The men who live in the woods behind my house had been getting out of hand for some time. They were all in their mid-fifties, golfers formerly, and meat eaters -- jolly men in general -- but since... [+]
He sees himself there again. The sounds and feel of the explosions around him make him shutter. His uniform is pressing in on him, and it feels like heavy pressure crushing in on his chest and abdomen. The small, dirty child crying in the background is painful to hear even now, but he knows his family is at home safe and away from this horrific place. He looks away from the child for a second and then another bomb blows up a building a few hundred yards away. Dirt and pieces of the building fly in the wind. He shields his eyes. Why, oh why do they keep blowing things up all around this already abandoned town? The terrorists know the Pakistan people have either fled in fear of them or of us. Why they would fear American soldiers here to help them was beyond his comprehension. Tumbleweed blows past him in the dust and his throat goes dry. It is so hot here and he is so thirsty. Suddenly, he is now in another room, and he is leading his unit through a run-down, poverty-stricken house. It is filthy and smells of feces and stale cigarettes. He knows the mission could end in failure, but the orders were given so he presses on with his men following behind him, armed and ready. He knows he must be courageous, but the sense of danger looms ahead. In just a split second there is a deafening sound and everything goes bright white. The ringing in his ears is so intense and as he regains his consciousness he sees his best friend, Jake, lying motionless in a pool of blood; Luke realizes what has happened. “No!” he screams over and over again. “Not Jake, he has a family! No! Help him. Someone, please help me make the blood stop!” He cries out repeatedly for help, but no one listens. They all just stare confused at his officer, his comrade, his best friend for over 15 years...JAKE!!! He is jolted awake by her cries and shaking. “Luke! Luke! Wake up baby, you are home. You’re safe.” Suddenly, he awakes covered in sweat and assesses his surroundings. His fists are tight at his sides and his body rigid as if about to engage in a fight. Then, he realizes it was just another one. The night terrors are getting worse. He is home with his wife, Beth and they are safe. He physically feels his body begin to relax and his breathing slows. The nightmare is over and he is home. Was it ever really over though? Beth. My sweet, gentle, sympathetic and understanding Beth is beside me. She smells so good. Just like HOME. The home she so delicately and carefully made to be a safe haven for them. The warm-colored walls were filled with pictures of them over the years before the war. Their engagement pictures in the park downtown, their tropical honeymoon in Hawaii, the wedding they had dreamed of that came to life for them on the small budget they had back then thanks to his parent’s generosity. There were so happy back then. To see those smiles on his and Beth’s faces was almost painful for him now. He was happy in that time of their lives. It seemed so long ago. That was before he told her of his enlistment. That was before her heart was broken into a thousand pieces by his younger, selfish choice to leave her behind to go and serve their country at war. He shook his head and said to her calmly and with what he hoped was reassurance, “I am okay, Beth. It was just another one.” The alarm clock would go off soon and he had another 24 hour shift at the fire department tomorrow. He cringes in the darkness as he thinks about a boring day of cleaning the fire trucks. He enjoyed his new assignment of training dogs for fire and rescue missions, but he wished he felt his job was more worthwhile to others. He felt that rescuing the neighbor’s cat was not a defining moment of heroism for him anymore. It wasn’t the same anyway without Jake by his side. Jake always made the little things at work entertaining. Not anymore though. Jake was gone. Beth rolled over then and in a few minutes her heavy breathing reassures him she has given up the argument for now and is asleep. The baby cried in the next room and so he got up quickly to avoid waking Beth and went into the nursery next to their room with hopes to soothe the sleepy baby. The pink walls covered in flowers and butterflies are perfect for their darling girl. “I know Hannah Banana, it is okay. Daddy’s here,” he consoles her using her fond nickname. The almost two year old stares up at him and she gives him a toothy smile. “Da-da,” she babbles. He smiles and croons to her, “That’s right, baby girl. I am da-da. I know I probably seem like a stranger to you, but I know over time you will get more familiar with me. I am home now, and I am never going back to that awful place.” He suddenly shivers and places the baby back in her crib and he remembers another painful memory of an empty, dark building that they had done a raid on a few hours before the shell detonated that bright, sunny August afternoon. The sun was setting over the desert now and shadows over the soldiers. He could smell the acidic, sour air in the confines of the dirty, once white-walled building. Then he remembered what the smell was...urine; Heat and soured urine. It was awful and made his nose hairs singe and his gag reflex threaten with the memory of it. The women and children that had been hiding in there escaped as far as his unit knew, but now the images in his mind made him wonder if they were just in denial. He knew very well that some of them could have died at the hands of the terrorists or from starvation. Did he have more blood on his hands? A soldier never forgets that feeling. Why these terrorists chose to kill their own for the sake of sacrifice was beyond him, but he grew to feel nothing but hatred and pain when he thought of that place. Later that night he couldn’t sleep. His biggest fear was that everything Beth gently reminded him of was true and that he could be dangerous and hurt her without realizing it. He did know he was a changed person from his last tour in Pakistan. How could he not be? The things he saw and experienced, no one should ever have to go through, and yet he did it all without complaint. Now, he was home but filled with worry that he wasn’t himself, and that he could be a danger to someone he loved. He still refused to seek “help” as Beth called it. How could he sit or lie on a couch and verbally recall all his experiences to a complete stranger? It was as if when he spoke them aloud, then it would all be true. He refused to even go there. He fretted over the birthday party this afternoon where he would see Jake’s wife, Sarah and their four children. He knew he had done all he could to protect his men and that he was a strong leader at war, but since he came home he had been eaten up with guilt at what happened to his beloved friend. “I am so sorry Jake. I’m so, so sorry.” He apologized in his mind over and over. It was all going to be okay. They would be okay. He would do what he had to do and just take one day at a time. He wouldn’t give up. He would be brave. He would be a fighter for what he cared for the most. He may eventually give in and get the help he knew he needed, but he was too proud to admit it just yet. No matter what, he knew he would win this battle to find courage; after all, he was a soldier.