The familiar smell of singed JP8 and stale grease lingers, stubborn and thick in the air. Beneath me, the aluminum floor bounces in perfect concert with the hum of prop engines. As the aircraft pitches, a ray of sunlight breaks through the rear port window, slowly tracing a warm searchlight across the interior skin of the aircraft. My left hand caresses the lower receiver, back and forth. Selector switch, bolt catch, magazine release, pivot pin. Pivot pin, magazine release, bolt catch, selector switch. A wry smile crosses my lips as I consider my dozenth-or-so trip to Iraq.
Or is it Afghanistan? I struggle in a moment of deep concentration. It is Afghanistan! I’m sure of it. I bury a nervous laugh and force my eyes closed to steal a few minutes of sleep. A moment later, my eyes snap back open. I forgot to pack winter gear! I don’t even have a jacket. What was I thinking? What month is it? What province am I going to? Even if it’s summer in the south, I should at least have a jacket!
And then my eyes actually open as I gasp for breath. My wife is next to me in bed, stirred awake by my squirming in the sheets and my unintelligible mumbling. “What was that one about?” she asks sympathetically as she touches my arm.
“Oh, nothing really. Just another dream about combat,” I mutter. I’d rather her believe that visions of hand grenades and final protective fires inspired the emotion than the soldier’s version of the dream of being on the school bus without pants, again. My wife has sacrificed a lot for our service. The least I can do is to make her feel like she’s sleeping next to a Knight of Valhalla instead of a scared kid.
It’s a white lie.
I do dream about combat. Once again, sopping arterial blood stains my buddy’s pants black as 7.62 snaps and hisses all around. Time neglects its purpose for a moment to admire the stillness of the night as the radio whispers, “At breach.” Glossy eyes look past me with pupils askew as a rising and falling chest forces rasping, futile breaths. A foot roosts atop a pile of rubble, naked and alone, seemingly proud to have finally struck out on its own. I try not to let moments past bother me too much, and these memories rarely trouble me awake. Combat followed me home, but my experience strengthened and sharpened me. As a father and a husband, I literally take nothing for granted. The violence of war taught me that every moment is a gift, and I never forget it.
That’s another white lie.
About a year ago, I took my kids to Walmart with a shopping list for my son’s third birthday party. I managed to check off all of the specified items on the list—ice, barbeque sauce, paper plates and napkins. I struggled through the implied items. What would the kids like for snacks? Which beer to choose for the adults? Do we want any more party favors or decorations? Easy questions, yet I could feel my heart kick into a higher gear.
I had a final item to check off the list—a birthday gift for my daughter to give my son. She was dancing and chirping and singing about Nerf guns and board games and stuffed animals. My hands tingled and shook as I grabbed a soccer ball from the shelf. I strained to make sense of the text on the package. I stared blankly at a jumble of fuzzy shapes and hieroglyphics. I couldn’t read the text on the box, so I anxiously tossed the ball into the cart and told my daughter it was time to go. Several years prior to that trip top Walmart, I made a pact with myself while jamming loose rounds into empty magazines in the midst of a heavy firefight. Wondering if the two remaining belts of 7.62 link would hold the enemy until nightfall, I said “If I make it out of this battle, I’ll never again sweat the small stuff.” It felt as much a prayer as a promise.
Walmart revealed that inner monologue to be neither prayer nor promise—it was just another white lie.
I recently returned from my actual dozenth-or-so deployment. I was so incredibly happy to see my wife and kids. I was so incredibly nervous to see my wife and kids. I imagined kissing my wife and hugging my kids and making a clean break from the insomnia. I wanted them to melt away the stress, but each night my sleepless eyes would search the empty corners of the bedroom ceiling.
The stress doesn’t feel post-traumatic. All of the battles past—the twisting streets of Fallujah, the endless poppy fields of Marjah, the bewildering aisles of Walmart—are past. I laugh about the feeling of true fear with the family and friends who mistakenly venerate my experiences. Over a few beers, I reminisce about adrenaline-fueled violence with buddies. If I’m not careful, the buried corners of my mind can fall in love with that perfect fold of earth, just big enough to swallow my body as rounds sing of menace overhead. A large part of me treasures these experiences. But I still wake in a cold sweat worried about whether I packed a winter jacket for an imagined deployment. I still fend off a panic attack on an easy Saturday morning at Walmart.
I forgave myself for that day in Walmart, mostly because I rationalized it. Too much coffee. Fluorescent lighting. The large open space juxtaposed with the canalizing aisles. Similarly, the futile rasping breaths and deep black arterial blood don’t burden me beyond fair reason. I did what I could at the time. I’ve rationalized it. I feel like I’m okay with the Ghost of Combat Past. His occasional nighttime visits come and go without theater. But the more I thought about Walmart, the more it seemed like a panic attack. Why would a veteran of multiple bouts of close combat suffer a panic attack in Walmart? Post-traumatic stress didn’t make sense, so I decided to lay the blame at the feet of the Ghost of Combat Future. I reasoned that the stress is actually pre-traumatic. The stress of firefights yet-to-come inspired the spiraling bout of anxiety in the toy section. I told myself that I perpetually live in deep contemplation of my next foray with combat.
My profession rewards this tendency. I envision worst-case-scenarios in ways that would impress Chicken Little and Cassandra. I dedicate serious mental bandwidth to the potential impacts of losing a helicopter to Taliban fire during infiltration. In elaborate detail, I imagine all of the one-in-a-million scenarios where ISIS attempts to overrun our position. I’ve rarely faced adversity that I did not consider. I’ve planned how to perform an emergency tracheotomy on my choking child, just in case. I suppose it makes me very effective in combat. But a romance with calamity does not prepare one to celebrate his son’s third birthday.
In my twenties, I stuffed all of the stress into that jar that rests somewhere between the spleen and the large intestine. It made sense at the time. The jar felt large and empty, and I foolishly believed my life after war would be stress-free. By my mid-to-late twenties, I would live my life in content reflection of my combat exploits. Somehow, my twenties came and went, but the wars remained.
My thirties saw some of my most intense and violent deployments. Combat hung around like an old high school teammate on your back porch, trying to relive state finals into the wee hours of the morning because he didn’t quite remember it right in the wee hours of last week’s recount. The story gets better with each retelling, but the fifth version was beyond sufficient. I started feeling pressure between my spleen and large intestine. It would often wake me up at night or cause discomfort on the drive home from work. The doctor prescribed some antacids. In retrospect, it probably was simple indigestion—caused by an overflowing jar. My thirties brought some serious stress into my life. I managed by hanging all of my anxiety on the next deployment. The worry had a place there, and it felt right.
I’m now in my forties. While I suspect a few deployments linger in my years to come, I realize that my last deployment will come—and go. I no longer believe that my anxiety will magically disappear upon my final return to American soil. It’s both liberating and terrifying.
No more white lies.
I can’t blame The Ghost of Combat Future for the stress. I still count The Ghost of Combat Past among my list of dear-old-friends. War may have fed the anxiety, but it didn’t create it.
To be honest, many of my first conscious memories involve scenes of apocalyptic decision. As early as I can remember, the yoke of the world felt heavy as the cosmos hung in the balance of my next move. The sentiment kept me dutifully on task and awkwardly on edge. War provided the perfect outlet to reconcile my drive and my discomfort. As a soldier caught in the endless cycle of deployments, I found meaning in the jar poking my spleen and large intestine. Since we are being honest, I indulged the jar. As a soldier in combat, it served me and my mates well.
But I am more than a soldier. My love of country, family, and friends inspired my service. I want to enjoy and honor them beyond my service. I’ve got more to give than my final deployment.
I started seeing a psychologist. I told her I wanted to learn to think differently. It’s not easy. One of the most important things she taught me was how to breathe. A slow and deep inhale into the belly, held for a few seconds, and then slowly exhausted. I try not to foster my anxiety. Breathing it out helps.
I also speak more openly with other vets. Some of them hide their jar elsewhere in the body, but my symptoms are not unique. My buddies served me well in combat. I hope to return the favor. It helps to know that you are not alone. You are never alone.
It’s 5:22 AM as I finish my coffee. The bus stop is exactly .8 miles away and the walk takes me just under 12 minutes. I double check my phone app. The bus will arrive at 5:40. I walk out the front door at 5:24, automatically touching the keys in my right pocket, my wallet in my rear pocket, and my phone in my left pocket—all there. I meticulously gear my morning routine to limit my time spent in transition, but lately I’ve been giving myself a few extra minutes.
As I head towards the bus, I deliberately walk a little slower. The crisp morning breeze stings my face as the setting moon casts scattered shadows through the trees. Some rare mornings, the whippoorwill still beckons in the pre-dawn darkness. Listening intently, I hear a critter rustling through the underbrush. It’s probably the chipmunk who lives beneath the fallen oak tree. I wonder whether he’s foraging for food or stirred awake by my presence. Passing the military crest of the path, I pause. The whippoorwill is silent, but a robin has started singing its morning ritual. I breathe. The late winter air carries a hint of spring pollen.
I want to Die Living. I figure I should start by learning to live—to truly live—between the deployments.