every experience a person goes through in life, molds them into the very being they are today. I have to believe that my brother is finally at peace. He is no longer suffering from his demons and is somewhere floating above keeping an eye on things down here. He is physically gone, but he is everywhere throughout my life still. I can still feel him because I am fighting to keep his legacy alive. I see him in my daughter’s sweet face in the expressions she makes, I feel him watching over me when I patrol the streets in the city he was last alive in, and I hear him in my mind when I’m mentally and spiritually exhausted: “Don’t fucking quit on me now, you got this.” I have been asked on many occasions what drives me, and the answer is simple. He does.
Here I am, 33 years old, and about to embark on my journey to basic training while in the midst of a full-blown career and raising an 8-year-old little girl by myself. Yes, I have received plenty of confused, negative, and questionable feedback from people in my life regarding my decision to do this “now.” All I can say is this:
My brother chose to leave this world, and I am choosing to finish his story for him. I am choosing to honor the person he was down to his core and live a life I hope he will be damn proud of when I see him on the other side someday. I am choosing to carry his torch, for my family, for my daughter, for myself, and for him. Enlisting in the Army is not going to fill that void. Here is what I have realized: It was never about the void.
The take-away here? Acknowledge the void. Acknowledge the hell out of it, get comfortable with it, learn to sit in the dark face to face with it, and become content. The void isn’t going anywhere. It’s the legacy that matters, it’s all that ever mattered.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on May 6, 2020.