The Pain in His Eyes

I could see it in his eyes, there was a deep seeded pain there, one that was planted under fire, when the world had gone dark and thoughts of home and green grass and Sunday dinner had faded from faint memories to fantasy.

His hands were calloused and so was his gaze. If he looked at you it was circumstantial, he wasn’t really focused on you but something far off in the distance behind you. There was a darkness shrouding him, he seemed uncomfortable in his skin, like a tag on a shirt that wouldn’t stop itching your neck, something bothered him, something that continued to hurt and wouldn’t go away.

Sometimes as we talked, he would disappear, I don’t mean from sight, physically, but he would drift off, into the shadows of a place only he understands, a place the hurt welcomes him, comforts him. It’s a place he has grown to feel more comfortable than in the lighter places where people expect things from him, where they want to know what it’s like and how he feels.

What would you know, how could he explain? You stand there wanting him to speak, wanting to punish him for things he’s done, as though he hasn’t been punished enough.

Just when you think you understand him, he says something that makes no sense and you laugh, and he laughs, and you both stand there looking at each other like you’ve lost your way and don’t know where to go. In that silence you can feel his anxiety, it’s palpable, it’s tainted with shame and mistrust.

So, as you stand there, the silence quickly becomes awkward, uncomfortable, and as you peer out of the corner of your eyes at him his gaze has turned downward, his scarred and tangled fingers move against each other, rubbing, searching for something in his hands and he closes his eyes tightly. For a moment you can almost hear the wretched screams inside his head.

You want to touch him, hold him, comfort him, but you can’t hold a reflection, that’s when you clear away the fog and realize its you in the mirror you’ve been talking to, and it scares you.

You attempt to take a deep breath and then get dressed, and think about those fantasies, thoughts of home, green grass and Sunday dinners.

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Why I Cry

I can talk all day about how I have a thick skin, how it’s not my business what others think of me and how I love myself and when folks talk poorly of me how it doesn’t affect me. But the truth is, it does, usually I can deal with it and especially from strangers’ I could care less, they aren’t part of my world and if I am not doing anything illegal, immoral or hurtful to anyone then why should I waste my time worrying about it right?

When I was married to my first wife she would say many times over to family and friends, in front of my children how I didn’t cry when my kids were born but I would tear up every time when our Nations anthem was played. She would mock me. Truth be told I always nearly cry outright every time I hear the Star Spangled Banner. That’s what it looks like when someone literally doesn’t understand, I would gamble to say that most veterans would get it at this point, they would know exactly what I am talking about, but there are segments of society whom will never get there, they just fundamentally cannot comprehend that feeling.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my children, for their entire lives I have altered my own to be there for them and care for them and love them. Everything I have done, including serving my country was for them even though they had not been born yet. I may not have teared up at their birth, I have never cried at happiness, but I was and still am proud of each one of them, I was the day they were born and am still today.

When I hear the national anthem of our great country I immediately think of all the opportunities my children and those of my friends and relatives, and all the people who’ve found their way here away from tyranny will have to become what makes them happy and successful. I think of all the freedoms they will enjoy in this land that so many around the world will never have. And I know the sacrifices that have been experienced to keep it that way for my children and all those who’ll come behind me. I think of my grandfather and his siblings fighting in Italy and France, my father and my cousins all serving to protect our freedoms, I think of those I have served with when I myself served over-seas whom didn’t come home and their families who’ve experienced those sacrifices. I think of all those soldiers who’ve come home to face protestors enjoying their freedom to speak out against those soldiers, the freedom they are given because of that soldier’s detriment. I think of all the soldiers who deal with post-traumatic stress disorder every day, and the guilt of being the ones to make it home.

You don’t have to agree with me and you don’t have to understand. But every day I spend free because someone from this country is somewhere around the world without their children, holding a blank check they have written to the United States of America for an amount up to and including their life, is  another day I get to spend with my children and my loved ones.

That is why I cry.

“71”

I tore open the envelope addressed to me from my ex wife and pulled a note from it, it read; “Tracy, when you went to war in South West Asia you sent this and asked me to keep it safe until you get back, I kept it safe on my key chain for the last twenty six years, I thought you might want it back.” In the envelope there was a small, round, brass tag with the number “71” stamped on it. It was the tag from my gas mask.

In 1990 I sat huddled in a corner of a partially destroyed underground parking garage in the dark, I was dressed in my chemical gear and mask, I hated breathing through it, I hated being in it, I hated the sweat that poured down my back as we waited for the all clear sign. We didn’t know that most of the Scud missiles that Saddam had sent to us were empty of or had very little chemicals in them, but we knew he had used chemicals in the past so we weren’t taking any chances. And the missiles were large enough to cause a lot of damage on their own. As I sat there having just gotten in country, peering out through the sand covered lenses of my mask, I thought about faith and I thought about my girlfriend.

Old dust and sand hovered in the air thickly, my lungs struggled to fill and I sat, waiting, tapping the small, round brass tag on the case on my hip for my gas mask, as if to signal to myself that I was still in control. This would be a regular occurrence while we remained in the staging area near Khobar Village, it happened while we were sleeping, and while we stood in line for breakfast…well, powdered eggs and stale toast. This was in 1990, long before there was a permanent U.S. or coalition forces base of any kind in Saudi Arabia, no Burger King, no imbedded media and no celphones, hell they hadn’t even been invented yet. But there was the good ‘ol U.S. mail, we would send out letters to home, but getting mail from home was a disaster, I got letters that had been sent to me in the first few days of my tour from my family as I was leaving the country nine months later.

That night, as I lay staring out at the sky over the desert, I thought about times I sat on the front steps of my girlfriend’s parents house, in the cool Minnesota nights, the smell of fresh cut grass, staring up at the stars and holding hands and the smell of her hair as she lay her head on my shoulder. That was the safest I’d ever felt, back then I always felt safe in her arms, in the stare from her cool blue eyes. But things change, I changed. And when I returned home part of me didn’t, it remained there, buried in the hot, flea ridden, oil saturated, blood stained sand. Any innocence that survived my childhood was laid to rest there and despite that I wasn’t about to let go of the only thing I knew to be safe in my world.

It would be a quarter of a century later, almost twenty five years of struggling to make things work, to build a family and trying to be a husband and father my wife and children might be proud of. How many times I’d wished I was back in that filthy desert, not because I liked it, not because I felt safe there, not because I didn’t want to be with my kids or my wife but because I understood it there, I knew how to operate there, there was a sense of control amongst utter chaos that gets burned to a part of a soldier somewhere deep inside him. It’s sort of like sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool, looking up at the surface of the water knowing that you can only hold your breath for so long, that if you opened your mouth you might drown, that maybe when the hurt and the burning in your lungs grows too intense you might be too far from the surface to survive, but it’s that burning in your lungs, that sharp pain in the back of your head as the oxygen de-pleats that you senselessly crave, it’s like a long lost brother, a part of you that makes some sort of wickedly perverted sense. So you close your eyes and feel it, absorb it, caress it.

It’s Four in the Morning…

It was four in the morning when she rolled over and couldn’t seem to fall back to sleep. The window was open slightly and it was cold out but she liked the feel and smell of the fresh late fall air. She laid there on her back and watched the ceiling fan slowly spin around and around listened to her husband sleeping soundly next to her, she watched him for a while then decided to forfeit and get out of bed.

She stopped to peek in at her kids before making her way to the kitchen for a drink of water, and then she crossed the dining room to find a spot and curl up on the couch under a cozy throw and watch the clouds slowly pass in front of the moon out the front window.

This happens every now and again, she’ll watch the sky until it begins to turn from black to cobalt blue to shades of orange and yellow as it rises above the park across the street. She won’t turn on the TV, and she won’t read a book. She’ll just sit there and stare out the window at the sky, her throat will turn dry, her palms will begin to sweat and her heart begins to race. She isn’t sick, and she isn’t necessarily a morning person. She is one of the 1.4% of all American women who’ve served in the United States military. She is one of the 5.2% of the United States population who’ve served our country in times of war and conflict.

Those are small numbers; hell, it’s not easy for someone to make the sacrifice that she has made, not even she knew full well what she was in for when she signed up. The morning of the day she made that decision she did what all veterans find themselves doing before they swear in, they look at themselves and take full inventory, for her it was in the bathroom mirror, it was partially fogged over but she looked in her eyes through the reflection nonetheless. She looked at her cheekbones she got from her father, and her nose and chin she got from her mother. She looked at the color in her eyes and the deep seeded need to protect those less fortunate from her grandfather.

She stood there and thought about all that she loved in the world, she thought about her brothers and sisters and the little neighbor boys across the street and how sweet they were to her every time she walked past them to her car to go to work. Their dirty little faces as they played in the puddles in the street. She didn’t have a boyfriend then, nor did she have kids of her own.

She looked in that mirror and thought about all those around the world being oppressed and tortured and killed and brought up hiding in their homes from the fighting in the streets and she made a decision. She decided then and there to do something about it, she looked into her eyes and prayed to her God and with resolution determined the full value of her own life. She decided that her life and blood was worth sacrificing for the good of the young boys across the street, for the freedom of those whose faces she looked at in the news each night. She knows the statistics, she knows that the freedoms granted to the majority are fought for and maintained by the absolute minority. She knows Freedom isn’t free, that there is a price on it and someone has to pay that forward.

What she didn’t realize is that the sacrifices our veterans make doesn’t end when they leave the military, when they are done with their tours of duty. That sacrifice is echoed in their daily lives when they go to the grocery store and find it difficult to determine which box of cereal to choose from knowing there are many whom don’t have that liberty. It is echoed, when they fall awake in the early morning hours just before dawn, and they spend hours looking out at the moon waiting for the safety of the noise of the day to begin, when quiet and stillness is frightening and constantly threatens to spill over your brow in sweat as you relive moments of bloody conflict and turmoil in your sleep.

7.3% of all living Americans have served in the military at some point in their lives. Please say thank you, whether or not you agree with their ideals, they made a conscious decision to sacrifice themselves for the rest of us, and that deserves recognition.