The Journey Home
I remember the birds. Hundreds, maybe thousands, all moving south as winter approaches. The air is cool and the sky slate. Their discordant songs take you back the HEB on Military Drive in San Antonio. Whataburger. You're childhood, back when your grandparents lived on some street nearby. The Harlandale school district. Mom would take you there to visit. You'd wait in the tree by the bird fountain for the sight of her car driving up to the gate. The driveway was covered in those pretty white rocks that had flecks of quartz that glittered in the sun. You always took some back home with you. Back home. Home. It's somewhere else now, across the ocean. And yet the song of the birds here in Iraq are the same as home. Even the aromas take you back. Not the shit and piss you smell on the streets during mission, but the bread they bake on the rooftops. They smell like tortillas. They taste nothing like them though. Both are delicious. Everywhere I go there's a piece of home keeping me anchored, keeping me sane.
That's all these things are now. Memories. Sometimes I can hardly believe they're mine. It's as if that life belongs to another Ben. All the foreign lands I've stepped foot across, my long journey, are like ghosts in a house. They're always there, showing up in the corner of my eyes but never manifesting into something tangible. And when I focus on them I feel a deep sadness I can't explain. A part of me is gone and I'll never get it back. How long had I thought of home when I was away? Now that I have it again my mind goes back to that nomadic life, the soldier life. My heart has reversed. What is home? Was it that golden place I carried with me, not in a rucksack but in my soul, plucked from the memories of my youth? Was it the song of a thousand birds that followed me to the Middle East and back to nights cruising down Military Drive after the Spurs win a game? Was it my friends and our countless adventures? Paintball. Cruising. Calling girls on the cordless. Watching TV. Recording our conversations. Playing video games. Maybe it was my family? My parents tasting new menus in the random places they found. My brother and late nights swapping the things we came up with in our imagination. Did any of these people care that they were this city on the hill? Did they care that they were my lifeline?
No. They didn't did they? Time had changed us. My home had changed. While the army had beat me into becoming more of a device than a man, a weapon of deadly calculation and unwavering obedience, they had grown. Youth crusted into disconnected adulthood. My parents still cared. They always would, but in their eyes I would always be a boy. Sure my feet had the blisters and scares of my long travels but they'd never see how they changed me. I'd always be Ben Who Was and not Ben, changed by war in its preparation and execution. Never a man. Always a boy. And my brother? He'd never bother to ask. My friends? They'd grow up in their callous real world, the one that doesn't give a fuck about you or your problems. They'd share more memories together, ones I couldn't be a part of. They'd grow up together into their adulthood. I'd be gone, a pariah, exiled to a life far away and fated to be forgotten. Our paths would divide and every single moment I suffered or joy I experienced were mine alone.
The first time I tried to commit suicide was when I wrapped my uneven lips (caused by a childhood accident) around the barrel of my M4. I never felt more alone in my life. My wife had rejected me in the most impersonal way- a message on Yahoo. I never felt more powerless. But I learned something during that time in my life. You can't control the world. You can't make someone love you. The more you try to make things happen the way you want them to the more miserable you'll make yourself when you start to see that that's not how shit works. You can only sit back and let the water take you where it wants to take you. My finger traced the crescent of the trigger for what felt like an eternity. I weighed all my thoughts and memories. Was life worth it? What would I miss? My kids? Would they miss me? Some people think I stopped myself from doing it because of my kids. A sweet sentiment but one mired in absolute bullshit. When you're there, at the brink looking over the edge and reflecting on everything, literally everything (because once you pull that trigger and make the dive there's no going back), you don't give a damn about the ones you love. Had they loved you more you wouldn't be in this place. Where were they when I was kissing a gun? Where was my mom? My dad? My brother? My friends? What about my wife who drove me to the forest of suicide like pet she was trying to abandon? Did she care? And my kids. They were too young to care. I'd become a story, confined to memories and maybe a few pictures in a scrapbook tossed under some shelf. Left there to collect dust. Forgotten. Wasn't I already forgotten? If so then why go on? Why?
But I went on anyways. I recovered. It was agony. I set the gun down and suffered. I went through my heartache and the myriad of changes that come with divorce in the military. I found friends who rebuilt me. I lived. Fuck I lived. No other time in my life will equal my time in California. I felt renewed. I could conquer any challenge.
I contemplated suicide a second time after I left the army. Not once but several times. No one celebrated my return. My honorable discharge was met with an unenthusiastic shrug by family and friends. No one gave a fuck about what I sacrificed. There were no parties. No awards from the army. After all those years of blood, sweat, and tears, after being shot at and blown up by roadside bombs. After losing my wife and kids and seeing them build their own family. After seeing others commit suicide or die from accidents and combat, nothing. Nothing! It was all for nothing. All I had were empty hands and a head filled with everything I went through. My ghosts. The ghosts of my memories of life in the army were the only good I had left and they gone. I couldn't get those days back again. Even then my army brothers were moving on with life, heading to new places, collecting their own stories their friends and families wouldn't give two shits about. I was dumped into the real world where no one cared about your failures or successes. Home wasn't home. The golden image I had built in my head all those years to keep me sane as I went through harrowing events was corroded and ruined. My existence was a nuisance to both family and friends. I lived in Purgatory. I became a stray, drifting from day to day, waiting for something to get better. When it didn't I walked out to a tree with three bottles of sleeping meds in tow with the aim to swallow all of them. I'd die at peace, alone. Hopefully. I really hoped they wouldn't make me shit myself or give me painful seizures. That would suck. But at least I'd be dead. Being dead while you're alive is so much worse. You feel your pain, the loneliness of it, and watch as the world carries on without you. At least dead dead there's nothing. No pain or loneliness. Just peaceful nothing. And if the world forgets you, you'll never know.
I'm still alive. Don't really know how. I just kept going. If someone asks what stopped me from going through with it, I can't really give an answer. I just went on and life got better. I found happiness. But as my life made an upswing my friend Taylor's didn't. Taylor killed himself. Gunshot. I wonder what he felt in that moment. I wonder if he just dove in or ran his finger over that trigger like I did. We had talked before it happened. He hated seeing us happy because he was miserable. Taylor couldn't understand why it was so easy for us to adjust to life in the civilian world and difficult for him. I told him it wasn't easy. He'd never know just how how hard it was for me, for others like me. I talk to a lot of vets now, friends of mine I drink with regularly. The same things Taylor and I felt are shared among us all. We're all just ghosts haunted by our ghosts. No one gets it, sometimes not even the guys who feel the exact same. Loneliness is truly a horrific feeling, and when you lose your sense of home, you'll never feel more alone.
Home isn't what you think it is. It isn't the rose colored place I envisioned when people were trying to kill me. You're place in the world isn't a fixed point like the north star. Home is an ocean with ebbs and flows. It can be calm or furious. Sometimes it can drown you. There's no easy lesson I can impart in this. These words of mine, no matter how real or personal, won't solve someone's problems. What I can leave you, my fellow veterans, is this: Your life, your story, belong to you and you alone. No one will never care as much as you do. No one will ever know the pain and sacrifices you've made along the way. Each time you wake up in sweats from nightmares or ache while you play with your kids, no one will know the story behind why these things happen to you. But that isn't their fault. It isn't your friends' or family's fault that they don't care. They simply can't understand. It is unfathomable to them. When you realize these things, when you stop blaming them and living along the ghosts of your memories, you'll see there's a load more to life. There's more to you. And each ounce of suffering only makes you a stronger more formidable force that others will aspire to become. Be inspiring. Be more. Never stop. Even if the world forgets you, never stop, because this is your story and you fucking matter.