You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
— Siegfried Sassoon, “Suicide In The Trenches”
The deep divots in the wall accentuated the blood splattered everywhere. It looked like a child had flung cans of paint across the room, which drank in the color. Bits of human remains coated the floor. Some men retched. Others — like me — couldn’t turn away from the horror. A few victims had been decapitated, and someone had strewn their organs along the streets. The entire police force — along with 20 people — were dead. A day earlier, 70 to 200 al-Qaeda, Taliban, and corrupt locals launched an attack against the village of Bermel, Afghanistan. By the time I arrived the following day, the scene had became something we spoke about in whispers. We labeled that day the “Bermel Massacre.”
Try as I might, I cannot recall most of this incident. I have one vague memory of pulling a human tooth from a bloody wall. Even today, I’m uncertain of the image, as it feels like a dream. The macabre event did happen, though. My mind just refuses to recall it.
At the time of the massacre, I was a 21-year-old college kid. My number got punched in service of Uncle Sam, and I joined the Army in 1999 to pay for my education, never believing I’d get called up — and the GI Bill was a sweet incentive to party and sneak by with decent grades. Not thinking much of my future in the military, I joined a fraternity, met my college sweetheart, and pulled stupid pranks on campus. Then one day, Uncle Sugar collected his due, and I was off to Afghanistan. Like a good jingoistic grunt, I waxed false bravado and talked a big game. Don’t worry, Ma. These are backwater scum and we’re the greatest military force on earth! Yet when I try to recall some of the two years I spent in combat, there’s almost a void or haze over the memories. The only reason I’m certain the event in Bermel happened is because of my journal entries.
For over a decade I’ve put off digging out my old war journals. The last time I looked at them was in 2006 before I left for Iraq. I locked them in a tough box and ensured they stayed buried under mounds of clothing, weapons holsters, and other trinkets. But one afternoon this fall, I opened Pandora’s box for the first time in 13 years. Inside, the spiral notebooks lay waiting like a poltergeist.
Originally, I kept the notebooks as a way for my parents to know what happened in case I died. On one cover, there are tally marks for the amount of rocket and mortar attacks I survived (59), ambushes and firefights (6), combat operations (7), and days spent living in the mountains (almost a month). The journals capture a harrowing tale of men at war and some douchey know-it-all telling the story.
War stripped any semblance of human morality or hope in an afterlife.
The diaries begin prior to arriving in Afghanistan and chronicle a college kid’s slow descent into madness — a kid whose favorite word in each entry is “fuck.” Over time, the ramblings become more incoherent, feverish, and I begin writing song lyrics about dying. Eventually, I accept death and chuckle at the morbidity of my situation until the day I get blown up in an attack. I refer to Christianity often, so as to not worry my parents into thinking their son had completely lost his marbles.
What I don’t share in the journals is that I wasn’t certain of an afterlife. In truth, I didn’t believe in the Christian faith as I do now. I just wanted my family to feel emotionally secure in case I came home in a body bag. Faith — and those who believed in it — was a facade, I thought. War stripped any semblance of human morality or hope in an afterlife. Homo sapiens were animals. Savages. Beasts. And it wasn’t just soldiers in a war. It was everyone.
Last month, I grabbed dinner with a friend from college. We hadn’t seen each other in several years, so we did what old friends do — spend time catching up. As we reminisced about college antics and debauchery, he brought up the time I returned home from war.
“You never said anything,” he recalled. “Never talked about it or what it was like. The war was just a hiccup. As soon as you got back, you were partying like nothing happened.”
Truth be told, I was partying to bury memories, and to give myself a sense of normalcy. I was convinced my memories were far too unbelievable to have actually happened. But my journals reminded me they had.
The diaries begin prior to arriving in Afghanistan and chronicle a college kid’s slow descent into madness — a kid whose favorite word in each entry is “fuck.”
At other times, fellow soldiers confirmed the insanity we’d endured. We’d sit around telling myths only to discover they were true. Nowadays, the worst of them have faded with time and counseling. Still, certain sights, sounds, and smells beckon like old flames. It feels like one of those moments when you’re certain the girl in the supermarket is someone you dated, so you keep staring to see if she recognizes you. She doesn’t, but as you meander to your car, you can’t seem to shake the feeling. Some people call it déjà vu, but what do you call it for veterans? War-jà vu? It’s like we remain haunted by a ghost we’re not sure existed.
An old romance movie and novel, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, grasps this concept. The story revolves around a young widow, Lucy Muir, who moves to the English countryside near the sea. Her life is marked by failed romances and the cottage she moves into is haunted by a roguish but charming sea captain, Daniel Gregg. The two fall in love, but because he’s a dead ghost there’s no chance of them being together. One evening, in hopes that she’ll leave and find true love, Captain Gregg suggests that their romance was all a dream. However, whenever Lucy looks at the sea she feels a terrible longing. In life, she becomes more haunted than she ever was by Gregg’s ghost.
Perhaps this is the curse the combat veteran endures: the mercy of forgetfulness and the unexplained torment of the past.
My wife tells me I sleepwalk sometimes. Each time it happens is bizarre. I stand in front of a window — unmoving — like I’m looking for something. Then I return to bed. Even when she’s questioned me, I never respond. I simply stare out a window like Mrs. Muir pondering whether her memories are a dream.
I’ve long wondered if these moments are the ghost of my former self trapped somewhere in my mind. Perhaps that old college kid who went to war gets brave enough to explore the world. But when he scans my memories, that world is far scarier than the one he once knew, and he thus retreats into my subconscious.
Other times, I don’t have to wonder. The shadow of the person I once was suddenly appears. I pull my Springfield XD .40 caliber pistol from the ledge where it resides. I press my thumb to the release mechanism and let the magazine slide out. Then I cock the slide to eject the bullet from the chamber. After ensuring that the chamber is empty, I cock the weapon a few more times and perform a functions check. Satisfied, I return the magazine and chamber another round, setting the weapon back on the ledge.
My wife once watched this ritual and asked, “What makes you do that?” One could conclude I’m paranoid or a gun enthusiast. Instead, I told her the truth: habit.
Even more telling is when veterans can spot their own from a mile away. At a festival just the other day, my daughter was getting her face painted next to another little girl while her Dad looked on. He was in jeans, a flannel T-shirt, and ball cap. The man looked no different from the rest of the men wandering around, but I turned to him and said, “What branch did you serve in?” He chuckled and responded, “Marines. You?” To the rest of the world we might as well be ghosts in a crowd, yet we’re the only ones who can spot the apparitions of who we once were. We know the memories and scars we each bear. Perhaps this connects us.
As we connect, other people will overhear our conversations and remark, “Thank you for your service.” Sometimes they’re extra kind and buy us a beer. On those days, I’m not a phantom. I feel seen. But like my memories, I’ll fade into the mist, until someone swears they heard an old story about a vet in combat. Like saying “Candyman” in the mirror, they’ll conjure that scared, young kid holding onto his rifle. People then wonder why more veterans don’t share stories from their time in the trenches, jungles, or desert. The answer is simple.
We don’t want one more person to become haunted too.