He Was A Soldier

Image of Long Story Short Award - 2022
Image of Short Fiction
He was a soldier. Was. The distinction should mean something but it still felt like he was fighting in an endless battle. But, now, the war is of a different kind. He was drafted five years ago as a child. Not yet graduated from high school and asked to fight in the aid of a country that wasn't even his own. Those three years he spent away were hell, as war is. But they won so that's all that mattered, right? Compared to the casualties, his country gained so much more. Or so he was told. He should be proud. And he mostly is.

It was hard enough to finish high school upon his return and act like he hadn't lost the last precious years of his fleeting childhood, let alone figure out what he was going to do after. He had tried college. A small, quaint university just about a hundred miles away from his hometown. It was a beautiful campus where you could just barely see mountain tops if you stood in just the right place. It was quiet. So quiet that the chirps of the early-morning birds and rustle of leaves were the only things he could hear most times. He listened intently to the sounds of nature to escape the phantom booms of machinery he had been forced to surround himself with for so long.

The quiet was nice. Until it wasn't. Because he didn't just hear the rain fall against the pavement or the whistle of the wind. He heard people talk. And, oh, how they liked to talk about the war. He couldn't help but listen to them, whether out of a twisted desire to pity himself or genuine curiosity he wasn't sure. His peers overwhelmingly mocked and criticized the conflict. They claimed it was a power-grab by the government, a needless intervention, a waste of lives and resources. He can't say he disagreed with them but the vicious reminder of how much he had sacrificed and lost for practically nothing in return was too much too soon. Especially when spoken from the mouths of the draft dodgers or those who sat at home while he fought for his life and theirs. From those of whom he destained yet envied. To hear one speak of something they know so little about ignited a deep, ugly rage in his chest. But ignorance is bliss, isn't it? So he left. When he felt guilty about it he reminded himself that he can always return. He just had to wait until the sting of those words felt more like a dull thrum through his veins than a white-hot spark that made it painful even to breathe.

He yearned to be the person he was all those years ago. Was. Back when he was innocent and believed in the limitless beauty of the world. After seeing all the evil and terror the world could offer him, even the parts of his life that still appeared beautiful felt tainted. He doesn't know if it's the fault of the world or his mind. Nonetheless, he pities himself and the child he abandoned years ago. Or maybe it was the child who had forsaken him. He presumes it doesn't really matter in the end.

It could be hard for him to believe that the mirror reflected that same person. He had changed so much. He had exhausted himself in his pursuit for survival and hadn't yet recovered. Maybe he never would. At least not fully. And it made him bitter knowing how few people cared about that fact. They thanked him for his service and said he was a hero, but hardly cared what would become of him after their brief meeting. They didn't ask what he was doing since the war's end. To them, he had already served his purpose in the world despite his youth. In some ways, he agreed there was nothing more righteous than to serve one's country. He just wishes it hadn't seized so much of the ambition and hope he once had for his life. It made him feel too much like the bullets which shot out of the guns he used to fire. Once they had been used to do all they were deemed good for, only a broken, empty shell remained.

His parents encouraged him to talk to a professional. And he should. They said they'd pay for one. But they shouldn't have to. So he hadn't gone yet.

His buddy Richard ran into the same problem. The last time they spoke the topic came up. Richard was going to see someone the following week. Was. But he didn't make it that long. He wanted to say the news was a shock and that his buddy had seemed so happy. But it wasn't true. And even if it was, he wouldn't have been surprised. The assimilation back into civilian life doesn't leave them with much time or opportunity to seek help. For some, the intrusive thoughts become actions long before they could hope to be pulled from the memories they were drowning in. He supposes he's fortunate.

Working is easier. It isn't easy but it's easier. It took him a while to find a stable job. He kept leaving because of the most seemingly insignificant things. The lights flickered too much. A coworker reminded him of someone he used to know. The copier made too much noise too often. Somebody had a bad habit of clicking their pen. For a while, he didn't know if he could survive a civilian life again. In some ways, the military was simpler. You were told what to do and you did what you were told. Usually. The constant fear and threat of death or injury to yourself and others wasn't simple, though. And he remembered each moment of it vividly. Bombs bursting late into the night which lit up the dark skies for hours. His squad commander yelling with a distinct accent before he was abruptly cut off by an explosion at his feet. The planes whizzing and whining above his head trying to spot them so a bomb could be dropped on his head. The shaking of his eardrums as the guns rattled their rounds into raging oblivion.

Sometimes he found himself entranced by the dull gray walls that lined the hallways. The color was meaningless and boring to most people. But it was also the color of Charlie's eyes as he dragged him back into the trenches after an ambush. It was too bad. Charlie was a good kid. Was.

Some days were better than others, but he didn't like having too much time to think. So he kept busy when he could.

Sometimes the only thing that could ground him was the smooth feel of the stainless steel hanging around his neck. The thin yet sturdy material rubbed gently across his chest with each movement, connecting him to all those who sacrificed before and with him. To those who would serve in the future as well.

They were littered with scratches and dents yet somehow the inscriptions were still as legible as the day he got them. He remembered the first time he rubbed the cool metal between his fingers. The aroma they gave off before the iron-like scent became unwelcome on his nose. The way they shone under the skylight and returned his image on their surface. They didn't shine quite as bright nor reflect such a crisp likeness of himself anymore. The tags have seen better days. But so had he.

In a moment of maudlin nostalgia, he brought the tags to his mouth and rested them there. He pressed his lips against them, grateful for the way they grounded him in the comfort of knowing they had been with him to hell and back. The metallic taste lingered on his lips long after he let the dog tags fall back into their proper place. The sensation was eerily reminiscent of the bloody memories he so desperately struggled to escape from. But deep down he knew he never would. And how could he? He was a soldier. And wars never truly end for them.