(Story contains adult language, themes, and discussion of self-harm; reader discretion advised.)
Al would have hated his funeral. No, seriously, if there was anything Al Morrison hated while we were stationed and deployed together, it was being called “hero.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he’d said once when we’d gotten back from a mission. We were in the motor pool, ‘dash ten’ manuals open to appease the Sergeant, though we could have done post-ops checks on our vehicles by pure muscle memory at that point. Anyway, someone had some shitty radio out there barely picking up AFN, and there was some story about someone going home and getting greeted in the airport or whatever by volunteers who were greeting ‘heroes.’
“I’m not a fucking hero, I drive a truck and I shoot people who scare me when they get too close,” Al said, clearing expended 5.56 shell casings out of his side of the 5-ton truck.
Al was generally pragmatic.
At least until the end. One day I had been skimming through Facebook before I finished my morning coffee, and saw he had posted something kind of long, but I moved on before I read it, because I wasn’t awake yet, and I had to get ready for work. Two days later it popped up in my feed again when our mutual friend Becky Evans commented on it.
It was his suicide note. He put it online, and left a note that his front door was unlocked so they could pull him out. I had scrolled past the first time a few hours after it actually happened, so at least I wasn’t beating myself up about whether I could have stopped him or if I could have called someone; that’s what Becky was doing. She’d apparently seen it early on, but hadn’t clicked “see more” because we all have out own lives, and if you’d asked any of us a month earlier if Al Morrison was a man who would put a shotgun in his mouth, we’d have called you an idiot.
But he was one of the 22 that day; the 22 Vets who take their own lives each day — according to VA statistics — and we’d all missed whatever warning signs there were, and now four of us who had deployed to Baghdad in ’05 with a sustainment Brigade had come to Al’s home town in southern Arizona so his sister and his ex-wife could hear a preacher talk about Al the Hero before an honor guard folded up a flag and gave it to his sister.
Being an ‘ex-wife’ didn’t keep his ex-wife from crying.
They had still been married when we were all running logistics convoys between FOB Ferrin-Huggins, Camp Liberty, and the Green Zone. Route Irish came from the south of Baghdad, ran through poor Shia areas before hooking a hard left at the entrance to the Green Zone to go through plush Sunni areas as it headed to the Airport. It was an even bet whether we were going to get shot at by disenfranchised Shia or dethroned Sunnis on any given day as we made the run. Our Company of course had about forty people in it, but it seemed there were five of us between an up-armor HMMWV (none of that MRAP full armor then) and a 5-ton Cargo Truck that stayed in the unit the whole year, and kept doing that messed up trip. We were just past the days when people were literally welding on plates of scrap metal to provide some armor for the soft-skin trucks, but we were not getting fancy new vehicles either.
Anyway, five of us: Al Morrison was a tall, thin guy, half-Filipino who used to remind his wife when he’d call her that “olive skin makes good kin.” I’d hear her laugh every time over the static filled connection while I was still trying to get the goddamn AT&T operator to pick up so I could read her the numbers on my phone card and call home too. Becky Evans was a corn-fed Iowa girl, taller than me, probably 5’ 11” or so. She was strong and funny, and insisted on being in the turret on the M-2 .50 caliber machine gun so, “none you motherfuckers jam the bitch and get me killed.” I saw a guy, some dude from one of the other platoons, grab her ass outside the DFAC once, and she turned around to the grinning idiot and grabbed both sides of his head and started licking his face. He laughed and started to pull away. She had his ears in a death grip at this point, and she wouldn’t let him go and just kept licking. He was finally almost in tears begging her to let him go, because it’s not very fucking funny when someone makes you get it on against your will. I may have had a secret crush on Becky, but I don’t think I was really her type.
Our 5-ton driver was a former Infantry guy who took some shrapnel from an IED at the end of ’03, went home hurt, reclassified as a truck driver, and was now back. Big Dave Hutchens was loud and obnoxious, and looked down on all of us for being support and not “warfighters” but I pointed out to him at one point that Becky had more kills than he did.
“Yeah, but I don’t think all the Hadji’s she wastes are tryin’ to kill us.”
“Company policy, they get close, they get a warning shot, then get within 5 meters, we open up,” she’d argue.
“If they ain’t shooting at you, it ain’t combat,” Dave would argue. “And besides, you use that five meter thing when we’re parked and shit.” Becky shrugged.
The fourth in our little misfit crew was our NCOIC, Staff Sergeant Moustafa Ahmed. He’d grown up in Dearborn, Michigan, the son of a couple who escaped Iraq in the sixties when the Ba’ath party took power, but before Saddam was in charge. He spoke Arabic in a pretty passable Iraqi dialect he learned around the house growing up, but kept telling the Army he didn’t speak Arabic so he wouldn’t get pulled to go be an interpreter for an officer or for those jackasses in MI. SSG Ahmed just wanted to be a Soldier, and he took good care of us. When we were still at Fort Hood and we got Dave assigned, he mouthed off once about “our own Hadji,” and SSG Ahmed reminded him what NCOs do with subordinates who mouth off. Dave never pushed him again, and SSG Ahmed took care of him like he did all of us. He even made sure when we were deployed I would get time to take my online college.
And that’s me, number five; driving the Humvee white knuckled with SSG Ahmed in the passenger seat, and the rumble of Becky’s machine gun from the turret behind and above me. The one who stomped on the gas when the IEDs went off hoping SSG Ahmed wouldn’t get off the radio and tell me one of the trucks — especially not Al and Dave — had been hit or left burning on the side of Route Irish. Me, the one who spent a year with these people, cursing at them and with them, praying none of us died, and then got back, got out, went to college, got a job, and now just occasionally clicked ‘like’ under one of their statuses on Facebook, or skipped past them to read it later when it was already too fucking late.
The four of us, Becky, Dave, Me, SSG Ahmed — Jesus he was out too, running a shawarma stand in Dearborn — Moustafa, all stopped whatever was going on in our lives, and we came to a shitty little Army town in Southern Arizona and watched them bury Al and call him a ‘hero.’
We all agreed we needed a drink. Dave smiled. “I knew it, so unlike all y’all, I planned ahead. I got this shit covered.”
“What are you talking about?” Becky asked.
Dave looked immensely pleased with himself, his smile sending waves through the really impressive beard he had grown since getting out. “I got us a booth set back at The Table.”
We stood in stunned silence for a moment. Al had talked about “The Table” in his home town, a nasty little cowboy/biker/redneck bar that drove strippers in from out of town once a week. It was a place with watery beer and where you were as likely to hear brown people described in frowned-upon words and phrases as you were to see a fistfight, and you might walk away with a cold sore from your unwashed glass. Becky broke the stunned silence.
“Shit yeah,” Becky said. “I’ll meet you at the Table.” She walked toward her car, peeling off her black heels as she went, walking on the desert ground around the Army cemetery in her stockings, letting the runs start to creep over her ankle and up her calves.
“I’m in,” Moustafa said. I could only thank whatever God there might be that it wasn’t Thursday when we went; that was stripper night.
The Table wasn’t too crowded when we got there. We maneuvered through a space that had too many pool tables to be able to effectively play a game and found our way to a dark corner where the booth had “Reserved, Dave” scribbled on the back of an old flyer face down on the table. I had taken off my jacket to dress down. Becky had slipped off her now ruined stockings somewhere between the cemetery and the bar, but still had her black dress on, but now with fluorescent yellow running shoes. Dave had dropped his suit coat and tie, and thrown on an old, ratty green ballcap that actually had the John Deere logo on it. Moustafa just had his jacket off and tie loose.
The beer really was watery, brought to us by a waitress who was trying to take ten of her fifty or so years off with a thick layer of makeup that seemed to flex and ooze as she sweated and the bar lights caught her right. Dave told her to open a tab, and we toasted to Al.
“To the man who got us together again, and I hope’s laughing somewhere about where we’re at,” Dave said. We each took a swig.
“I thought you didn’t drink?” Becky said to Moustafa. He smiled and toasted her.
“My mom’s not here. I bet I’m at least 500 miles from the nearest Imam.” We all laughed, and it really was good to see these people again.
We started talking about what we had done since we got out. Mous talked about his shawarma stand. “Used to just get those folks my parents knew, but man, sales doubled when all those superheroes had some at the end of that movie.”
Becky had moved back to Iowa, and was doing okay, but bouncing between jobs and men. “I’ve dated a few times, but they kept ending with some Iowa asshole asking me if I’d ever killed anybody.”
Dave was just pissed about his benefits. “I’m not askin’ for nothin’ they didn’t tell me I was gonna get. They told me I’d get medical and some money to live on if I just did my part, and I did, got medically retired, and now they’re talkin’ about cutting that shit on me. Do I look like somebody you want out there in the workforce?”
I told them about my degree, and the tutoring I was doing as I worked on my grad degree.
Becky and Mous both smiled at me. “I’m glad you’re doing well,” Mous said.
“Couldn’t have gotten started without you, Sergeant.” I said. “I may have been shot at a lot, but let’s hear it for tuition assistance and the GI Bill.”
“What’d I always say?” asked Dave. “I always said you was a smart motherfucker!” He drained another glass. “Can we get some shots on this table?” he called out. As he negotiated little glasses of rot gut, we laughed and the waitress brought a tray. At Dave’s request, she placed eight small glasses of something dark and venomous before us. There was a slight smell of licorice.
Becky’s eyes went wide. “Are you serious? Jager?” In response, Dave took one down.
“Look,” he said, “I ain’t forcin’ no one to drink it. It’s on the table, it’s an option. Just makin’ it available. It’s there in front of y’all, do whatcha want.”
“Not for me thanks,” Mous said, sipping his beer again. “I don’t need the Imam to tell me that’s not right.” Becky and I looked at each other and laughed.
“Fuck it,” she said and we both tipped our shot glasses together and drank. It didn’t seem to phase Becky. I was a little more unhappy with my choice.
As we went on, I think Becky did one more shot, but the little glasses seemed to continue to empty, and Dave became louder, laughed more, and finally, as we all pretty much expected, said something stupid.
“Fuckers like Al, they just get weak. That’s why they’re doin’ it, that’s what’s goin’ on.”
All joviality at the table stopped. Becky looked at him. “Dave, are you serious?”
“Yeah. Look, I can’t work, my back’s in constant fuckin’ pain. I ain’t got much money, and I ain’t got no one to go back to. I still ain’t puttin’ a shotgun in my mouth.”
“Al was hurt too, asshole. He’d been treated for depression. He lost his wife. He felt alone, and we didn’t do shit. You got no right to judge him now,” Becky said, and I think for the first time since I’d known her, and I had been with her in some pretty severe situations, I think I saw tears in her eyes.
“Well, I’m still here, and gettin’ ‘depressed’ ain’t something I’m givin’ in to.” His drawl was becoming more pronounced as he went on.
“We’ve all done or seen something, Dave. Some of us more than others,” I said. Becky’s face was dark.
“Oh, that’s it? I’m suppose to be cryin’ over some fuckin’ hadjis?” Mous gave him a look. “Not you, Sargen’, but all those assholes over there.” He waved, and it was ridiculous how quickly our waitress had another round of shots on the table. Dave did two more before he continued. “They ain’t like us and you all know it.”
“How about me, Dave? Are they like me? You keep saying I’m an exception, but you don’t say how,” asked Moustafa.
“Shit, Sargen’, you remember that time on Irish when that whole family was standin’ there? We was south of the FOB, closer to Hilla. They was all spread out and trying to wave us down, and when we didn’t slow down, some sheep-fuckin’ mother fucker throws a kid in front of us. Would you fuckin’ do that?”
We all remembered. The Lieutenant as in the lead vehicle, Mous and I were behind him, then Al and Dave in the 5-Ton, and hell, I don’t remember what the rest of the convoy was that day. But I remember the little girl. Some old man — probably the family patriarch — pushed her out when the young boys leading up to their group didn’t get us to slow down by waving.
Was it a trap? Where they going to ambush us the minute we stopped? Maybe, I don’t know. But I know the LT told his driver to keep going, and I will never forget watching that little girl go under his truck, then come out and go under ours. I was fighting over whether to swerve or keep going straight so she’d go between out wheels, but I was pretty sure it already didn’t matter. Mous started praying in Arabic and Becky traversed the turret to fire on the old man, but Al and Dave in the truck behind us were too close and blocked her shot, and we were moving too fast anyway.
“I remember,” Becky said, and she said it quietly. “And I remember watching cars come tearing at us while I’m waving them off, and then finally having me blast the shit out of ’em. I also remember kids dying in IEDs that were meant for us. I remember that one local terp we had…Ali? I remember when we found his head outside the gate for helping us out. And I remember people coming up to me to thank me for saving them from Saddam, and I remember shooting a lot of people who I shouldn’t have shot.” She leaned in close to Dave. “I shouldn’t have judged all of them by that one asshole, any more than I want all of us judged by you.”
“Dave,” I said. “Man, we were all there. We all saw. We saw a lot of terrible shit, and more than once we did some terrible shit; each and every one of us. But man, it’s like anyone, any group of people. Ninety percent just want to get up in the morning, love their families, make some money, and come home to do it all again the next day. It’s that other ten percent, hell, probably less, that fuck it up for the rest of us.”
“Oh’d you learn that shit in college?”
“No, I learned it in Baghdad. I’m sorry you didn’t too.”
“Fuck this!” Dave declared and tried to stand up. The beer and shots had taken their toll though, and he couldn’t quite make it all the way to vertical. The chair had moved as he was standing, and now was just throwing him off balance as he fell.
He would have hit the floor if Moustafa, still only a single beer in, hadn’t caught him. “OK Dave, I think it’s time to get you out of here.” Mous reached into his pocket, quite a feat while keeping the teetering Dave standing up, and threw some bills on the table. “We’re in the same hotel, I’ll get him there.”
“You’re really gonna help his redneck ass out after all that?” Becky asked.
Mous smiled. “Yeah. First, if I didn’t, he’s right. Second,” and he paused a little here, “it’s what a good NCO does.” I toasted him and he nodded. “Good to see you guys, take care all right?” We nodded back.
“Ain’t done…” Dave said, and heaved a little.
“Yes you are, come on,” Mous said, and lead him through the dark path to the door.
Becky and I sat in silence for a few, listening to a surprising appearance of Leonard Cohen on the juke box. Finally, Becky spoke.
“He ain’t processed it yet, has he?”
“Probably not,” I said. “Maybe he never wants to.”
“Do you think that makes him better or worse off?”
I shrugged. “It’s hard to say. It’s possible half his problems in life now are because he can’t contextualize his experience. On the other hand, did Al kill himself because he did understand and couldn’t live with it anymore?”
“Listen to you, with the big ideas!”
“College, bitch,” I said, taking the last swig of my beer. Becky laughed, but only for a moment.
“I don’t know which one I am either,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
She sighed. “Remember I talked about people asking me if I killed someone? Yeah, it’s a shitty question, but I really don’t mind the fact I did. I mean, there’s more than a couple of the people I shot that I know for a fact woulda killed us all if I let ’em. But, I can’t explain that to somebody. I can’t tell them what that feels like to know that if I don’t kill this motherfucker in front of me, they’re gonna kill me. And when I tell them I can’t explain it, that they can’t get it unless they lived through it, they think I’m full of myself, like I’m putting them down.”
“They think you’re being patronizing,” I said, my own experience at times being similar.
“Oh, big ideas and big words. But yeah, and so I want to talk to someone, but it has to be you guys, because you get it. But sometimes ‘you guys’ are like Dave, and they don’t really get it either. Or they really, really get it and I don’t want to add to their baggage. Or, and Jesus forgive me for this, being around some of you brings it back in ways I don’t want, so I don’t want to talk to you about it either.”
“I know it’s tough Becky, but I am here, always was really.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I know, but sometimes I just can’t reach you. Not like I got a busy signal, but like, I just…can’t.” She drained her beer. “How many vets do you know who’ve killed themselves?”
“Two,” I said, “Al, and a guy I kept up with from AIT.”
“I know six. I was in the Army for six fucking years, and I know one for each year.”
I recoiled a little. “Jesus, Becky.”
“You know one of them too, you just apparently didn’t hear. About three years ago Sergeant Most killed himself.”
“Oh my God, I had no idea!” I said. I really hadn’t heard. Last I knew he was a careerist. When I was getting out he had dropped a packet for possible Warrant Officer selection. I’d heard he was picked up, but nothing after that.”
“Yeah. He had marriage problems like Al, but there was a kid involved too. The mother had dropped the kid off for weekend visitation, six years old. She told Sergeant Most that she was going to complain to the judge and get sole custody. He apparently gave the kid the weekend of her life, put her in front of a movie half an hour before mom came back, went in the garage and hung himself. They found him together.”
“Fuck me,” was all I could manage.
“Right?” Becky said, and rubbed her neck. “And four others, and I don’t know if there’s a damn thing I could have done for any of us.” There was no mistaking it now, her eyes were full of tears. She kept staring at the table in front of her. Then it hit me that she’d said ‘us.’
“Becky,” I said. She didn’t respond. “Becky, have you tried to hurt yourself?”
She didn’t reply. She just shook her head, then finally, “Not really.”
“Becky, please tell me what’s going on.”
She kept staring at the table, and tears rolled steadily down her cheeks though her voice never faltered. “Life’s tough right? I mean, it’s tough for everybody, whatever we’ve been through, veteran or not. Shitty job, shitty family, shitty boyfriends, shitty apartment, whatever. Life’s tough, but it ain’t ‘kill yourself’ tough. You never think about that. But then, you hear about someone who did. Some person you were deployed with, or trained with, or whatever, and they did it. They pulled the trigger, or tied the rope, or took the pills. Then there’s another, and another, and then six people you once shared your life with have killed themselves, and it’s like Dave’s fucking shots, you know?” She gestured at the little glasses in front of us, some still full, most empty, some standing up, some lying over.
“No one’s forcing anything. No one’s saying ‘just kill yourself.’ But it’s just, it’s just now it’s an option, it’s available, it’s on the table. It’s right there in front of you. It’s not something you’d have ever thought of on your own, but suddenly it’s something that couldbe the answer to the fact you’re alone, or someone breaks your heart, or fuck, finally it pops up in your head even when you just had a bad day at work.
“And you wonder what was so great about it that so many of your friends had to try it, and you wonder what it feels like. You wonder what the barrel of a gun feels like under your chin or what the metal tastes like on your tongue. You wonder if you’d hear it, would you feel the thing buck in your mouth and break your teeth before it kills you. You wonder if you’ll lay there for a minute before it goes black with your brains dripping down on you from the ceiling. You start thinking about whether or not you’re gonna set it up so it doesn’t make a mess, and who’d find you first.
“But you don’t do it. You realize this problem’s not that bad, this day didn’t suck thatmuch, and you put all those thoughts aside as scary and stupid. And you swear you ain’t going to think of it like that again. But next time, next time, there it is on the table again, and you don’t even know if you mean it or not.”
I was quiet. A little numb. I reached out and I took her hand. It was strong, she was always strong. Her hand was trembling.
“Becky, I am so sorry. I don’t even know what to say. But, I’m here. You don’t have to be alone, I’m always here for you.”
She squeezed my hand back, and the tremble was gone, and with her other hand she wiped her cheeks dry and she smiled. “I know, I know you’re my friend and I thank you.” She took a breath. “I’ll be right back, I gotta break the seal.”
She got up and started through the crowd toward the bathrooms. “Becky,” I called after her. She stopped and looked back.
With an arm, I wiped all the shot glasses, empty or full, off the table. They clinked and chipped as they hit the floor. I heard our waitress curse from behind the bar. “It’s not on the table anymore, Becky. You don’t have to put it on the table.”
She crossed back to me, and I stood up, and I held her while she cried and laughed all at once against my neck. “When did you become such a drama queen?” she asked.
“College, bitch,” I said.
She stood a moment longer as the waitress brought over a broom. Finally Becky said, “I needed that, and I love you for it, but I’m going to piss myself if I don’t find a toilet.” We laughed as she broke the hug and started away again. The waitress thrust the broom into my hand. Becky laughed harder. “Oh God, I’m really gonna piss myself!”
“And this asshole will be cleaning that up too,” the waitress said. Becky laughed harder and wandered to the back, while I started sweeping. I also slipped the waitress a lot more money than we owed her and settled the tab out. The waitress accepted it and took the little pan I had swept the broken glass into away while I sat and waited for Becky.
The table in front of me was empty.