Navigating the half dozen outposts between where I had spent the last six months in Iraq and the last checkpoint out of theater took me a day and a half of helo ride after helo ride, praying a dust storm wouldn’t come and lock us down. One stopped me in Ramadi on the first leg. I laid on the plywood floor with my head on my bag for half a day spitting Copenhagen into a taped-up water bottle knowing that if I wandered too far off I’d miss the next bird.
Finally, I got out.
I made the last long leg on a commercial flight from Kuwait to San Diego.
Five months earlier, around Thanks Giving, my then three-year old son had been diagnosed with Autism. He’d stopped speaking shortly after I left. By late February, my wife was done. With a four year old and an 11 month old to care for along with a newly diagnosed autistic child who couldn’t be left out of sight for more than a second, she’d been through hell on her own.
In March, when the rest of the group attached to SEAL Team ONE headed back to California by way of a “decompression” stop in Stuttgart, I got permission to head straight home.
I’ve heard that those decompression stops were helpful. A few years into the war we started giving the troops a breather before they came back. It was a chance to let the war out a bit before it was time to assimilate back into “normal” western culture. There were counseling sessions and cognitive tests and some time to let the desert sand wash out of your hair.
I’ve heard they were good.
For one reason or another, I never made it to one. Every second of decompression for me was compression for my family. And they’d had enough.
When I touched down in San Diego there was no welcome. No one had any idea where I’d just come from. I wandered out of the war for the last time and into the night air in San Diego in the unofficial SOF travel uniform of REI civilian clothes. I tried to jump into a cab. A woman snapped at me and pointed at the long waiting line.
“Um, there’s a line.” Sigh. Head shake.
I hadn’t noticed. While I waited, I took a knee on the pavement and consolidated my gear. Before I left Iraq, I’d stuffed everything I could into my DHB and hopped on a convoy to the next airfield. DHB was short for “Dead Hooker Bag”. They were large black equipment bags that were so big one could fit a dead hooker in it—in theory.
Those weren’t my words. That’s just what we called them. And the fact that we threw them around so lightly tells a little about the distance I’d just traveled.
In Kuwait, the bag was too heavy to go on the plane. So I had to buy a box and put some things in that box, tape it up and check it. Those things that I had to put in that box were my body armor, my ballistic helmet and a pile of other tactical gear I had to wear out of the war zone.
Kneeling on the floor, in the Kuwaiti Airport, alone, piling body armor, a ballistic helmet and tactical gear into a box, taping it up and handing it to a nice Kuwaiti gentleman behind the counter for him to check was an uncomfortable feeling.
He was the last person I talked to “in theater”.
Later, curbside in San Diego, tired of lugging the cardboard box around, I did it in reverse. A hand on my shoulder snapped my head up. A man pointed to a cab waiting at the front of the line.
“Hey, take mine. And welcome home man” he said.
I jumped in. I don’t remember thanking him. I just wanted to get rid of that Goddamned box.
The cab dropped me off at my door a little after midnight, about 48 hours or so after I’d left my unit in Ramadi. My wife had left the door unlocked. I came in, laid my bags down at the door and sat down at our kitchen table.
In the room I’d pictured every day since I’d left, I was alone in silence for the first time in months. There was no dust. And there was carpet. If deployment is life without one thing it’s life without carpet. Just boots on dust on plywood.
Eventually the kids woke up. We were reunited. They were excited. Aidan didn’t really notice I was there. He didn’t really notice anything. I still feel guilty about it today because I tried like hell to be present. But I wasn’t.
One foot in. One foot out.
I ran down the street in the morning to wait in line to register my oldest for kindergarten. It was the first thing my wife had gotten help with in months. The school nurse chastised me for not having his immunization records.
I think I told her to “take it fucking easy”.
Life began again.
It was hard to sleep at first. It was impossible actually. This deployment, I wasn’t out on patrol every night like I was the last time I went out. I was senior. Too senior to go outside the wire much. I was back on the FOB, staring at targets through “kill TV” every night, strung out on Copenhagen and Rip Its and one slide PowerPoints.
I was safe, relatively. And I didn’t think the transition out this time would be as hard.
I still couldn’t get any fucking sleep though.
When my family was down for the night, I would walk down to the park next to my house and do box jumps on a picnic table until I couldn’t jump any more, music blaring into my headphones.
The band Titus Andronicus had an album that came out the week I got home. It was full of tortured songs about the Civil War. It was perfect.
I knew their front man. He was the younger brother of my roommate at Annapolis. I’d known him since he was a kid. Not the way you know someone by spending time with them. The way you know someone by spending time with someone they know.
Annapolis was great for storing your memories in other people. The experience depravation that was life locked inside a fake ship for four years led you to tunnel into the lives of your friends. Their families become your families. Their hometowns hometowns became yours. They’re memories became your memories.
It was perfect training for deployment.
Peej, as his older brother called him, had more practice at the tortured soul thing than I did. After a grade school basketball game, he once told his dad that “the ball was a harbinger of sorrow.”
His music showed it.
He’d told Rolling Stone in an interview lauding the new album, “When we weren’t on tour or whatever, I got really obsessed with Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. I would stay up and obsessively watch it all night.”
Now I was staying up all night doing box jumps in a park with no shirt on in March, listening to his music.
One night, while blasting To Old Friends and New into my ears so loud it hurt, jumping on that stupid concrete picnic table, I slipped and ripped open my shin. It didn’t hurt that badly but the blood was everywhere. I’d just started jumping though. And I knew if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to sleep. So I just kept jumping.
Soon the blood soaked my shoe red. Then a puddle formed on the table. It splashed each time I jumped. Then I noticed that some tissue had shaken loose and was hanging out of the front of my leg.
Somewhere between the last jump, and the hospital getting stitched back up, I realized something.
I wasn’t alright.
I have two reasons for sharing this story.
The first is that servicemen and women are coming back everyday from somewhere. And many have a similar experience to what I described. Maybe not as dramatic. Maybe not as acute. But it’s closer than most of us are comfortable with admitting.
If you read this and you can relate and you haven’t gotten help, please do. It doesn’t get better on it’s own.
The second is that I’m deeply indebted to the people who put beautiful things in this world so that those of us who are in dark places have something to look out of our holes at to reflect on what’s worthwhile about life outside ourselves.
And I think you should check them out.