Hello. My name is Mike and it has been fourteen months since I went on deployment. This really isn't the hard part, however.

I've been home since July and not sure what to make of my current set of circumstances.

When I first returned, there were a lot of whispered conversations and questions about what I was doing. The photos of six months of hair and beard growth, dressed up like Robocop in some small village on the far side of the Earth. It isn't something that I can explain easily, and the people that I work for were aware of this. I found out that they actually had a meeting about me and how they were supposed to approach my service in Afghanistan.

The general set of instructions revolved around not talking about it or mentioning it, operating under the general premise that if they ignored it that the whole thing would just go away on it's own.

Part of the problem is that I don't want to talk about it at all with that particular audience. I doubt that someone more concerned with how many electronic training courses they've taken or how to shuffle this bit or that bit of paper around is really going to be able to comprehend on a fundamental level how much has changed in a single year.

About two months ago I took a pile of old clothes to a local homeless shelter that deals specifically with homeless veterans. There was a Vietnam vet who accepted all of this, and we began talking about the shared experience of being very far from home in a place inhabited by people that would oxygenate your brain with an AK-47 if given the opportunity.

"Does it ever go away?" I asked, almost embarrassed at the simple ignorance of saying something like this out loud.

"You won't hide at the Fourth of July no more," his accent draws the syllables out in an way atypical for someone who has been living in California for thirty some years, "but it ain't never going to be out of you."

"Huh." There is a long silence that follows, both of us drifting to different continents, times, and places.

"Damn," he finally says while looking up at a picture of men in solid green fatigues at a USO Christmas show, "we were so young."



==



There is a disturbing lack of common experience between my former-turned-current-again co-workers.



==



The worst part is the almost total isolation, some of it imposed by security, some by self, some by an inability to explain what it looks like when someone has their face ripped off by a suicide bombing. I can't really rationalize why I still scan both sides of the road in 100 meter stretches as I drive looking for markers, trigger men, or the depression in the road that might just hold 50 kilos of homemade explosive.

The other day I was driving home from work and someone turned suddenly across an intersection and everything dilated down to 28-gauge copper wire. Waiting for the truck commander on headset, right hand back and up to pull the gunner's turret harness release, left hand on the wheel, one foot for the brake, and one for the gas. Every hundredth of a second that ticks by is a lifetime, waiting for that first round that won't come from a harried soccer mom in a minivan who can't be assed to wait five more seconds and yield as indicated by common courtesy and the California Department of Motor Vehicles handbook. (Which is now available in Pashto, on request.)

Building this infinity every time someone cuts you off, every time some fucking hipster douche on a fixie bolts past, every time nothing happens it just piles on a tiny bit more.

It keeps on winding up until the whole torrent comes crashing down and you're pointing at someone's Mommy with the knife-hand and calling her a fucking stupid pole-smoking cunt whorebag for not goddamned having any motherfucking situational fucking awareness about the fucking traffic around her. You hear the rage bellowing out of you in The Work Voice. It comes echoing back at you off of the glass and aluminum condominiums on both sides of the street. Then the sheer insanity of what you are doing registers like being hit with a cement block.

You fall silent.

You say nothing. Just breathing heavily, watching her squirm as if caught in a trap you set to keep the skunks away. Only it wasn't a skunk you caught, it was your own kitten. Now she's broken and squirming and you don't know how to fix it because you're only seven. But you want to make her stop hurting so badly it screws like hot iron through your gut.

And the tears come, because you remember Andre and Ryan the last time you saw them.

You especially remember Andre. The dry heat of the rocky helicopter pad is stifling, but he's out here to see you off anyway. The two of you have been through Some Shit together over the previous months, and you'd do it for him. Rotor blades doppler off of canyon walls, signaling that it is your last time to face that tiny spit of American sand in an Afghan ocean and say goodbye. You shake hands, embrace briefly. Reaching out, your gloved hand catches his one last time.

“Be good.” Your intonation is serious, but at the same time light-hearted.

“Dude, don't worry,” he replies with a lopsided smile, “everything is going to be just fine.”

The dynamic of the moment shifts almost imperceptibly.

He's lying. You know he's lying. He knows you know. And neither one of you say a damned word because this is how the universe really functions on a fundamental level.

It is fueled on lies and subterfuge invented by idiots in combat to make themselves feel better about their prospects for survival.

Everything isn't going to be fine. As a matter of fact everything is going to the diametrically opposed opposite of fucking fine because in exactly thirty-two days after you have this little exchange you find out that Andre bled out while waiting for a MEDIVAC. On his last mission in country. They were scheduled to leave the next day, they'd done that one just for kicks.

Every night for a week after that from a mound of body parts blocking the front gate of your former firebase Andre leers down at you. All of your victims, all at once: the ones you watched die, the ones you couldn't save because They wouldn't act on your product, and your one last failure the reigning king. Bled white and eyeless, he burns into your soul, waiting for the wind to die. When it does he asks a single question in a low voice made of broken rock and jagged steel.







Why do you live?







Still standing there in the middle of the intersection you say the only thing you can to dying kittens, scared mothers, and dead men who haunt you in the night.



"I'm sorry."



And then you walk back to your car, put it into gear, drive home. Because at this point all you can really do in this vacuum is keep on holding your breath.

I usually wake up each night, my bladder seems to work overtime. when I return from down the hall, I don't always fall asleep rapidly. Some nights are easier than others. Last night was one of the easier returns to rest, compared to hours spent laying awake with worries and concerns filling my mind.

Like a radio that you can't figure out how to turn off or an emergency exit sign that stays lit 24 hours a day, a constant flow of thoughts enter my mind. It's like having a pilot light in my brain that burns constantly, ready to ignite a flurry of thoughts if I need to turn on the gas. This flame burns dimly, but its flickering light illuminates my mental bedroom. Very useful as a night light, but potentially distracting for sound sleep.

These are not dreams, since I'm not asleep. They're more like a background music of thoughts that play while I could otherwise be asleep. Aside from keeping me awake, most of them are not objectionable. Most are amusing.

Yesterday, I continued my binge of puzzles from a website that offers pictoral clues to solve for common phrases. Their archive of several years is still a rich goldmine for shiny nuggets of fleeting glee. The vein of rich ore seems to continue deeply for years backwards.

One of the clues in a puzzle was the Ancient Egyptian god Ra, illustrated in his classic profile as a falcon. This was only a fleeting experience, since I solved that puzzle quickly and moved along to sift through the next bucket of clues. Maybe this puzzle contained oily, resinous deposits that got stuck in my mind's pilot light. They hadn't burned off by 3am.

Ra returned to me, pictured as approaching the glass door of a temple. This was the first of many frames showing his encounter with the temple where he needed to perform an important ceremony. True to his avian nature, the next frame showed him toppled and dazed, laying on the ground after colliding with the glass. Poor Ra. Fortunately he had not been going very fast and stuck with his original plans. Ra then pulled out a handy scarab-shaped sticker and applied it to the doors, to make sure he wouldn't repeat his collision. Thoth and Horus would later appreciate his foresight.

Next, Ra brought along his friends as I imagined them lined up in front of a locked temple door, frustrated at their delay to another important ceremony. Seizing the opportunity, Anubis saw a doggie-door and crawled through, to unlock it from inside for rest of his group.

Endgame

“All along the watchtower, princes kept the view” -Bob Dylan

I was looking at the splattered dust outside my window today when it hit me. I was like some kind of Pipi Longstockings going to the fair when I turned in my orange and white ID card to the guard shack at the front gate of Davis-Monthan AFB. I handed over my precious past to the grinning guard in green fatigues, neither one realizing that this was the last sounding of the death knell of my youth. No one ever told me about this hidden rite of passage. It is snake-like in its knowing, still and harmless as it waits for the right moment to unleash its wound that would not be seen for years. Stronger in my broken places, I was looking for my future, ready to embrace life in a heady youth.

Today many of my former communities are now unsightly; desolate places. The high guard towers point at an empty sky, their scowling silhouettes softened by rowdy nests of shrieking birds. Sandbags have rotted away in grimy ditches and the shimmering light of day dances in what were once protected rooms. Warehouses that were bursting with stores lay barren surrounded with weathered whitewashed rocks. Motorpools heavy and low with lethal profiles of armored vehicles sit vacant save for a few desolate and twisted weeds. The leathered, oily smells are long since vanquished by the breezes of time. Sections of the high perimeter wall have deteriorated and dropped into disordered heaps of brickwork. They have met their demise – exhausted of the throbbing rhythm of men and machinery that made her so powerful. The only sounds are the sorrowful squeals of metal roofs beating out lonely staccatos in their wastelands.

Maybe if I had been equipped with some iota I could have known that this inevitable day would come. I have long since raised my children and procured a home since my displacement. I can’t help but wonder what it will be like when the door closes on this chapter in this isolation from my military birthright. An unwilling sacrifice of my homeland in exchange for the rights of a civilian. Will my sacrifice allow fathers and mothers to be able to raise their children to be strong and proud? Will I have left our world a better and brighter place for having been here? Every fiber of my being wants this to be tangible; it would justify the palpable price I have paid in the sorrows of leaving behind yet another friend; another school. Three moves equals a fire, most of us intuitively appreciate that phrase as soon as we read it. So here we are, living among the natives never really knowing if we are awakened to their detectable presence.

My surroundings have absorbed me for many years now and today I realized that my father had the most selfish reason for wishing that this would all come to pass for me. He simply hoped to raise a child that would not have to fight another war in this land of the free, home of the brave.

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