I screamed as the searing white heat of a bullet ripped through my hip.
No one knows how they’ll respond when injured, but for most, it’s with a string of expletives. True to form, I yelled “fuck.”
All around me, fellow soldiers bled while cries for medics echoed off the sparse mountain terrain. Soviet DShK rounds shredded the earth as I crawled behind a large rock. I yelled for a medic while the other soldiers continued to run up the side of the steep incline where Taliban held the high ground. I watched more DShK rounds rip through men, dead before their bodies hit the earth. Several of the faces stared in surprise with that dumb look only the dead have.
As the blood pooled around me, I tried to move around the large boulder. As I did, another bullet slammed through my leg, severing the femoral artery.
I jerked in pain, screaming once more that I’d been hit only to find myself standing next to my bed in a cold sweat. The pain in my hip throbbed as I limped to the bathroom and stripped naked in front of the mirror, looking for wounds.
From the bedroom, a murmur above a whisper. “Babe?”
I continued to prod my naked body, looking for blood and exit wounds. Nothing. The voice from the bedroom grew louder. “Babe? You okay?”
After a few beats I pulled on my underwear and limped back to the room, climbing under the sheets to escape the winter cold. My wife of a mere six months drowsily asked once more, “Everything okay?”
It’s just a dream. It was just a dream. Remember where you are. I focused on the ceiling fan and relaxed.
“Just a bad dream is all. Go back to sleep.”
I waited for the rise and fall of her breath to signal that she was asleep, staring at the fan’s whirring blades.
Remember where you are. You’re not in Afghanistan anymore. You’re not in Iraq. You’re home.
But the weird little voice that speaks from our inner depths continued on, reminding me of a truth I often try to deny: you sometimes wish you were back there.
“Did you kill anyone?”
My first combat tour left me rattled and shell-shocked. Close to the end of my deployment in Afghanistan, a 107mm rocket broke my wrist and shrapnel peppered my lower back and forearms. Though I couldn’t fight any longer I still completed the rest of my tour, mostly answering phones and driving interpreters around base (stick shift, with a broken wrist, while doped up on pain meds). Once home, the nine months of combat finally took its toll. People weren’t allowed to touch me while I was sleeping. I was jumpy, and loud crashes sent me over the edge.
There was no running water, and I defecated in a barrel on a regular basis. But the laughter was real, the friends were real.
With time I reintegrated into society, but I struggled with what I’d seen overseas — the death, destruction, and collateral damage. I tested high for PTSD then, but now know the correct term: “moral injury.” Moral injury describes the emotional and psychological damage incurred when one has to do or witness acts that violate their sense of right and wrong. Shooting a woman or child. Killing another human. Watching a friend die. Black humor and laughing about situations that would normally disgust them. PTSD explained my aversion to fireworks for several years, but it didn’t explain why — after returning home from Afghanistan — I sometimes found myself staring at the photo of a dead enemy combatant. My team took the photo for identification after high-value targets ambushed our convoy. I didn’t kill the man myself — I was on the tail end of the convoy — but his caved-in face and protruding entrails continued to haunt me. My then-girlfriend once woke to find me in my home office, staring at the photo at 3 a.m. She abruptly shut the door and never brought it up.
I hated war, but strangely enough, I loved it, too. I’d find myself wishing I were back overseas while driving alone, or in the midst of a crowded party. Things were simpler. People understood me. I had deep relationships. Granted, there was no running water, and I defecated in a barrel on a regular basis. But the laughter was real, the friends were real, and the experience felt more real than ordering a coffee at Starbucks while a woman in athleisure berated the barista for getting her order wrong.
Pacifists and war hawks alike tend to conflate war with combat. They don’t want to hear about the nuances or the kinship that made it all survivable. Instead, they want the gory, box-office details: What was it like? Were you scared? Did you kill anyone? What’s the worst thing that happened to you over there? (Surreal / Yes / I don’t know, everyone was shooting at the same thing / Seeing dead kids. There, you happy? Stop asking.) The culture we then return to either glorifies the moments we want to forget, or paints us as emotionless mercenaries. Neither side truly knows the sacrifices we make, both speaking from a point of ignorance or inexperience.
In December 2007, I lived on a friend’s couch after returning from Iraq. Despite my resolve never to return to a combat environment, I’d signed up once more amid the height of insurgent violence. That deployment would cost me my marriage. I didn’t even have to go. I volunteered. And all because my friends from Afghanistan were going. “Would you jump off a bridge if all your friends were doing it?” my mother would chide as a teenager. “Only if all my buddies from Iraq were jumping,” the now grizzled vet thinks.
[Most] of the war stories I tell [don’t] revolve around the dead. They revolve around the moments [I] felt most alive.
The other night I sat with two other veterans while we focused on a work project. The conversation naturally veered toward our time in the military, once we discovered each of us had served. I confessed to the two men I sometimes missed war. The older of the two — a Vietnam-era veteran — nodded in response. “I miss the edge,” he stated.
He didn’t need to explain “the edge” before I knew what he meant. The thrill. The adrenaline. That’s what he missed. People often talk about living each day like it’s their last, but when you’re face-to-face with the moment almost daily, the edge takes over. It’s like the old World of WarCraft meme, Leeroy Jenkins, where everyone else is trying to plan their life and you scream, “TIME’S UP! LET’S DO THIS!” and rush towards battle. You’re with your brothers on St. Crispin’s Day, knowing whoever sheds their blood next to you is a true friend.
What’s interesting is that whenever I connect with fellow combat veterans, we don’t talk about the horrible moments or memories that plague our conscience. Instead, the stories revolve around the funnier — or more insane — experiences. Growing up, I never heard brutal WWII war stories from my granddad. Most were humorous, like the one about how he ended up as General Patton’s scotch supplier when he and a friend hijacked a mortuary affairs vehicle. They filled the damn thing to the brim with Johnny Walker Red and granddad traded bottles with Patton for tennis rackets. My wife’s grandfather also served during WWII, in the Pacific. He never spoke a peep about combat until my brother-in-law got him smashed one evening, when he was roughly 90 years old. He ranted against “the Japs” and their “methods” for a good hour.
My stories are similar. Oh sure, I write about war. Once you get injured in combat, you’ll never not have to tell that story. Hell, the police have even pulled me over just to ask how I got a Purple Heart (I have the license plate). But the rest of the war stories I tell — and that my friends tell — never revolve around the dead. Quite the opposite: They revolve around the moments we felt most alive.
Most veterans don’t miss the bloodshed or horrors of war, which is why we don’t talk about the details much. Instead, we miss the camaraderie we experienced. We miss the thrill of feeling alive, knowing a bullet could snatch our life in a split-second. Just like our grandfathers in WWII, our uncles in Vietnam, or our brothers in the desert, we don’t talk about the moments that haunt our memories. We talk about our brotherhood.
Even though it’s been 11 years since my last battle, some days I miss being at war. The depth of the relationships you’ve developed, and the conditions you endured — like bloodshed — are baffling concepts for a civilian. For the veteran, it’s like trying to explain string theory to a 10-year-old. To explain the oxymoron of missing combat is just as difficult. Being in an intense environment where adrenaline is pumping and bonds are forged makes working a cubicle job feel like a never-ending screening of Office Space. You’ll long wonder about the men and women in leadership at your office and whether they care about your well-being. Or are you cannon fodder for the advancement of their career and pocketbook? That’s not something you have to worry about when the bullets are flying.
Some nights I close my eyes and can hear the explosions in the background of my mind. They’re sounds I once fell asleep to — almost like a demented ocean lull. I know I should hate them — but other times, the nostalgia of the bonds I built and the moments I felt alive have a soothing effect. Dwelling on these moments, I drift off to Neverland. While in Neverland, I make my way through a mountain pass or desert town. With each step, I hope to regain the lost pieces of myself alongside the men I love.
But perhaps it’s just a dream.