Always locked in a state of hyper-vigilance, he was jolted awake from a restless sleep by a soul shattering scream. He rocketed his body to a sitting position; every inch of him on high alert, tears slowly spilling from the corners of his eyes. As he attempted to shake off the fog of slumber, confusion and panic gripped him like a vise. His head thumped mercilessly as the insidious tendrils of an oncoming hangover slowly snaked into his brain. His body and feelings went numb as his heart beat, now a runaway blood-spouting jack hammer, elevated to a manic state. Fresh waves of adrenaline wildly coursed through his veins. Vision blurred and feeling frantic, he jumped from his bed and began feverishly searching his immediate surroundings, expecting to find some horrific accident had occurred. Blood curdling images of screaming mangled children, armed intruders, fires, and ungodly acts of violence inhabited his overactive imagination.
Unable to initially determine the source, he heard the scream grow slightly louder. Beads of sweat began pouring down his forehead. His vision started to shimmer and shift as he was temporarily transported to the blinding sun and blistering desert heat of the Iraqi provinces he spent time in, a mental amalgam of areas he learned to hate and fear. He was reminded in the moment of friends he had lost in Iraq, their faces still etched in his memories, their unlived potential a burden he carried; of ceaseless mortar fire probing the perimeter of a base he occupied, wondering each time if the next round would be the last one he ever heard land; of vehicles exploding amidst chaotic carnage and how the aftermath simultaneously turned his stomach and lit a fire of anger in him so ravenous and hot that it would seemingly burn for eternity. He was haunted by body parts laying in random places throughout his day. He remembered feeling powerless in those moments. When the dust of memory settled and he realized he couldn't save those lost souls, or protect himself from the impending and ceaseless barrage of explosions, he remembered how he felt about still being alive when he had witnessed them being so unjustly ripped from the earth, and he lived with that every day. He dreamed about it often. Unable to help then, he felt dejected. Those feelings came rushing back in a torrent. He was failing again. He wouldn't let it happen this time. Someone needed help. Someone was in distress and it was up to him to fix it as though this simple action could rectify the past.
He looked back at the bed and saw his wife sleeping peacefully. At least she's safe but how could she sleep through this? Not wanting to disturb her, he continued his search. The panic he initially felt began climbing to an alarming rate as his thoughts then turned to his children asleep in their beds. He stood in the center of the hallway, the children’s doors on either side of him, and simultaneously threw open both doors, expecting the worst. The scene before him in the two rooms was the same as he saw in his own. Both children were sound asleep. The screaming intensified.
The scream now rose to a deafening shrill. A fresh dose of adrenaline dumped into his system, pushing the alcohol induced headache to the side, and his muscles once again tightened to stretched bands. With his family safe, he understood the noise to be coming from outside the house. As he began erratically running toward the front door, he heard muffled footsteps approaching behind him. It's a complex attack. It had to be. Noises outside were luring him into action, distracting him from the real action inside. Unarmed and on high alert, he changed course to head for the kitchen. If he was going to be attacked in his own home, he was going to be armed with whatever he could easily grasp.
In a full panic, terrified and out of breath, footsteps approaching closer, he reached for the biggest knife in the butcher block on the counter. The footsteps were directly behind him now and he could sense people standing behind him, unknown entities standing in wait to attack. He quickly pivoted; knife fully extended to face the people he knew would put up a strong fight for whatever they broke in for.
After a brief, frozen moment which spread out to an eternity, his eyes uncomprehendingly focused on the worried and sympathetic face of his wife. Tears framed her face and her eyes probed his, begging him to come back to her. His children stood next to her, their faces screwed into masks of fear and sadness. All three of them had their hands pressed firmly over their ears as if they also heard the scream and were doing their best to protect themselves from the noise. They stood in front of him, panicked in their own right.
His once calculated thoughts swirled in a haze of turbulence as he attempted to deduce what this scene meant. As perception slowly crept back in, he could feel sandpaper ripping his throat, the tendons in his neck hardened to steel cords. He had been screaming for so long he was starting to feel faint from a lack of oxygen.
As his wife slowly removed a hand from her ear and placed it caringly on his shoulder, cognizance had fully returned. He lowered the knife, fell to the ground, and began to let out great sobs of grief and embarrassment.
It had been nearly twenty years since he had directly witnessed the atrocities of war but the memories never left him. They lived in him, hiding in the dark recesses of his mind, waiting for the often-commonplace trigger that would activate his sympathetic nervous system forcing him to relive the events in excruciating clarity. Both times, upon his return, he was offered counseling to help deal with the traumatic events but the culture in which he operated discouraged him from acknowledging or showing any weakness. It was easiest to just laugh about the good times with others whom had experienced similar things, masking the pain with humor, while, at home retreating into a state of anger and hatred so intense he often questioned the point of his very existence. He would mentally deflect the barrage of thoughts of what happened in an attempt to downplay the severity, often reducing the events to either trivial occurrence or flat out reject the need to confront them so many years later (or at all for that matter). When mental diversion didn't work, he turned to the loving, yet treacherous arms, of substance abuse.
What he failed to realize every time was the brutal, scary, ugly, honest truth: Until these things are brought into the light and are dealt with head on, they will fester. They will eat at your life, eroding the ability to maintain and live a happy, peaceful existence. Those of us who lived through these things will never fully disrobe ourselves of past injustice or trauma but we CAN and WILL learn to take the control back from them. If you know of a veteran who may be struggling with experiences he/she had, please, at the very least, offer then a supportive ear; most don’t know they need to talk about it, but we all do. Be good to those you come into contact with. Regardless of how well you know them, odds are you will never know everything they struggle with.
This is a highly fictionalized version of events I've dealt with in my own recent years. PTSD, depression, alcoholism, suicidal ideations and a host of other disorders are all things we can recover from. If you are someone or know someone struggling with any of these issues, please reach out to the MANY resources available. Just to name a few:
NAMI (national Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/home
Veterans Crisis Line / National Suicide Prevention Hotline:
Close friend / family member / confidant
Please remember that the best way we can treat each other is with compassion and understanding.