Maggie, Alan Rickman, and Three tours in the sandbox

About a month ago, I lost my poodle/shih tzu mix, named Maggie, to a centralized brain lesion that appeared out of nowhere. We thought that she might have pulled something in her neck, or had a slipped cervical disk. At least, that’s what the Vet told us. She gave us some medication, and told us to call if it hadn’t improved in a week. Within that week, I watched as the puppy that used to sleep on the bed, snuggled in the crook of my bent legs (I sleep on my side), wither away into a shell of what she once was, and die. Needless to say, but this was and still is hard for me to deal with. You see, I was once what the Army called a “Health Care Specialist”, which is just another euphuism for a combat medic. You know, those guys who walk around with the infantry with the Red Cross on their arms, and helmets. I’ve watched people die, right before my eyes. The funny part is, that, never really bothered me much. I would just chalk it up to ‘that’s war’ and the randomness therein. There was no rhyme or reason, it’s war. Someone buried an IED in the ground, ran the poorest excuse of an uninsulated, 24 gauge, copper-colored denotation wire, out 200 meters, waited with a 9V battery and you happened to be walking by as they sat there for the 20 minutes that they would give before running back to the market for more chai. Sometimes the trigger man is there, sometimes he’s not. Sometimes the spider-silk diameter wire, glinting in the desert sun breaks. Sometimes the battery he has isn’t good anymore, and he doesn’t have another. Sometimes you can see the artillery projectile sitting right outside your car door, and sometimes you can’t. After so many near-misses like this you too become numb, emotionally numb, and neurologically activated.

I never knew Alan Rickman. I could only evaluate who he was based on his performance within an environment that was by its very nature fake, a lie. Never mind you, it was often a very good lie. Believe that this person actually existed, or believe that it’s more than just “Based on true story”, that instead, this is the true story. Here’s the thing, either way, it was real to me, because it caused emotion. I’ll never forget the way that he looked at his wife in Love Actually as she discovered that the necklace she saw him buy was not for her. His eyes screamed out “I’ve made a terrible mistake”, not “you caught me with my hands in the cookie jar”. Who can’t connect with that? The problem was, that I couldn’t after I got back, but I’ve felt that look on my face as I’ve awaken up from a drunken nap only to find my wife literally crying in the corner, both scared and ashamed of what I’d become; a stereotypically maladjusted drunk of a veteran.

But a dog, well that’s a different story. You see, by nature dogs cannot lie. They are like small children, unlearned in the ways of social mores, norms and etiquette. They can only be. That is not to say, that they don’t feel shame, love, pain, and joy. They just cannot hide it, and in doing so force you to give up any numbness that you carry as a shield of protection. So, it was beyond hard when Maggie died swiftly, suddenly, and in clear pain. Even with all of my training in both the military and three years of nursing school, I could do nothing but watch her circle the drain. I didn’t cry that hard after my buddy took a bullet to the brain from a sniper.

I remember, from what is not a blur due to the drinking, of sitting on the floor with my small lap dog Maggie while my wife crocheted on the couch, watching the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility and discovering that Alan Rickman was planning a good guy. That connection, with a moment of clarity amidst my drinking, my little lap dog who helped pull out of the sauce, and Alan Rickman as a good guy will forever press on my heart.

I attended a mandatory training on an active shooter on the same day that I heard Alan Rickman had died suddenly of cancer. To be fair, the training was crap. I watched as a man, recovering from a stroke, stumble over his words in an attempt to speak clearly again. The information given demanded little explanation, and covered what everyone would do in that scenario; run, hide, or fight. So, nothing new there. But, what I did manage to learn is that these people have none, not even a milligram, of experience when it comes to an active attack. The stroke patient kept pointing out that the FBI used ‘the real thing’ with regards to their weapons, no rubber guns here. I remember running those same trainings while I was in the military on government installations like the training showed no less. I found myself critiquing the way that they held their guns, the way they wore their equipment, and the way the stacked on the wall prior to entry. I could have pointed all of this out, but these people will never understand what I would say, let alone why I would say it.

This is what it is like to be a veteran. Simultaneously numb to the potential for a gruesome death, which I would have to mop up, and be utterly crushed by the death of a man who I never personally knew, thanks to a dog that was a mixed bag of loving and grumpy. Things were supposed to be easy after I left a combat zone. No more life and death seconds juxtaposed with the dreary monotony of guard duty and nothing for hours. Nothing I do now is about my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, but like the men who came before me; Vietnam, Korea, World War II, and World War I, everything is about my time in the sandbox.

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