Sometimes, having a blog leads me into things I hadn't really expected. That said, occasionally those things come from places or people that are closer to the heart than others.
Perhaps I should back up a bit: Years ago, I met an incredibly cocky young man. At the time of our meeting, he was a cadet at the fire department where I was working. My “role” was to teach him the ropes. Keep him safe, but introduce him to the job. Believe me when I tell you, bringing a cocky teenager into a culture and lifestyle where egos run rampant was no easy task, and we both took our lumps. But, my gut told me it was worth it. There was something more to him than false bravado and testosterone; I liked him. I think he reminded me of myself when I was younger: a guy who had figured out all the answers without having bothered to consider the questions.
During his time in the fire service, he proved himself as a very competent and capable member of the team. He responded to some ugly calls and even survived few run-ins with the workplace toxicity that only adults can inflict on each other.
To my dismay, not long after graduating from high school, he enlisted in the military. It was not the military that I was against; it was the idea that I knew he would be deployed to one of the world’s shitholes. It was the idea that over time I had sort of adopted him as a son, and I was scared he would come home in a box. Firefighting is gritty work, but having some politician put him in front of bullets for reasons that may or not make sense? Yeah, I wasn't thrilled at all with his decision to enlist. I was worried that his mom (whom I had once promised that I would make damn sure he was kept out of harms way) would be left with a neatly folded flag and a broken heart.
As it turns out, despite my worries, he has not only survived his deployments and battlefields, but along the way he has proven himself as one hell of a good man and a tough soldier to boot. I am proud to call him a cherished friend.
What I didn't know, was the toll his service was taking on him and his growing family. He is struggling right now and has taken to writing as a means to work through some personal challenges. So when he reached out and asked if I would publish a piece of writing to help him work through some tough times, I was floored and honored. I couldn't be more proud to help my good friend.
I have consciously chosen (with permission) to post this essay with minimal edits. It is raw, full of pain, and so honest that it hurts. To edit for grammar or content would be disingenuous.
I ask that you read this post with an open mind and open heart. If any of you out there are veterans, I would encourage you to share ways you are coping with reintegration.
A Beautiful Death
Before I get into too many details I want it to be known that I am not searching for pity, a shoulder to cry on or advice. Rather I’m using this as means to alleviate the pressure and pain I feel. Please don’t assume that my views are the same as MacLoosh’s but rather he has let me use his blog as a way to express and reduce my stress and pain. The pain I hold inside is real and it is a pain that so many Americans feel but we rarely talk about. MacLoosh has given me the opportunity to share the pain of many through the eyes of one. Again, please don’t assume my feelings and beliefs are that of MacLoosh or the military. Feel free to comment and share any struggles; writing might be the outlet that keeps you sane too.
A little background about me. I am a member of the greatest, most honorable and exhausted military in the world; the United States Army. I have been in the Army for almost 6 years, I have deployed to Afghanistan multiple times with multiple different missions. My first deployment was the most difficult by far. Multiple times we were shot at, mortared, ambushed and pushed to our mental and physical limits. The longest firefight I was in lasted 14 hours. I remember being shot at by an enemy marksmen who was trying to shoot me in the back from the other side of our outpost. I had to keep my back to the enemy that was shooting at me to maintain the security in my sector. Try to imagine knowing that the enemy has you in their sights but just can’t quite dial you in. Rounds were impacting within 5 feet of me and RPGs were flying just right over my head. Helicopters were bringing in ammunition that we ran out of and helicopters were taking our wounded. 14 hours this lasted for, the longest day of my life.
After just over 1 year of being home I deployed to Afghanistan again. This trip was far easier. It was shorter and I didn’t get shot at quite as much. I had a chance to work with a couple Special Forces groups from around the world and loved being there. This was when it really dawned on me that I loved being at war so much and I knew I wasn’t alone. When you deploy you always have someone who is there to watch your back. The bonds that you form with the soldiers to your left and right is unreal. I’m sure you have heard, and I will tell you again, you will never find friends like those who you have been shot at with. I am on my third deployment but so far from the front lines it kills me. There are firefights in Iraq, Syria, Africa and Afghanistan and I’m not there. If you have been keeping track, 6 years in the Army with 3 deployments. After so long you just cannot pretend to be a devoted husband and father. The Army took my ability to watch my son grow up and my ability to make my wife happy.
I can honestly tell you after coming so close to death, after so many times I should have died my soul become cold. I became numb to how my parents felt, how my wife felt and how the rest of my family felt. A big part of me was left in Afghanistan, a part that will never come back. When I was home the only thing that kept me going was knowing I was going to deploy again and I could once again feel the thrill of being shot at. Most would say I have a death wish, I would argue and say I have a way to die wish. I don’t want to die of cancer or a single vehicle rollover or a heart attack. The only way it makes sense for me to die is at war and then be buried underneath the American Flag. Life seems pointless to me unless I am able to die for what I believe in and die fighting for global freedom. Over and over again I think of the scene in the movie “300” where a Spartan is questioned about his smile looking at an overpowering enemy force. The Spartan replies that he has been to battle numerous times but has yet to meet an enemy that could offer him a “beautiful death”. He then says that he hopes one in the army that they are looking at will give him the honor. Maybe I just want to be remembered as one of the fallen that made a difference or maybe I feel that during my last moments that my sacrifices were justified knowing I died for my country and for my brothers.
Like many returning from Afghanistan I turned to booze to numb any feeling I had left. I was young and addicted to alcohol waiting to go on my next deployment. Life seemed empty when I wasn’t at war. What is the meaning of just laying around accomplishing nothing? I don’t know but what I do know is I would rather be at war then at home. This is where most of my pain today comes from. My wife and family just cannot comprehend my need to be at war. There is no doubt in my mind that I am miserable to be around. My wife recently told me that her and my family had to walk on eggshells around me because they were so afraid of me freaking out if I disagreed with what they had to say. I’m not physically violent towards my wife or family but I will become verbally hostile. This addiction to serve has separated me from my family and is ultimately the reason why my wife is leaving me. My wife told me she was unhappy and wanted to leave and I couldn’t think of any reason to convince her to stay. I have tried for so long to pretend to fit in the mold of a loving husband but I know that inside I am an empty cold hearted asshole. Now I’m not saying I don’t have the ability to love because trust me I do. I love my wife, my son, my family and friends. What I don’t have is the ability to care if my wife leaves, I alienate my friends or my family has to walk on eggshells around me.
So why am I in pain? It’s because I’m trying as hard as I can to feel again. Trust me, I don’t want my wife to leave. I know she is going to and I know she needs to, it is truly best for her and my son. I want to care about how she feels and how my family feels. A quote has been keeping me moving forward even though I feel so empty. “In order to see tomorrow, you have to survive today.” (Unknown). I survive every day to see if the next is better or if the next holds the answers. My wife deserves so much better. I pretended for so long I could be better but at the end of the day I know I’ll never be. I know I will never make her happy and I know there is nothing I can do to prove it to her.
When I started writing this I was not really sure where I was going with it. I wasn’t sure where it was going to end up. Maybe this is the start of my recovery, maybe this is how I can start to feel again by connecting through writing. Take what you will from my story. In the beginning I described the Army as being exhausted. Folks, I’m not alone in this. There are so many who are trying to deal, trying to cope and trying to pretend to be normal. The recent film “American Sniper” depicts this well. There are so many of us who feel this need to be back at war. We are drawn to combat. We feel empty without the group of people who went through hell with us. Don’t take this as a cry for help but maybe as a manual for dealing with a veteran. If we seem cold and cut off, we are. We are all just trying to feel again. We are all trying to understand how to reintegrate back into a life without war. Some have a desire to reintegrate. Some, like me, are simply not ready to be normal. We are not ready for a life without battle, we still seek a fight and are willing to go anywhere to defend freedom. With the recent acts of terror from ISIS/ISIL there are so many of us who are jumping out of our skins waiting to be told we can go back. Nothing would make me happy like the opportunity to go to the frontlines again and fight those cowards.
What’s next? Where do I go from here? The Wisconsin motto is “Forward”. I guess I will start there. I feel like I have found my purpose in life. I feel that where I am is exactly where I was meant to be. I’m simply not ready to be “normal”. I’m not ready to leave the Army. You might not be able to comprehend my need to serve, and I don’t expect you to. In fact don’t try to understand, you will never get there. Don’t think negatively about the military. We are not all crazy like me but some of us love what we do and what we protect so much we would rather be away fighting than at home.
Again, please don’t feel bad for me. This is the path I have chosen for myself and this is where I want to be. There are 3 types of people in the world; sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Wolves are the terrorist that constantly try to destroy freedom and our way of life. Wolves pray on the sheep. Sheepdogs defend the sheep, they will die to protect the sheep. I am a sheepdog. I will gladly sacrifice my life for anyone who lives under the American Flag. Rest easy tonight knowing me and the rest of the military is standing guard. We will always be here defending freedom and defending America even if it means we have to sacrifice everything.