To Remember, Not Relive (Encore)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

As I continue to remember with you Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, the three Army Musketeers, now three years later, I find that a good way to distance myself from my emotional responses is to critique my writing—which is, I must say, quite worthy of critique. Less noble it is, I guess, yet how more pragmatic to edit rather than to wonder what should have been, might have been, or to shed a tear or two.

One of the privileges of aging is to find that one can condemn oneself and then grant clemency to the offender, all within the same breath. Or paragraph, at least.

So, editing is for another day. Today, it is instead 03 February, 2013, and I’ll take my post’s advice: To Remember, Not Relive.

I have written about him before, most recently in the posts Merry Christmas, Reality Notwithstanding and Taking Him On Home. He’s Porthos, the fun-loving rake to the quieter, more relaxed Athos–and their deeply-loved, fallen comrade, Aramis.

Porthos and I have known each other for a while. Our relationship has always been warm–though, shall we say, complicated as well. As the middle of three strong-willed sons born to a strong-willed father, he knows how to make his wants and wishes known. Fear not that, I can assure you.

And I might add: I wouldn’t get into a scuffle with him. Some of the more foolhardy in his time have. They learned. Forthwith.

Yet can that boy pour on the charm, or what. His is a perfect mixture of the quite genuine and the quite consciously manipulative. He’s had more than his fair share of practice through the years.

He actually leaves me reeling much of the time, truth be told. I’m never quite sure whether I want to give him a warm rub on the top of his head or smack the living daylights out of him. Usually both.

Porthos, in other words, is one of those individuals about whom no one–and I mean, no one–can feel nonchalant.

I’ve taken my share of hits from VA colleagues about him. We’re a bit of a known pair, again, truth be told. Some have made it clear, for example, that they think that I “coddle” him. Many have intimated that I should be more “firm” with him, although none has been able to tell me exactly how such “firmness” should look.

Our struggles with each other have usually been around two subjects: medications, i.e., which kinds, how much, how often, etc., etc.; and psychotherapy, i.e., which kinds, how much, how often, etc., etc. Simple.

Although he and I have had our disagreements, he certainly has not been one merely to “demand” something and then pitch a fit if he were not to get what he’d wanted. Quite the contrary: he does his research, and our negotiations around various regimens have reached points of complexity that I can only call “admirable” on his part. Still, disagree, we have, and sometimes strongly. In the end, though, he has always acquiesced to the fact of life that ‘tis I, not he, who has the MD behind the name.

For example, about ten days ago.

Details are not relevant, but it had been one of our more intense, so-called discussions. He let me know in no uncertain terms that I had not started his weekend out on a pleasant footing. I let him know in similar terms that even though that had not been my intention, I could only be so upset thereabout.

We met the following Monday.

He had agreed to come in twice a week, at least for some focused, therapeutic contact, and he had agreed to hook himself up again with one of our intensive group programs. He had also agreed to two-week supplies of his medications, and he had agreed to the dosages I’d recommended.

But that was only a small part of the story.

He’d thought a lot during the weekend, about himself, his family, his sadness, his frustration over the physical limitations that have been plaguing him post-deployment. Of that, I had no doubt: when I opened the door to my office, he was standing there, with just enough of an impatient, “can we get going here, please?” edge to him to keep me on my toes, but with a countenance that more implored me to notice how worn-down he was, how very, very worn-down.

“Hey,” he said, most definitely without the exclamation point.

“Hey.”

“Do you mind if I put my leg up?” he asked, eyes darting to his left, my right, to the second chair in the room which often does its part to relieve his lower back of the pressure that can gnaw at him whenever he sits for any length of time.

“Of course. No problem.”

Soon we were both situated. For a few moments we just sat there, looking at each other, the semi-grin, semi-skepticism on his face, I’m sure, only a mirror of the same on mine.

“We still on speaking terms?” I finally ask, my semi-grin having turned full.

He rolled his eyes.

“I understand,” he replied, full-smiled as well, although for only briefly. “I know I’ve got to do something about myself. I . . .”  Suddenly, he shifted forward.  “Please, Doc, you understand, don’t you? How hard it is without her?”

“Her,” of course, is the young woman to whom he’d deeded not only his heart and soul, but a goodly portion of his every quantum of thought as well. They’d talked of marriage, of having children together, but then finally she’d decided that she could not make it work.

“Dad tells me that I’ve got to move on, but . . . I just can’t get him to understand. It’s not that easy. I don’t want to move on. I know that if she just knew how hard I’m trying . . . But she won’t return my calls, texts, nothing. I’m not going to be a stalker-type. I’m not going to go over to her place. No one’s going to accuse me of that, no one. But if she could just see me, see how hard I’m trying, see how much she means to me–God, Doc, she’d understand, wouldn’t she? Wouldn’t she? I mean, Doc, am I wrong? Can you understand why I just can’t give up yet, why I just can’t move on? Please, tell me you understand, please!”

Porthos is quite a handsome man. How we think the attractive never have to suffer, don’t we? How wrong we are. Anguish is just anguish, whether on the good-looking or on the plain.

“Porthos, here’s what I would say: don’t give up until you’re ready to give up. When it’s time, if it’s ever time, you’ll know. What you’ll then have to do is live out what you will already know. That will be the hard part.”

He looked at me, with a face both steeled and tear-stained. He has all the gear in place for “Leading Man” status, yet I’m hard-pressed to come up with a modern exemplar for him, given that most A-list stars today are simply too “pretty.” Perhaps a young Mark Harmon as the surgeon on the St. Elsewhere of the 1980’s, even then oozing the NCIS Gibbs-attitude that would one day make him America’s favorite Marine, back then painfully walking down that hospital hall for the final time, his character well-aware that he might soon die of AIDS.

“I sometimes just don’t know if I can do this, Doc,” he finally whispered. “I’m not going to kill myself or anything, but sometimes I’m afraid I won’t make it. It just hurts so, her, Aramis, the War, everything. It just so, so . . . hurts.”

The final word had plopped out of him, as if it had been teetering on his lip all the while, not wanting to risk the reality that would result from its mental equivalent having found voice, sound, transmitted out to a world, to me, to . . . what?

And then it happened: in the middle of his anguish, he started to look as if he were ready to fall asleep, to look as I imagined he must have looked at the end of that twenty-four hours he and Athos had had to stand watch over the body of Aramis, waiting for the helicopter to arrive: too exhausted to run, too charged to collapse.

And I realized: he wasn’t with me. He was in Iraq.

“No one has any idea, do they?’ I finally asked, too exhausted, too charged myself. “You’re there, right now, aren’t you.”

He was staring off to the side, grudgingly allowing one tear at a time past the checkpoint, his eyelids in a bizarre, internal arm-wrestling, the upper halves determined to shut this show down, the lower halves determined not to give in ever, do you hear me, ever!

“I’m sorry, Doc,” he whispered, his tears, few as they were, so robust, so proud to be Army-strong, his eyes fixated miles away. “I’m trying, really I am. I hope you believe me. Please believe me, Doc. Please.”

“I do,” I answered, hoping perhaps that some information, meager as it was, would jar us both out of the grip of those tears. “Listen, this is neurologic, Porthos. You see, trauma separates the part of the brain that feels, sees, hears from the part that makes sense of events, of Time, of those very feelings.

“They then stay separated, physiologically. You can only ‘remember’ if the front part of your brain can pull the ‘you that’s you,’, that is, your experience of the trauma, of yourself–your ‘Self’–away from the trauma enough to get the whole brain on the same page, the page that says ‘OK, this has happened, but that was then, this is now.’ Until then, it’s as if your brain is experiencing the trauma in an eternal present. You’re reliving it, not remembering it.

“That’s where the nightmares come from, the flashbacks. When you hurt because your girlfriend’s gone, you’re hurting not only because she’s gone, but because Aramis is gone, because all your buddies who died in the convoy are gone, because you had to pick up what was left of them, all of them. It’s as if your brain is saying, “Oh, my God, here we go again! We’ll never escape!

“Even when the front part of your brain knows–knows without a doubt–that it’s today, not back then; that it’s about your girlfriend, not about Aramis; that you’re in Indianapolis, not the desert: even then, it cannot yet grab onto that other part of the brain that is still feeling, hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting the destruction, the confusion, the adrenaline. The death.”

Pretty good, eh?

One problem, though, a big one:  with each of those words, I knew that I was both helping and hurting him, both assuring him that he was not crazy, yet reminding him that he felt crazy even so. His energy, his intense drive, his inner push never to give up, never: there they were, torturing him, yet keeping him alive, simultaneously, right in front of me, with my every verbal reminder of the truth, the Truth.

It was horrible to watch.

All I could think at the moment was, “My God, this is what they all go through, isn’t it, all these men and women, the ones whose Facebook posts, whose blogs I read, who talk of being walloped back and forth through Time, through emotion, psychically miles away from the loved one before them, then within nanoseconds careening right into them, then back, then in, tethered to a yo-yo only Satan himself could have manufactured–with a smile.”

I had to stop. Had to.

I had learned in a new way what I had never wanted to know. I was Katniss at the end of The Hunger Games, wasn’t I, gazing down at Cato, her nemesis, he nearly devoured by unearthly hounds, begging her, with his eyes only, to end it all, now, please, please.

Like Cato, Porthos looked at me, fortunately not devoured, yet no longer charged. Just exhausted.

“Will it ever get better, Doc?” he asked.

Fortunately, I am not Katniss. I have more than arrows to work with.

“Yes, it can,” I said as I leaned forward. “I’m learning a technique, EMDR, that stands for ‘Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.’ I’ll give you a website to read about it. Check it out. Go ahead and read other stuff about it on Google, too. I’ll promise you: you’ll find a lot of hot-shot people with M.D. and Ph.D. degrees who’ll swear on a stack of Bibles that it’s hogwash and witchcraft. I once thought that myself. But I was wrong. The technique can help link that experiencing part of the brain with the contextualizing part, maybe not perfectly, but for many veterans, well enough to allow some real, meaningful healing to begin. You’d be one of the first that I try it out on, but I work with a smart teacher, and together, the three of us will find a way to discover how that powerful intensity inside you can save you, not destroy you.”

Still exhausted, but somewhere, unbelievably, still rakish, he closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, opened his eyes back up, looked into mine, and merely whispered, “If you say so, Doc. If you say so.”

I do say so. And I do believe so.

As best as I can determine, remember comes from a Latin root for memory. Yet there is something about the English word, re-member, as if member were a verb to mean “piecing together, putting the members of a body, a group back together.” Horror and grief without context are horror and grief eternal. When re-membered, though, sown back into the tapestry of Time, they hurt no less, but they need hurt no longer. Re-living can then become mere living. How good.

Yes, Porthos, how good.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

No Trouble at All (Encore)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

 

Good to be back with you all.

A date is approaching, next month actually. Seasons move forward through the years, yet certain ones halt us, if only temporarily, reminding us again of what once was, of who was once.

It has almost been three years since I stood with my hand upon a young combat vet’s coffin. To this day, I cannot watch a Harry Potter movie without, at some point, feeling his presence. These next few days, I ask your leave to remember him again with you as well, from prologue to epilogue, with encores of blog posts from March 2012 through October 2013.

As a psychiatrist, I often come upon spots in my heart where certain patients have trod, some stealthily, some ploddingly. This one young former US Army soldier did both and more, through passageway after passageway, still now in memory leading me back to spots where we laughed together, even shed a tear together, always with that smile on his face that made me roll my eyes and smile as well.

There were once, you see, Three Musketeers: Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, united not in Dumas’s France this time, but in the United States Army, in a hot land far from home.

Two have since fallen. One is making the life he can. Here are the times we traveled together, in body and in spirit.

From March 11, 2012 comes the prologue, No Trouble at All.

Today I was in contact again with one of the veterans I work with, one who has struggled almost incessantly since coming home.  He’s a dashing rake, by anybody’s measure.  He comes from a well-educated family.  He’s smart.  He’s intense.  He was once a bit of a bad-boy, but he’s working now to pull his life together, to find love, to find a place back in his family, back in this world.

In a matter of days after landing in the Middle East, this man’s dearest friend—his brother to the core—was dead.  Others in his unit soon followed.  He wakes up in the night screaming, sweating, panicked.  Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his friend, often-—usually-—with tears.  To this day, when he promises me something important, he does so on that man’s memory and on his grave.

He’s been trying to get back to school.  It’s been anything but a cakewalk, to say the least, though that says absolutely zero about his talents and his potential, both of which are quite abundant.  He endures the lectures that many of us remember in those 100-level courses, trying to stay focused, trying not to wonder what these kids around him are thinking about him, kids who are just about the age he was when he walked off that plane.

When he sent his buddy’s body back home.

He’s trying.  He’s trying his darndest.

It’s the courses with the papers, though.  They’re the ones that get him.  Too much time to sit in front of a computer.  And remember.

He tries not to overuse his medications.  He’s put his family in charge of them.  Yet there are the times that he wakes at night and can’t stop shaking, can barely move, barely swallow.  He knows a pill won’t save him.  But, God:  it’s so awful.  A war raging, smack dab in the middle of his bedroom.  In the middle of his soul.

He always apologizes when he contacts me.  He’s so ashamed to do so.  But he gets so desperate.  And he hopes against hope that I won’t hold the contact against him, one more time, another, another.

Honestly, they’re indeed no trouble at all.  He knows the drill:  if I can get back with him, I will.  If I don’t right away, he knows that I’m with family or with other patients.  He knows I’ll get back to him eventually, even if it’s just a “hang in there.”  He knows he’ll have his time later that week to come see me, to try somehow to find that devilish smile of his one more time, to remember when it was all easier, to borrow as hope what is my certainty:  that he will find a better day.  One day.  Not today.  Most likely not soon.  But one day.

I can say that because he’s a warrior’s warrior, through and through.  Behind that Abercrombie facade (albeit a brunette one), there’s a force of nature.  He was a handful as a kid.  He’s a handful now.  He won’t give up.  Never did.  Never will.

All I can say is:  good for him.

We took care of today’s matters in short order.  He thanked me quite genuinely.  “I’m sorry,” he said again, “to mess up your weekend.”  I heard the break in his voice, quick, but definitely there.

“No trouble at all,” was my reply.  I had a few minutes on the way to the Starbucks, after all.  I have a few minutes now on the porch, absorbing this quite pastoral Sunday afternoon for mid-March in Indiana.

What else do we have, really, except time, a future.

He doubts he has a future, of course.  My job—our job, as professionals—is to disabuse him and those like him of that notion one day at a time.  No guarantees of any particular outcome.  Just life, with its joys, its challenges, its months off, its back-to-works.

We’ll see each other tomorrow.

And so the story went on.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 03.03.13

Dear Doc,

Dear Mom and Dad,

Just another day in Iraq, waking up wondering if today is the day I get to meet the Maker at this fuckin’ place.

I put a bullet in clip with HOMIS written on the side of it. Was thinking about you guys today, wondering what you’re doing.

I couldn’t sleep last night. The mortars just wouldn’t stop. It’s almost comforting, hearing the outgoing rounds blast out of the 120 (120 mm mortar round HEDP) (High Explosive Dual Purpose).

I lay in my bed thinking about being a little kid again. Where did the days go? Life is different here. I would try to tell you how, but I wouldn’t know where to begin.

I miss my baby girl. I will kill them all to come home to that sweet, innocent little baby. My heart is so cold, and she is like a spark burning deep in my chest. How will I ever tell her what I did here? I tremble at the thought of holding her. She is the only thing that scares me in this world. My breaths shorten at the thought of her.

Please don’t hate me for what I have done. I had no choice. I wished and prayed they would just stop and give up. I think to myself every time I pull the trigger, “Why don’t you just stop. Please. Don’t make me shoot you.”

But after awhile it turns to hate; the thought of one bullet not going through his chest upsets me.

Hope all is well. Maybe I will get to come home soon.

Love,

Your Son

Winston

__________________________________________________________

Dear Winston,

I’m sorry that it has taken me a few days to get back to you: I have been traveling this week, and life got away from me (much thanks to Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I might add, the number one exemplar of “chaos theory in action”).

I have pondered this letter often, however. After four years of working with the men and women who, like you, once served in combat, I still find myself surprised at how unprepared—how reluctant, even—I can be to experience the dramatic shifts in thought and emotion that you and so many of your brothers and sisters experience, sometimes hour by hour.

To feel at one moment a love for a child, a nostalgia for a family time, then to feel at the next a hatred that can easily conceive of killing, only to be followed by a sincere, pain-filled desire for all the hatred, all the killing to end, all of this happening day after day after day, on a busy city street in an Iraqi city, at a quiet kitchen table at your home, enduring another sleepless night: I have no clue, Winston. I have no clue.

I do mean this: thank you for trying to give me a clue. I don’t like knowing what I have to know as a result of your having done so. I don’t like the gut shifts that occur within me as I read this letter, the psychic handball marked “raw emotion” that ricochets inside me, wall to wall to wall, the soul-imploding pain that I only dare to imagine to imagine as I consider, dear God, what if this were my son writing me this?

I’m sorry, Winston. I know that you volunteered to serve. But I, as a citizen of this nation, sent you to the Middle East with the promise that it would all make sense in the end. Nobody sent me to jail for refusing to pay the taxes that go to support the military.

I’m sorry that we, as a nation, are still not only struggling to make sense of it all, but, even worse, are struggling—why??—with the (what seems to me to be the obvious) notion, based on justice and mercy, that we owe you and your brothers and sisters. We asked you to give up your youth, give up the innocence that we still so easily cling to as we sip our morning, bad coffee and check out the local weather, all so that, indeed, we can make sure that we avoid the freeway jam to get to work, only then to pour ourselves another cup of even-worse coffee and gossip about the previous evening’s cable TV fare.

Thank you, Winston. I wish we all were living lives more worthy of the suffering that you and your brothers and sisters continue to endure, even last night, even now.

It continues to be an honor to work with you.

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 02.25.13

Dear Doc,

I hate waking up and looking outside to see it gray and cold, rain setting in. It just feels like a day for a funeral.

I think about shit like that. When you have seen death like I have, it puts a damper on life, sometimes. You know that pain, the pain that hurts like hell, and you would do anything to take it all back or make it go away.

Well, after a while that goes away, but not mine. It stays and grows inside of me. It’s like I have hooks in my body and chains pulling at it all directions, and you can see fucking pain. You can see a little light at the end of a tunnel, but can never get close to it. And people keep telling you it’s all going to be okay, that they are praying for me and that they think about me and all that shit.

Well, I think about war, hate, life—why are we here? What is the purpose, or why do we continue to go on? You just keep going living in a life that is miserable. Why do I do it? I don’t know.

It’s hard when you want to live a life of war, filled with selfishness and anger. I now know why the Templars loved their lives, because they fought their whole lives and had God at the tip of their swords, striking down evil.

Winston

_____________________________________________

Dear Winston,

The writer Michael Howard wrote this comment on yesterday’s post:

“One of the real-life WWII characters I am writing about in my book survived Peleliu … In the early 60’s he would wake up his boy in the middle of the night to take him out on patrols. When I bounce the story off people who know nothing of PTSD, they tend to think it is fiction.”

Remember also what I wrote about you in Empty Chairs, Empty Tables: From Paris to Fallujah and Kandahar?:

“Yet also, had I not just spent the previous minutes with him, absorbing his words, not just hearing them, I could have looked at him and thought: grief that can’t be spoken? Seriously?”

In just these past two months, how our relationship has changed, hasn’t it? Gone is any distancing, defensiveness on your part. In its stead is the warmth, the humor that I know has always been you. True, if I pay close attention, I can notice still a hesitancy on your part, but quite easily I could chalk that up to the deference that a younger man can show an older man. Had I known nothing of you, I would have thought nothing of it.

Hence, my own words in that entry come back to smack me in the face:

“Just because a grief can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it can’t be spoken.”

Because of your willingness to speak your heart, Winston, I do so hope that at least a few more people can understand how the truism “Looks can be deceiving” can instead be a profound truth of combat trauma. Yes, a part of you wants to live a life of selfishness and anger, filled with righteous hate. Yet a part of you, night after night, searches for that little girl in your dreams, feels that pain of a father trying to heal the infected leg of a son, wants to understand why, why, why.

How appropriate perhaps it is, then, that you refer to the Knights Templar. Remember “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? Remember the knight who stayed by the Holy Grail for seven hundred years, protecting it from those who would use it for their own glory and power?

The Knights were certainly no strangers to the atrocities of the Crusades, atrocities which continue to burn in the souls of Muslims and Jews to this very day. Yet somewhere there, within at least some of them, was a faithfulness, an honor, a duty that has lasted enough through the centuries to make a character in a fantasy-adventure film if not believable, then at least understandable.

I know that The War still can rage within you, filling you with all its annihilation, even its allure. And I know that you are there, perhaps, if I might say, a Templar in the best sense, one who has known all that War can do to a soul, one who wants to remain faithful to a vision that was good in its outset, even if complex and even destructive in its fulfillment, one who waits, hoping against hope.

That is the man whom I see.

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 02.24.13

Dear Doc,

This pain that is inside of me will not go away.

I am so fucking tired. Some days I wish I would have just died alongside my brothers. I feel like they went the best way possible, killing the fucking assholes who caused this devil inside me.

It’s like a fire raging in my chest, and nobody can hear or see it. I ponder on the day I can walk into Hell and make those bastards’ lives even more miserable.

How do I continue to get up and live another day? Nothing makes sense anymore. The only thing I know has been taken from me, and now I’m left with scars and a constant state of paranoia and anger. I lay in my bed watching my trigger finger twitch, thinking of a way to make my heart pound like it used to.

I fear no evil. Death would be doing me a favor. HA!

And people . . . they are dust . . . people? Walking around with their faces stuck in computers and cell phones, playing their video games, talking about how they wanted to go to war, but couldn’t. Fucking pussies, if you ask me.

And people wonder why I stuck a needle in my arm and watched as the liquid went in and the pain . . . well, it just went away. The devil was at bay, and my mind at peace. WTF.

God sure has a plan for me . . . if You’re listening, come down and end this fucking pain.

Vibration from the 50 cal rattling through my arms. DIE, Mother fuckers, DIE! The smile of pure hatred pouring from my face. That’s living for those of you who know what I’m talking about.

Nothing ELSE matters?

Winston

_______________________________________________________

Dear Winston,

The power of punctuation.

It’s the question mark at the end, you.

We have no clue, do we, Winston, we civilians? It’s not only our computers, our cell phones, our video games that consume us, blind us. Our arguments, justifications, outrages: they do as well. We have so much to say about the War: “Support Our Troops!” “War Is Not the Answer!” “Thank You for Your Service!” We know why we should have gone to War. We know why we never should have gone to War.

We all want it to be so simple. “The Devil is on the outside: see what happens if we don’t go to War!” “The Devil ends up on the inside: see what happens if we go to War!”

You, your brothers and sisters: you are the ones who have had to face both Devils, one there, one here, both unrelenting, both demanding that you face a Reality right now—right NOW!—that the rest of us took a pass on, still take a pass on, whether with shame or with pride.

Dust. Yes, we all are, Winston: the brothers whom you lost; those who tried to kill you, who did kill them; the boy with the rotting leg; the father who risked a soldier’s ire to save his son; the soldier who writes late at night, hoping against hope that a doctor will not turn away from his rotting soul; the doctor who tries to reassure him, even as he has to cause that soldier some pain, that the rotten parts can indeed be debrided, that the living parts underneath can still become enlivened and enlivening once again.

Nothing ELSE matters? Question mark?

Thank you, Winston, that you are allowing me to find your answer to that question with you.

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 02.23.13

Dear Doc,

It was just another day, waking up and getting ready to go on patrol, standing behind the truck, bullshitting with the guys, waiting on the op order. Early May in Iraq: it’s not too hot, not too cold, nice breeze blowing. The morning was great.

The lieutenant comes, giving us the brief. Time to mount up and get going.

My feet pressed against the bench, my body up out of the hatch, leaning back against the cases of ammo on the top of the truck. In front of me is the 240 Mounted, with the rounds fed into the chamber. It sits on a swivel, easy to maneuver and aim. I swing it around to my right side and leave it sitting tucked against my side.

Rolling down the road, dust flying, looking off into the distance, watching the road behind us, little kids run along the side of the road, hands in the air, yelling some bullshit you can’t understand. As we pull into the city, cars smash into each other, trying to get around us like they are in such a big hurry to go nowhere.

Watching the road behind me, there is a car that keeps getting closer and closer to the back of the truck. I wave the red flag and start yelling, but he doesn’t give a shit. I pull up my rifle and point it at his head, thinking he will get the picture. Nope, the dumbass just keeps creeping slowly up on us.

So I swing the 240 around, cock back the bolt, and get a round in the chamber. Leaning softly on the butt stock, pointing my sights at the front of his car, I squeeze the trigger and let a 10 round burst go into the hood of his car. He slams on his brakes as I lower the ramp.

Moving in formation, we come up on his car. I pull out my 9 mil and press the barrel to his fucking head and tell him “Etla oguf dishma ge inta to hal areid ah chic werack.” (Slowly get out of the car and come here. I want to talk to you.)

The man gets out and starts rambling on about how he needs to get his son to the doctor because he is sick. Well, I told him: get him out; my medic will take a look at him. The boy gets out; his flesh on his leg is hanging off the bone. Yellow puss seeps out of the burn. The flies cover it as they cut away at the flesh.

I have doc clean it up, cut away the dead tissue, and put creams on it. We give him antibiotics, bandages, cream, ibuprofen, and clean wraps. “Tell the man to bring his son by our base in 2 weeks, and we will take another look at it.”

He thanks us and invites us over for chai and dinner. We accept and arrange a day to come over. Just the simple choice to stop him instead of shoot him, and I became their hero.

But that’s just me. Thousands of soldiers make this choice every day, and they all aren’t heroes.

Winston

______________________________________________

Dear Winston,

I write this the morning after you and I have seen each other again, after you have talked of worrying about your grandmother’s health, of your plans for your daughter’s upcoming birthday. I am so glad that you have remained clean and that you and your wife feel more hopeful about your future.

I find myself thinking about you at the age you were when you were over there. I spent my early twenties in medical school. I was an emotional wreck, to be honest, although I did a fairly good job of hiding that from most folks around me (probably all, truth be told). I had a good intuitive feel for people and situations, but, honestly, that talent complicated my life as much as it eased it. I certainly saw my share of life-and-death situations, but I was always low on the decision-making totem pole, a well-educated orderly, for the most part. I did make some split-second, potentially-game-changing decisions, but I knew that within a few more seconds, someone older, someone at least slightly more experienced than I would be present to pick up the slack.

Odd, isn’t it, Winston: everyone from The New York Times to the Congress of the United States has—under quite the high-flying moral flag of “concern for others,” I might add—since then made darn certain that no other young twenty-something should have any such split-second moments in any hospital, any clinic, anywhere. Safeguards, safeguards, safeguards!

There are a lot of people, Winston, who are quite proud of themselves that they have succeeded in that endeavor.

But, of course, this is War, isn’t it, Winston? One panicked father gets the assurance that he’ll have an attending physician at the side of his son. Another gets the possibility that an unsupervised twenty-year-old will even allow him to exist with his son.

I have no clue whatsoever what I would have done at that age had I needed in that split-second not to decide whether a man’s breathing rate was worthy of calling a Code Team, but rather whether to fire a gun. Yes, I would have been trained well. Yes, I would have known the Rules of Engagement. Yes, I would have wanted to do the right thing, for my buddies, even for that man.

But I was so uncertain in life, so uncertain. I don’t know.

I can understand, though, why you might have mixed feelings about the word “hero.” I think I would have been with you on that one, Winston. No doubt.

Thank you again for your honesty. Thank you again that you force me one more time, one more day, to be honest with myself.

Doc

Dear Doc/Dear Winston, 02.22.13

Dear Doc,

“Contact! Contact!”

“Fucking where?!!”

“Contact left, 150 meters, second window of the building with the green sign. Two guys on the rooftop, two! See them there! They are right there!”

“Tiger Mike, this is Charlie 402: we are under contact, taking small arms fire.”

“This is Tiger 4-1 requesting QRF [Quick Reaction Force]. Over”

“Roger, Tiger 4-1, this is Tiger Mike. QRF is in route. Over”

“Tiger 4-1, this is Long Knife 7. We are approximately five miles from your location.”

“Roger, Long Knife 7. This is Tiger 4-1. We are requesting close air support. Over.”

Fucking drop ramp! Let’s go get these mother fuckers!

“MILLER, take Point Alpha Team, let’s go!”

“Roger, Sergeant . . . Fuck, fuck, fuck: dud stack on the door right side of the building! We are going to frag and then clear.”

As the sound of AK-47’s rattle off into the air, bullets sound like bees whispering in your ear.

Blood pumping through my body, fat cells burning, turning into sugar. The adventure is taking over my brain, and the only thing on my mind as the ramp drops is: get to the fucking wall beside that building!

Boots smacking the ground, gear bouncing all around, sweat pouring down my face. My lungs feel like they are breathing in exhaust from a car. My legs and arms tremble as I dash for the wall.

Winston [Miller]

_____________________________________________________ 

Dear Winston,

I read you, and I am dumbstruck by the power of the brain to relive, to drop kick the body and soul back weeks, months, even years, smack dab into the middle of the past, all while announcing with the greatest of certainty that no, your frontal lobe is wrong: you are there!

One thing I’ve noticed as a civilian: I cannot project, cannot imagine myself in your place without having an intense sense of self-doubt. How could I know what to do? How could I focus, know where to focus, know when to lose focus? I would have been gunning for that wall in a panic.

Yet for you and your brothers, it was different, wasn’t it? You’d trained for this. You were all-focus, all the way. The adrenaline tsunami of the moment was not flooding you, as it would have me, but rather was conveying you forward; not drowning you, but transporting you down a solid-walled aqueduct toward your goal, sort of a “luge meets water park” kind of moment.

Adrenaline can feel so good, can’t it, even in the midst of terror? So many find that truth to be the epitome of human barbarism. Yet it’s just plain, old biology, isn’t it? You hadn’t been living for that moment, not in the least. But you had been preparing for it. You chose to serve: those whom you loved, your rural community, your nation. When one chooses that, one has to be ready for the luge.

And even if you know that the finish line is Hell—what a ride.

Doc

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