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.
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.