For a while, deployments were fifteen months long instead of twelve. Some guys went a little bit nuts. A lot of the time, it happened around month thirteen or fourteen. They made it through a whole year of chaos and danger and deprivation, only to come apart at the seams with a month to go. Something about having the end in sight took away their ability to cope. Maybe the government saw that pattern, and that’s the reason they decided to shorten the tours. Maybe they were just finally able to rustle up enough bodies to carry all the guns.
I only ever did twelve-month deployments, so I didn’t go fully crazy. But a year is still a long time to be away, to go without good food or sex or a drink. You wind up smoking a lot of cigarettes and then, if you’re young, you try and make up for everything you missed.
It’s tiring, but you don’t notice that for a while. Life is about patterns and routine. Before too long, any way of life feels mundane. Danger, hedonism, whatever; we humans can adapt to just about anything if you give us long enough.
I tell war stories to normal people sometimes. Mostly when I’m drinking. Because I’m a good drinker, I tell fun stories, ones where we laughed in the face of danger and were immune to the austerity of war. But I omit certain details. A shoulder fired rocket disintegrating a house isn’t a good topic of conversation. Neither is the telling silence that exists after a well-aimed flurry of machine gun fire. Neither is the look in an enemy soldier’s eyes when you press on their throat and they see in your face an energetic willingness to kill them if they don’t coöperate. Those sorts of details make people uncomfortable because there’s not much to say after they’re heard. Conversational segues from those sorts of details don’t exist.
There was this time over there: We had cleared a building and a bad guy pretended to surrender. He let us zip tie his hands and then, when I wasn’t looking, he jumped on my back and tried to rip out my jugular with his teeth. I tossed him off me pretty easily, but before I could give the order to restrain him again, one of my guys blew his brains out the side of his head, all over the wall. That upset me. For some reason, I hadn’t thought he deserved to die. But instead of saying so, I commented that the brain matter on the wall looked like it had been painted by Jackson Pollack. This got a laugh.
I’m not perfect. I let that story slip out at a bar once. I wanted to understand why I’d felt the way I felt. The people around me seemed smart, and I thought they’d have insight. Not so. Nothing worse than polite smiles and abrupt exits.
In the aftermath, I drank, as you might have imagined. After a while I went up to this girl who was waiting for a drink of her own, because she was beautiful. She terrified me, but I had to talk to her, even though I was clueless about what I’d say. Up close she was even better looking, and my bones began to ache. Now I had to have her, because this girl was Persephone in a miniskirt, and if I couldn’t have her, I was certain spring would never come to the City again. That’s what I’ll tell her, I decided. She didn’t know who Persephone was, so I told her she was a goddess, and she seemed to like that. I left out the fact that she was married to the king of the underworld. Then the bartender refilled my drink without my asking, and Persephone smiled—I must be important. And I thought, Not really, I just drink a lot, but if you make me feel that way, I promise to love you for a few minutes.
Sometimes I think about this dog from over there. It hung around this little traffic control point where we spent a lot of time. We loved that dog. He was kind of dirty and he begged but we didn’t mind because he was so playful. He had a great attitude for a dog in the middle of the desert. One of the guys even got someone to send over some puppy treats in a care package. We called him Koa, because another of the guys had been stationed in Hawaii and koa means warrior in Hawaiian. We thought that was funny because he was so goofy and sweet.
He liked to sleep in the shade of our trucks during the day. It was hot over there and shade was scarce. We didn’t think anything of it until one day we heard a terrible squeal while we were backing out of our fighting positions. Just one sharp yell and then nothing. Someone had forgotten to check that Koa had moved when the engine started up. I guess he was just too tired that day. We found him alive, shaking in the dirt with his back legs broken.
One of the guys had to put Koa out of his misery. I offered to do it, but they said that was an enlisted soldier’s job. One of the sergeants shot him. I’m grateful for that. In the end, I don’t think I would have been able to pull the trigger.
There’s a homeless guy who spends most of his days on a corner near my apartment. The guy wears desert camouflage pants and a big jacket no matter what time of year. His eyes are the same blue color as mine. I know this because every time someone walks too close to him, or there’s a loud noise nearby, his eyes bug out and he scans his surroundings like a scared dog. I gave him money once because his sign said “homeless veteran. anything helps.” But then he was still on that corner a week later and I thought he looked drunk. I haven’t given him anything since.
I walk past him now and his eyes are closed. His face is red and he’s shaking from the effort of keeping them shut. His knees are tucked into his chest and his arms are wrapped around them. I assume he has just forgotten to put his cup out today because I don’t see one next to his sign. I duck into a bodega and they give me a coffee cup for a dollar. I put the cup carefully next to the homeless guy, but I don’t put any money in it.
I’m walking home from a bar and my phone rings with a call from a number I don’t recognize. It’s one of my old commanders, someone I loved but haven’t spoken to in a while. I’m excited when I hear his voice, but quickly realize it has none of the jovial tone I’d expect in a friendly call.
He says my name like it takes all the breath out of him.
I ask him what’s wrong.
Sergeant Miller died, he says. Took a knife to the neck during a key leader engagement over there. He says the guy was dressed in the uniform of one of our allies, that’s how he got so close. He just thought I should know, even if I’m not in anymore.
I thank him for telling me and hang up. On the remainder of the walk home I think about how he must have died a while ago, because when someone dies over there, they shut down communication for a while. They do it to protect operational security, and so they can notify the family before news outlets get a hold of the guy’s name. If I know, I bet CNN knows.
Later, I come across an interview with a refugee who became an activist. Her message is righteous and she’s passionate when she talks about it. The certainty of her convictions inspires me and makes me jealous at the same time. I watch the interview twice. The second time, the tears come without warning. They give way to sobs. Eventually they stop, and I’m so drained that, for once, I sleep until the next morning.
So I can admit things feel different now, it’s just not in the way people assume. I don’t wake up at night in a cold sweat, thinking about all the terrible things that happened. I don’t panic when I see a cardboard box on the road in front of me or hear a loud bang out of nowhere. It’s only that I see the world in a different light, and sometimes the light is so different that I wonder if the world could possibly be the same place.
R. B. Miner is a New York City native, West Point graduate, and occupational dilettante. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in, among others, The Saturday Evening Post, Identity Theory, Rock and a Hard Place Magazine, Pigeon Review, Soliloquies Anthology. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, daughter, and dog.