When I Came Back

When I came back, everything was different. I can't explain how, but nothing was the same. It was hard for me to focus on everyday life, to see the people who were standing in front of me. I knew they were there, but the level at which we all react to other people saw them as being somewhere else. I felt like there was a chasm gaping in the ground between my feet, and theirs. I felt like I couldn't look at them, like I wasn't yet ready. When I came back from the desert, everything was different. Something wasn't finished. There were people still in the desert, other people who were supposed to come back too.

And there were people were out to get me. I knew they were there. I had seen them before. It wasn't like the faces I dimly recognized around me were hostile, or dangerous -- that wasn't it at all. I thought that they were worlds away, sometimes. I thought that they didn't see me, like they looked right through me and couldn't quite understand that I was there, just like I didn't quite understand them. No, the people that were out to get me weren't the people I saw, because you don't see the insurgents, the enemy combatants, the soldiers hidden in plain sight. You don't see them until it's too late, but I'd seen them all before. I knew they were there. I had fought them, and watched their bullets and their IEDs kill the brothers I fought beside. That place was Hell. It was all dust and choking sand and heat and nightmare. It felt like another planet. It felt like a place where people weren't supposed to be, but here were these people who had lived there forever... so what did that make them? Their faces were always covered. It was easy to imagine things about them, things that weren't true, but were. 

A few weeks after I came back, there was an accident on the street where I was walking, on my way home from a routine visit with my doctor. A car flipped. I saw it, and I hid behind some bushes; there were flashing lights, people in uniform. I dimly saw them, but didn't quite understand. I thought I heard an Arab voice; maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. I waited until I was sure the coast was clear, then I ran for home, cutting across yards along the way. When I arrived, I was met by a terrified friend, who said that they had been looking for me for hours. He said that he knew my route home, and knew about the accident, and thought I might have been involved when I didn't show up.

All I heard was "I know the route you take." I avoided him after that. I wasn't sure why. I didn't think he was an enemy. I didn't want to hurt him, but something felt "wrong" about what he had said. I can't explain it beyond that, except that I simply knew I was in the wrong place. I was supposed to be back in the desert, in that place filled with dirt and grit that had suddenly become so real that one day when two of my closest friends died. I should have seen the attack coming. They should have seen it coming. It was a perfect spot, perfect for an ambush, perfect for people to hide in. There was a bend in the road, and there were rocky hills rising on either side. It was like a scene out of a movie. I want to say that I laughed when I saw it, but I don't think I did. 

I laugh now to remember it. I think I just transplanted that memory. I'm better now, much better, even if I still have a long way to go, but I still remember that moment wrongly. The survivors of the incident tell me that I didn't laugh -- just scanned the horizon, like we were supposed to. Like everyone else. Attentive to our surroundings. You can't possibly check every last rock and hole, so you look for anything that seems out of place in a country where people seem out of place. Nothing seemed out of place. It was just a perfect spot, perfect spot for an ambush. 

I know that the world around me now is the real world. It's easier to focus on. The people who died aren't on me. It's not my fault. It's the fault of the people who shot them. Every step you take in that country is a contest against something, whether it's mind-numbing exhaustion, heat, or the people who want you to leave their homes and villages. Like any of us wanted to be there in the first place. I've become far less tolerant since then. I'm not so understanding. I think that's part of how I cope with it, how I deal with what happened. I blame the desert's people for everything, and it takes some of the guilt away. I'd like to find a better way, but for now this will do.

I'm getting help. And it's helping. At the very least, I'm not afraid to be around my own family anymore, and they're not ghosts to me. The ghosts are the people back in the desert, but I still dream about them at night. I dream that the men I saw die, friend and enemy alike, are all standing around me, telling me to come back... because "it's" not finished. Whatever "it" is... how can we say a job is finished if we never knew why we were there in the first place? You tell yourself "for the ones beside me" but the mind demands more than that. And I've got nothing to give it.

So it keeps asking. And the dreams keep coming. The ones where all my friends are dead, the ones where my family and girlfriend are over there in place of me... those are the worst.

User Comments
Anon-1

You have my very best wishes. Stay with that therapy until it's completed!! You deserve to be happy and healthy, and to maintain rewarding relationships. Thank you, THANK you for your service. 

Anon-2

Dude. Best wishes, seriously. Truly. I hope that you're able to find your speed again. I wish I had the balls to do what you did back when I was young enough. The time was there when my country needed it. You're a good man.

Anon-3

Thank you for your sacrifice on our behalf. As someone who firmly believes that we need to help provide stability in a rapidly growing and uncertain world, I'm forever grateful to you for your part in ensuring it.

Thank you for your comment. I still miss him, so much.

Anon-4

Stick with the therapy, and thank you so much for all that you've done for the rest of us. I hope that you're able to find peace, soon. 

Anon-5

I'm thinking about joining the army. I know this sounds strange but it's good to know that you're getting better. I thought ptsd lasted forever. I was a little scared tbh.