by Joshua “Soldado” Vaughn
The memories of war are always jumbled in my mind. They return in strange and disconnected snippets like somebody clipped together pieces of various war movies. They’re mostly without sound like my mind has deleted the audio portion of the scenes. I remember one night in Iraq, the vehicle in front of me being hit with an IED. The incredible ball of fire engulfing the vehicle is seared in my mind, playing over and over in high def, yet there is utter silence.
The memory ends and jumps back to a different clip. I’m about to parachute into Iraq along with the rest of my unit. We’re packed shoulder to shoulder on the floor of the plane with parachutes, rucksacks, and weapons strapped down. The Iraqi Army has ample air defense artillery, and we’ve been briefed to expect 60% casualties just on the way in. When the doors open and the cold air rushes into the plane it’s difficult for me to even stand up because my kit is so heavy. I use the side of the plane to get up. The last thing I see is my First Sergeant’s face, smiling in a mask of camouflage paint, before jumping into the pitch-black night.
In the air, I can see nothing except when the enemy artillery shells explode like some grim fireworks show of death. Luckily they don’t take down any of our planes. I can’t see the ground to prepare to land and I’m knocked unconscious. I wake up alone, confused and disoriented but I pull my weapon out, pack up my ‘chute and find the rest of my unit.
Our mission is to spread out and attack various key targets in Iraq. We travel at night with the utmost stealth, dodging enemy tank columns and hiding during the day until we reach our target. There’s a large force of Iraqi soldiers guarding a key dam and we have to take it. We attack before dawn, and just after sunrise, I kill other human beings for the first time in my life. After several hours of fighting, we’d taken our target and the enemy was mostly quiet. I sit down to drink a bottle of water. There’re bodies just scattered everywhere; a few feet away there’s an Iraqi soldier with the top of his head just gone. I can smell the blood as I drink. It’s spring of 2003. I’m 19 years old.
This scene fades out and the movie reel jumps ahead five years. I’m in Iraq, this time working for a private security firm. I’d just returned after being home on leave. After getting settled, I go see a friend. I run into one of his teammates, Jules, and ask if he’d seen Dez. His whole face sunk and he said, “Mate, I guess you haven’t heard. Dez died a few days ago. We were hit with an EFP. Everyone else is OK but it hit him in the head.” I’m instantly cold and sick to my stomach.
Silence for a minute as I process the information. Finally, I say, “I’m so sorry. At least it would have been quick, then. He was one of the best.” The moment gets worse as Jules replies, “I wish man, but unfortunately it was a really unlucky hit. Didn’t kill him right off. Took off his face, but didn’t hit his brain. He hung on for some time. We did everything we could, tried and tried to establish an airway, but we couldn’t save him.”
I’d lost other friends before this, of course, and while it was horrible I’d been able to shake it off. For some reason, this one hit me a little harder. I started to dream almost every night about my closest friends being hit, bleeding out on the street as I tried everything to stop the blood and failing. I wasn’t the only one, of course.
During the day we were all bravado; joking, working out at the gym, and training. But at night sometimes the whiskey ran deep and guys would come out of their shells; horrible stories of men killed would spill out from behind the armored facades of men at war. A few times one of these incredibly tough men would break down in the middle of the story and I would give them a big hug as they tried to stop the tears. We got each other through it. No matter how bad it was, we were there for each other, and that love and loyalty is what gave us the courage to fight over and over again.
Unlike the single guys I had a wife who had stuck with me for years and we recently had a beautiful baby girl. I stuck it out it for another year or so after the baby was born, but eventually, I knew it was time to leave the war. I’d been going back and forth from Iraq to Afghanistan for ten years now. It was time, but when I turned in my rifle for the last time it felt like I handed over my soul. It was great to be home, but I was still having vivid dreams of my friends being wounded. The guilt crushed my chest like a massive weight. I felt like I committed some horrible sin leaving the war behind while the men were still in the fight.
In arrogance, I shrugged it all off. Sure, I had some bad memories, but I was too tough to let anything bother me. Looking back, the warning signs were so clear. I tried to work out the way I used to overseas. I remember going out for a run and after a few hundred yards I couldn’t continue, even though I was capable of running seven miles comfortably at the time. My legs were heavy and numb; I had a strange urge to just lie down on the side of the road. There didn’t seem to be a reason to move. I went back to my house and had a drink.
I began drinking at work. It started with a nice bottle of Scotch I saved in a cabinet as a gift for a friend. One particularly bad day I decided to take a shot. I ended up drinking about half the bottle, and for the rest of the year, I struggled just to stay sober at work. As I got physically weaker the depression deepened. I would skip work and not leave the house for days. Eventually, I couldn’t help but admit to myself something was wrong. I was on a downward spiral and if something didn’t change I would crash. The love I felt for my daughter is the only thing that caught me before I hit bottom.
I knew that as a Father it was my responsibility to set an example for her, and I didn’t want her to grow up with the image of me being crushed by my struggle. One day she would have her own fight, and I had to show her how to win. I’d noticed a new gym near my house advertising Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. I was familiar with Jiu-Jitsu from my time in Special Operations. We only trained in hand-to-hand combat occasionally, but when we did the guys who knew Jiu-Jitsu could choke me unconscious without breaking a sweat. It was an impressive martial art, to say the least.
It took me a couple of weeks to summon up the courage, but I finally showed up at the gym to train. It was horrible at first. After a year of teetering on the brink of alcoholism, I was in the worst shape of my life. I felt clumsy, weak, and clueless as I stumbled through the first class I felt disgusted with where I was at in life. It was absolutely the best thing that could have happened to me. At that moment, when the mats revealed the ugly truth of how far down I had fallen, I decided in my heart I would try to get better. I would pay the price to get better, no matter how hard it was.
Jiu-Jitsu is like that. It makes you look in the mirror and be honest with yourself. On the mats, you can’t lie to yourself and cover up your problems; there is only truth in the fight. If your opponent beats you in a match you have three choices; get your arm broken, getchoked unconscious, or tap to signal your defeat. There’s not a fourth option where you can lie to yourself about how good you are.
It wasn’t easy at first. Just the warm-up before class left me gasping for air. I was constantly disgusted by how out of shape and unskilled I was. But at least I was doing something positive, and I began to feel better about myself right away. For a long time, Jiu-Jitsu for me was a process of just getting smashed over and over again. The students who’d been there longer destroyed me every match.
There’s a moment during training that stands out in my mind. I’m on my back and there’s a big guy on top of me just crushing me. He’s a blue belt and almost a hundred pounds heavier than me. He knows how to apply an incredible amount of pressure from the top and I’m just in agony with no idea how to escape. I see my professor’s feet next to my face and I look up. He’s looking down at me and says four words that changed my life. “Just survive for now.”
And so that’s what I tried to do. I don’t remember him offering me much other advice during this period of my development, but for months I would come to the advanced class, roll with guys who I knew damn well were going to kill me, and just tried to survive a little longer each time. Eventually, I started to know what they were going to do before they did it, and one day I caught somebody in an armbar. It was a great feeling.
Over time Jiu-Jitsu began to change my life. If you’re going to be on the mats several times a week, there’s not any room in your life for destructive behavior. You need to be eating healthy food, getting enough sleep, and generally taking care of yourself. My daughter became interested in the training. She’s so proud of how tough her dad is, and that gives me the motivation not to let her down. It’s still hard training, and there are many days I’d rather just buy a six-pack and stay home, but she would see it, and the most important thing I want to teach her is no matter how hard things are, never quit.
After over two years of training, I still feel like I’m not in great shape or very skilled, but I can’t help but notice how far I’ve come. If I had to fight the old me, the guy who sat at his desk drinking Scotch at nine in the morning, I’d utterly destroy him. My daughter started training with me when she turned five. She’s so proud of her belt and she loves to do Jiu-Jitsu. She is very little and has some tough times there, but instead of quitting, she says “I will be tough like you dad; like a soldier.” And then, with my sore muscles, cracked ribs, swollen ears, and chipped tooth I can look at myself in the mirror and be proud of myself again.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and it is so difficult for a “tough” man to share in front of God and everybody that I have had my moments of weakness. But last year a friend of mine lost his struggle with his personal demons and took his own life. He made it home from the war unscathed, but it still killed him. In his honor, I decided to be completely and utterly honest about what I have been through to help others who are going through their own dark patch.
If you are suffering through a bad time I want to offer you the same advice my Professor gave to me when I was being crushed by the unbearable weight. Just survive for now. It won’t fix everything overnight, but just keep fighting and little by little things will change. One day you will look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come.
You don’t have to do it alone. Painted on the wall of our gym is the slogan “Jiu-Jitsu is for everyone.” And we mean it. It doesn’t matter how bad things are for you right now, if you just step onto the mats, we will show you how to survive for now and help you to get better.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on May 4, 2019.