I had thought that my days of war were over. I had thought that I had enough and given all of this shit up a long time ago. But I guess I was wrong. I am back here again like a bad song in a broken jukebox. There was one more ounce of strength in my soul to give towards the fight. There was an immense burden of duty that pressed down hard upon my mind. And there was an overdue balance of paybacks that still needed answering.
Hell was my home away from home. I fucking hated it here; it was too hot, the chow sucked and mistakes seemed to have too steep of costs. But there is a tipping point in a forsaken warrior’s life where the bullets and bombs of conflicts become more comfortable than the quiet streets of home. I know nothing of peace anymore. The very fabric of my existence is made up of fear of a painful death, and they want to dispense painful deaths upon those that would seek us harm.
Anxiety leaves a warm bitter bile taste on my delicate palate. Garnished with a twist of malice and served upon a toasted bed of hostility; I find that as I get older, my taste for this war thing doesn’t get any more refined. It just leaves me longing for the uncomfortable home-cooked meals with those strangers that I would call my family.
The constant thundering of the tracks suddenly stopped, rousing our interest. A hurried frantic call of “Contact right! Contact right!” blared across the radio; relieving, on one hand, terrifying on the other. The sharp pings and pangs of high-velocity metal-on-metal impacts tightened up the pucker factor of those of us inside the Bradley. Like the electric excitement of a firehouse crew when alarm bells sounded, my fellow sleepy members inside this mechanical hornet’s nest instantly stirred awake; stingingly and with agitation. My arms and legs were bound by an unseen constriction and ached to move. We needed to get the hell out of this situation, reverse this kill zone, and put the smackdown on them before they got lucky. “Alright boys, get ready!” the Bradley’s commander leaned down and bellowed with enthusiasm, “3 O’clock! — KA-BOOM!!!
We were submerged into a reality devoid of light and sound. The smell of burning electrical wire and the ozone of electrical sparks was fast to fill the back of this vehicle. Fire lit the scene before me. Every picture that dwelled within my mind of grotesque contortions made of torn flesh and broken bone occupied this tiny compartment. All the trimmings of my most vivid and most horrible recollections soaked my boots and left me drowning in paralyzing fear. I tried for the heavy steel door; it was sealed shut. The fire was growing quickly and started to burn my skin. Within the rapidly escalating percussions of “popcorn” like snaps of burning rounds, dwelled a low moan, just as if a current of breath could lightly drag across vocal cords. My focus went to search and among the carnage, a decapitated head stared deeply at me moving his mouth like a goldfish gasping for air.
With a sudden inhale of air, I kicked my way straight out of the bed, landing on my feet as if I was still on fire, running for the door. I came crashing into a world not yet recognizable by blinded eyes of a lucid horror. My heart accelerated to a rate well beyond what I thought possible. I couldn’t tell where one heartbeat ended and the next one began. I held my breath, swatted at the flames, and picked up my feet trying to avoid the decapitated head. My hands were still trembling, my mind was still in a panic and my muscles still itched with the explosive charge of a survival instinct gone awry.
I felt sick to my stomach by the overdose of adrenaline, but the raging flames inside my mind receded and then revealed the quiet serenity of my home. My wife was still comfortably asleep, as were my daughter and both of the dogs. I was so jealous of their complete trust in the night and was angry at myself for being this way. I am proud of doing all of the shit that we had done over there; recovering the fallen off of those horrific scenes to bring closure to their families. But where does this hell end? If this was to be the rest of my existence, I am not so sure that I could bear it.
I grabbed my cigarettes and went straight for the front door of the house, wanting to get out fast and calm my nerves. I unlocked the door, paused, and then quickly locked the door. The battlefield rationale of yesteryear was pulled out of storage, dusted off, and breathed new life. All of a sudden, the survival instincts that I had depended on long ago demanded to be heard. With trembling hands, I turned off the lights, checked the window locks, and closed the curtains. Fretfully pacing around the house, I waited for the sweet salvation of sunrise to melt back the shadows and all of the imaginary gunmen of my fears.
The neighborhood was still dark and the sky turning a light purple when my garage door opened, billowing out a dense cloud of nervous cigarette smoke. This place was my bastion, my fortress made of empty beer bottles, surrounded by a moat of tears and burned-out dreams. This was my only comfortable place to sort out my thoughts, my only comfortable place to drown my sorrows. I was already a six-pack into my counter-assault into dreamland and it was going to take a lot more to take the venom out of last night’s bite. Neighbors came out to warm their cars in the frost of early morn, only to be uneasy at the sight of the weirdo still drinking at this hour. I needed the alcohol to sleep; I needed it to numb my senses and give me the courage to try it all over again. They looked at me with discerning eyes, only if they knew what kind of torturous hell that follows war.
A million years ago, I was somebody. On a far-off battlefield, I inspired, I led, and I helped bring the broken bodies of heroes home. As Mortuary Affairs Marines we had completed impossible tasks and made impacts to a depth that I may never fully fathom. And now, I am reduced to be a grown-ass man who was terrified to go to sleep. A grown-ass man needed three fingers of bourbon and half a case of beer to chase away the boogeyman. I am not even a shadow of who I used to be. I dwell within the darkness of night, a hollow shell, a ghost. And the only light that gives me hope is the glint at the bottom of the bottle just before sunrise.
With wit’s end and final straws, I opened the dusty laptop and began to type. Thoughts poured onto the keyboard as the tales of my past filled the screen. A series of keystrokes formed into a word. A group of words built a sentence. The sentences conveyed the thought. And within the sequence of thoughts blossomed the madness that we had left behind. I had no intention of ever showing anyone my work. It was just a place to collect my thoughts, a place to vent my frustrations. A silent friend who I could confide in who wouldn’t judge me for the decisions I made in war, the things I had seen, or the terrible guilt I had for still being alive after being a witness to so much pain. I hated this new version of “me”; he was a pussy, afraid of everything after coming home from war. And when I looked into the mirror, I didn’t even recognize this “man” I have become.
I often wrote drunk and tired; a period of honest clarity where the words fell onto the pages unfettered and unmolested by discretion. I had developed my written voice by writing and rewriting the same shit every night, but looking at the story in more complex ways. I started to tell the story as a movie camera moves across the scene; panning out from the micro to the macro and introduce details by using the five senses to build the ambiance. And in doing so, I was able to take the reader and make them feel as if they were there with us, swatting at the flys, breathing the scorching hot air, and feel the sweat run between their ballistic plates.
I began to share my manuscript with my wife, opening a door into a world that I had fervently guarded for so long. And with surprise, as if the drapes had been pulled back, she began to see me in a different light. I let her read the chapter in which a friend was killed by a VBIED (car bomb) and we had to take care of his remains, suddenly she understood why Thanksgiving sucks for me. She now could empathize with my hesitation for public spaces and large crowds. She could prepare herself for those upcoming calendar dates that I subconsciously celebrated every year by being a total asshole. And now she had a frame of reference to go by, I could share my pain without actually divulging, and together we learned to rebuild our marriage with the aid of this new roadmap.
For years I wrote the same thirteen stories frame by frame, peeling back the scab to let it bleed, only to pick it again the next night and relive those moments all over again. I did what one of my Vietnam War veteran friends had told me to do. Write about each shitty experience, say your goodbyes in whatever way you want, start a fire, and burned them.
It seems counterproductive to put thousands of hours into rebuilding each event onto paper just to dispose of it in such a way. To painfully relive the trauma only to watch the bonfire peel back the pages of a chapter and reduce the memory into cinders. At first, I thought it was stupid. A hokey idea brewed up by a former hippy to “unlock” my chakras as I namaste into my happy place. But you know, I wouldn’t be writing this article if it didn’t help change my life. In mental health circles it’s called Journaling; a practice that lets you revisit your trauma by repeatedly writing about the events, and an act of symbolism, overcome the experience by destroying the words that burden you in a ceremony.
With the help of my PTSD therapist, the love of my family and friends, my stories typed onto paper, and time; I slowly regained control of my life. I still anticipate certain dates on the calendar, I still have nightmares, I still avoid crowds, but I no longer feel as if I am on shaky ground. I know that I have the support of loved ones and no longer burdened by the memories of my friends and those terrible days back then. I choose to honor their memory by reminding the world of their sacrifices because, in my mind, no one is ever truly gone until your name is forgotten.
What started out as a last-ditch effort to vent my frustrations became much, much more. I decided to self-publish the manuscript that I worked on for 4 ½ years and I named it after a Mortuary Affairs motto that we had in Iraq: “No Tougher Duty, No Greater Honor”. It debuted at #1 in the Middle East category and has gone on to win a bunch of awards in the self-publishing community. I now speak on various podcasts, in TV news interviews, and at my book promotions.
I am the first to admit that I am an accidental author. I never intended to reveal my manifesto of bat shit crazy writings, but being on this side of things I am sure glad that I did. At every opportunity, I share what helped me through the tough times, and from the bottom of my heart. I sincerely hope that my story strikes a chord with others and helps encourage them to find peace. It wasn’t the easiest thing I have ever done, but in the end, it certainly was worth it. All it took was some honesty, a laptop, and a chance for me to say goodbye.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on May 9, 2019.