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Our Site. Your Stories.


"Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone."

- Fred Rogers

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Our Site. Your Stories.


"Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone."

- Fred Rogers

The Repeal Changed Everything

Dan Misch entered the U.S. Naval Academy under Don't Ask Don't Tell, and struggled for years to keep his sexual orientation under wraps. He endured the oppressive silence and slowly it ate away at him. When the repeal went into effect, a weight began to lift.

Read Dan's story.


Some Journeys Home End With a Bullet

War Horse writer and Marine veteran William Gehrung killed himself in late August 2017. His friend and fellow Marine veteran and War Horse writer, Nate Eckman, wrote about their friendship and how Gehrung was the last person Eckman expected wou commit suicide.

Read Nate's story.


RELIVING MILITARY SEXUAL TRAUMA ON HER LAST DAY OF ACTIVE DUTY

Joy Craig's retirement ceremony was set to take place that day, but first, she had to sit down with an NCIS agent on base and relive sexual assaults she'd been scared to report for fear of retaliation.

Read Joy's story.



BALANCING AUTHORITY AND UNDERSTANDING AS A YOUNG LIEUTENANT

Nina Semczuk worried that as a new second lieutenant she wouldn't strike the right balance between enforcing the rules and being a compassionate, understanding officer. One private's lunch paid the price. 

Read Nina's story.


HIS CLOSEST BRUSH WITH COMBAT WAS A DRAMATIC HELICOPTER LANDING

Sam Gisselman was confident of his ability as a rifleman. He'd trained for war and looked forward to going on combat patrol and to proving himself, but it wasn't mean to be.

Read Sam's story.


HE CRAVED NORMALCY, BUT HE COULD THINK ONLY OF GETTING BACK TO WAR

When his kid brother came back from war, Marine veteran Drew Pham recognized in him the conflicted yearning to go back and desire to stay away. Drew's brother rejected terms like PTS, calling what he had a "soldier's heart."

Read Drew's story.


ARMED ONLY WITH COLORED FLAGS, HE AND HIS FELLOW MARINES COMBED THE WRECKAGE SITE

When two aircraft collided in midair above North Carolina, Adam Stone and dozens of fellow Marines were tasked with identifying bits of the wreckage, including their brothers.

Read Adam's Story.


SHE STAYED QUIET WHEN MARINES' WIVES CALLED FEMALE MARINES "SLUTS." THEN SHE MET JOY

A chance encounter with a female Marine veteran brought back memories for Liesel Kershul of what it was like to be on the outside of the Marine wives' "sorority."

Read Liesel's story.


MARINES' WIVES ARE ALL THE SAME, SHE THOUGHT. AND THEN SHE MET LIESEL

Marine veteran Joy Craig writes an open letter to a new friend and Marine officers' wife, Liesel, about the chasm between the two groups of women—and her desire to change that.

Read Joy's story.


The Army She Knew Wasn’t Orderly or Disciplined. It Was Filled With Messy Humanity

Nina Semczuk struggled during civilian job interviews to translate how managing soldier drama while leading a 25-soldier platoon more than qualified her for the job.

Read Nina's story.


Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD

Jenny Pacanowski tried to drown out PTSD's screams with heroin. She realized she'd have to work on her internal monologue, or die.

Read Jenny's story.


Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don't Change

There was only so much prep work Tenley Lozano could do before Dive School. But how could she prepare for the additional scrutiny women endure.

Read Tenley's story.


When Life as a Military Spouse Got Hard, Amber Was Always There

Liesel Kershul weathered three deployments with her now-husband, Tom. When they moved to Germany the isolation became to much, until she and Tom adopted Amber.

Read Liesel's Story.


The Army Was Hard, Finding a Soul Sister After Returning Home Was Harder

Life in D.C. was impossibly lonely for Elizabeth O'Herrin. She looked to church for community, but struggled to find female friends, until Gina.

Read Elizabeth's story.


War Trauma Spread Through His Family Like a Virus

When John Sims suffered a severe panic attack, he realized he needed help. But he feared that people would think he'd cracked.

This essay is the second in a three-part series.

Read John's story.


After 30 Years and Four Wars, One Explosion Opened the Floodgates

Before he could heal, John Sims needed to understand that 30 years of service had taken its toll—not just on him, but on his family. 

This essay is the first in a three-part series.

Read John's story.


They Were Supposed To Be Fighting a War. Instead They Picked Up Gravel.

Dustin Jones prayed for contact, just a little bit of fire, to liven up the day. Imagine being at war in an unprotected position, hoping to draw a little gunfire.

Read Dustin's story.


I Leave Out the Part Where We Catch the Man

When he came back, Drew Pham told civilians traumatic stories from his time at war. He learned that people didn't know how to respond. The story he tells has changed.

Read Drew's story.


Circumstances, Misfortunes, or Fortunes

At the time, Teresa Fazio was a lapsed Catholic, hiding her beer beneath a tissue in India—polite women don't drink. She received prasad, like communion, and searched for salvation and connectivity amidst memories of Iraq.

Read Teresa's story.


SAILING THE ATLANTIC OCEAN – 2005

Tenley Lozano watched the Barque Eagle's bow cut through the Atlantic Ocean's night waters, swelling with bioluminescence and dolphins.

Read Tenley's story.


Photographing Innocence Admist the Chaos and Silence of War

"I saw them about a hundred yards away, amid a sparse herd of goats. They were playing, running, chasing each other. I wanted to see them close up. I wanted to photograph them," Dan Bellis writes, "but really, I just wanted to see them. I guess I wanted to play, too."

Read Dan's Story.


An Attack From Within: Males Marines Ambush Women in Uniform

The Defense Department is investigating the orchestrated stalking and the deliberate collection, and distribution of photographs of active duty and veteran women. Dozens of victims were identified by their name, rank, and duty station.

Our exclusive investigation.


His torch beckoned like a searchlight

"The days began to run together," Ryan Mallek writes. "Wake up around 1500, eat, shit, bullshit. Head to the work area about 1845; avoid the sewage, but still puddle through it. Fire up the MCTWS, cut, bend, weld, pile. The heat was unbearable."

Read Ryan's Story.


How one man found peace in free fall

BASE jumping helped Brian Donnelly release anxiety and reset during his Army career. But if he talked openly about it, he risked everything. 

Read Brian's Story.


You Don't Know, and I Don't Wanna Tell Ya

Civilians are always asking what war is like. Dustin Jones wonders what to tell them about his deployment, or if he even should.

Read Dustin's story.


LEARNING TO LISTEN ON DENALI

"It's the prostitution of experience, man," Roger liked to say. He’d go on about how so many vets can't stop posturing and letting the world know that they really were in the shit, as if their characters couldn’t speak for themselves.

Read Pat's Story.


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LOSING THE FEAR THAT HE ABANDONED HIS MEN

He told me how he felt his heart drop when he heard what some of the other guys had said about thinking he’d quit.

Read David's Story.


SUNFLOWERS AND STEEL RAIN

It felt menacing: the head looming down, the wide petal-fringed face contorted into a cruel smile. I couldn’t shake the association. It frustrated me that a once-cheerful flower had come to mean something so dark.

Read Elizabeth's Story.


IN THE ABSENCE OF TRUST AND CONFIDENCE

He lost respect, trust, and confidence in his Marine leaders. William Gehrung describes the misdiagnoses and maltreatment of injuries in the military.

Read William's Story.


THE QUANDARY OF PERCEPTION VERSUS REALITY

The women couldn’t tell anyone else or risk all of us getting a bad reputation. I wanted to believe that I hadn’t let those onboard the ship dictate what I could or couldn’t do.

Read Tenley's Story.


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Nothing prepares you for war

About halfway through deployment the Taliban delivered a memo to the village saying they would begin attacking the Americans and that the locals ought to leave. A few weeks later Katyusha rockets began raining down.

Read Noah's Story.


The Day I Held My Fire

Then, the JTAC said this on the radio: “The air’s got cold feet.”

Maybe it was impossible for me to understand a soldier’s mindset from an air-conditioned cockpit.

Read Eric's Story.


When Tearful Goodbyes Were Foreign

New Marines were being made on the other side of that fence. On this side, I held my DD-214 and headed home for good.

Read Robert's Story.


SERVICE, SEXUALITY, AND STEREOTYPES OF A FEMALE VETERAN

She faced discrimination then, and she can handle the presumptions now. She is proud of her service, and doesn’t regret it, regardless of the invisible injuries it caused.

Read Tenley's Story.


guns, booze, and suicide:
How 'stupid' saved a life.

He feels guilty sometimes too about some of what he did and saw, but unless he’s had a drink or two, he doesn’t talk about that stuff.

Read David's Story.


Remembering 9/11.
15 Years Later.

We asked active duty service members, civilians, and veterans to write about 9/11 and how it has changed their lives.

These are their stories.


My Afghan Friend Could Be Murdered Soon

He quietly departed his village alone and traveled to Kabul, where he began sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. Without a job, he couldn’t afford to bring his wife and daughter with him, so they remained with Zabi’s father, who swore to protect them.

Read About Zabi.


Losing sense of self One Suicide At A Time

Damn the terrorist groups. And damn the suburbanites back home and their parades of glitter, as if glitter could fill the holes in us or mend the gaps in our platoons when we died in the war, or now, back here, when we died at home.

Read Gerardo's Story.


The Redemptive Power Of Lying

Coming home in itself can be retraumatizing. Veterans tell their loved ones massaged truths about what they’ve been through and who they’ve become, as they struggle to find out themselves.

Read David's Story


Relics Of War And The Stories They Share

Brandon's children have endured moves every few years and experienced their father leaving for long periods. They've visited countless battlefields, monuments, and war museums. Brandon's children have been at war their entire lives. 

Read Brandon's Story
 



My Religion Of Death And Praying To Kill

The Marine Corps taught Peter that despair and violence were renewing. In boot camp he shouted "kill" 100 times a day, and went to two church services back to back on Sundays. He prayed to kill and believed that, in some way, it would save him.
Read Peter's Story


The afghan girls I couldn't save

As long as the Afghans he encountered thought it was OK to treat women like property, like killing a woman was equivalent to killing a goat, Tim Patterson writes, then they were never going to understand higher-level concepts like voting, or free speech, or feminism. 

Read Tim's Story.



BECOMING A VETERAN WITHOUT WAR

"To Nate Eckman, veteran" was synonymous with "warrior," and because he hadn't seen combat, he feels strange owning the title "veteran." But the idea that only warriors or those directly affected by war in obvious ways can speak to war's effects with authority isn't true.

Read Nate's Story.


A WAR THAT BEGAN AS CHILDREN

Wars were small, quick affairs involving special operators, U.N. peacekeepers and long-range bombers.  A decade later, I found myself going back and forth with an antiwar protestor after covering a rally at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the student newspaper. I was learning an early lesson in journalism: admit personal views at your own risk.

Read Derrick and Ian's Story.



The man with half A head

The man with half a head had a wife and two sweet little children. The children were playing on the floor of his hospital room while his wife looked out the window. She didn’t say anything when I rearranged his pillow, or even when I left the room.
Read more.


YEARS LATER, LOSS AT WAR RESONATES AT HOME

“I hate war,” he said.  “I don’t have my dad.” Anthony’s father was killed in Afghanistan five years ago. Anthony is now eight.

Read his story.


A CENTURIES-LONG BATTLE TO SOLVE THE AMBIGUITY OF WAR

by Natalie Schachar and Thomas J. Brennan

What do war crimes, Sun Tzu, General James N. Mattis, and Enhanced Interrogation have in common?
Read and find out.

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Love in a Time of PTSD


Dustin Jones has struggled in his romantic relationships against the stigma of post-traumatic stress and the perception that he’s less than whole.

Love in a Time of PTSD


Dustin Jones has struggled in his romantic relationships against the stigma of post-traumatic stress and the perception that he’s less than whole.

By Dustin Jones

I lay on the bed with my face buried in a pillow wondering why she wouldn’t stop yelling; why wouldn’t she just go to sleep? “You never share anything! I cannot do this anymore, Dustin! I don’t want to be in a relationship with you!”

She stormed out of the room and slammed the door shut. Still on the bed, I lay head down, eyes shut, and sighed and replayed the last few months in my head. We had been together just under two months, but things had escalated quickly; for the first time in my life I was head-over-heels. Pretty soon, though, it seemed like we were fighting every other day. By the time a conflict had ended I couldn’t tell you what had triggered it.

 Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

A few minutes after storming out that night she returned to apologize, but the peace lasted only a moment. She always reverted to “It doesn’t matter” after a fight, as if words and actions weren’t accompanied by consequences. I told her she needed help; I gently held her shoulders and began to explain that I couldn’t tolerate the outbursts anymore. She threw it back in my face. “I need help?!” she screamed as she pushed me away. “You’re the psycho; you used to kill people; you’re the one with PTSD!”

That fight was the beginning of the end; in a town of 1,300 people, secrets never stay secret long. It didn’t take long before I learned where she’d been spending her evenings when she wouldn’t come home. The evening my fears were confirmed, I kicked her out of the home we’d been sharing.

She left town, and I did what I could to fall back into some semblance of a normal routine. We had spent practically every day together for just shy of two months; her absence was painful. Several days after she’d left I stood in the living room, reminiscing. The good times we had had were the best in recent memory; the bad times were devastating.

After a few moments of silence I snapped; the table flipped over, items flew across the room. During one of our fights she had repeatedly taken swings at me, calling me a “pussy” for fearing a 130-pound girl, and I had retaliated by taking it out on the wall. This evening, in my second moment of weakness, that hole grew to considerable size.

I leaned against the wall and slowly crumbled to the floor holding my head in my hands. I sat there trying to wrap my head around all of the whys—why have my relationships failed time and time again, and why does PTSD seem to affect relationships so profoundly? This failed relationship, as others had in the past, affirmed my belief that my ties to combat would hinder future relationships.

During my enlistment I had made a point to avoid relationships—dating here and there, but dodging any romantic relationships while preparing for deployments. The idea of coming home to an unfaithful girlfriend after seven months overseas terrified me, so I’d avoided the problem altogether. I left the military in the hopes of ending the nomadic life and settling down.

I moved to Montana in 2017, seven years after my discharge, and eight months later I had met her. She was everything I had been looking for and more; at the time I could see myself spending the rest of my life with her.

I poured energy into our relationship through romantic gestures, date nights, and weekend escapes. I had hesitated to share my military experiences with her, but, believing honesty to be the best approach and that it would be best for us, I lowered my guard and shared more with her than I had with even my family.

 Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

More often than not, talking about the past has felt like a burden as opposed to a weight lifted, a confession instead of conversation.

She claimed I kept too many things to myself, that she wished I would share more; all the while I wondered, what else could she want to hear? Some things are better left unsaid to avoid seeing pained and confused looks that inevitably come with conversations about combat.

While I was deployed to Afghanistan, I lied to my family about the hostility we faced day in and day out. When I came home I showed family and friends footage of our time over there. I didn’t plan on deploying again, so I felt I could show them how hard life overseas had really been. Footage of IEDs exploding, incoming rounds flying over the camera lens, and the occasional severed limbs strewn about on the ground left them speechless.

 Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

After speechlessness came tiptoeing; their behavior around me had changed. Certain topics became taboo and efforts were made to avoid any “triggers” I may have. My family and friends’ overprotective approach got old quick, leaving me short-tempered, which, it seemed, only furthered their belief that these emotions were tied to PTSD, instead of being a rational human response.

Like other women in the past, the way she looked at me changed when I uttered the term “PTSD.” The all-too-familiar stare sending mixed messages of fear, confusion, and pity. Deep down I probably knew things wouldn’t work out with her, but I was determined to try.

Months after the breakup, her friend told me that my ex had concealed concerns about PTSD from the beginning. She had hidden these concerns well, and I had given her no reason to worry—no outbursts, freakouts, bravado, or acts of aggression. From day one I had harbored an ironclad faith in us, but PTSD and her fears accompanying it had helped steer our future toward failure. I imagine now that she had attributed many of our misunderstandings and fights to PTSD.

Her lack of understanding of PTSD and the stigma that comes with it hurt our chance for a healthy relationship, romantic in nature or otherwise. I had to explain to her, like countless others, that contrary to blockbuster films and news headlines, PTSD and psychosis don’t necessarily go hand in hand. She acknowledged my point, like family and friends had, but failed to understand the message. My explanation had again fallen on deaf ears.

After confiding in her and seeing the look in her eyes transition from affection to fear and misunderstanding, I began to lie to her. Instead of voicing issues that upset me, I would lie to avoid what felt like an impending fight, hiding behind a false smile or laugh. She knew something was awry and she would begin to pry, contributing to her belief that I was incapable of sharing with her.

I’ve recently started what could be another romantic endeavor; this time, long distance is complicating things. Distance doesn’t deter me; flights are cheap enough, and I think we have something worth pursuing. What scares me is the thought of starting down the same path laden with the pitfalls of the past. At this time in my life, friends are getting married and starting families; all I want is a shot at a healthy relationship.

•••

Dustin spent four years in a sniper platoon and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. These days he is pursuing a Master's degree in documentary journalism at Columbia University.

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His Eyes Lifted Toward the Sky


Sarah Holzhalb wonders if the migrants she and her Coast Guard boat scooped out of the water are alive today, and what lives they returned to.

His Eyes Lifted Toward the Sky


Sarah Holzhalb wonders if the migrants she and her Coast Guard boat scooped out of the water are alive today, and what lives they returned to.

By Sarah Holzhalb

He was no more than 10 years old. His slender face was tilted skyward, and he looked at me with his big brown eyes as I told him I was going to remove the contents of his pockets. From the back pocket of his dirty jeans I took a yellow toothbrush. That can be filed down into a weapon, I told myself, and tossed it into the confiscation bag. From his front pockets I pulled out some pieces of hard candy and three condoms still in their gold foil wrapping. My gaze flew from my left hand holding candy, to my right holding condoms, to his young, silent, unquestioning face. Throwing the condoms into the ever-growing confiscation bag, I tried not to think of the reasons why a boy his age had them in the first place. None of the stories I told myself were good ones.

 A woman sits on board the vessel which had been reported as taking on water near Haiti. The photograph was taken on an operation the author, Sarah Holzhalb, conducted. Courtesy of USCG photo by PA3 Stacey Pardini

A woman sits on board the vessel which had been reported as taking on water near Haiti. The photograph was taken on an operation the author, Sarah Holzhalb, conducted. Courtesy of USCG photo by PA3 Stacey Pardini

I told him he could keep his candy, and I shoved the jewel-colored pieces back into his pocket with my latex-gloved hand. Besides his baby face, the candy was the only thing that reflected his age, given his other confiscated possessions and the striped polo shirt and jeans that hung off him. I stared after him as our lone interpreter, who was himself Haitian born, escorted him away to ask him further questions. His parents weren’t in the group, nor did he know any of the hundreds of adults he was traveling with.

My roommate and I were the only females among our shipmates that made up our 100-person crew. Perhaps because we seemed less intimidating, we were tasked with searching babies and children, and ensuring they were reunited with their loved ones. A little less than a week later, we delivered the little boy and the approximately 350 others we’d rescued from their unseaworthy vessel back to Haiti, where they were ferried to shore in small groups via multiple trips made by our small boats. Our ship remained at anchor in Port-au-Prince Harbor.

I never found out whether he was an orphan or how he found himself on the dilapidated sailboat in the first place. The vessel, with its rotten wood and grimy, torn sails flapping uselessly in the wind, also carried a small family that was offered asylum in a country other than the U.S., but they refused: “The United States or nothing.” They received the latter, and I thought of how reckless a decision this was on their part. Any place had to be better than Haiti if escaping on that near-shipwreck of a boat seemed their only option.

We would remain at anchor for days in the often breezeless Port-au-Prince Harbor as a security presence, the constant, putrid odor of burning rubber, dirt, and garbage coming from land permeating all corners of the ship and our clothes. With not much to do and anchored with nowhere to go, I had too much time to think about what all those people we had taken care of for days were doing now. A part of me was happy not to be patrolling the Caribbean Sea searching for more migrants to return.

 Haitians being lowered down into Port-au-Prince Bay for repatriation. Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

Haitians being lowered down into Port-au-Prince Bay for repatriation. Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

I’d joined the nation’s oldest seagoing service because its primary mission is saving lives. My first tour as an officer in the Coast Guard was on a 270-foot cutter, a ship that conducted search and rescue missions and law enforcement operations, narcotic and migrant interdiction. Though the drug traffickers eluded us, we did interdict a lot of migrants. Most were Haitians fleeing the deplorable human rights conditions, police violence, and unrest that began under the rule of Haiti’s then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and that continued even after he resigned and fled to exile in February 2004. Some of the migrants we picked up were Cuban nationals fleeing Fidel Castro’s Communist rule, as thousands and thousands had done in the decades since he’d initially come to power. Each time we’d return migrants to the countries they’d been fleeing, I wondered what might happen to them. Haitians walked up the shore back into their chaotic and crumbled city, as if no one realized they were ever gone. Cuba welcomed home its fleeing migrants with fear and implied threats of violence.

“Socialismo o Muerte”—Socialism or Death—graced the cracked concrete sea wall in bright red and blue graffiti as our patrol boat entered the small canal to Bahia de Cabanas. At the territorial sea line, a drab, gray Cuban Navy patrol boat met us to escort our ship into Cuban waters. We motored along at a few knots, maintaining a courteous speed so as not to create a wake that would bounce between the maze of green, tangled mangroves lining the canal. The blue-mirrored lenses of my silver Oakleys hid my watchful eyes. We kept watch on our passengers sitting on the deck, facing aft so they couldn’t see where we were going, to make sure they didn’t jump overboard in one last attempt to escape. I’ve wondered how many of them already knew where they were, how many of them had been through this same exercise with us before. As we got closer to mooring, I tried to eavesdrop on their whispered Spanish but couldn’t understand much. The captain maneuvered the ship alongside a cement slab that could barely be called a pier, and on it waited a military-style van manned by two uniformed Cuban men holding AK-47s.

 The ship’s crew eating dinner on the flight deck. While the migrants were onboard, they were housed on the flight deck. Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

The ship’s crew eating dinner on the flight deck. While the migrants were onboard, they were housed on the flight deck. Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

“We see again, gracias,” the migrants said in a jumble of two languages, laughing slightly, as they disembarked our boat and walked toward the men with guns. What happens to them, I wondered, after they get into the van? I wonder today if they’re still alive, and if they got a chance to try again as they said they would.

We had plucked these fleeing souls from the overpacked sailboat that seemed on the verge of breaking and delivered them right back to the hell they’d tried to escape and to an unknown fate. I’ve tried to imagine what it must be like to want simple freedoms so much that I would get on some scrap of material—a rubber dinghy, a vessel made of empty plastic gasoline cans screwed together, anything that appears it can float—with nothing more than a phone number in my pocket to bob around on the vast, unforgiving sea with no shelter from the elements, hoping that the currents eventually would bring me to the U.S. How bad, I wondered, would your life have to be that you would take such a chance?

•••

Sarah Holzhalb was a Coast Guard officer from 2002-2007, serving both afloat and ashore tours. She received her B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University and her M.P.S. from the George Washington University. Sarah works for Team RWB, a nonprofit that enriches the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. She lives in Louisiana and enjoys reading, running trails, and being outdoors with her family. Follow her on Twitter @SarahHolzhalb.

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Finding Herself on a Cross-Country Run


Maggie Seymour set out on a cross-country run to reconnect with herself and find the ground under her feet. Along the way she found a sense of home.

Finding Herself on a Cross-Country Run


Maggie Seymour set out on a cross-country run to reconnect with herself and find the ground under her feet. Along the way she found a sense of home.

By Maggie Seymour

My route took me through the plains, teeming with bugs, the heat unable to suppress the constant yet ever-changing buzzing. The sun beat down on the windswept plains, and the stalks of wheat that had bent and been warped with each gust were baked by the late summer heat. Each time a stranger stopped me along the route, slowing their massive pickup trucks to the shoulder to politely offer support or to ask questions, I was jolted out of my head and back to a world with people, as though a circuit breaker had flipped. Until finally I didn’t want to see anyone.

 The author, Maggie Seymour, photographed the setting sun over the Henderson's cattle ranch in Canadian, Texas. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

The author, Maggie Seymour, photographed the setting sun over the Henderson's cattle ranch in Canadian, Texas. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

I’d set out across the country in July to find a part of myself and to reconnect with the small-town middle American I had left so many years ago, before college and then the Marine Corps bounced me between coasts and continents. I craved isolation beginning the very day I set out. Staying with strangers required energy I didn’t have left; it meant putting on my Run Free Run face, the outgoing, cheerful Maggie the civilized world and the nonprofit I was running for seemed to demand. It meant smiling as my right foot continued to scream from what I could only imagine to be 100 tiny tears and waxing on about how lucky I was to be able to complete such an adventure.

But halfway through my cross-country run—48 days in—I realized I felt more disconnected from myself than I had when I started. Thinking it would be good for me to relax and recover in the company of loving Texans, a mutual friend set me up to spend two days at Terry and Brad Henderson’s ranch in Canadian, Texas. By the time I got to the eastern Texas Panhandle, I wanted to be alone in my feeling of disconnection. But the Hendersons, who became Gold Star parents in 2006, brought me back.

Brad and Terry greeted my support drive and me with smiles and hugs, and helped us bring our bags into the house. “Your rooms are upstairs,” they said. I tried not to let my face betray anything less than the gratitude I didn’t fully feel. Climbing even a few stairs felt like running a marathon, the pain in my foot matched by the tightness in my hips and knees. Anything that didn’t get me closer to the Atlantic Ocean had begun to feel like wasted work. They ushered me into their daughter’s room. Brad and Terry assured us they wouldn’t be a bother and that we could spend as much time alone as we wanted. I tried to ignore how thankful I felt, because I was overcome with guilt for wanting to be alone. I showered and tried to wash away the miles, and then reluctantly I headed downstairs.

As I waited for dinner, I hobbled around their house, thinking about how different my dream home would be, until I noticed the round pegs that held the support beams together. I quietly snapped a photo to send to my mom. She and my dad had finished their dream house just a few years back, a cabin-styled home in which my father had used pegs to cover nails, a fact he proudly boasts to anyone who visits. Maybe it was that detail or maybe it was the restful quiet I finally felt, but in an instant the family I had just met felt familiar. And for the first time during the run, I felt like I was home.

 The author, Maggie Seymour, relaxes during her tour of Canadian, Texas. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

The author, Maggie Seymour, relaxes during her tour of Canadian, Texas. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

On the first night, over a meal of stir-fry and homemade ice cream, Terry and Brad shared stories of the hours their son had put into training for football and academic teams when he was in high school. He compensated for any lack of natural talent with determination and a down-home Texan work ethic, eventually graduating salutatorian of his high school class. With that same doggedness, they said, he had pursued flight training with the U.S. Army, where he became Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles P. Henderson and began flying the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. He died in an aircraft crash in Balad, Iraq, in 2006; the military ruled it the result of bad weather conditions.

His parents reminded me of my grandparents: the way they told stories that they’d been telling for 30 years; Terry’s no-nonsense way of speaking; and Brad’s mischievous grin when he shared a cooking secret or helpful household hint: “Did you know if you spray some vanilla on a paper towel and throw that into the cooler, it’ll stop that musty smell?”

With every bite of peach cobbler and every story they told about their family, a calm settled. I felt a little more myself, and my self-pity melted away and my leg muscles began to release. My persistent loneliness, a partner for over 1,000 miles, felt less profound as Brad and Terry told a story of driving 14 hours round-trip to get Miles to a wedding that had meant so much to him. Their stories of Miles and how much they loved him reminded me of long trips my own parents made to support me. And I heard my mother’s voice when Terry said, “Miles wasn’t always the most naturally gifted person in the class, but he was determined. Nobody would outwork him.”

Their stories of Canadian, a small Texas town, felt familiar too. We stopped by Terry’s mother’s house on the second day to pick up the newspaper, and I smiled, thinking about how my own mother and grandmother had shared a paper before my grandmother passed away. It was a different town with the same stories.

 On a tour around town with Brad Henderson, the author stopped by a field house that the community had dedicated to the Henderson's son, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles P. Henderson. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

On a tour around town with Brad Henderson, the author stopped by a field house that the community had dedicated to the Henderson's son, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles P. Henderson. Courtesy of Maggie Seymour

Eight years after Miles’ death, the Hendersons began thinking about leaving Canadian. “The town had changed,” Brad told my support driver and me while he showed us around the next day. “We didn’t really tell anyone, but we were looking at property in Montana,” he said. Shortly after they had begun considering the move, the community dedicated the field house next to the high school football field to Miles, a surprise to the Hendersons and a reminder that they weren’t alone in their grief and their love for their son. “I guess we didn’t realize how much Miles meant to this place, and how much this place meant to us,” pointing to the fieldhouse. With that neighborly gesture, Canadian began to feel like a community the Hendersons hadn’t known they had. It was yet another story that reminded me of my own home.

Terry joined me for a couple of miles when I started out on the road the following day. She was already dressed for a run by the time I mosied down the stairs in the morning. As we begin our quick pre-run routine—couple of sips of water, the beginning of the day photo, undirected stretches—the fear and anger that had coursed through me in the week prior felt like a distant memory. As I took off from that day’s starting line, laughing with Terry about her old bones compared to my beaten joints, I felt only echoes of that pain and isolation.

•••

Maggie spent 10 years on active duty as an intelligence officer with the Marine Corps. She transitioned to the reserves by running across the country (www.runfreerun.com). She holds a PhD in international relations and is currently studying journalism at Mizzou.

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Irish Mist Adrift in the Fog of War


Brendan O’Byrne returned home from the Korengal to a chorus of civilians calling him a hero. For years he’s struggled to define that word for himself.

Irish Mist Adrift in the Fog of War


Brendan O’Byrne returned home from the Korengal to a chorus of civilians calling him a hero. For years he’s struggled to define that word for himself.

By Brendan O'Byrne

A small line of people formed in front of the stage; some of them offered a handshake or a thank you, a few wanted to tell me a story about their own experience, and others asked a question or two. An older woman approached alongside a tall man who hunched at the shoulders and wore a beard that hid any expression. They both wore casual clothing. Light blue specks of splattered paint polka-dotted her pair of faded jeans. She wore a light-colored fleece and thick-framed reading glasses. She had aged kindly. The corners of her eyes and mouth wrinkled to show years of smiles and laughter. It seemed like some of those small lines were damp. Gray streaks highlighted her black hair. She carried a copy of War, by Sebastian Junger, with my face on the cover staring out at nothing. She’d tucked the book under her arm to keep both her hands free to grasp mine.

 The author of this piece, Brendan O'Byrne, is pictured on the cover of  War , Sebastian Junger's book about his time in the Korengal Valley with Battle Company 2-503rd’s story

The author of this piece, Brendan O'Byrne, is pictured on the cover of War, Sebastian Junger's book about his time in the Korengal Valley with Battle Company 2-503rd’s story

“I just wanted to thank you for your service and your honesty up there on stage today,” she said as she took my hand with both of hers while maintaining direct eye contact. She wore a small, sad smile and didn’t blink. “The fighting you boys did for ... us ... ” Her voice trailed off as she tried to find words. “Well, no one should have to go through what you and your friends did.” It humbled me into awkwardness for my experience to be honored by my elders. I quickly thanked her as I studied my dress shoes. I may have even told her it wasn’t so bad out there just to make her feel better. I was aware that she was old enough to have possibly said the same words 50 years earlier to an entirely different group of returning veterans, maybe even to the man standing beside her. “It would be an honor if you could sign this,” releasing my hands and untucking the copy of Battle Company 2-503rd’s story.

She made small talk about my speech and said she’d watched the documentary, “Restrepo,” as I signed my name underneath the big block letters of WAR. “I have to admit, from the movie, I thought you’d be bigger.”

I finished signing the book and handed it back while thinking of how to respond. Her kind eyes told me no harm was intended, it was just an observation, yet I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to tell her that the bigger the guy, the bigger the target. I wanted to tell her how the men who could walk like goats through the Hindu Kush mountains with 100 pounds on their backs were shorter than her, which I guessed to be just a few inches over five feet. I bit my tongue when I began to tell her that “Restrepo” wasn’t a movie and there were no actors cast for the part.

 RESTREPO filmmakers Sebastian Junger (l.) and Tim Hetherington (r.) at Outpost Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2007. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

RESTREPO filmmakers Sebastian Junger (l.) and Tim Hetherington (r.) at Outpost Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2007. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

My emotions in check, I told her that most of the men I had served with were no bigger than me. I added, politely, that the legendary Spartans averaged five-foot-six.” With more people in line behind her, we said our quick goodbyes.

But her observation bugged me the rest of the day, and I couldn’t understand why. It bugged me so much that I began my next speech by asking the audience, “By a show of hands, who thought I would be bigger?”

Between the chuckles, dozens of hands raised. I laughed with them.

 Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and Ross Murphy (r.) of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne relax at Outpost Restrepo – the outpost is the focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and Ross Murphy (r.) of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne relax at Outpost Restrepo – the outpost is the focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

Around this time, 2013, I was speaking regularly around the country about my combat deployment and the journey back home to a range of people: veterans, college students, mental health professionals, and anyone else who would listen.

After the encounter with the woman, I began each speech with that question and received the same response. At the end of each speech, the little line formed with the same kind of questions and the same kind of praise, “Your friends and you are our country’s heroes.” Or something very similar.

 Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films

Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Image © Outpost Films

The almost universal reactions, observations, and questions from the audiences exposed a misconception in our country about veterans, and more broadly, about how we define “hero.” It wasn’t just the audiences that were confused about veterans and heroes. I was, too.

I had strong mixed emotions about what service to my country meant to me. I served six years in the Army, and in May 2007, I deployed with the 173rd Airborne Brigade to the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, for 15 months. I lived those long, hard months with my own well-being and needs second to those of the group. That is the mentality in combat; it is always “we.”

I was and am proud that I served honorably.

Yet, at the end of our deployment when a Bronze Star was given to all the men who had served the full 15 months, to all the men I had fought alongside for 15 months, I was given a lesser award. An Army Commendation Medal. There was no explanation why. I have repeatedly asked my former leaders for a reason, but the closest thing to an answer cast blame on Army bureaucracy.

 Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo during combat in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin (l.) and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo during combat in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. A film still from the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

I didn’t care about the award itself, I cared about what the award represented: the Army recognizing the sacrifices and honoring the job we did. I was there doing the same job and sacrificing the same as everyone else, but when the Army recognized me with a lesser award, it effectively told me that my service wasn’t equal to theirs. It shattered my idea of what my service meant to me and to the Army I’d fought for. I felt betrayed, making my last few months of service more miserable than any war could.

I left the military in December 2008 with an honorable discharge and a lot of questions about what my service meant to me, the Army, and my country. It helped me to see that the crowds I spoke to were filled with a lot of the same kind of questions.

“A man can stand here and put all of America behind him.” –David Thoreau on Provincetown

 Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. – focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

Outpost (“OP”) Restrepo. – focus of the documentary RESTREPO by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, Kunar Province. 2008. Photograph © Tim Hetherington

A couple of years after finding out I was too small to be me, I was living on the eastern edge of the U.S.A. in Provincetown, Cape Cod. The small coastal town, as old as America’s story, was port for the Mayflower before the ship continued west to mainland Plymouth, Massachusetts. Nowadays, the visitors come to Provincetown by road rather than by sea. Provincetown is at the end of the 60-mile-long island, which draws two distinct types of people to the small town by the sea: ones who are incredibly lost or ones who have made the choice to be at the terminal point of a 60-mile island.

I was both as I dealt with a failed marriage, coped with the death of my father who’d died a year after my return from war, and tried to get a handle on a crippling alcohol problem, all while trying to find meaning in my now peaceful life. With combat’s constant deadly threat, to be alive and keep each other alive is meaning enough. Without that pressure, meaning became harder to define. While living in Provincetown and dealing with those issues, I continued to search how best to honor my military service, which had become harder to do as I struggled to reconcile being called a hero by the public, knowing what the Army thought of my service. I didn’t know who was right or if they were both wrong.

I was living illegally inside of an old, bare building that had been a ship-refitting wharf until a bunch of returning WWI veterans who wanted to make art and hang out with each other bought it and turned it into an artist club. They’d hardly changed the inside of the building, besides adding a huge fireplace, some long dinner tables, and a pool and billiards table. Nearly 100 years later when I lived there, the walls still hadn’t been insulated. During the winter it became so cold in the building that the top layer of the toilet water froze; I kept a stick next to the toilet to break the ice in order to go to the bathroom. I was given a studio with free room and board in return for taking care of the place and cleaning up the weekly dinner that had been eaten every Saturday since 1916. I slept in the studio’s loft on a worn mattress. From my window, I had a view of the harbor and the boats moored in it. I tried to create beautiful things from chunks of wood and stone; I sculpted the moored boats, figures of nude women, and primitive wooden clubs. It is the most healing place I have ever lived.

 The view from the author's studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Brendan O'Byrne

The view from the author's studio in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Courtesy of Brendan O'Byrne

I also spent a lot of time on my leaky 25-foot fiberglass sailboat, The Irish Mist. When I lay in the boat’s damp cabin bed, rolling on the protected harbor’s swells, I felt so far from the country I had fought for and the questions about my service and honor, and so far from the feeling that my country and I didn’t know what the word hero actually meant.

My Provincetown P.O. box had a surprise waiting in early 2015, when the town was dead and there was hardly any news at all besides the howling winds of approaching nor’easters. The letter was from Cape Cod’s American Red Cross. Eight years separated the last time I had received a Red Cross message. The previous message found me at the tail end of a fighting season in the Korengal, October 2007, informing me that my younger sister was seriously hurt and that I needed to come home to possibly say my goodbye. Eight years later a dread washed over me as I opened the letter in the post office lobby. Luckily, the envelope contained no threat of possible goodbyes; rather, it shocked me to find a note congratulating me that I would be honored by Cape Cod’s Red Cross as a “Local Veteran Hero.”

I received the news with trepidation.

Before I could accept it, I needed to know what they were giving me the award for. If it was for my military service, I didn’t want it. Not that it wouldn’t have been an honor; it would’ve been. But it would have come from the wrong people. The Army should have honored and recognized my service to the country. I hadn’t reconciled those mixed feelings when the Red Cross letter came in the mail, but by that point I no longer wanted any award for the violence of war.

The Red Cross award started unraveling years of confusion for me about why being called a hero for my service hurt instead of feeling good. That woman with the book tucked under her arm, and all the ones who followed her, the audiences, and the country in general had a perception of me and my service. They thought I should be bigger, and they thought what I did overseas had made me a hero. On the other side of the spectrum was the Army, to whom I was just another number.

But to the local Red Cross, and my community, I was more. Through phone calls and emails with a Red Cross representative, I was relieved to learn they didn’t want to honor my military service directly. Instead, they wanted to honor my honest speeches about war and homecoming, the volunteer work I’d done with returning veterans, and the peace I worked toward in myself and my community.

 The author, Brendan O'Byrne, accepts an award from the American Red Cross. Courtesy of Brendan O'Byrne

The author, Brendan O'Byrne, accepts an award from the American Red Cross. Courtesy of Brendan O'Byrne

The award helped me clarify what a real veteran hero looks like and what it takes to become one. Serving honorably during combat, I’ve come to believe, is only the beginning. The next step starts when you return home, bringing with you the lessons you learned. In war, I learned that the most human thing we can do is put our own needs, wants, and ego second to the community we live in. The fallen in war have learned combat’s most profound lesson, and their deathly silence demands that we learn the cost of war. The living have valuable lessons about war’s toll as well, though, and I’ve hardly been asked about mine.

It finally clicked as I was writing my speech for the award ceremony that I hadn’t served the Army; I had served my country, the United States of America. To honor my own contribution, I’ve started taking my own advice and reminding myself that my service isn’t over yet. What I have learned is that I don’t want to be recognized and honored only for my contribution in war. We veterans have so much more to give and teach our country than just what we did overseas. To honor our service, civilians who haven’t served need to ask what we’ve learned, and veterans need to speak.

•••

Brendan O’Byrne is an Army veteran who served with the 173rd as an infantry sergeant in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. Since being home, he has worked to understand what it means to serve. O’Byrne uses speeches and writing to convey his war and homecoming story.

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As Iron-Filled Tears Stained the Deck


He bore his son’s body to the Americans’ base and let the blood drip and congeal on the wooden deck. And then he left, and left the blood behind.

As Iron-Filled Tears Stained the Deck


He bore his son’s body to the Americans’ base and let the blood drip and congeal on the wooden deck. And then he left, and left the blood behind.

By Jackie Munn

The body was lying on an army field stretcher, nestled between the olive green metal bars, drooping lifelessly on the black mesh fabric. I could see black tufts of hair sticking out from the blue tarp they’d used to cover the body. Congealed blood and dirt sprinkled throughout his hair like a deathly version of confetti. Slowly, small pools of blood began collecting underneath the stretcher, each drop clinging to the body in vain before succumbing to gravity. Drip. Drip. Drip.

An elderly Afghan man wearing a dusty brown shalwar kameez stood over the stretcher. He mumbled Pashtu while one of his stubby hands rubbed the back of his neck exasperatedly, gesturing aimlessly with the other. He kept pointing dejectedly between the lifeless body and desolate land outside the combat outpost’s HESCO walls.

He paused, soaking in the translation. Our interpreter explained to our small gathered group—a military physician assistant, a few infantry medics, and myself—that the man was the father of the deceased. He was looking for compensation for his son who had died at the hands of a neighbor after disputing land rights. The father had brought the body to the outpost in the hopes that it might garner sympathy from the Americans. Maybe we’d help with retaliation or possibly provide a payout to help alleviate the burden the family now faced—one less set of hands to help out in the fields.

 A security checkpoint along the Pakistan border. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

A security checkpoint along the Pakistan border. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

The weary old man grasped the end of the blue tarp, snapping it back to reveal the lifeless face of his dead son, whose bloodshot eyes stared blankly at the endless Afghan sky. The son’s mouth was gaping open, the expression of horror from the moment he’d taken his last breath set on his face. I could see now that a sizeable chunk of his scalp was missing; his brain matter, flesh, and bone were mangled in a thick, mushy mess. The father gestured again between his deceased son and the barren land beyond the outpost’s walls, imploring us, it seemed, to intercede, to pay up.

This was the first dead body I’d ever seen. Standing mere feet from the corpse, I was struck by an awful ambivalence. Certainly, people die every day; and yet, being so close—physically and chronologically—to the death of this farmer who had died for disputing his property lines felt surreal.

Unlike back home, where death feels sterile and hidden from public attention, or combat KIAs, where emotion and chaos fill every space with immeasurable density, this felt uncomfortably normal. As though untimely death was so rampant and expected in Afghanistan that bartering over your son’s freshly dead body barely merited a raised eyebrow or a second thought.

As our interpreter finished translating, everyone became fixated on the stretcher and the dead Afghan corpse. The drops of blood continued to slowly drip, staining the wooden deck below. Drip. Drip.

The silence was eventually broken by the physician assistant, his words snapping my attention back to reality, shocking my senses awake. His voice was focused, deliberate, but tinged with remorse. He explained through the interpreter that it wasn’t U.S. policy to intercede in tribal disputes, and that the U.S. made payouts only if U.S. forces were involved in the death. That’s fairly well known in Afghanistan; the father had to know that.

Looking at the father, the physician assistant shrugged his shoulders, his lips slightly down-turned, cocking his head to one side as if to say, My hands are tied, I’m sorry.

The elderly Afghan man stared at the physician assistant, his brown shalwar kameez flapping loosely in the gentle wind. His hand stopped rubbing the back of his neck; his other lay limply by his round torso. He seemed frozen, or at least at a loss for words.

The physician assistant recommended the father speak with the local Afghan elders and district governor—perhaps they could help? The interpreter initially matched the tone and tenor of the physician assistant’s intention, but by the end of his translation, the words seemed to come across hurried and impatient.

 HESCO walls lining the Combat Outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

HESCO walls lining the Combat Outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

Again the group froze, transfixed by the corpse lying on the wooden deck outside the outpost’s trauma center, a modest plywood hut. Watching the blood continue to drip, I kept imagining all the little droplets that marked the journey from his small farming village to our little base. His blood continued to seep from his gaping wounds, staining the ground like iron-filled tears. Drip.

The father hung his head for a moment, as though he were deciding whether it was worth it to push us harder or to just give up. He snapped his head up and began hurling impatient Pashtu at the Afghan men who’d driven him onto the outpost in their ragged old Toyota Hilux. The men moved deftly, grabbing the ends of the stretcher then whisking the dead body away to the bed of the truck; the blue tarp whipped in the breeze, snapping back and forth like the rapid movements of Afghan men who departed with obvious indignation.

They were gone in the blink of an eye. One minute we were witness to a father bartering over his son’s dead body; the next, we were watching the trail of dust as their broken-down pickup sped away.

I stared at the pool of congealed blood on the wooden deck. It looked so mundane, like red wine the father had spilled and left behind for someone else to clean up.

•••

Jackie Munn is an Army brat, West Point graduate, and former Army Captain. Her time in service brought her to Iraq as a Logistics Officer; Washington, D.C., working with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed; and Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team leader with Special Forces. After leaving the service, Jackie earned her master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt University and was named a Tillman Scholar in 2015. She now works as a family nurse practitioner and yoga instructor.

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Gold Star on Graduation Day


Kelly McHugh-Stewart’s father died in Afghanistan on May 18, 2010. Since then she’s had two separate graduations—both were on the anniversary of his death.

Gold Star on Graduation Day


Kelly McHugh-Stewart’s father died in Afghanistan on May 18, 2010. Since then she’s had two separate graduations—both were on the anniversary of his death.

By Kelly McHugh-Stewart

I held it together pretty well. I smiled and laughed with my classmates the morning of our graduation ceremony. Surrounded by giddy undergrads in bright red robes, we wore our all-black regalia, setting us apart as graduate students, proudly. I didn’t cry when my classmates and I lined up and marched into the tennis stadium-turned-auditorium to our cheering family and friends, and I didn’t cry when the commencement speaker, award-winning photographer Camilo José Vergara, shared a picture he took of the smoky New York City skyline following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even though it was events following those attacks that led me to New York City in the first place. My eyes began to mist, nose began to run, but I bit back my tears; I could fall apart later.

 A young John McHugh during flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1988. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

A young John McHugh during flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1988. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

I graduated with a master’s of fine arts in creative writing from the New School on May 18, 2018—exactly eight years after my father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, was killed in action in Kabul, Afghanistan. On Tuesday, May 18, 2010, a Taliban suicide bomber drove his explosive-packed vehicle into my father’s convoy, killing him, four other American soldiers, and a Canadian Colonel instantly. My father wasn’t deployed; he was only supposed to be there for 10 days. As a member of the Basic Command Training Program based out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he was in Afghanistan to survey the area in order to better help prepare Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division for its deployment that fall.

As I sat at my graduation ceremony exactly eight years later, I thought of my dad. I thought of the two soldiers who showed up at my family’s doorstep to break the news and the confusing days that followed his death. I’d felt this way before, though. My graduation from the New School wasn’t the first graduation day I’ve shared with the anniversary of my father’s death.

The week he was killed, I was home in Kansas preparing for finals week of my freshman year in college. I had good grades that semester and felt confident going into finals week, but I wouldn’t wind up taking them. I don’t know who notified my school of my father’s death, but they exempted me from tests that week and gave me “as much time as I felt I needed” to make them up.

In the days and the months following May 18, 2010, my education was the last thing on my mind. I dropped out of the summer classes I had planned on taking and stopped looking into all the schools my dad had spent hours researching for me; I had intended to transfer that fall. When it came to college, my dad had done everything for me. Without him, I was lost.

I wound up transferring to Kansas State University in the spring of 2011. At the time, I didn’t know anything about the G.I. Bill or about the numerous scholarship organizations available to Gold Star children, a title I was still getting used to after spending the first 18 years of my life referring to myself as an Army brat. All I knew was that K-State was a quick two-hour drive from Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, where my father is buried, and that its journalism program was a good fit, mostly because it took the majority of my transferred credits.

 Kelly (left), her youngest brother David (front), her mother Connie and her sisters, Kristen and Maggie, pose for a photo following her graduation from Kansas State University on May 18, 2013. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

Kelly (left), her youngest brother David (front), her mother Connie and her sisters, Kristen and Maggie, pose for a photo following her graduation from Kansas State University on May 18, 2013. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

During my time at K-State I got to know a fellow Gold Star child, Josh Harrison, son of Army Colonel James Harrison, who was killed in action at Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Afghanistan on May 6, 2007. Josh helped me figure out the Gold Star child chapter of the G.I. Bill and introduced me to an organization that would change my life, Children of Fallen Patriots. Fallen Patriots offered more than a scholarship; it offered me a safety net and a community of other Gold Star families with whom I could share my struggles. With Josh and Children of Fallen Patriots behind me, I had a support system again.

I was proud of myself when I found out that, despite transferring and despite dropping summer classes, I didn’t have to take a fifth year of college and that I’d graduate from Kansas State in May of 2013 as planned. I didn’t know that would mean graduating on the three-year anniversary of my father’s death.

As I walked across the stage of Bramlage Coliseum and received my diploma on May 18, 2013, the local news station, Topeka’s WIBW, had its cameras fixed on me. Diploma case in hand, I flashed a smile at the camera then looked up into the bleachers and saw my mom and siblings. I began to sob. My story headlined WIBW’s broadcast that evening.

“It’s like he was right there with you,” I remember a family friend saying as she draped her arm over my shoulder during my backyard graduation party.

The first time I graduated on the anniversary of my father’s death felt like fate. A passion for learning, for education, was something he and I had shared. I wouldn’t have made it through undergrad without the preparation and guidance he’d provided me in the years leading up to his death. I wouldn’t have graduated without the scholarships offered to me because of his sacrifice.

But I didn’t want to share the date the second time around. My husband and I took a leap of faith when we moved from Kansas to New York City so I could pursue my master’s degree in creative writing and spend two years fully focused on writing a book about my father. I’ve spent two years absorbed in his life—in notes, news articles, photo albums, and interviews with friends and family and colleagues—and when graduation rolled around, though it was fitting, I didn’t want to share that date again. I’d already spent one graduation balancing being happy and being sad; this time, I just wanted to celebrate.

 Kelly McHugh-Stewart celebrates her graduation with her husband, Mark Stewart, outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium on May 18, 2018. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

Kelly McHugh-Stewart celebrates her graduation with her husband, Mark Stewart, outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium on May 18, 2018. Courtesy of Kelly McHugh-Stewart

I’ve come to learn that when you lose someone you love, the hurt shows up stronger during the happy times. I felt it during my wedding when I hugged my older brother before he walked me down the aisle, and I felt it each time I found out I’d soon be an aunt to a new niece or nephew. There’s an underlying sadness that comes with the joy.

Dad would be so proud.

I know that the sadness I felt during my graduations would have still been there regardless of the date. Even if I had graduated on a different day in May, the tears still would have formed as I looked up at my family cheering me on and thought about the absence of my father.

Sharing my graduation date, twice now, with the anniversary of his death has been bittersweet. Both times it has been emotional, but it has also been a powerful reminder of the strength it took to get back on my feet. It’s a statement: I did not let the terrorist who took my father’s life defeat me, and I am far from done when it comes to living my life to make my father proud.

After saying goodbye to my classmates, my husband and I, hand in hand like when we had first moved to New York, headed to catch our train home.

“My dad would have thought this stadium was so cool,” I told my husband. We walked past walls decorated with photos of the tennis greats who had graced the courts of Arthur Ashe Stadium and toward the stadium’s big, gated exit. My dad was, still is, the biggest sports fan I know.

My husband put his arm around me and squeezed, and it was then I finally let myself go.

•••

Kelly McHugh-Stewart is a New York City-based writer currently working on a book about her father, U.S. Army Colonel John McHugh, who was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2010. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School.

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Unclear All-Clear and a Requisite for Air


One night stuck in a shipping container during an air raid drill is enough to make anyone claustrophobic. Problem is, Yvette Pino already was.

Unclear All-Clear and a Requisite for Air


One night stuck in a shipping container during an air raid drill is enough to make anyone claustrophobic. Problem is, Yvette Pino already was.

By Yvette Pino

I always felt claustrophobic in my gas mask. My breathing would become stunted, like food going down the wrong pipe. To prevent hyperventilating, I had a ritual when masked: search for the built-in drinking straw with my tongue in an attempt to drink water. I’d unsnap my canteen holster with my left hand and unhook the exterior drinking tube on the mask with my right. My tongue would dance inside my mask, and I’d begin to produce an excess of saliva, another disruption to my breathing; my frustration would grow when I couldn’t wrangle the straw. It would jostle, flip, and stick to the top of my lip. My tongue would lunge out to capture the rubber tube, I’d bite down, and wedge it up between the one-eighth-inch gap between my front teeth. I would inhale my spit, snort air in through my nose, and tilt my canteen upside down, angling my head to get the best flow of water, and my gas mask asana was then complete. It was the right amount of distraction to make the claustrophobia less acute.

We’d become accustomed to hearing the air raid siren throughout the day, but we were especially aware of it at night. Interrupted sleep had become the norm, and the notion of a good night’s rest was nothing but a fairy tale. That night started out like they all had. We’d received our briefing, reviewed the guard duty schedule, and coordinated wake-up calls. Individually prepared uniform piles lined the aisles and were arranged in a firefighter style with boots unlaced, pant legs placed inside and scrunched down so we could lunge into them and be ready to move. At the foot of each cot sat rucksacks with butterflied flak vests resting on top. Kevlars were balanced strategically to be plucked suddenly. There were several camps located within a short distance of one another, and sometimes we could hear sirens faintly, in the distance, and would debate whether or not it was for our camp. Eventually the volume would reach the right decibel to confirm that the warning was for us—or not—and we would act accordingly.

 Soldiers of the 101st drive by the shipping container that was used as makeshift shelter in the desert of Kuwait prior to entering Iraq in 2003. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

Soldiers of the 101st drive by the shipping container that was used as makeshift shelter in the desert of Kuwait prior to entering Iraq in 2003. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

It was lights-out, and most of us had faded off to sleep. Around midnight, the faded howl of the siren began; I wasn’t sure if it was real or if my sleep-deprived mind was playing a cruel game of air raid tinnitus. No one else seemed to be reacting. False alarm, I thought, and slumped back down, closing my eyes. Within seconds the warning cry, this time at the right decibel, found its way to our horns, and we were jolted from our slumbers in an instant rage of seek shelter, seek shelter, seek shelter.

Sergeant Quetot and I had it perfectly timed: 25 seconds from siren to tent flap. We slept on opposite sides of the tent and had agreed that we would be each other’s battle buddy each time we made the mad dash. The shelter was a 20-foot shipping container hugged by five rows of neatly piled sandbags. This is where all E-5s and enlisted soldiers from the headquarters platoon and the 101st Band were assigned to go. Every time the alarm would sound we assumed the threat was real and dispersed hurriedly, filling the container’s entire square footage, in full battle rattle, woven together like human chainmail.

Sergeant Quetot and I were one of the first groups to arrive, but we were separated moments after completing our canteen ritual as the soldiers surged into the shelter. I was pushed to the back as bodies piled in, and soon found myself compacted between soldiers with no room to move my arms. I panicked when I realized I wouldn’t be able to drink water as a way to calm my breathing. I would have to close my eyes and accept this fate. I convinced myself that it was only temporary and that soon I would be outside, with my mask off, taking in the sand-crusted air once more.

There came a dull screech, and the knuckled moan of metallic hinges bearing too much weight slowed time. I heard the pin rotate, the reverberating verification that open was now closed. The door was forcibly aligned and the judder of the latch, rotating downward, pushing into the locking fasteners, sealed us in with a finality that hushed the room as we collectively paused to comprehend what we’d just heard.

“Did they just seal the door?” someone up front said.

“They know better than that, right?”

“Everybody just stop!” I heard someone yell.

“They will realize it and open it back up, just calm down and shut up.”

It was silent with the exception of muffled breathing. We were lit by the subtle glow of the green clip lights fastened to our vests. It was like we were all counting down in our heads how many seconds it would take to walk away, for them to realize what they’d done, to turn around to correct their mistake.

We waited.

No one returned. There we stood, stuck inside this corrugated metal box, contained, but so exposed.

Reality started sinking in, and some people ignored the plea for silence. I drank in the details of the moment, standing in the cargo container, memorizing everything I was experiencing. My knuckle scraped against the front-end sight of someone’s rifle, and my ammo pouch snagged on the handgrip of another. Every time someone tried to adjust positions, my shoulders would shimmy. I became a little weeble-wobble hoisted around, hovering in imagined elevation.

 “We were lit by the subtle glow of green clip-lights fastened to our vests.” Drawing on paper, 2018. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

“We were lit by the subtle glow of green clip-lights fastened to our vests.” Drawing on paper, 2018. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

After a few minutes, an uproar of sighs and aghast exclamations from the front end started a second wave of panic.

“What is going on?”

“Oh, that’s disgusting.”

“Do not take off your mask! Do not, YOU CAN NOT TAKE OFF YOUR MASK!”

Soon the shock turned to concern, to reassurance, and back to concern, and finally to guilt.

“I know it’s hard, but you cannot take off your mask until the all-clear.”

“She won’t be able to breath anyway, she’ll choke on it.”

“Try to relax.”

“You try to relax! She’s trapped inside that thing with a pool of vomit.”

A collective gasp of disgust and sympathy sighed out in the acknowledgement of what was happening. Our posture slumped in unison. Time passed with only sporadic reassurances from the front. I wondered if she had stayed masked, or if all caution had been thrown to the wind.

And then the siren’s cry was muted.

We waited a few minutes more.

 The author, Yvette Pino, kept always kept a sketchbook with her. She drew this image the day after her group was locked inside a shipping container used as a makeshift shelter. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

The author, Yvette Pino, kept always kept a sketchbook with her. She drew this image the day after her group was locked inside a shipping container used as a makeshift shelter. Courtesy of Yvette Pino

Never had the reverberation of swiveling metal been so resonant.

We had never been locked and sealed in that container before. I doubt the personnel on the other side anticipated the bellowed charge of the trapped soldiers as we spilled out in a furious rage. We must have looked like a scene from one of those horror movies where maggots emerge from punctured decaying flesh and swarm in every direction looking for their next place to nibble. It certainly felt like that. By the time I reached the front, it had already been established who was to blame. If ever there were a time to show disrespect to a non-commissioned officer, this was it. As soon as I stepped down and felt boot to sand, vignettes unfolded before me in a montage of accusations, consolations, ramifications, and explanations. Fury mixed with indifference mixed with fear.

I glanced to my right, and there she was, the soldier who had thrown up in her mask, being held up by the medic in an unrequited embrace. Her limp torso curved inward and her flaccid arms dangled to the side, and yet, she held onto her soiled mask. I wept without tears and was asphyxiated with melancholy. It was my friend and fellow cook. She was hard as nails, a tough single mother who’d distanced herself from stupidity and naiveté.

Looking back, I wonder if, in this moment, she was more horrified by the miserable experience of being trapped in her own vomit, or by the realization that her body’s vulnerability had betrayed her sturdy façade. Our core group gathered in an effort to comfort her, and we were dismissed, told to give her some space.

I walked away, thinking about her, thinking about all of us, and hoped that the masking and unmasking, this life of alarms versus all-clears, would soon be over and we wouldn’t have to live this way forever.

•••

Yvette M. Pino served with the 101st Airborne Division from 2002-2006. She earned a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011 and will receive a certificate in museum studies from Northwestern University in 2018. She currently works for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum as the traveling art exhibit coordinator, serves on the Madison Arts Commission, and sits on the board of the National Veteran Art Museum.

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Dress Blues and Triple C’s


Scott Reel learned quickly that he could resist the Corps’ structure and suffer, or he could play the part of the good Marine, do his time, and then leave.

Dress Blues and Triple C’s


Scott Reel learned quickly that he could resist the Corps’ structure and suffer, or he could play the part of the good Marine, do his time, and then leave.

By Scott Reel

I arrived at Fort Meade the day after the Twelve became 11. Number Twelve had drunk bleach and hanged himself with an extension cord. So my first day of MOS school, where I was training to become a combat correspondent—like Full Metal Jacket—was spent in a chapel.

The Twelve, as they were called by the platoon, had gotten into serious trouble for committing crimes involving drugs called Triple C’s. It seemed likely that the Marine Corps would discharge all of them—except, of course, the Marine we were going to see, who would now, ironically in death, forever be claimed by the beloved Corps—but that was all the information I could glean about the situation before entering the funeral service.

 Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, during Exercise Koolendong, August 2014. Courtesy of Scott Reel

Marines with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, during Exercise Koolendong, August 2014. Courtesy of Scott Reel

I stood at attention in a pew next to two female Marines who had relinquished their bearing to emotion, allowing themselves not only feeling but also expression, which fascinated me. For that hour, they were not privates first class but rather Janelle and Casey, two normal grieving people in a uniform that, for them, didn’t suit the occasion, only detracted from it, even exacerbated it.

Staring into the eyes of the private’s portrait—which stood as erect and cold on the easel as he stood in the photograph itself next to his coffin—I couldn’t cry. I didn’t know him. I noticed, perhaps for the first time in four months, that I didn’t feel anything.

Taps began. The photo taken only a few months prior was nothing if not ironic. The dress blues that he wore, the same that every Marine wears for that exact photo in boot camp, were not his at all, nor were they real: They were actually more like aprons, cut in half in the back and tied around him. Appearance was more important than truth in that other world. Only a day ago, he was a criminal; today, lying frozen at attention in his eternal wooden rack, all that mattered was his title, Marine.

That night I cried on the six-inch mattress of my wooden rack, which was always immaculate, for the sheets and the blankets were bootbanded underneath such that no matter how hard one slept, the bed would always remain ready for inspection.  

I’d been given the top bunk by the same lance corporal who taught me the bootband trick, and I let the tears fall as they wished. I didn’t cry for that private first class, though; I cried for me, for both relief and horror. On the one hand, my bunk and I sat above it all, not only the situation—the Twelve and their fallen member—but also the eyes of every Marine at the MARDET, none of whom I felt I could yet trust. On the other hand, I lay just a few feet below the same ceiling from which, only a few doors down, that private first class I never knew had decidedly taken his own life.

The next morning Gunny addressed the platoon, standing at ease in formation, and told us that we were now on restriction: no off-base liberty, no recreation room, and no gym. Private First Class Pyle, a tall, lanky kid from Utah, leaned over and said, poignantly, with a psychotic grin, “One puppy pees on the floor, and they punish the litter.” A shiver ran down my spine, but right then I knew I could trust him.

Over the next five months, after our journalism classes, Pyle and I would sit on the smoke deck with the remaining members of the Twelve, where they could always be found. Usually one played a guitar, a few would dip, and a few others might smoke, but everyone would collectively attempt to identify the essential quality that made the MARDET, the building and all that came with it, insufferable.

 Sgt. Scott Reel, former United States Marine Corps combat correspondent, participates in Marine Corps Martial Art Program training while at completing his Military Occupational Specialty school in Maryland. Courtesy of Scott Reel

Sgt. Scott Reel, former United States Marine Corps combat correspondent, participates in Marine Corps Martial Art Program training while at completing his Military Occupational Specialty school in Maryland. Courtesy of Scott Reel

One day, after Pyle and I had achieved off-base liberty status, granted with seniority and good behavior, he asked me if I wanted to try Triple C’s and Delsym—the same drugs that had been the Twelve’s undoing. I said, “Yes,” unhesitatingly, without expression.

Pyle called Taxi Mike. He’d take the Marines to Baltimore strip clubs, buy them alcohol, allow them to buy drugs. He was our in, our key to the door of illicit opportunity.

Pyle told me to buy the Delsym; he’d buy the Triple C’s. In the back of the cab he dumped a handful of small red pills into my hand. I stuffed them all into my mouth and let the orange, viscous cough syrup carry them to my stomach. I set the empty bottle on my knee, wiped my mouth, and licked my lips, tasting the remnants of the sugar-coated pills and the orange-flavored Delsym. We went to the mall and waited.

After a few hours, I still felt nothing. Pyle, who sat next to me in one of the mall’s black massage chairs, giggled with his eyes closed. “Do you feel it? You should see it, man.” I felt nothing but agitation. I wanted to see what he saw, whatever came with the high we were chasing.

An hour later, I stood in front of the Marine on duty and signed the both of us in, talking calmly and lucidly, while Pyle snuck upstairs to our room. But as I attempted to place my foot down on the first step, I missed—reality unhinged. I stood half suspended from the railing, staring at blue-stained carpet only a foot from my face.

“You all right, lance corporal?” I heard from the duty. “Fine! I’m fine,” I said and rushed upstairs.  I sprinted down the hallway and bounced off of the walls trying to keep my balance. Reaching our room, I slammed the door and stared at Pyle with a wide-eyed grin. “Pyle, oh my God, I’m dying.”

 Sgt. Scott Reel, former United States Marine Corps combat correspondent, presenting his thesis prior to graduating with a degree in english and philosophy at the University of Illinois Chicago in 2017. Courtesy of Scott Reel

Sgt. Scott Reel, former United States Marine Corps combat correspondent, presenting his thesis prior to graduating with a degree in english and philosophy at the University of Illinois Chicago in 2017. Courtesy of Scott Reel

For the remainder of the night, locked in the fetal position, I danced in my mind, round and round with violent, vibrating colors and deep melodic sounds that filled me with exultation and terror. Would they catch me and discharge me? Would I be Number Thirteen? Would I wake up dead?

At this point, after four or five months at the MARDET, I had succumbed to both my depression and anxiety. I took Pyle’s prescribed “medicine” as well as those prescribed by the base’s medical—Ambien, antidepressants, something for nightmares—but none of it helped. Only after being imprisoned in complete darkness, only after being absolutely alone in my unbounded mind, swirling in a midst of confusion, did it become clear.

There was no way out, no escape from here or the Marine Corps. I looked down at my nametape, Reel. This is what I had signed up to do, so I’d better do it. Shortly thereafter, I became squad leader, acquired my green belt, and finished my second MOS.

Pyle changed MOSs and, I heard, was institutionalized. Finally, after being released back to his MOS school, but not before piloting an uprising, Pyle was separated from the Marine Corps. I’m sure his father, a sergeant major, didn’t understand.

As for me, when my master gunny first looked at his lance corporal—over a year into my enlistment, with a green belt, a first-class PFT, and a second MOS—I’m sure he didn’t understand either, the difference between Lance Corporal Reel and Scott Reel. Appearance mattered more than truth.

•••

Scott Reel is a former Marine Corps sergeant, serving four years as a combat correspondent and broadcast journalist. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in literature at New York University.

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Running Home After a Marathon of Funerals


Sarah Holzhalb endured a marathon of funerals shortly after separating from the Coast Guard. All these years later, the month of March still sucks.

Running Home After a Marathon of Funerals


Sarah Holzhalb endured a marathon of funerals shortly after separating from the Coast Guard. All these years later, the month of March still sucks.

By Sarah Holzhalb

With every step they would watch me, as the suffocating humidity of Louisiana summer drenched me in salty sweat. I’d like to think that they were silently cheering me on, smirking humorously at my idea of “fun”—training for my first marathon.  

A fiery red cardinal, the state bird of my beloved Virginia, turns its head in measured ticks as I sprint by. Hi, Grandpa, I smile to myself. A squirrel hesitantly crosses in front of me, pauses, doubting its path, before scampering up a tree. I roll my eyes and snort out a giggle at the same time. Frank, you’re a spaz. I wish you would have just called to talk. In the stagnant air, a whisper of movement from an amber butterfly brushes my forehead before it continues into the ether. Thanks, Aunt Sarah. A great blue heron, critiquing my form, stands motionless. I know, Coach. I know.

 The author with Master Chief Petty Officer Carlos Najera.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

The author with Master Chief Petty Officer Carlos Najera.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

I’d been out of the Coast Guard nearly two years when the deaths began. My shipmates and friends feeling the same inconceivable loss were dispersed around the country. I had moved away to the Big Easy, where I worked in a job representing the industry my former military branch regulates—on the “other side.” Seeing my former shipmates at mutual business meetings dressed in the uniform I’d proudly worn every day for half a decade made the feeling of separation more acute. I attempted to rock my Banana Republic skinny pants and leopard-print flats bought during my latest civilian shopping spree, hoping I would look like I knew what I was doing. I was still adjusting to civilian life when the first person died.

I lived in a constant state of “Who will it be next?” after Aunt Sarah passed away that continued long after I learned about Frank’s suicide. My Pearl Jam ringtone was no longer cool to hear, making me wince like a Q-tip pushed too far in my ear every time someone called. The bold print of a new email from a friend screamed with the possibility of bad news. After weeks of countless phone calls, emails, and text messages, I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I sought refuge away from my devices in my monthly issue of Runner’s World. About a month after the marathon of funerals, I found myself mindlessly snapping through the latest edition. I had been thinking of completing a marathon for the past few years, and I wanted my first to be the Marine Corps Marathon. As with many things in life, I just hadn’t gotten to it. As I turned the magazine’s page and caught sight of the full-page ad for the 34th Marine Corps Marathon, I snatched my hand back to my chest, as though I’d slammed my finger in the kitchen drawer.

“If not now, then when?” a voice in my head demanded. Grandpa had served as a Marine in World War II in the Pacific theater. It was as if he, Frank, Coach, and Aunt Sarah were speaking to me, telling me to focus my energy on a positive challenge instead of my grief.

 The author’s Grandfather, Jack Whitehouse, who served on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa with the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

The author’s Grandfather, Jack Whitehouse, who served on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa with the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

February 5, Grandpa. He taught me some of life’s most important lessons when I was growing up in rural Virginia: patriotism, how to fish, how to drive a tractor with a trailer loaded with firewood, how to shoot the .22 caliber from the front porch at the groundhog eating the vegetable garden. “I just don’t see what you find so fascinating. It was just something I did,” he would say when he would catch me engrossed in looking at the sepia and black-and-white pictures of him and his war buddies, tucked away in a velvety, worn manila envelope in some forgotten cabinet.

March 14, Coach. For a few years at the Coast Guard Academy, I played basketball, which was my first love. My head coach became my mentor, and he and his wife were like second parents. He loved me like a daughter and said that I could do no wrong in his eyes. He was tough on me, because he saw potential and expected my best. “You’re a point guard. You’re just like me. You’re born to struggle,” Coach used to say. It took me years to understand that this was the ultimate compliment. The man who bestowed this praise, whether it was with his arm around my sweaty shoulders after a loss or in an email that reached across thousands of miles to my lonely corporate laptop, died by suicide. I can’t miss the irony on how this shared characteristic was supposed to be one of my strengths, and yet it was his downfall. I wish he could hear me now when I tell him that I’m no longer angry.

March 23, Frank. One of the smartest and craziest people I’ve ever known, he offered me a tequila shot the moment I walked into the apartment he shared with my college boyfriend in Cocoa Beach, Florida, where their ship was stationed. A surfer kid from Los Angeles, Jack and Cokes were his hydration plan of choice; he drove a Harley, listened to Enya endlessly, and enjoyed regular pedicures. The enlisted personnel that worked for him loved and respected him; his commanding officers trusted him implicitly. Being a Coastie was all Frank knew. The last time we spoke, I had just returned from Coach’s funeral. Frank had asked me to help him find an apartment in New Orleans; he was moving back to the city he loved so much. Coach’s suicide was on the tip of my tongue our entire call, but the conversation was jovial and exciting, and I hesitated to tell him my depressing news. It could wait until we were in person. What if I had told Frank during that last conversation? Would it have prevented him from shooting himself in the head five days later? Frank was buried at sea, fitting for a career sailor.

 The author’s aunt and uncle, Mike and Sarah, on their wedding day, 1985.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

The author’s aunt and uncle, Mike and Sarah, on their wedding day, 1985.Courtesy of Sarah Holzhalb

March 24, Aunt Sarah. The loving wife of my Coastie Uncle Mike, she was stunningly beautiful, ridiculously intelligent, fiercely independent; she loved her husband, their two kids, and family more than anything. During my two years deployed at sea, she sent me numerous care packages with my favorite snacks. When my ship returned to its Boston home, docking right next to its sister ship, which my uncle had served on, they came from their home in Pennsylvania to visit their favorite city and to treat me dinner in Little Italy. She never let anything get in the way of what she wanted to accomplish, including the advanced ovarian cancer she fought while remaining at the top of the inaugural class of Drexel University School of Law. Her degree was posthumously awarded. There’s a perseverance award named after her—for a damned good reason—granted to one student who shows commitment and grit through adversity.  

Four deaths in a little over a month; three in 10 days; two of those by suicide. I dread turning the calendar page at February’s end. The month of March still sucks. Such a simple transition from one day to the next weighs heavy, like a pile of wet towels I carry alone. There are moments I forget they’re all dead. Like when the light awakens me and I open my eyes to greet a new day. Then my brain catches up, and I remember they’re gone. I still have the urge to call them when it randomly occurs to me that I haven’t heard their voices in a while. It’s been years since I’ve talked with them, in the flesh at least. My mind still spirals with questions and prayers for answers, but sends nothing in return.

I found some relief in running, and every step of training for the Marine Corps Marathon was therapeutic. I welcomed the burning pain in my quads as evidence that I was getting stronger, replacing the aching string of obsessive thoughts that got me nowhere. Headphones in, Zeppelin, Brandi Carlile, Peter Gabriel, Depeche Mode, Alice in Chains, Van Halen, Bon Iver, Lionel Richie. Songs specifically chosen to make me cry, nod my head, grit my teeth, as I stubbornly challenged the running gods to bring it on. Bring the pain, I’d think. I can take it, outlast it. The miles rolled on. As the months of training went by, endorphin-induced gratitude for these four people attempted to replace my sadness and disbelief. The ache will never go away. But, like training for the numerous marathons and ultramarathons I have finished since, the discomfort has become familiar, easier to manage.

•••

Sarah Holzhalb was a Coast Guard officer from 2002-2007, serving both afloat and ashore tours. She received her B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University and her M.P.S. from the George Washington University. Sarah works for Team RWB, a nonprofit that enriches the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. She lives in Louisiana and enjoys reading, running trails, and being outdoors with her family. Follow her on Twitter @SarahHolzhalb.

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River City


The day was quiet, but why, Jerad W. Alexander didn’t know—until David said, simply, “River city.”

River City


The day was quiet, but why, Jerad W. Alexander didn’t know—until David said, simply, “River city.”

By Jerad W. Alexander

Shannon said nothing as I stepped into the battalion administration office on the first floor of the big command center—the Headquarters—on the plateau that overlooked the desert to the north. I had just returned from a nine-day operation in the Euphrates Valley, commanding a Humvee of wayward Marine lance corporals stuck between jobs and plugged into the dubious task of escorting a videographer to the Marine battle positions that dotted the Iraqi urban landscape—dusty outposts of the Empire—canning footage for some dubious video project cooked up by an officer with more ideas than practical understanding.

 A portrait of the author, Jerad W. Alexander, taken within weeks of the story. Courtesy of Jerad W. Alexander

A portrait of the author, Jerad W. Alexander, taken within weeks of the story. Courtesy of Jerad W. Alexander

Whatever the case, we were finished. I walked into the administration office to check in. Normally the office was a raucous place. The men inside all knew each other intimately, having spent six months very close to one another, and Shannon, though in charge, had made the place fraternal, even to me, a functional outsider. Today it was quiet. Behind his desk, Shannon barely acknowledged my presence. David, his second in charge, offered a solemn nod, but little else. He sat at his desk repacking tobacco into a Black & Mild cigar. At first I didn’t consider the silence, or at least register it as anything other than a mute day. One of those drooling afternoons in the Big Routine that just seems out of phase somehow. But when I began to take a seat behind the communal computer to check my email, David looked over his computer monitor—

“River city, dog,” he said.

I shot erect with my rifle in my hand before I could fully sit. River City was code—someone had been wounded or killed. All communications with the Homefront were terminated until next of kin had been notified, usually within 24 hours.

“Who?” I asked.

“Phillips. India Company.”

“Steven Phillips?”

David nodded. “Know him?”

“I did.”

David gestured toward Shannon and spoke softly. Shannon had not looked away from his computer once. “Staff sergeant had to go identify the body,” David said.

I sat down in the chair.

It’s true I knew Lance Corporal Steven L. Phillips, but not in any real way. We had never hung out, at least not socially. I only knew him within the context of Iraq. We had worked together, loosely, during a house-to-house operation the previous fall and had been through a few firefights together. He was an “anti-tank assaultman,” as the Marine Corps referred to it, but mainly he lugged around a large rocket launcher, along with a shotgun, and shepherded another, much newer lance corporal through the alleys and streets of Husaybah, blowing locks and hinges off the doors anyone, or at least anyone other than the homeowners, deemed appropriate. He did shoot a rocket once, though. We’d been ambushed by insurgents from an Iraqi house. Phillips shot a rocket into it that burned everything inside. We were grateful for that. I interviewed him about it later, after the operation, for a small Americana-apple pie story for the hometown newspapers. “We have the resources to take targets out without going in bodily,” he’d told me, as if it were a clinical procedure. He’d said it softly, but with confidence. He’d also told me that he wanted to leave the Marines and become a civilian pilot.

“What happened?” I remember asking David.

“Vehicle roll-over,” David said. “He was in the back of a high-back Humvee. The driver rolled it going down a slope too fast. He was thrown out and the vehicle landed on top of him. I think he was alive for a few minutes. I don’t know.” Shannon remained fixed at his computer, plugging numbers into some eternal matrix of personnel and logistics, administrative flotsam. His face was stony.

After a moment I stood and left the administration room and the big command building. I stopped along a bench on the side of the building that faced the open desert to the north and east. I sat down and rested my rifle across my lap. I lit a cigarette. The desert was brown and ugly, and though it was sunny I wanted it to all vanish behind a mist. My knee rattled up and down, making the sling of my rifle clatter against the scuffed black buttstock. I toggled the cigarette filter with my thumb—off and on, off and on. I finished it and tossed it away, and rose and left. I walked toward the chapel, built as it was inside a defunct and abandoned passenger train car. I wove through the sun-beaten wooden huts where Marines and soldiers palled outside under the chaos of camouflage netting, drinking Red Bull, shooting the shit.

I walked somewhat aimlessly, absentmindedly, but in the notional direction of the mess hall. I meandered through a gap between the giant mechanic’s bay and the pavilion that hid all the gear for the combat engineers. A helicopter clattered overhead; halfway down the narrow gap, a Marine helicopter crossed the crystal blue sky above—twin-rotored, ugly gray. The long airstrip where helicopters normally landed and refueled was on the far end of the base, nowhere near where I stood, looking up. But the chopper circled as if to land somewhere close by. I knew what was going to happen. I dreaded it.

 An Army medevac helicopter coming to collect a wounded Marine. The photograph is from a different incident. Courtesy of Jerad W. Alexander

An Army medevac helicopter coming to collect a wounded Marine. The photograph is from a different incident. Courtesy of Jerad W. Alexander

I began to run as the helicopter lowered and settled into a hover. I reached the end of the alley where it burst wide into a landing pad outside the battalion aid station. The helicopter settled on the pad and idled its engines. The back ramp lowered. The crew chief stepped out onto the concrete dressed in a long, tan flight suit and a large camouflaged helmet with the sun visor pulled down and tethered by the spiral intercom cord still plugged somewhere inside the chopper’s guts.

From inside the aid station, a line of Navy corpsmen emerged and made two ranks on either side of the large wooden door. Most had stripped down to their T-shirts and baggy camouflage trousers. Some wore baby blue latex gloves. The rotor blades whirled dust devils on the concrete and disturbed the gravel in the cracks. The crew chief remained near the ramp.

The doors of the aid station burst open as four corpsmen pushed a large green stretcher into the sunlight. The stretcher had large wheels affixed to it. Gone were the days of manhandling the dead and wounded with the wooden poles of M*A*S*H-era canvas stretchers. As the four corpsmen pushed past the corpsmen flanking the door, each row saluted, as did the crew chief. I stood a little straighter and saluted too, the requirements of military protocol. I was here and the corpsmen were here and Phillips had come here of his own free will. America was here of its own free will too, and for its purposes Phillips and many, many others, on every side, were dead. Some were in shallow graves or decomposing along the length of the Euphrates and Tigris. Others were shredded by high explosives, others atomized. Some died later, at home, by their own hand, as if a bullet or bomb had been caught in a gust and tossed into some unseen future to strike later. Some were carried out on stretchers to the maws of waiting helicopters, crushed by the stupidity and hubris of the Empire.

While the corpsmen remained in their places with their salutes brushing against their temples, the crew chief stepped into his bird and raised the gate. After a moment the engines revved and scattered the desert around it and around us in buffeting gusts of wind. The corpsmen remained with their salutes, pummeled as we were with rocks and old trash, unwilling and unable to find shelter or run from the storm. But not me. For a moment I watched as the helicopter tottered on its wheels before I turned away, into the alley, beating my fist into the tan, ugly wall for all the dust in my eyes while the helicopter turned in a wide arch and clattered across the desert and was gone.

•••

Jerad W. Alexander is a New York-based writer focusing on politics, history, war, and American culture with works published in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Narratively, Ozy, and elsewhere. He is also a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute literary reportage program. A list of works can be found at jeradalexander.com. He can be followed at @jerad_alexander.

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Gridlock Gets You Killed


As traffic slowed to a stop and the color drained from his face, Liesel Kershul began to see that Tom had changed. Then he tried to kill her in his sleep.

Gridlock Gets You Killed


As traffic slowed to a stop and the color drained from his face, Liesel Kershul began to see that Tom had changed. Then he tried to kill her in his sleep.

By Liesel Kershul

There was the happy-go-lucky man I knew who laughed at everything, and then there was the man who tried to break my neck in his sleep. Tom wasn’t the same when he came home from his second combat tour. Not in any obvious way—you couldn’t tell by looking at him; it wasn’t tattooed on his forehead.

It was not a disorder. It was a normal reaction to his experiences in Afghanistan. At first, even I couldn’t tell there was anything wrong. He went to work, hung out with friends, went to the gym, made me carne asada and served it outside in the San Clemente sunshine with a couple of Mexican lagers and limes.

 The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband Tom would run along the pier near the old home in San Clemente, Calif. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband Tom would run along the pier near the old home in San Clemente, Calif. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

We went for runs on the beach. He told funny stories about the Afghan soldiers he’d trained, and one in particular that still makes me laugh about a pet monkey he couldn’t get to quit humping his arm. Tom has the enviable ability to always see the sunny side of life, to laugh rather than worry. He wasn’t actively attempting to suppress his symptoms; he simply isn’t the type to dwell on the bad, so they trickled out slowly over time.

The first time we noticed, we were on the freeway. He’d been home for about a week and we were taking a day trip to San Diego. The traffic was horrendous, and we were stuck in that heavy, congested, multiple-hour-delaying gridlock that you rarely see outside of Southern California or the D.C. Beltway. It didn’t bother me, though; we had the windows down, the radio was on, and Tom was home. I could have idled happily in that car for hours. But as we slowed from a crawl to a stop, I looked over and saw Tom’s hands were gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles were white. His face had drained of color, and he was sweating profusely even though the day was mild.

I clicked off the radio and asked him what was wrong. I’d never seen him like that. He didn’t answer at first, and it scared me. He was agitated and kept glancing at the mirrors, looking for a way out of our lane and onto the shoulder—anything to get moving again. He looked like a cornered animal. He wasn’t saying anything, so I put my hand on his shoulder and gently asked him if I needed to drive. I tried to make it a joke and told him we could do a Chinese fire drill like a couple of goofy teenagers in our parents’ minivan. He didn’t even crack a smile. Finally, he looked at me and said that just a few days ago, being trapped and unmoving in traffic like that in Afghanistan could have gotten him killed.

 The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband Tom lived at this intersection in San Clemente, Calif. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

The author, Liesel Kershul, and her husband Tom lived at this intersection in San Clemente, Calif. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

Talking about it, however briefly, seemed to break the spell. He took some deep breaths, shook his head, and laughed at himself for being the cliché veteran home from “the war” with PTSD. He mellowed, but he also rolled up the windows and didn’t turn the radio back on.

Weeks passed without another episode, and I didn’t think much more about his reaction to the traffic—until one night when he tried to kill me in his sleep. I woke up to him halfway on top of me, one of his arms was wrapped around the back of my head, the other pressing against my chin. I don’t remember being jolted awake by the violence, but rather that my eyes fluttered open almost tranquilly as he tried to break my neck. The room was dark as pitch and I couldn’t tell who was hurting me until I recognized Tom’s scent, and then his voice as he repeatedly mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep. To this day neither one of us knows what it was.

It was nothing less than surreal to have my best friend—the happiest, cruisiest person I know—try to kill me in his sleep. It still feels more a dream than reality, and I have a hard time reconciling what he was doing to me with who he was and who he is. Tom didn’t (and doesn’t) have anger issues. This is a man who laughs nearly as often as he breathes. Who holds doors for strangers. Who routinely rescues baby birds and even once a baby bunny. Who has literally given a friend the shirt off his back. At the time, he wasn’t even hypervigilant, although he would become more so over the next year before his symptoms would simply disappear as abruptly as they’d arrived. Beyond that brief incident in the traffic, there were no signs that he would become violent, and when he did, I didn’t know how to respond; the military doesn’t hand out manuals for that sort of thing.

 Tom in Afghanistan with his interpreters. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

Tom in Afghanistan with his interpreters. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul.

So, as I lay trapped beneath a nearly 200-pound Marine having a post-traumatic stress episode in his sleep, I did the only thing I could think of: I tried to kick him in the balls. Then I beat him as hard as I could with my closed fists and yelled, “Tom! Wake up! It’s me! It’s just me!” His eyes flew open, and he looked at my face and at his arms wrapped around my neck. He realized almost instantaneously what was happening, so he dropped me, sat bolt upright, and apologized over and over. He had this look on his face of utter disbelief, and, to me, it seemed as though he didn’t know himself in that moment. I told him it was okay. I wasn’t hurt, just scared, and everything was going to be fine. He enveloped me in a bear hug and held me until we finally fell back asleep. He’s never once laughed about it.

He was violent only one other time after that, again in his sleep, but instead of trying to break my neck, he catapulted me out of the bed. As my head hit the nightstand and I landed painfully on the floor, I remember thinking, Well, better bruised than broken.

The thud I made didn’t even wake Tom. I was scared to get back in bed with someone who was being violent in his sleep, so I shuffled over to our futon on my knees and timidly shook him by the shoulder. I didn’t know if he was going to lash out, and I considered sleeping on the couch and simply letting him be, but when I touched him, he opened his eyes sleepily, smiled at me, and said, “Hey sweets.” He had no idea what had just happened, and at that moment I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I crawled back under the covers, curled up against him with my head on his chest, and didn’t sleep a wink.

••• 

Liesel Kershul is a writer and a lifelong student of philosophy, politics, and human behavior. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, and an M.S. in applied psychology from Sacred Heart University.

No Use Crying


Jackie Munn spilled hot chai on her lap and the girls erupted in giggles. They danced, smiled, asked why Munn had blue eyes. Then came the whip.

No Use Crying


Jackie Munn spilled hot chai on her lap and the girls erupted in giggles. They danced, smiled, asked why Munn had blue eyes. Then came the whip.

By Jackie Munn

I remember feeling the sun’s warmth on my face, my neck growing sweaty thanks to the headscarf I’d wrapped in careful layers around my head. It didn’t help that our Afghan hosts kept feeding us boiling-hot chai milk. Not one to shirk customs, I smiled as I drank sips of the intoxicatingly sweet drink, careful to hold the cup with the tips of my fingers in an attempt to avoid completely burning my hands off. No one seemed to notice my discomfort, thankfully, while our Afghan hosts busily offered us plates filled with sweet treats. They asked us about our families, our health, and the weather, as is customary in rural Afghanistan—never jumping directly to business or pressing matters. Always time for pleasantries and a treat.

 School age children near the Afghan-Pakistan border loiter outside their school. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

School age children near the Afghan-Pakistan border loiter outside their school. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

Placing my glass of scalding tea beside me on the grass, I slowly adjusted the ends of my headscarf wrapped tightly around my neck, careful not to expose my hair too much. In that moment, I noticed a group of girls peering at me from behind a walled compound. When I caught their gaze, they screamed in a fit of giggles, excitement exploding from behind the brick walls. I gave them a small smirk, chuckling under my breath as I picked up my tea, much too quickly, spilling it all over my lap and yelling out in pain. The scorching warmth seeped through my dirty MultiCam uniform, and I knew instantly that I would find a lovely first-degree burn on my leg later that night.

Once again, I heard the excited shrieks and giggles of girls from behind the compound. Shaking my head over the excitement that my clumsiness had apparently incited, I stood up and attempted to wipe away the remnants of sticky milk tea from my pants—in vain, of course. Apparently my gasp only merited a shameful sideways glance from my teammates and the elderly Afghan men, who quickly returned to their talks about security and the local police force. Since the damage was done and I was not actively a part of the conversation with the village elders, I made my way over to the compound to meet the group of curious, giggling girls.

They peered once more from behind the safety of their brick wall before finally bounding out in throngs to greet me when they realized I was heading their way. They huddled closely around me, taking turns holding my hand and asking me questions. With the help of an interpreter who’d followed me toward the compound, I was able to answer their questions and gained a glimmer of an idea about why they were so excited to see me.

Are you married? Do you have children? Can we be friends? Will you visit us tomorrow? Why are your eyes blue?

Their questions came like a flood, and I did my best to answer each curious inquiry. In between doling out answers and handing out bracelets and candy for everyone to enjoy, I eventually got around to my own line of questioning. I found out they had been at school that morning, but class had stopped because their teacher was taking part in the meeting with the Americans and the village elders. I explained that I was working with local teachers in nearby villages and would love to make my way back to see them and their teacher again soon. This sent them into a fit of giggles, and they began dancing. Everyone smiled, and in that instant, I was infected with their enthusiasm and jubilation.

Suddenly, in the midst of their joy and excitement, I heard the loud crack of a whip, and the sounds of pure happiness turned into shouts of pain and terror. A young man with a switch burst into the walled compound, hitting the girls on the sides of their faces, their backs, and their legs. It was like a watching an angry cook beating back hungry stray dogs with a broom: the girls hungry for attention like poor dogs begging for scraps, the cook infuriated with the presence of the filthy and menacing nuisances.

 A little Afghan girl watches a U.S. military convoy depart after she received her very first book. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

A little Afghan girl watches a U.S. military convoy depart after she received her very first book. Courtesy of Jackie Munn

My instinct was to react. Do something! You can’t hurt these sweet, innocent little girls just for being curious and inquisitive. Can you?

You can in Afghanistan. And I knew this. And in that instant I hated myself for approaching the girls in the first place. I should have known this could have been a possibility. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen girls and women pushed, beaten, or battered; it never got easier to witness.

I showed myself out of the compound just as my interpreter turned to have a conversation with the young whip-bearing boy and an older man in a white shalwar kameez who suddenly had appeared out of nowhere.

Finishing their conversation and walking over to me with his head hung, my interpreter said that the boy was punishing the girls for bothering me, explaining that the girls needed to be disciplined for failing to wait patiently and silently for their teacher—the older man in the white shalwar kameez. The teacher disapproved of the boy’s force, but he agreed that the young girls knew better than to display such flagrant jubilation and folly.

I was appalled. “Did you tell them that it was my fault? That I was the one who approached the girls?”

“It doesn’t matter,” the interpreter said, shrugging his shoulders. “Here, it’s expected they behave as proud Afghan daughters and not like giggling fools.”

I looked at the compound, the heat of the sun blazing down on me, my headscarf soaking up the nervous sweat from my neck. The only audible noise was the murmurs of the conversations wrapping up in the distance and the ambient sounds of rural farm life: donkey whines, chickens pecking the ground, and young boys running around. The girls had been silenced.

I stared down at my feet, catching sight of my milk tea-stained pants. I gritted my teeth, thinking angrily about the saying, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” No, I thought to myself, unless a girl’s beaten because of it.

 

•••

Jackie Munn is an army brat, West Point graduate, and former Army Captain. Her time in service brought her to Iraq as a Logistics Officer; Washington, D.C., working with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed; and Afghanistan as a Cultural Support Team leader with Special Forces. After leaving the service, Jackie earned her master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt University and was named a Tillman Scholar in 2015. She now works as a family nurse practitioner and yoga instructor.

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Recall and Regress


Nathan Eckman wonders what a recall to service would mean for the life he’s built since exiting active duty, and if he’d answer that call.

Recall and Regress


Nathan Eckman wonders what a recall to service would mean for the life he’s built since exiting active duty, and if he’d answer that call.

By Nathan Eckman

It happens most nights. I’m running through the jungle, sometimes the desert. Jordan is by my side—it’s always Jordan. There are enemy, none I’ve ever encountered before in real life. None I ever will. They’re inexplicable. The whole experience is, until I awaken and realize it was just another dream.

The episodes recur enough to make me wonder if I actually want to be back in the military. But however tantalizing that thought is at night, the day sobers such fantasies. I have a new life now. One separate from the military. Or, at least it seems so.

Like nearly every service member, I signed an eight-year contract, which is divvied up between active duty and a service component known as the Inactive Ready Reserves (IRR). Usually contracts are split 50-50. Four years spent on active duty. The remaining four years spent in the IRR, which requires nothing of an individual yet prioritizes his or her name for recall should another large-scale conflict or national tragedy call for mobilizing a mass amount of troops. It’s a system designed to stall the institution of a nationwide draft.

 Nathan Eckman served four years on active duty in the Marine Corps. He did not deploy to a conflict zone, and he struggles now with what his service meant. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman.

Nathan Eckman served four years on active duty in the Marine Corps. He did not deploy to a conflict zone, and he struggles now with what his service meant. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman.

Each day that I read about another escalation between the United States and North Korea or Iran, or hear about the intensifying situations in the Syria and Yemen conflicts, I think my days are numbered until I have little choice but to throw on a uniform again.

I was young enough when I first joined the military to leave everything behind and not think twice about it. Then, I built my life around that responsibility; and once Emily and I married, we did the same. There was nothing unsettling about being away from our home most nights, in part because we knew those days would end. Now we live under the illusion that my commitment to the military is over. Technically speaking, it’s not. Until the end of 2019, I am part of the IRR.

In the time since I exited active duty, Emily and I have built a life for ourselves and have dreamed of the family we’ll start, the community where we’ll root ourselves, and the careers we’ll build. My sense of what duty is has morphed since I was 19, and military service won’t satisfy it anymore. I left the military to regain a sense of personal agency. Were I to be recalled, I’d be forced to accept that since I “left” I’ve had only the illusion of control. And whether I would accept or deny the call to serve, the call itself would change my life; I’d have no way of stopping that.

I’ve already given up some of life’s privileges once. The thought of returning to service and doing it again feels daunting, if not impossible. Knowing what it’s like to make that sacrifice, the life I’ve built now is all the more precious to me. As simple as falling into a morning routine at a local cafe; eating leftovers while standing at the counter; styling my hair, shirts, and shoes until the mirrored reflection is “me.” Those are a few of the small things that bring me comfort and remind me that I’m home, and that this indeed is my life. And while those parts of life are nice, I could go without them.

 The author, Nathan Eckman, and his wife, Emily, have moved away from the base where he was stationed to start their new life together. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman.

The author, Nathan Eckman, and his wife, Emily, have moved away from the base where he was stationed to start their new life together. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman.

Then there are the parts of life I’d vehemently oppose surrendering. Living my life beside Emily, each and every day, tops that list. Second, I think, would be my freedom to think and question whatever I pleased, without fear of retribution from those who outrank me.

This is where it gets even more complicated. The more I value these liberties and privileges, the more I should be willing to fight to defend them, right? Regardless of the personal sacrifice. After all, wasn’t that the point of my service the first time around?

But having worn the uniform once already, I can’t help but feel that I’ve done my part, and that now it’s someone else’s turn—but not “the someone else” I’ve become since leaving active duty.

The man I’ve become since leaving active duty has something else to add to the world, both because of and in spite of my military service. Starting in high school, I thought I would achieve my greatest life accomplishments in uniform. Now that my uniform’s off, I know that my service was just the start. Finally, I see the society that I swore to protect is as valuable as the society of its defenders. I can imagine myself writing books, hiring employees, and attending city council meetings, and today I think that’s just as important as the service I’ve already completed in the Corps.

This, perhaps, reveals my greatest worry. I’ve realized my identity does not depend on my relationship to the military. Returning to its ranks now would mean sacrificing not just the things I gave up the first time around but the life I’ve built since leaving active duty. This second life, though, is young, fragile; there’s no telling if this new man would come back from a second term of service. Come Aug. 15, 2019, when I exit the IRR, I’ll never have to wonder again.

•••

Nathan Eckman was an Marine infantryman (0351) with Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment. During his service he toured on the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and deployed to Southeast Asia. Now Nate is a student of the Middle East and the Persian language at Columbia University. After college he intends on pursuing a career as a journalist covering international affairs.

 Illumination rounds float over Mosul, Iraq.

Those Are the Eyes of a Demon


Augusto Giacoman parked his Stryker under the streetlights and then the bomb exploded. What happened next is a hazy mixture of memory and nightmare.

Those Are the Eyes of a Demon


Augusto Giacoman parked his Stryker under the streetlights and then the bomb exploded. What happened next is a hazy mixture of memory and nightmare.

By Augusto Giacoman

Those are the eyes of a demon. The unbidden thought flitted through my mind as my eyes swept over two streetlights about 300 meters ahead. We slowed to a smooth five to 10 miles per hour, our heads swiveling, looking for signs of enemy activity during curfew hours or anything out of place, like boxes, wires, irregular shapes—anything indicating an IED.

 Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

As we drove on toward the streetlights, my Platoon Sergeant radioed that he’d spotted a car on a street about 50 meters to our right. I radioed back, telling him to dismount and check the vehicle. My Stryker and the one behind mine parked under the streetlights while he stopped the car violating curfew. I continued to scan the neighborhood, enjoying the coolness of evening. Ten minutes later he radioed back. The driver was an old lady needing medication; he was going to let her go. Roger, I said. Then my body collapsed. I folded backward like some kind of war yogi, knees buckling and back arching like a bow.

I didn’t hear a blast. My memory of what happened next feels vivid, but memory’s a tricky thing, and I don’t know now how much is true. But I know what I remember: Flames whooshed up and around me and then vanished, and I was surrounded by thick black and gray smoke. The oxygen in the truck had been displaced or consumed by the explosion, and I gulped for air, opening and closing my mouth like a fish out of water. My head swam and my vision blurred. A grueling moment later, sweet oxygen rushed in and filled my lungs. I pulled myself into a more upright position and yelled to see if anyone was hurt.

I struggle now to distinguish between what is nightmare and what was reality. Blood washed the walls of the vehicle, coming down like a waterfall and crashing together like red rapids on the floor. The sheer volume of blood shocked me—as if it were a hot summer day on the streets of New York City and someone had opened up a fire hydrant for kids to play, except the fire hydrant gushed blood. A lieutenant who had been riding along with me moved rapidly to place a bandage on one of my Squad Leader’s legs. I called for our medic on the radio and moved to the injured man.

He was conscious. The blood streaked in little rivers down his fish-white and hairy leg from the wound on his thigh. The other Lieutenant placed a pressure dressing on him, but it wasn’t enough; we needed to get him back to the combat support hospital right away or he would bleed out.

My Platoon Sergeant’s Stryker caught up to us, and our medic hopped over, coming in through one of the top hatches; the ramp on the back of the truck was too badly damaged to open. He double-checked my Squad Leader’s pressure dressing and scanned the rest of the team—miraculously, no one else was hurt. Could all the blood I saw have come from him, or has my imagination amplified reality?

 The author, Augusto Giacoman, and his Platoon Sergeant from Giacoman's 1st Deployment. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

The author, Augusto Giacoman, and his Platoon Sergeant from Giacoman's 1st Deployment. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

We sped to the combat support hospital, pushing our Strykers to the max. As we approached the gate, we popped some red chemlights, signalling an emergency and to clear traffic and let us in ASAP. We rushed into the hospital, and my radio operator and I entered the makeshift operating room. My Squad Leader lay on a steel table, clothed on top but naked from the waist down. The back of his upper thigh looked like someone had used an ice cream scoop to take a scoop three inches deep out of his flesh. We watched the combat surgeons begin work. Later he told me he hadn’t felt much pain, only embarrassment that he hadn’t shaved his balls in a while and there were pretty nurses around.

While we watched the docs, my radio operator lurched toward a big plastic trash can and started violently vomiting. Like most of the guys in the vehicle, he’d been seriously concussed, but had held it together long enough to make sure I was physically and mentally OK; as Platoon Leader and radio operator, we were attached at the hip. Some nurses came over to help.

I sat down as the nurses cared for him, and replayed the event. Did I do everything right? What had I missed? I was on my eighth or so replay when I remembered my stray thought, the eyes of the demon. I had seen the lights, I had thought of demon eyes, we had parked under the lights, and then we were hit with an IED. And then it came to me: In about two months in Iraq, with at least a dozen or so night patrols under my belt, those lights had never been on during previous patrols. Whoever had placed the IED must have turned on or fixed those lights and used them as aiming posts to know when to trigger the device.

I had parked our vehicle right on top of an IED.

•••

Augusto Giacoman completed his undergraduate degree and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As an Officer in the U.S. Army he served as a Platoon Leader, an Executive Officer, and an Operations Officer. He deployed twice to Iraq, to Mosul in 2005, and to Sadr City 2007-2008. He currently works at the management consultancy Strategy&, where he works with the world’s top businesses, governments, and institutions to create essential advantage and outpace competitors.

•••

Cover photograph from Mosul 2015. Courtesy of 138th Public Affairs Detachment

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Even Butterflies Go to War


Elizabeth O’Herrin found solace in writing about her war, and she wonders and wishes she could ask her grandfather if he felt relief in writing about his.

Even Butterflies Go to War


Elizabeth O’Herrin found solace in writing about her war, and she wonders and wishes she could ask her grandfather if he felt relief in writing about his.

By Elizabeth O'Herrin

A desert butterfly perched on my leg as I rode through dusty terrain on the back end of a truck, bumping out into the desert to perform maintenance work on bombs waiting to be loaded on their jets. It looked like one of those butterflies that perched on cauliflower in my mom’s garden when I was a kid. I had never paid them much attention. They were common. Ordinary. But here in the Iraq desert, it was so beautiful. Peaceful and magical with its white flitting wings. I observed it like I used to watch the sparrows in basic training: envious of their freedom to come and go as they pleased, unthreatened by their surroundings. Go far away from here, I urged the butterfly silently.

 William O’Herrin, who served with the 22nd Marine Regiment on Eniwetok, Guadalcanal, and Guam, attends a 6th Marine Division reunion. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

William O’Herrin, who served with the 22nd Marine Regiment on Eniwetok, Guadalcanal, and Guam, attends a 6th Marine Division reunion. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

While I was deployed to Iraq, I wrote updates for friends and family, but also for myself. After writing about the butterfly’s visit, I received a note from my grandfather. I saw those butterflies too, he said. They were so beautiful. Not the same ones. Different. But the same. It had taken him a long time to write about his butterflies.

Before dawn on Dec. 7, 1984, he awoke in a sweat despite the frigid Wisconsin winter. This wasn’t unusual for him, even so many years after he’d returned from the Pacific. But on this Pearl Harbor anniversary, he’d finally had enough. He roused himself, made black coffee, pulled off the typewriter’s cover, and began pecking. When he finished, he made four copies—one for each of his children—licked the stamps and envelopes, and dropped them in the mail.

The letter was largely one single sentence. Seven hundred and seventeen words long, in fact; I counted. Tumbling thoughts twisted and turned. The stream-of-consciousness run-on sentence full of haunting memories concluded with a final paragraph: “War is one stinking, terrifying hell. There are no heroes in war. There are only the survivors, the dying, and the dead.”

He wrote that he wouldn’t speak of it again, but that at least now we knew his story. Implied: Don’t ask me any questions. I was less than a year old when my parents received the letter.

 The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, and her sister Colleen with her grandfather and grandmother in Wisconsin. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, and her sister Colleen with her grandfather and grandmother in Wisconsin. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

My uncle Bill managed to persuade my grandfather to keep writing, gently offering that World War II veterans were a vanishing breed and that family records would be incomplete without it. My grandfather finally conceded and began typing again. Rather than simply purging like he had that night in December, he researched history of the atolls he landed on, detailed descriptions of dehydration and jungle rot, copied and pasted crude pictures of elephantiasis of arms, legs, even testicles. He wrote about Chamorro culture that he witnessed on Guam, where he fought to liberate the island from the Japanese. He resurrected buried memories of friends named Tommy and Jimmy, who were mowed down by machine gun fire. Some stories would never make it to paper, he admitted. Weren’t meant to be told.

Another 15 years passed before my grandfather finished. After I read his completed memoir, I wrote him an email. I didn’t ask him any questions. I was a young teenager and his story moved me to tears, and I wanted him to know it had profoundly impacted his granddaughter. I couldn’t begin to imagine what he had been through, I told him, but I was eternally grateful he chose to trust us. It touched him enough that he printed off my email and included it in the sparse copies of his memoir that he ran off at a print shop and gave away to family and a few old war buddies who were still alive. I didn’t understand why he included my email, but I found comfort knowing that it had resonated with him.

I’ve returned to his memoir over the years, studying the pages back and forth, memorizing sentences and even a few paragraphs. Although the memoir indicated a willingness to share his history, I never brought it up after that email. I feared prying and making him dig into abscesses that he didn’t want to revisit. It never felt right: Holiday gatherings were loud and full of dark beer; early bird Friday suppers were lighthearted; and Packer and Badger games demanded our full attention.

My enlistment date into the National Guard fell on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after the planes hit. I hadn’t intended to join the military in the wake of an attack on American soil, like my grandfather had after Pearl Harbor, but my path began to resemble his. Only I wasn’t called up right away, so I continued on with college, serving one weekend a month. But when I would visit my grandparents for lunch between classes, constantly wondering if and when I would be deployed, we mostly skipped over the wars. Instead we talked about the books we were reading, avoiding the elephant in the room that dredged up painful memories for him and stirred deep anxieties in me. If we neared the topic, he shook his head and waved off, and we went back to our lunches. I could tell how much he hated that I would be involved in the war.

When I eventually deployed, I found it difficult to speak about my experiences, but it was easier to write. And I was inspired by my grandfather’s willingness, although initially resistant, to do the same. Whenever I posted an update, or sent an email or letter home, I’d get little notes in return from my grandfather. Sometimes a quick email, sometimes a short letter: Keep your head down. Stay safe. We’re thinking of you. We want you home. That was about the extent of it. No questions, even after I returned home from each of my three deployments. Perhaps he didn’t want to ruin our tuna salad sandwiches.

 The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, demonstrates a new toy for her grandfather at their home in Wisconsin, in the summer of 1991. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, demonstrates a new toy for her grandfather at their home in Wisconsin, in the summer of 1991. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Despite writing while I was deployed, in the months after returning home I clammed up, unable to make much sense of my experiences. My father encouraged me to keep writing, just as my uncle had encouraged my grandfather decades earlier. Dad told me that after my grandfather wrote the pre-dawn letter, he had stopped having night terrors. He had kept things bottled inside for four decades, not wanting to uncork them. He hadn’t known putting words to paper would be so therapeutic. For me, I found that my thoughts slowly began to feel less like a lottery ball machine, and when they started to settle they wiggled back out onto paper.

My grandfather passed not long after I returned from my last deployment, nearly a decade ago now. I would trade just about anything to sit down with him to talk. Maybe not even about our wars—just about writing them. I wonder if he felt lighter after he wrote things down. I wonder if he pulled the pages out when he finished typing for the day and felt resolution. I wonder if he felt like vomiting while writing, like I sometimes do. Every once in awhile, I find memorized phrases from his memoir drifting through my mind when I read the news. War is one stinking, terrifying hell. But I also remember that I saw the butterflies, and it brings me some peace that I know he saw them too.

•••

Elizabeth O'Herrin served as an AMMO troop for the Wisconsin Air National Guard from 2001-2008, assembling and transporting conventional weapons for F-16 fighter jets. She received her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her MA from the Johns Hopkins University. She’s is a Tillman Scholar and the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Director of Programs & Scholarships. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post Checkpoint blog, Foreign Policy Best Defense blog, The Hill, The Association of American Colleges & Universities, 0-Dark Thirty, the Badger Herald, and the Starbucks Medium Collection. She is a member of Foreign Policy's Council of Former Enlisted. 

You can find her on Twitter here and on Medium here.

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Her Name Is Fern And She Taught Me Gratitude


Anxiety over the military sexual trauma she withstood plagued Rachael Harris when she came home. Her adopted dog, Fern, barreled through those walls.

Her Name Is Fern And She Taught Me Gratitude


Anxiety over the military sexual trauma she withstood plagued Rachael Harris when she came home. Her adopted dog, Fern, barreled through those walls.

By Rachael Harris

I read somewhere that before you get out of bed in the morning you should think of three things you’re grateful for, and Fern is always on that list. She taught me about gratitude. Whether it’s half of a dirty tennis ball or a fantastic new toy that’ll last only two minutes before she rips it to bits, she’s elated to have whatever I’ve given her. And she shows gratitude to the universe by rolling in the dirt at the dog park and kicking her long rabbit legs in the air. The cats have forgiven me for bringing the beastie into their house, but they still haven’t quite adjusted. My bed remains the only “safe space” where no one gets offended or threatens a squabble. Each party picks a corner and retires.

 Fern offered her paw to the author, Rachael Harris, when the two first met. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

Fern offered her paw to the author, Rachael Harris, when the two first met. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

She avoided eye contact and snarled like a beast of Old Norse lore at anyone who looked in her direction when we first met. I told the front desk woman that our original choice, Fern, might be a little too aggressive. But she asked us to just wait a second, said that she’d go get the pup and that we could go on a walk in the woods to calm her down a little. I had seen Fern online a few weeks prior while I was still living in D.C., in the midst of a weeklong anxiety frenzy, thanks to recurring nightmares I was having about being sexually assaulted while serving in the Navy. Something about her face had made the storm stop for a moment; a few days later I made the decision to move to Staunton, Virginia, hoping that I’d be able to find some peace there. Let it be known that moving away never makes the anxiety or PTSD go away, but I breathed a little easier. Two weeks later, after calling to see if she was still there, I talked my little brother into driving me to the pound to check out the dog I’d seen online.

Fern trotted out of that wall of deafening sound, tail tucked, cowering, and giving us some major side-eye. I bent down and gave her a treat the caretaker had given me, and she took it; maybe I wasn’t so bad. When we ventured outside, she clung to her caretaker’s side, but she looked back to make sure I was coming too, and suspiciously huffed at my brother. Once out in the leaves, she hopped around and allowed me to give her more treats, and when I asked her to sit, she did. She sealed the deal when she sat in front of me, made soft eye contact, and offered me her paw. I held it, and that voice in the back of my head that never leaves me alone said, It’s gonna be all right, honey child.

She hung her head over the backseat of my Jeep, looking back at the shelter, as we drove away. At home we barricaded the cats in my office, and my biggest—the 21-pound terror—knew something was up. We settled Fern in the guest room that evening, where she promptly made peace with my brother and fell asleep with him in the guest bed.

 The author, Rachael Harris, took a photograph of her and Fern the first time they really cuddled. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

The author, Rachael Harris, took a photograph of her and Fern the first time they really cuddled. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

Fern and I slept all the following day, waking only to eat. She’d come into the shelter at 40 pounds when she should’ve been at least 60, and I was determined to put meat on her bones. The snarly beast from the day before was gone, and now she was terrified of the cats. I hadn’t quite realized the depth of my current state of anxiety; even a living being sitting next to me was a little too much. I established boundaries that I thought I needed—her corner of the couch and mine—and Fern pushed right through them. By the end of our first full day together, Fern and I were spooning.

By the second week, Fern and I had developed: Sitting side by side on the couch, she’d lean her head against mine. I protected her from the snarly cats, and she leaned on my legs when I wasn’t feeling my best. She was especially persistent on mornings that weren’t so good.

Ten days after she came home, Fern met my dad, and I instantly became chopped liver. The next day was Thanksgiving, and while my brother and dad watched football, Fern and I walked to the dog park and started playing. A few minutes later, a man on his cellphone rolled in with a 130-pound German shepherd “puppy”—his owner’s word. The man retreated to the picnic tables to continue his phone conversation, and I watched in horror as the the dog tried to mount Fern.

As a survivor of military sexual trauma, I can get pretty squirrelly when it comes to things such as consent or the way females of any sort are treated—my dog included. My blood pressure rises, and a buzzing starts in my head. The look on my dog’s face as that giant mounted her said, Here we go again ... and in my head I screamed, NO! No one or thing is ever going to make you have that look ever again! I ran over and heaved him off her, and she hid behind my legs while I repeatedly pushed him off both of us, me being outweighed by at least 15 pounds. The owner gave no help, and Fern and I escaped to the small-dog park, separated by a fence. We were still agitated, and a short time later we headed home.

 Fern plays with her first squeaky toy. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

Fern plays with her first squeaky toy. Courtesy of Rachael Harris

As the days passed, she came out of her shell. She learned to love squeaky toys and peanut butter, two things she’d had no idea existed. We went for a ride to Petco. Men always seemed drawn to her and asked to pet her, and together we began to learn that not all men are so bad. Four days after she came home, Fern and I met my best friend, her husband, and their furchild, Sven, at the farmer’s market. My sweet girl charmed old-man apple sellers out of their jerky snacks and let herself be adored by packs of little boys and old ladies alike. And as I saw the way Fern took her new world in stride and with grace, I began to see a world outside of my anxiety-brain. Over time she came to understand that when my brother and I had to leave her at home, we weren’t leaving her forever.

We went to the dog park recently, like we do every day, and the scourge of the park was there; I took a deep breath and thought, Maybe this time will be different. His owner retreated to the picnic tables for another phone conversation, and I watched as my sweet girl went right to that big dog, rolled him over, and played like he was her best friend. Like nothing bad had ever happened, and I was awash with gratitude to have met such a good teacher.

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Nepal Tried to Claim Her Too


Two years after a helicopter carrying Marines crashed in the Nepali mountains, Marine veteran Teresa Fazio encountered the wilderness that had claimed them.

Nepal Tried to Claim Her Too


Two years after a helicopter carrying Marines crashed in the Nepali mountains, Marine veteran Teresa Fazio encountered the wilderness that had claimed them.

By Teresa Fazio

On vacation, I like to hike predictable trails that leave me feeling competent, independent, and pleasantly exhausted. But as I trekked through the Nepali jungle, legs bloody and socks soaked with rain, it seemed the hills and cliffs were colluding to kill any wayward intruders.

Back home in New York, I’d mapped a steep but well-trafficked route for a three-week backpacking trip with my boyfriend, Boyan. A few days before we set out, he’d pointed to a dashed line, far from roads or villages. “Let’s take this one,” he’d said. “It’ll be more interesting.”

 The meeting of the Sunkoshi and Bhotekosi River Valleys, on the way back from the author, Teresa Fazio, and her boyfriend, Boyan Penkov's, hike. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

The meeting of the Sunkoshi and Bhotekosi River Valleys, on the way back from the author, Teresa Fazio, and her boyfriend, Boyan Penkov's, hike. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

The first night, he peeled a leech from my hip; several more strained toward us from our tent’s mesh, searching for flesh to bleed. The next day, we walked in a downpour on trails that had barely recovered from lethal earthquakes two years prior, to which the US military had responded. We picked dozens of leeches from our ankles, shins, and thighs. Boyan carried a secondhand rucksack patterned in digital camouflage. It had been my gift to him, though I was the one who’d earned a Marine Corps commission back when he was an Eagle Scout. Between us, we carried a hundred pounds: rice, water, tent, pressure cooker, long johns, sleeping bags. Our second afternoon of climbing, we lost the trail. My glasses fogged and rain sluiced sweat into my eyes. Naïvely, I’d tucked a novel into the top flap of my pack back home. At a waterlogged pound and a half, it was too heavy to carry further. I yanked it out, dumped it into a patch of greenery, and tried to ignore the irony of its title: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.

As the second day’s sunset loomed, we found a rock overhang under which to camp. I accidentally broke a piece off the tent’s top while setting it up, and one side caved in.

In the morning, after finding the trail, we saw an empty hut surrounded by prayer flags, and just beyond it, the remnants of a landslide. We’d have to cross it to reach our destination: a pass a few kilometers away. Boyan led, and I bear-crawled sideways across sandy rockfall. When my heavy pack shifted, panic rose in my chest.

We made it to a small hollow in the middle of the landslide, the size of a couple of bathtubs. Five feet away, the slope dropped off sharply. I didn’t look down.

Boyan volunteered to scout the way ahead while I caught my breath. I sat, terrified, looking only at the rocks next to me, not following the pebbles that skittered into pine treetops and thin air. Though I’m not normally afraid of heights, I didn’t want to see how far up we were, how much my safety depended on my balance and the strength of my grip.

This landslide was the likely result of a 7.3-magnitude aftershock of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake two and a half years earlier. The quakes had killed over 8,800 Nepalis. The day of the aftershock, a helicopter carrying six U.S. Marines, two Nepali soldiers, and five civilian evacuees had crashed about 10 miles from where I now sat, shivering. The Marines had just delivered 3,000 pounds of blankets, rice, and tarps to a nearby town, Singati. According to the U.S. military’s accident investigation, the pilot had picked an unfamiliar but more direct route to Kathmandu—not because it would be more interesting, like Boyan had, but more likely because the injured needed urgent medical attention. Hindered by rapidly changing air currents and clouds, they’d crashed into a ridgeline near Kalinchowk mountain.

Kalinchowk was a few ridges over from us. We’d reached 3,100 meters, the same altitude as where the helicopter had gone down. It had taken three days for rescuers to locate the wreckage in the thick jungle. Now I knew why. As clouds moved in toward my little gully, I started panicking. This was a real-time tutorial in how quickly visibility could drop. A minute later, I saw Boyan’s arm wave over a dirt mound, and he yelled that he’d found a route across the landslide. Still, I feared for my life. I had to speak up.

I told him I wasn’t going any further, that I wanted to turn around. To his credit, he didn’t argue. We carefully backtracked over the landslide, to a three-room hut encircled by prayer flags. A tarp stamped USAID protected one room from the intermittent drizzle outside. We hatched a new plan to walk north and find the main highway.

 A tarp stamped “USAID” provided one wall to repair a shelter, with landslide remnants in the background. Both USAID and the Marine Corps had rendered aid in this area. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

A tarp stamped “USAID” provided one wall to repair a shelter, with landslide remnants in the background. Both USAID and the Marine Corps had rendered aid in this area. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

After an hour’s hike, thunderstorms turned to hail. We bushwhacked through stinging nettles and crossed a thigh-deep river where I gashed my leg. As twilight threatened, the trail disappeared; steep rock faces sidewalled the water. We backtracked to flat ground, slid our last sets of dry clothing from Ziploc bags, and spent that night on the riverbank, rain pelting our sagging tent.

I’ll admit I’d approached the trip with more blithe assurance than I should have. Since my service ended 12 years prior, I’d always assumed I could throw a pack on my back and out-hike my partner. Yes, back at the Basic School, I’d slept in freezing puddles, and in Iraq, I’d managed five hours a night on a nylon cot. But now, I needed ibuprofen, rest, and to be reasonably sure I wouldn’t fall to my death or drown. In the Marine Corps, I hadn’t had a choice of whether or not to do something I knew was dangerous. Now I had the privilege of choosing to admit defeat.

 Fog rolls in over an abandoned village. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

Fog rolls in over an abandoned village. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

The following morning, we retraced our steps through still-wet jungle and followed a path we’d missed two days before, glimpsing Tibet’s snowcapped mountains five miles north. Hours later, three men strode by us with logs slung over their shoulders. They’d hand-felled trees into timbers for new houses. Their younger brother, Sunil, carried nothing, but spoke English. When he learned we were American, he said, “allo-ca-tion,” sounding out the syllables with care. “My brother. He got an allocation. USAID.” He walked us back to their tiny village, a collection of stone cottages.

We sat on a low wall and removed our wet boots. Blood streamed from our leech-bitten shins. Boyan’s feet were white and wrinkled, the beginnings of immersion foot. Sunil’s mother handed us buffalo milk tea in metal cups. On the grass sat a toddler girl who must have been born after the earthquake. Wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned “New York,” she pulled apart a fist-sized marigold blossom and tossed petals into the air.

 Teresa takes a break on the trail, knee bleeding from leech bites. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

Teresa takes a break on the trail, knee bleeding from leech bites. Courtesy of Boyan Penkov

As the sun dipped into a yellow sky, Sunil’s older brother offered us a place to stay. His house comprised a single large room with a corrugated metal roof. His wife squatted over the cooking fire, wearing a traditional long black skirt and apron. She blew the flames to life and made us dal bhat, or lentils and rice, and set chunks of fried ox meat on a tin plate. Sunil handed us small green fruits, tart and citrusy. Then he pulled a cracked smartphone from his pocket and offered to friend us on Facebook.

Late that night, snug under blankets, I listened to rain patter on the roof. Humbled by the same land that had claimed my fellow Marines, I said a silent prayer of thanks that the villagers had taken us in.

Later in our trip, on our way to altitude, we braved a 12-hour bus ride from Kathmandu through Singati, the bazaar town from which the ill-fated helicopter had taken off. The driver navigated tight switchbacks on half-paved roads, our bus wheels so close to cliff edges I didn’t look down. When we arrived in Singati, wood-framed storefronts lined the streets, carrying the same off-brand coconut cookies and sacks of rice for sale as in other roadside towns. Weeks later, back in the States, I saw photos of Singati from just after the earthquake: a mess of scattered pick-up sticks. From there, a helicopter flight to Kathmandu would last just shy of half an hour. One could be forgiven for thinking it’s easier to fly over this rugged terrain than hike or drive.

Most days, it probably is. But not every day.

The Marines performing humanitarian assistance in 2015 did not have the option of turning back when the going got rough. In their attempt to save lives, they accepted the risks of an unknown, but more expedient, route. When Boyan and I stumbled from those same hills, bleeding and famished, we were helped gladly by those who could afford it in part due to the efforts of Americans who had died rendering aid. These days, I am learning to be patient when I run into trouble along an unexpectedly difficult path; even “more direct” ones, like the Marines took, can have catastrophic consequences. It turns out I’m always on an unpredictable trail, one along which I must periodically admit defeat and accept help. It’s not a simple vacation hike. But it is more interesting.

•••

Teresa Fazio was a Marine Corps communications officer from 2002-2006, deploying once to Iraq. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in the New York TimesRolling StoneTask and PurposeVassar QuarterlyConsequence Magazine, and Penthouse, and the anthologies Retire the ColorsThe Road Ahead, and It’s My Country, Too. She lives, works, and occasionally skateboards in New York City.

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My Heart, a Fallow Field


War poisoned his body and threatened his life. To survive, Drew Pham had to lose all chance of fathering a child.

My Heart, a Fallow Field


War poisoned his body and threatened his life. To survive, Drew Pham had to lose all chance of fathering a child.

By Drew Pham

Dear Daughter,

I miss you already, though we’ve never met, though you never had a chance. I’m writing to say hello. To tell you all the things fathers must tell their children—I believe in you, I’m proud of you, I love you. I’m writing to say I’m sorry I’ll never be able to tell you those things. Above all, I’m writing you to say goodbye.

Let me explain myself. I was a soldier and I fought in a war. After my small part ended, I carried the things soldiers bring home with them—duffel bags full of uniforms that no longer fit, notebooks full of memories of people I fought for and against, and medals that mean nothing compared to the people in those notebooks. I carried other things home, things that lingered in the air from pits of burning refuse and bombs dropped a decade or more before. I carried those things in my genes, which ruptured and frayed, and I became very ill. To save me, the doctors fed my veins poison and irradiated my skin, my loins. The price of saving my life was taking yours. That’s why I never met you, never had you.

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Your mother and I used to wonder what you might look like. You would have loved your mother. She made a whole life out of giving to others, and I know she would have given you everything. She said there was a chance you’d have red hair, through some trick of recessive genes. Your grandmother’s grandmother had hair the color of raw sienna. She was half French, and your grandmother used to say how beautiful she’d been, but illiterate, a pariah for reminding our people we’d been conquered, colonized. I’d hoped you would look more like your mother than me—an elegant nose, wavy hair, and sleepy eyes. I’d have less to offer—a broad flat snout, stiff bristled hair, and a mouth of skewed teeth.

Your mother and I talk about you less now, though I still try to make out the landscape of your character. Her heart is open to other children now—abandoned, donated. With time, mine might open too, but you’re my child, and now that you’re gone I can’t help but linger on you. I imagine you, and I see a woman who bends to no man. You would be kind, giving like your mother. You would be wrathful—my contribution, and one you can’t escape. I have better qualities I hope you’d inherit too. You’d have loved the world, as I do—how autumn sets fire to the trees, the warmth of skin on skin, and the way story leaps out of something so simple as a breath, a tongue. I like to think you’d have become an artist, like I wanted to be. But there was a war to fight, so I became a soldier. These days, a woman can take her rifle to meet the enemy just the same as any man, and I’d fear the wars not yet declared, because fighting is in your blood. My side of the family, we’re fighters, and I fear you’d have become one of us.

I know you might have been, or chosen to become, a son. That too frightens me, not because I’d have less love to give, but because I know my heart well, and I know nothing would make me prouder than to see my son put on yet another uniform. I’d feared fathering a son because I’d want to make you a man, and making a boy into a man is a terrible thing. My wrath would become your wrath, and in time you might cling to it, as I cling to it, a sword that can never be put down, never be broken. If you were a son, I’d want to save you from me.

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Maybe I’m afraid because my heart, like my father’s, is buried in the past. You’ll find mine in a fallow field in Afghanistan. If you’d been born, you’d never have known your grandfather. He left us to chase after his heart, left behind in Vietnam. Part of me is glad that you’ll never see me as I saw him: those distracted eyes always looking backward, the way his bedroom smelled of defeat, and yes, that inescapable wrath that overtook him when he battered my mother, when he abandoned us. You’ll never have to see me when the past floods back in the summer months, and a backfiring engine hurls me into a rage; or stumbling through the house late at night, a strange smell on my breath; or my distracted eyes always looking backward. Fearful as I’ve been at the prospect of fatherhood, I would have had you. Now I can only imagine who you might have been.

The things I’ll never see—your face for the first time, fresh from the womb and in your mother’s arms. I’ll never see you grow, crawling across wood floors, those first teetering steps. I’ll never hear your first word—mine was applesauce—and I’ll never get to remind you of it constantly, just as your grandmother constantly reminds me. And you’ll miss a wealth of firsts—your first bike ride, your first sleepover, your first dance, your first kiss. Because fighting’s in your blood we’d fight; you’d tell me you hate me, like all teenage daughters do, but don’t worry, this too would pass. I’ll never see you become a woman. You’ll never find your life’s passions; you’ll never feel all of the disappointments, failures, and betrayals that, in the end, make us stronger. You’ll never meet the love of your life or have your own children. I’ll never know how it feels to look at grandchildren and know, no matter how much or little I’ve accomplished, that their presence means I led a good life. I may never know what it means to raise a child, but I know what it means to be a father, because I’ve lost you before I ever knew you.

Sometimes I think I should be thankful you never had to see this world of ours. People are gunned down on the street for the color of their skin, treated like property by powerful men, and told No, we will not take you, we will not grant you refuge here. Our world is cruel; I’ve seen it, taken part in that cruelty. Maybe it’s best you never met me, never learned what I’ve done in the name of empty words like “freedom.” There are days I think that losing you was payment for the man I killed. Even if you’d been born, you’d inherit more than a mouthful of crooked teeth. Who knew you could inherit trauma the same way you inherit freckled skin or colored eyes? Your body would know the dread of B-52s razing the fields and Saigon burning on the horizon and the eyes of a dead man, milky like the pale flesh of oysters. I would have given you fire, and you would have no choice but to accept. This is a woman’s lot in our world, and war, I fear, will always be waged on women’s bodies. And because no one knows how dioxin, depleted uranium, and chemotherapeutic poison might pass between us, were you to be born malformed or blind or crumbling from the inside, would I then be waging war on your body too?

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When we talk about war’s costs, we use words like veteran suicide, civilian casualties, and mass migration. We talk about numbers—kill ratios, migrant quotas, rates of suicide. In this way, we make sense of the price. It seems the cost has been negligible enough to let these wars go on for more than 16 years. Where do you belong in the tally of the dead? I think of the empty space you’ve left in me, and I believe there can be only one fitting tribute to this war. I propose an eternal flame in every American town and city. Let them dig pits in the parks and squares; let there be piles of 16 years’ worth of war trash—all the rotting food and lithium batteries and severed limbs and human shit. Let the fire feed off jet fuel, and let the hydrocarbons infiltrate every lung; let the carcinogens assault every gene, and like a biblical plague, let everyone be robbed of their children forevermore, because this is what losing you feels like.

No, you’d say; That isn’t justice, you’d say. You’d say this because you are your mother’s daughter, and you have her giving heart. I imagine your shape in the doorframe, as a little girl, a teenager, a woman. I’d say the things all fathers must say to their daughters—I believe in you, I’m proud of you, I love you. You’d hear me, and walk out that door. Goodbye, I’d say. Like the sword I can’t put down, the wrath to which I cling, and the fallow field where I buried my heart, I have to let you go. Goodbye, I’d say.  

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn based writer and contributing editor at The Wrath Bearing Tree. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Follow Drew on Twitter @Drewspeak.

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Until He Saw the Terror They Sowed


Augusto Giacoman almost jumped for joy when he was assigned his first midnight raid, but what he saw that night quickly changed his mind. 

Until He Saw the Terror They Sowed


Augusto Giacoman almost jumped for joy when he was assigned his first midnight raid, but what he saw that night quickly changed his mind. 

By Augusto Giacoman

Abu Ahmed was asleep when our squad slipped into his shack. He slept through the room clearance. He slept on as one of our soldiers approached, waking as he was thrown to the ground. He shouted in alarm as they rushed to zip-tie him. I ran over with the interpreter to interrogate him. I jittered with the adrenaline of my first raid since I’d deployed to Iraq and the rush of finally getting to do what I had been trained to do. As I moved toward Abu Ahmed, the tip of my rifle made contact with his forehead, making a decent-sized gash. He cried out again and looked at me in shock. In that initial moment, he didn’t look afraid, just really confused. I apologized and called the medic to come wrap his forehead.

As the medic worked, I questioned Abu Ahmed. The reality of the situation started to hit him, and his fear response kicked in. His eyes widened, and he struggled to breathe normally and began to shiver. Who would run the generator, he asked, as the squad tore up his shack looking for any evidence of bomb-making materials. We found none but took his cell phone, his notebook, and some other belongings in a couple of sealed bags, and then we blindfolded him and took him back to the Stryker. We had the target. We didn’t find anything during the sensitive site exploitation, I reported back to higher headquarters. Hit the house where he lived as well, they radioed back. Awesome, I thought, I get two raids in one night.

 A Stryker with a mine plow from 1-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

A Stryker with a mine plow from 1-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment. Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

As we headed to his house in the Palestine neighborhood of south Mosul, Abu Ahmed began to weep.

On a raid, with 40 soldiers at my back, bristling with weapons, stacked with body armor, and ready to kill anything in my way, I felt like a god. We hoped and prayed our Commander would send us on raids—exhilarating, action-packed, and so unlike the normal tedium of a 12- to 14-hour patrol through filthy streets where I felt like a walking target. We conducted raids usually in the dead of night, out of Iraq’s hot midday sun, letting us work in more comfort than during our blistering daytime patrols.

Three weeks into my first tour, I led my first raid. I could have jumped for joy when my Commander gave me the mission and said to pick up Abu Ahmed’s target packet at our intelligence shop. The intel guys greeted me with a sneer they reserved for the infantry—no way they could know that I was a secret nerd. They handed me the packet and I dug in.

The intel on Abu Ahmed had come from the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, and the packet contained a description of him and his legitimate and alleged illegitimate activity. He ran the local generator and was also a bomb maker. There were two addresses—his place of business and his home—and the packet contained a few maps of where these were.

Abu Ahmed worked in a 400-square-foot shack sat in an open field, making it easier for us to move in and carry out the raid quickly. Intel didn’t know what the inside looked like, but from our patrols in Mosul we knew most of those places had a cot for the operator to sleep on, maybe a nightstand, and an old, toxic, smoking generator. Abu Ahmed was its operator. He ensured it had fuel. When the generator broke, he would fix it. He slept next to the oily monstrosity. And he worked nights, so we decided to hit there first. We rehearsed the mission a few times that afternoon, ensuring the Squad Leaders and my Platoon Sergeant were clear on everything, and then we rolled out.

At 2 a.m. we spotted the shack, which sat in near-total darkness. We owned the night. The Strykers moved swiftly into place. The vehicle drivers let the ramps down, careful not to lower them all the way lest the heavy doors clang against the ground and wake the neighborhood. First squad rushed out of the vehicles, each one a trained killer with violence in his mind. I followed behind.

The squad stacked alongside the building, and as the last soldier in line, I held my rifle behind us to ensure no enemy snuck up from the rear. Strykers with 50-caliber machine guns looked on, monitoring all sides of us, ensuring no forces would amass away from our field of vision. The might of our empire focused on the tip of a spear that was about to seriously ruin this alleged bomb maker’s sleep.

The Squad Leader motioned for one of the soldiers to check the door. It was open, saving us the need to breach with a shoulder or a small explosive charge. The squad rushed in.

Abu Ahmed sat zip-tied in a Stryker weeping when we turned our sights on his house. We lined up against the wall and sent a soldier up and over the gate to open it from the inside, and then we rushed in. The house was filled with men, women, and children, probably 20 people in all. What the fuck. Why so many. Abu Ahmed had been relatively quiet during the previous raid, before and after he’d woken up, but the house erupted with wailing as we rushed in with our guns.

The women flew to protect the wailing children. The air filled with Arabic. We continued to clear the house, separating the women and children in one room and the two men—Abu Ahmed’s brother and his dad—into another as we tried to quiet everyone down.

The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt gathering energy, like lighting was about to strike. The air was heavy and thick with all that had just happened. I sat down with the men. They were sullen with rage, tight-lipped and drawn into themselves; they stared in my direction without looking at me. I got one-word answers when I asked about Abu Ahmed. From the next room, hot waves of fear radiated from the women and still-crying kids. The rest of the platoon tore apart the house looking for evidence, but found nothing.

I reported what we’d found up to higher headquarters: two military-age males, a house full of women and children, no evidence. Their response chilled me. Bring the males in. I reported back. We didn’t find anything. It didn’t matter. As we grabbed the men they started shouting. “Shut the fuck up,” we told them, and they did. We zip-tied and blindfolded them, and put them each in a different Stryker. Before we left, the interpreter, a fire team, and I went into the room where the women and children stood, fearful, apprehensive, and confused. We’re detaining the men, I told them. They started keening, shrieking cries of distress, and I stumbled backward. Their cries were like physical beatings, like baseball bat after baseball bat was being slammed against my chest and my stomach. Overcome with nausea, I wanted to cover my ears and run away. Waves and waves of suffering battered me. They are banshees. They are trying to kill me with their screams, I thought. The children’s cries mingled with the women’s screams. We fled the house.

Their chorus of grief followed us outside, but as we mounted the Strykers, they drowned out the women’s screams. The last thing I saw as we drove off was the women clawing their own faces.

The sky began to lighten as we drove the men to the jail on the base to drop them off and fill out all the paperwork. The blindfolded men were stiff and afraid as we dragged them out of the trucks. One of my soldiers shouted in disgust, The haji pissed on the fucking seat.

Don’t call them hajis, I said.

•••

Augusto Giacoman completed his undergraduate degree and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. As an Officer in the U.S. Army he served as a Platoon Leader, an Executive Officer, and an Operations Officer. He deployed twice to Iraq, to Mosul in 2005, and to Sadr City 2007-2008. He currently works at the management consultancy Strategy&, where he works with the world’s top businesses, governments, and institutions to create essential advantage and outpace competitors.

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They Weren’t Supposed to Die Here


Nina Semczuk arrived at the National Training Center in California prepared to train; she wasn’t prepared for a fellow soldier to die.

They Weren’t Supposed to Die Here


Nina Semczuk arrived at the National Training Center in California prepared to train; she wasn’t prepared for a fellow soldier to die.

By Nina Semczuk

I thought death would touch me overseas when I joined the Army, but not during routine domestic training. Then a soldier in my brigade died in our first week at the National Training Center in California’s Mojave Desert. Fear and foreboding replaced my initial shock. I had focused so much on the mundane logistical tasks to get us there; I’d forgotten training could be dangerous.

We’d arrived from the prairie—Fort Riley, Kansas—after months of training for our unit’s rotation through the Training Center, what we called NTC. The 1,000 square miles of mountainous desert, roughly the size of Rhode Island, allows for brigade-size simulated battles in an area that’s so remote there’s little chance of noise complaints. Miles of space means room for large tank maneuvers, as well as entire shanty towns that approximate Afghan villages. Our unit had spent the summer and fall prior to our February rotation in the field, day and night, simulating the battles we might fight in the Mojave Desert.

 The sun rises over Kansas, where the author was stationed before her unit's rotation through the National Training Center. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The sun rises over Kansas, where the author was stationed before her unit's rotation through the National Training Center. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Our first week at NTC we spent in the staging area, a sand-colored holding pen filled with tents, gravel, and soldiers, getting our vehicles and intelligence satellites working. At night, we’d sleep on cots in huge hardstand tent hangars. It felt safe, like an Army version of summer camp. I’d fall asleep listening to soldiers whispering back and forth in the dim light. We knew any danger we might encounter would start once we left the confines of our staging area a day later, when we would traverse steep, unrelenting desert mountains. But at worst I thought we’d face dehydration, cliffs, and unknown territory where we might get lost.

A day or so into the first-week hustle and bustle, my soldiers began chattering about news of a “training accident.” Companies and platoons exchanged details as the soldiers went about finding equipment and prepping our gear for the field. No one knew what had happened, except that it involved a vehicle and a soldier and that it sounded serious.

We asked soldiers in other companies for more details, but the immediate to-dos took precedence. Our 3,500-person brigade worked to get our vehicles and systems up and running as chaos consumed my day—my Platoon Sergeant refusing to leave his cot, another soldier dealing with his wife’s miscarriage, and the flurry of activity getting my six ground intelligence and satellite vehicles operational. But the question remained in the back of my mind: What had happened in that “training accident”? In quiet moments throughout the day, an uneasy feeling crept over me. I hated not knowing what was going on—for myself and my soldiers, but also to clear the air with truth.

Bits of news about the incident trickled through the brigade over the next 12 hours. According to rumor, a soldier had been standing on a Bradley, a 30-ton infantry fighting vehicle, during routine maintenance when the turret had turned and crushed him. Our Company Commander verified the rumor some time later, but nothing more was said or done officially. No moment of silence, no official acknowledgement. As if his death were nothing more than a routine hiccup. An unfortunate hiccup, but one that we had to push through to keep our momentum strong going into our three weeks of simulated battles.

 The author photographed the motorpool staging area during her unit's rotation through the National Training Center in 2013. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author photographed the motorpool staging area during her unit's rotation through the National Training Center in 2013. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

I thought back to my college R.O.T.C. years spent preparing for Iraq and Afghanistan under the tutelage of crusty Sergeants. Suicide vests and car bombs, even green-on-blue attacks and friendly fire—we’d talked about those combat and noncombat deaths, but not the mundane, almost pathetic ones. We digested the news as we continued packing trucks, checking weapons, and setting up our computer systems in the hive of a staging area. Then we set out into the desert.

Apart from a brief halt on the way, we arrived at our first tactical operations center location without issue. Later that day, after the tents were set up, my company Executive Officer told me and the other Platoon Leaders that we’d had another “training accident.” An HET vehicle carrying a tank had flipped, severely injuring the two soldiers inside. One Sergeant’s face was almost entirely ripped off. He and the other injured soldier were in critical condition and quickly airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital over 200 miles away.

Our First Sergeant later confirmed the rumor my Executive Officer had heard. Accidents happen, the battalion Staff Officers I worked with told me; imagine if that had happened while we were under enemy attack. In a way, they said, we were lucky, getting to buff out our operations on domestic grounds before deploying. Both of the soldiers injured when the tank flipped left the Army through a medical board; they no longer were physically capable of performing soldier duties. If there were others involved in that accident, I don’t know what happened to them.

I struggled to wrap my head around what felt like sad, almost pathetic ways to die and be injured. It seemed unfair—it still does—dying in the desert of California, rather than at war. I don’t know if the soldier who died when the turret hit him had deployed; I wouldn’t have been surprised. It’s always the Sergeant who’s survived six or so deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, it seems, who dies domestically, doing something routine.

•••

Nina Semczuk is a former Army Officer who served in various locations and units from 2011 to 2016. She earned a B.S. from Boston University prior to military service and now lives in New York, and works as a writer and editor at a financial tech startup. Find her work on SmartAsset, The Muse, itscomplicated.vet, Fast Company, and around the web. Nina is also a teaching associate with the Voices From War writing workshop and an outdoor yoga instructor for NYC Parks and Rec.

Say “hi” on Twitter @ninadawdles or check out her site: ninasemczuk.com.

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For the Love of Machine Guns


Jerad W. Alexander fired his first machine gun at 12 and was hypnotized. Not many years later, patrolling Iraqi streets, he learned the weapon's power.

For the Love of Machine Guns


Jerad W. Alexander fired his first machine gun at 12 and was hypnotized. Not many years later, patrolling Iraqi streets, he learned the weapon's power.

By Jerad W. Alexander

I fired my first machine gun on an air base in Utah when I was 12 years old.

A pair of teenagers had come strutting down the quiet, tree-lined street of the base housing development, flaunting long belts of spent shells like arrogant facsimiles of Old West pistoleros. A couple of airmen, they said, had mounted a big black machine gun on top of a Humvee parked next to a convenience store near the airfield. I raced into the house and pestered my mother to drive me there.

 Jerard W. Alexander grew up and joined the U.S. Marine Corps and learned the true power of the machine gun. Courtesy of Jerard W. Alexander

Jerard W. Alexander grew up and joined the U.S. Marine Corps and learned the true power of the machine gun. Courtesy of Jerard W. Alexander

My ears had long been tuned to the fighter jet afterburners and the sex-rock reverb of fighter-jock hair metal, all backed by the fist-pumping, star-spangled jingoism of ’80s action movies that surrounded the military culture I had been blanketed in since birth. I had sat in the cockpits of fighter jets on display at the yearly air shows. I had played war in my stepdad’s old fatigues. I knew all the ranks and badges by heart. At 12, shooting a machine gun felt like a rite of passage. But I had never touched one, let alone shot one. I had no choice.

My mother agreed; she had errands to run, anyway, and there was nothing necessarily unusual about children shooting blanks from a machine gun. Before she could fully park the car in the lot across the street from the Humvee, I’d bolted from the back seat and sprinted toward the gun, skidding to a stop beside the driver’s open door. The bored airman sitting in the driver’s seat looked up and tapped cigarette ash onto the grass. Up in the turret, the second airman helped a boy of about 7 or 8 blast off a string of blanks. The boy was so small the airman had to hold him by his armpits so his small shoulder could reach the buttstock. His feet dangled near the airman’s knees. After some frustration getting his small hands around the pistol grip, the boy clapped off a hard burst with a sound that reverberated across the grass. Its sound shot down my spine, making my skin vibrate with anticipation and electric intensity.

The small boy climbed out, his face a punch-drunk mask of awe and bewilderment. I quickly stepped around him and climbed through the cabin and into the turret, determined to appear an Old Pro at climbing in and out of Humvees, not some neophyte preteen. The airman was young and spoke with a thin, practiced veneer of patience and good humor, like a threadbare grocery store checkout clerk.

He pointed at my feet. “Climb up on the ammo can,” he said. I gawked at the black machine gun above my head—an M-60, the same gun John Rambo used to smite Sheriff Will Teasle and countless Communists in ’Nam and Afghanistan in the Rambo series. I stepped onto the ammunition can and pressed my right shoulder against the gun’s warm metal buttstock. It smelled like hot metal and what I now know to be the ozone fragrance of burnt propellant. A belt of blanks draped down from the gun’s left side to an ammunition can that sat on a flat mount.

I wrapped my small hand around the thick black pistol grip. The airman told me to place my left hand over the top of the buttstock, press my right cheek into it, and aim down the sights. The gun was locked into a fixed position inside its mount, pointed at an arbitrary car in a nearby parking lot, a dirty white Honda near our family Mazda.

“Whenever you’re ready, dude,” the airman said boredly. Cigarette exhaust drifted up from the driver’s seat. I was nervous. I rested my finger against the cool black trigger and pulled.

The gun spat out, hammered, chattered, maybe a half-dozen times—two, perhaps three seconds. It happened so quickly I barely registered it beating against my shoulder and cheekbone, or the subtle flames that burst from the end of the barrel, or the smoke that drifted in wispy layers from underneath the feed tray cover that held down the belt of brass blanks—all the little details I came to learn about shooting an automatic weapon. Firing the machine gun felt chaotic and dark, grown up, alive, and loaded with adrenaline and roaring atavism.

“Cool,” was all I managed. As I climbed down I banged my knee on the cabin’s metal floor.

 Jerard W. Alexander was drunk on the machine gun's power as a kid. He came to respect it as a trade tool. Courtesy of Jerard W. Alexander

Jerard W. Alexander was drunk on the machine gun's power as a kid. He came to respect it as a trade tool. Courtesy of Jerard W. Alexander

Every so often, the airman in the turret brushed all the brass shells and black links to the grass below. I joined a small cluster of children who had already fired as they plucked burnished shells and links from the grass and pressed them together into long belts. I managed to build a two-foot-long belt before my mother shuttled me off for some errand. As we drove away, I listened to the rattling machine gun fade into the rock music playing on the car radio. Word had gotten around the base neighborhoods, and scores of children had begun to line up, all staring with electric eyes at the big black machine gun like they were waiting to climb aboard the neon chaos of a wartime/springtime carnival ride.

The following year my family moved to a U.S. airbase in Japan. One afternoon in late spring, after a day spent learning about the dangers of sex and sexually transmitted diseases through scare-tactic imagery, I stepped behind the school where school buses waited to ferry kids home. A Black Hawk helicopter hovered a few hundred feet above the high school football field as the teenagers huddled in packs around the curbs with heavy backpacks and Starter jackets. Many watched the helicopter with mild interest; some pointed and gawked before loading onto their buses. In the sky above, an airman sat behind another black machine gun in the open door of the helicopter and fired long strings of blanks, presumably a part of some large training exercise. At the sound of the machine gun clatter I rattled my body, pantomiming bullet strikes, then fell into the warm grass like the final boss bad guy slain in some jingoistic action movie.

Five years later I was behind another machine gun, this time as a U.S. Marine, firing at a gunnery range in North Carolina during infantry training, muttering “die-motherfucker-die” to time the bursts properly. The blanks were long gone, replaced with red tracer rounds that snapped through cardboard targets, inevitably setting on fire the dry autumn leaves that lay scattered across the range. We laughed at the fire and felt 10 feet tall, like “Mean Marines,” for all the lead we had punched through man-sized targets in our endless efforts to play war in lieu of the real thing. I can still feel that rush, even now, years later—the sort of brutal primalism that makes war so remarkably attractive.

Not too many years later and I’m watching a machine gunner’s red tracers slice into Iraqi homes and snap down Iraqi streets. I remember well the rattling SAWs and the clapping 240s, the lion’s roar of the Ma Deuce, and the thumps and distant grenade blasts of the MK-19s. Their sounds were less awe-inspiring than they had been a decade earlier on the springtime grass of an American air base when I’d fired my first machine gun. Now the gun was a trade tool, mesmerizing for an altogether different reason than it had been when I was young, mesmerizing because of its destructive power. I remember how exciting the gun could still be, even after I had been around them for so long, and even in combat. Sometimes especially in combat, when the machine gun served as a violent answer to fear. I vividly remember the most minute details of smoking brass shell casings, of children with belts of spent blanks, of bored airmen in and out of helicopters, of wargame death throes, and the guttural sexiness of war and its dubious glories to the uninitiated. But the hardest thing for me to remember is where and when I learned what holes that get punched into humans look like when the bullets are real, and what it looks like when their bodies are at rest at my feet like dolls tossed aside and askew, casualties of the machine gun’s transmitted disease.

•••

Jerad W. Alexander is a New York-based writer focusing on politics, history, war, and American culture with works published in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Narratively, Ozy, and elsewhere. He is also a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute literary reportage program. A list of works can be found at jeradalexander.com. He can be followed at @jerad_alexander.

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Losing Trust in the Branch He’d Pledged to Serve


Waiting in the lobby of the mental health unit, Francisco Martínezcuello wonders when, in his then-17-year career, he stopped trusting the Navy.

Losing Trust in the Branch He’d Pledged to Serve


Waiting in the lobby of the mental health unit, Francisco Martínezcuello wonders when, in his then-17-year career, he stopped trusting the Navy.

By Francisco Martínezcuello

There was no place in the mental health unit lobby to hide from other Sailors, Marines, or the shackled brig inmates with their armed escorts while I completed my medical history questionnaire. Flat-screen TVs playing network news filled the lobby with an ambient buzz and a blanket of white noise. Most of the chairs were filled with service members quietly scrolling through their phones. I’d found a seat between a Lance Corporal and Sergeant. They’d straightened up when they saw the two silver bars on each collar of my woodland-green Marine Pattern uniform. Deep into the medical history questionnaire, I paused at the consent for treatment and limits of confidentiality sections and hesitated about whether to sign.

Like all relationships, there have been good and bad moments. Sitting in the crowded, impersonal lobby of the mental health unit, at the beginning of my twilight tour, it was the bad moments during my to-that-point 17 years of service that flashed through my head.

 The author, Captain Francisco Martinezcuello with Detachment 7 while attending Marine Security Guard School Class 1-99 at MCB Quantico in October, 1998. Courtesy of Francisco Martínezcuello

The author, Captain Francisco Martinezcuello with Detachment 7 while attending Marine Security Guard School Class 1-99 at MCB Quantico in October, 1998. Courtesy of Francisco Martínezcuello

My introduction to Navy culture began during initial training in 1995. My drill instructors warned that “Hot Doc” was fresh from hospital corpsman school and that he couldn’t wait to check a recruit’s core temperature with a rectal thermometer. They begged me not to hydrate so that my temp would rise and “Hot Doc” could stick his silver rod up my butt. Unsure if the procedure was common or not, I drank more water.

My mild distrust blossomed when, a year later, I got to my first duty station, MCAS Futenma, and was sent to dental for a “yuck mouth.” A nasty Class 3 categorization required removal of my wisdom teeth. I grew up in poverty and hadn’t been able to go to the dentist as a kid, and my friends’ horror stories from the dentist had always scared me anyway. I referred to the Lance Corporal Underground Bible in preparation and was prescribed the 1-to-1 ratio of beer from the barracks vending machine to Percocet.

 Captain Francisco Martínezcuello with fellow MSG Daryl Scott on graduation day in November 1998. Hours later they boarded planes to their respective Consulates and Embassies. Daryl went to Niamey, Niger and Francisco went to Kampala, Uganda. Courtesy of Francisco Martínezcuello

Captain Francisco Martínezcuello with fellow MSG Daryl Scott on graduation day in November 1998. Hours later they boarded planes to their respective Consulates and Embassies. Daryl went to Niamey, Niger and Francisco went to Kampala, Uganda. Courtesy of Francisco Martínezcuello

The Dental Clinic Commander was an older man with white hair, and his right eye twitched slightly with each breath. He smiled more than I liked, and when I lay in the chair, he strapped me down as though I’d been sentenced to death by lethal injection. As he tightened the straps, he came in and out of focus as his head bobbed under the operating lamp. He proclaimed we were getting softer as a society, and then he secured a blindfold that was attached to the headrest around my eyes. It came as no surprise that he didn’t believe in using much Novocain.

The way my mouth was positioned, my apologies and screams sounded the same.

He drilled into my bottom right molar until he yelled out an expletive and accused me of purposely bleeding all over his khakis. The top right molar was particularly stubborn. He didn’t weigh much, so to apply more force he jumped up and down. My teeth cracking sounded more like two pieces of Styrofoam rubbing as they do when you pull electronics from their cardboard packaging. For once I was saved by someone’s lack of PT. He was winded after the right side; he said my teeth were some stubborn sons of bitches and that I’d have to reschedule for my remaining wisdom teeth. I waited until he got permanent change of station orders, and even then I hesitated to seek Navy medical attention.

Medical trauma continued throughout my service, until I retired in September 2015. Lost medical and dental records each time I got a PCS required more vaccinations and the complete anthrax series times two. After one hike in Marine Officer Candidate School, the middle toenail on my left foot turned black and began looking like overcooked beef. A fire team of corpsman armed with plyers extracted my toenail. I wondered if the Navy had an aversion to Novocain.

Over the years I got so tired of pushing through the pain, as Marines do. I rarely left my office as an Officer in Charge, and my Marines noticed. Some of them were hurting too. I grew tired of telling them to ask for help, because if I wasn’t getting it, I was sure they wouldn’t either; it wasn’t worth the energy.

“Captain Martínezcuello?” Waking me from my reverie, the Navy psychologist stood in front of me in the lobby of the mental health unit. With no separation from patients waiting to get their audiograms, immunizations, or no-shave chits, everyone in the lobby could see I was there for a mental health appointment.

I followed the tall Navy Lieutenant with blond medium-reg hair into his office: government-issued space, void of any personality, more like a hospital examination room than my image of a therapist’s office, lacking the low-volume soft sounds of Enya on an endless loop. There wasn’t a rug or a couch, just a desk—sans Zen waterfall fountain—with a computer on it. He offered me a seat in a chair I was sure he’d stolen from the lobby. We stared at each other more than we talked that first session.

 Prior to the Commandant of the Marine Corps departing Kabul, he talks and shakes hands with the author, Captain Francisco Martinezcuello. Francisco served as a Mission Commander with Joint Visitors Bureau Personnel Security Detail, U.S. Forces Afghanistan from April to November, 2011. Courtesy of Francisco Martínezcuello

Prior to the Commandant of the Marine Corps departing Kabul, he talks and shakes hands with the author, Captain Francisco Martinezcuello. Francisco served as a Mission Commander with Joint Visitors Bureau Personnel Security Detail, U.S. Forces Afghanistan from April to November, 2011. Courtesy of Francisco Martínezcuello

My bleak outlook on life and my depression didn’t change overnight, but it became manageable as I continued with the Navy psychologist’s recommended treatment of cognitive behavioral therapy. I learned to identify my emotions through the “Wheel of Feel” that I hung up on my office wall. At the heart of the wheel were six wedges of feelings—mad, sad, scared, powerful, and so on. The second level broke down those into secondary feelings—critical, hateful, and so on. And the outermost layer explained the emotion underlying those secondary feelings—skeptical, irritated, and so on. I learned to pinpoint what I was feeling and to read the wheel to understand the underlying emotions I felt about particular events from my service. The better I became at identifying my emotions, the easier it became to process, rather than react.

I’d thought for years that I’d been angry, until the day I cleaned out my office after my retirement ceremony in 2015. Before I unpinned the “Wheel of Feel,” I noticed within the wheel’s “mad” wedge was a partition marked “anger.” My eyes fixated on anger’s outermost slice, labeled “frustrated.” I reflected on my therapy as I unpinned the wheel. I finally had a word for it: frustration. Frustrated with the fact that as a fighting force we knew how to go to war, but we haven’t figured out how to take care of us while we’re there.

•••

Captain Francisco Martínezcuello was born in Santo Domingo, República Dominicana and raised in Long Island, New York. He has been writing short stories and journaling since he was a teenager. His passion for literature and writing continued throughout his 20 years of Marine Corps service and helped him understand the impact of war on our nation’s veterans. He is a 2017 Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Fellow and a member of So Say We All. He has been published in Split Lip Magazine (forthcoming), Incoming (forthcoming), Collateral Journal and the Dominican Writers Association. Publications and Social Media are posted on his website.

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Brother, Forgive Me


In Joe, Drew Pham found a supportive peer and guide. One careless act threatened their relationship, forcing Drew to really consider what Joe means to him.

Brother, Forgive Me


In Joe, Drew Pham found a supportive peer and guide. One careless act threatened their relationship, forcing Drew to really consider what Joe means to him.

By Drew Pham

I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone quite like Joe. He’s a big Native American Cavalry Scout with a gleaming bald head and sharp features. He looks just like Magua in the 1992 adaptation of Last of the Mohicans, and I was more than a little scared of him at first, but he’s more than an imposing face. I remember after the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he told his soldiers about the two-spirit people and the immemorial tradition of gay and transgender spiritual leaders in Native culture. We listened to him. Though I was assigned to another platoon, it was clear even to a relative outsider that his men loved him. He brought them hunting and fishing, took problem children under his wing, and was always there to offer advice. In Joe, I saw a man equal measures martial and kind. Joe knows war. He fought with the Marines in Somalia, then left the service only to join the Army after 9/11. He was there at the beginning of the Iraq War, redeploying tour after tour, fighting. We met before deploying to Afghanistan together. Our time there was violent. He was the first soldier in our unit to kill someone at close quarters that year. I was the second.

After that, my unit’s Platoon Sergeants—Joe among them—took me into their care. They’d all killed at some point over the course of our long war. There was no celebration of what we’d each done. We never spoke about killing; we only needed to be around one another. We ate together, took coffee together, smoked together. I’d tell them about lost sleep or bad dreams, and they’d nod knowingly. It was enough. In those career Sergeants, I saw a glimpse of my future—we all made a life out of war; we simply chose to do it in different ways.

Unlike them, I would leave the Army, but I’d never stray far from the violence that I’d seen and committed. Those senior NCOs chose to make their livelihoods in far-flung war zones. During my first year as a civilian, I chose to work with refugees who’d fled those war zones. I continue to tread that familiar, violent ground in the writing I do every day. There are days that feel as if I never really left Afghanistan. I wonder sometimes, knowing what we individually and collectively had done, if men like Joe and I could ever fully rejoin society.

 

 A derelict armored car sits outside an Afghan Local Police checkpoint in Wardak Province. Courtesy of Drew Pham

A derelict armored car sits outside an Afghan Local Police checkpoint in Wardak Province. Courtesy of Drew Pham

I never lost touch with Joe. I didn’t think I could stand losing him from my life. After I tried to kill myself during my last year in the Army, Joe was there, along with the other members of our unofficial, silent support group. I don’t think I could have survived without Joe. In the months before my discharge date, we never talked about coping mechanisms or triggers. Instead, he’d teach me little tricks for fly fishing, knife sharpening, and animal tanning. I trusted everything he showed me with those big, gnarled hands, which were somehow able to accomplish the most delicate tasks with lures and fine gossamer fishing line. He knew I’d never have a use for such things when I finally returned to New York City, but I like to think it was his way of telling me how to take things one step at a time. Of course we would talk about war. It’s impossible to avoid. We’d talk about his days in Iraq fighting house to house, his time sitting in a sniper’s blind in Mogadishu, our days together patrolling the dusty plains and dense green zones of Afghanistan. Our conversations would get dark. We’d trade the same old gruesome stories that we already knew—enemy heads obliterated by large-caliber rounds; allied policemen captured by Taliban, their arms bound and throats slit; a comrade who’d taken shrapnel to his penis, but still conned his way back to his unit. I think it was just a way of making space for the horror without letting it take control.

More than that, he gave me the space to mourn the man I killed. We had both taken photographs of the men we’d killed in combat—standard operating procedure for sensitive site exploitation—but keeping those photographs was prohibited. We kept them. There isn’t a procedure for what happens after you take someone’s life. One day he showed me the photograph he kept. He didn’t talk about his enemy with the kind of malice so common among fighting men, nor did I see a trace of anger on his face. It was a matter of life or death, but he still seemed somber over what happened. I showed him the photograph that I kept, and he told me, he looks like a warrior. He showed me that I didn’t need to hold onto things like hate or bigotry to live with what I’d done. Just seeing the expression on his face, neither regretful nor triumphant, I finally believed that my sorrow had a place. Joe didn’t need to speak for me to understand what was in his heart.

 

Imagine how it feels when a man like Joe, a man you love, sends you a beheading video.

It was after the first Muslim and refugee ban. I remember watching the drama unfold on TV—hundreds of protesters flooding Kennedy International Airport in New York City, lawyers toting fax machines and laptops into the terminals, and all the president’s men spinning words from teleprompters. The politicians said that people just like my parents—refugees from another war of America’s making—were parasites and rapists and terrorists. The America that I fought for, killed for, felt like a foreign country after hearing that. I circulated a petition started by other veterans, which called for an end to the executive order. Joe saw things differently. He told me I had better things to do with my time.

The next day, Joe sent me the beheading video. Don’t mean to be argumentative, he said, just want peace here at home. The horror in the video was supposed to serve as proof that these people—the ones just like my parents—were violent. I didn’t watch it; I knew what to expect from the decapitated body in the thumbnail. Showing someone violence like that doesn’t start conversations; it draws a line in the sand.

 

 The 10th Mountain Division Soldiers patrol the Jalrez Valley, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The 10th Mountain Division Soldiers patrol the Jalrez Valley, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

There’s a terrible knowledge that follows killing a man. You learn that killing is far simpler than you’d ever imagined. You learn that killing does not exist solely in the realm of fiction, that it is something that you can wield, that others can wield against you. You learn the meaning of finality, of irrevocability. What should soldiers who return from war do with all the things they carry back with them? What do we do with our trespasses, and that which has been trespassed against us?

I still don’t have the answers, but I do know that we each must choose what we do with that violence. I’ve tried to drown those questions with drink. I’ve tried to atone for killing with good deeds—though nothing I’ve done will ever make up for taking a life. I go on writing and rewriting the war every day, as if the act of putting words on a page will somehow reveal something about the things I’ve done that I have yet to discover.

I like to think Joe struggles with these things too, that he struggles to find answers. I know that he’s found some peace through God, that he finds meaning while hunting Louisiana’s pinelands or fishing its rivers and streams, that he prays that his soldier son will remain safe until this war finally ends. I also know that he has faith in the president and his men, and their policies. I know there is prejudice and violence and rage in his heart. I see those things in a man whom I love, who has cared for me.

When he sent me that bloody, horrific video, I had to choose what to do with the prejudice and violence and rage boiling in my heart. It would have been easy to cut ties, to end our friendship. We could have found ourselves on the opposite sides of the new battle lines drawn all across our country. Who would blame me? I chose to see Joe for all he is—the warrior, the comrade, the killer, the mentor. I told him that I valued his friendship, no matter how much we disagreed. I told him I’d never turn my back on everything he had done for me. I said these things because I know that I cannot carry the consequences of this war alone; I said these things because I love Joe. I said these things and he called me brother. He said, forgive me.

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer and contributing editor at The Wrath-Bearing Tree. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Follow Drew on Twitter @Drewspeak.

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Their Love Would Thrive or Die Thanks to the Corps


Nathan Eckman wrote off the idea of having a relationship while he was in the Marine Corps. When he met Emily, the Corps helped forge their relationship.

Their Love Would Thrive or Die Thanks to the Corps


Nathan Eckman wrote off the idea of having a relationship while he was in the Marine Corps. When he met Emily, the Corps helped forge their relationship.

By Nathan Eckman

You could blame it on the fact that my parents announced their divorce while I was at bootcamp. Or that every relationship I had witnessed thereafter seemed cursed by the Marine Corps and the distance it forced between loved ones. It’s important to note that I had lived most of my life single, and happily so. Whatever the reason, I had never wanted a relationship while I was in the Corps. That is, until January 2, 2014.

In a hallway of the Chicago-Midway Airport, a television read “1,200 flights cancelled.” Outside, the piling snow answered why. In line to rebook my ticket, I saw Emily for the first time. She was right in front of me; she seemed too cute to talk to. I looked for another person to kill the next hour in line with. Everyone else had already found their match. Fine, I thought, the hot blonde it is.

I waited for an opportune moment, but she wasn’t giving me a chance. No side eye. No look behind her to see what, or who, was standing next to her in line. For what felt like a few solid minutes I stood staring at this woman’s back, wondering how to break the ice without ruining my chances at a second minute of conversation. “So, do you like to backpack?” I asked.

I hadn’t finished my question before she answered, “yes.”

 The author, Nathan Eckman, while he was in Korea. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

The author, Nathan Eckman, while he was in Korea. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

After four or five rounds of beers and 14 hours together filled with nonstop conversation about absolutely everything worth sharing with a trustworthy stranger, we boarded the same flight back to Columbus, Ohio at three in the morning. She invited me to stay on her futon for the night so this poor private first class didn’t have to pay for a last minute hotel—her words, not mine. The following morning my brother picked me up to drive me back to Akron, two hours away. He met her and just as quickly said goodbye. Rather, he wished her a good life. Emily and I followed his cue. Unbeknownst to us all at the time, the answer to that “good life” would mean a lifetime together for Emily and me.

Things moved quickly from there. Two weeks after we first met in the airport line we were dating, and another two weeks after that she was dressing me following surgery after the nurse assigned to me mistook us for something serious. After that I guess we were. By month three we openly talked about marrying one another. After 11 months of long distance dating, I proposed to her on the idyllic Laguna Beach. Seven months after that, weeks after I had returned from deployment, we were married.

I cherish our story. The happenstance. The serendipity of our coming to know each other. Those I tell the story to almost always call it a fairytale. Others say it’s like a movie. Some go so far as to say it was destined. That has complicated the perception of what I want people to see when they see us together. Because to Emily and me, our relationship is driven by the commitment we have demonstrated to one another when the Corps would have had us break apart.

 For New Year's 2018, Nathan and Emily escaped NYC and returned to the city they first called home, Wilmington, North Carolina. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

For New Year's 2018, Nathan and Emily escaped NYC and returned to the city they first called home, Wilmington, North Carolina. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

Our relationship almost didn’t begin. After I returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina two days after she and I first met, my instinct was to stop talking with her, the same way I had with other female friends in the past whom I felt were becoming more than just that. But as I contemplated our end, I remembered her smile and the warmth it brought me, her long gaze during conversation that made me feel like the most important man in the world. Clearly, I was smitten. Smitten enough to know that with her I could make a relationship work while I was still in the Marines. But first, I needed to know that she could too.  

Two weeks after Emily and I met in the airport, she drove 615 miles drive from Columbus, Ohio to Wilmington, North Carolina where I was stationed to visit me. Perhaps I was still skeptical of the idea of a relationship, because two days before she arrived I decided that weekend would be a test: By the end of that first weekend together we would either be in a relationship or we’d say goodbye—this time for good.

There’s no knowing if I would have followed through on the latter. A few hours after she got into town we walked to a coffee shop on the riverfront. There we sat on a couch along the back wall and for another couple of hours shared our hopes for the future as individuals and, as if it were a living thing with a pronoun but no name, our expectations for this potential relationship between us too. We left that coffee shop secure in one another as humans, protectors, partners, and friends. We had established that in our relationship the thoughts we share, more than the skin we touch, would measure our affection for one another. We prepared for the moments when the days would become weeks, and weeks months, since we would have seen each other last, so that the affection between us would not be contingent on our uncontrollable circumstances.

 The author, Nathan, and his wife, Emily, on a trail in the Shenandoah Mountains, summer 2017. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

The author, Nathan, and his wife, Emily, on a trail in the Shenandoah Mountains, summer 2017. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

This didn’t insulate us from the burdens that came with living apart. But it did reveal something totally unexpected. As our relationship progressed I kept tallying the cost to make us work. And it felt bizarre. Not a single drive through the night that robbed me of sleep, or dollar I spent that I didn’t know I had left ever felt like sacrifice. These “costs” weren’t. This cost-benefit analysis I once referenced to ensure our genuine intentionality vanished. Because the cost-benefit analysis assumed there was something more valuable I could have invested in. I became sure that Emily had transcended all costs; she embodies value herself. No longer did it make sense to ask ‘is it worth it’ but rather ‘through my actions did I display just how much more she’s worth?’

Even as we fell more in love, we hardly saw each other some months. Most months we saw each other once. Under these circumstances the experiences Emily and I curated for ourselves were intense. We’d allow ourselves just four hours of sleep and spend our waking hours learning what it was like to live with one another. We were always on tour. Always trying something new. Even if it was something I had experienced before, her presence rewired what it meant to drink a coffee, hike a trail, or—as a matter of fact, yes—save some room for dessert. There was an absurdity to it all. Getting the jitters each time I saw Emily months into our relationship felt like I was living out some sort of celebrity-romance fantasy. I had fallen in love with a person I had come to know primarily through a screen. I loved seeing her face, pixel-frozen and all. But experiencing her within arm’s reach, within arm’s embrace, unfiltered, without lag or pixelation, those were the moments that made not just us, but life as well, come alive anew. Saturated by one another, we quickly discovered our compatibility would be long standing.

I knew this in part because of our shared vocabulary. Love, we both thought, wasn’t just a feeling but a host of actions, defined in the pages of First Corinthians, and demonstrated through our patience and kindness for one another. This same-mindedness stretched into our ideals of labels, gender roles, and our conception of emotions. However different Emily was—and is—from me, never have those differences felt like a concession. When we’d hang up knowing it’d be another two weeks—or maybe longer—before we would hear one another’s voices, peace pierced the sorrow and uncertainty that came with that distance. I never finished a call worried about our bond.

Most mornings now we wake up next to each other. The Marine Corps is in our past; but what it helped shape transformed both of our futures. Because as much as I hate to admit it, if not for the Marine Corps, I’m not sure we ever would have become husband and wife.

 Nathan and Emily during a photoshoot outside the barn where they were married. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

Nathan and Emily during a photoshoot outside the barn where they were married. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

•••

Nathan Eckman was an Marine infantryman (0351) with Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment. During his service he toured on the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and deployed to Southeast Asia. Now Nate is a student of the Middle East and the Persian language at Columbia University. After college he intends on pursuing a career as a journalist covering international affairs.

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Learning the Power of Connection and Companionship


David Chrisinger grapples with his guilt about not having served, and draws on his own experience of feeling powerless to connect with a friend who did.

Learning the Power of Connection and Companionship


David Chrisinger grapples with his guilt about not having served, and draws on his own experience of feeling powerless to connect with a friend who did.

By David Chrisinger

The blood pumped in my ears. The skin around my eyes and mouth felt tight. My chest tightened as I thought about working for rent money while learning another European language and keeping up with papers and over 1,500 pages of weekly reading—and how I was going to do it all. I felt like I’d just stepped off a spinning ride at a carnival. When the weight started to crush my chest, I began to sob, my tears plunking onto the laptop keys. My wife, Ashley, heard me and darted out of our bedroom. We’d been together for four years and married a couple of months, and she had seen me cry on only one other occasion. She bear-hugged me from behind. Her chest smashed up against my shoulder blades; her chin dug into the space between my neck and shoulder. “Match my breathing,” she said as she pulled my body even closer to her own. “Breathe like I breathe.”

By the time Ashley and I received the wedding invitation from my high school friend Brett, I was feeling much more confident that I’d survive graduate school. Brett would be deploying to Afghanistan a week and a half after the wedding, the invitation said. It took me as a surprise we’d been invited. Brett and I had seen each other only a handful of times—usually when he was home on leave between deployments—since he’d left for boot camp a couple of weeks before I left for college. Each time, it felt like we’d drifted further and further apart.

 Brett and Whitney married before Brett left again on deployment. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

Brett and Whitney married before Brett left again on deployment. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

During Brett and Whitney’s wedding reception, in between the “Chicken Dance” and “Cotton Eye Joe,” I found Brett leaning against a post in the corner of the reception area. He asked me about graduate school as he scanned the dancing crowd. I didn’t tell him about my panic attacks. He locked eyes with me for a moment after I asked about Afghanistan. He looked down at the Solo cup of beer he’d been sipping; it seemed like he was sick of people asking him. After a moment, he told me he’d gotten hooked up with a great gig. Probably wouldn’t see much action, he said. I smiled and nodded, unsure how to respond without making an ass of myself.

Back at graduate school, after Brett had deployed, I got into the habit of watching the local news while Ashley made dinner. Sometimes there’d be a short segment about a Marine who’d just been killed by an IED in southern Afghanistan, and I would wonder about Brett, comparing his hardships to my own. I hated myself for thinking what I was going through at school was so difficult.

When we were both still in high school, Brett and I had planned to enlist together, but my father talked me out of it. When I was in college, I had planned instead to enroll in the ROTC, but Ashley talked me out of that. Sitting on the couch in my apartment, trying to imagine what Brett was going through, the shame I felt about not having enlisted with him usually morphed into an anxious fear that if Brett made it home alive, and if I finished graduate school, he and I would no longer have anything in common—nothing to keep us connected.

 Brett Foley on patrol in Ramadi, Iraq in the summer of 2007. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

Brett Foley on patrol in Ramadi, Iraq in the summer of 2007. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

About 15 months after Brett and Whitney’s wedding, Ashley and I were living in Washington, D.C., expecting our first child. I had finished my master’s program the year Brett was in Afghanistan, and he and I hadn’t seen each other since he’d left for that deployment. Sitting on the floor of my bedroom just after midnight one evening in February, unable to sleep, I flipped open my laptop and logged on to Facebook. Brett was logged on too, so I sent him a message and asked how he was doing. He began typing. “Not that good, man,” he wrote. “I think I’m kinda fucked up.”

A wave of panic built in my stomach. Don’t write anything stupid, I thought. I took a deep breath. Seconds passed. It felt like forever. His typing bubble popped up again. He was really struggling, he wrote. He had frequent panic attacks. He couldn’t shake whatever was going on. He was drinking too much and missed being with his guys. Whitney, he said, didn’t get it.

For the next couple of weeks, Brett and I talked on the phone almost daily. I was worried about him. Talking seemed to help, but it was hard to make the time, and there were topics I was curious about that I felt too nervous to ask him about. We started emailing regularly instead. Brett told me about the battle for Marjah, and I had to admit I’d never heard of Marjah. I could tell my ignorance was hard for him to understand. I headed to the library. I started reading about Iraq, too, and about the tumultuous homecomings veterans were experiencing. Whenever I had a question about something I was reading, I’d shoot an email to Brett.

 Brett Foley (left) and David Chrisinger (right) hang out during the baby shower for David and his wife's first child, in Wisconsin in April 2011. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

Brett Foley (left) and David Chrisinger (right) hang out during the baby shower for David and his wife's first child, in Wisconsin in April 2011. Courtesy of David Chrisinger

Halfway through June that year, I flew back home to Wisconsin and told Brett I’d stop in to see him while I was around. The night we met for beers at a restaurant near his home, he wore a dark T-shirt, jeans, and a white baseball cap with a curved brim, which he’d pulled down low over his eyes. His hair was cropped close to his head, a stark contrast to the scraggly black beard that covered his rough and angular chin. His eyes were puffy and tired, and even after he settled into his seat at the table, his shoulders stayed pulled up, almost to his ears.

Just like that night on Facebook, we didn’t waste time with small talk. He tried not to think too much about Afghanistan, he said, but most of the time he couldn’t help it. Memories of his convoy being attacked and the distressed cries that rose from the mound of mangled bodies in the back of the armored vehicle would play in his mind. While he talked, he mostly looked at the tall can of Miller Lite he was almost strangling with his calloused hands. Occasionally he’d whip his head around to check what was going on behind him.

In the middle of detailing the worst days of his life, Brett would occasionally look up at me to see how I was reacting. I made a point not to look away. Even though our lives had diverged after high school, Brett was still my friend. I needed him to know that, but I struggled to find the right words. Instead, whenever he looked at me, I locked eyes with him, surrendering to the indescribable telepathy that had taken hold of us. I needed him to know that there was nothing he could say to make me think less of him.

I didn’t bear-hug Brett that night at the restaurant, or ask him to breathe like I was breathing, but in my own way, by listening to him, without trying to fix anything, I’ve hoped he felt as much relief as I had when Ashley had reminded me back in grad school that I wasn’t alone.

•••

David Chrisinger is a Communication and Veteran Transition Specialist at The War Horse's Director of Writing Seminars. He edited a collection of essays, See Me for Who I Am, that brings together 20 young student veterans working to bridge the cultural gap that divides them from the American people they fought to protect. David is also a writing instructor for Team RWB, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.

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The Frog’s Revenge Came in the Form of Rockets


Augusto Giacoman’s humanity was reduced to instinct as the rockets began to hit, and he understood how the frog he’d encountered as a child must have felt.

The Frog’s Revenge Came in the Form of Rockets


Augusto Giacoman’s humanity was reduced to instinct as the rockets began to hit, and he understood how the frog he’d encountered as a child must have felt.

By Augusto Giacoman

I had a lip full of Copenhagen and was sitting, talking with Schoby when I heard a sound like a piece of paper ripping in half, like the bottle rockets I’d shoot off when I was a kid. Two more rips came in quick succession. In the span of a second, and without any conscious thought, primal instinct gripped me: My stomach dropped. Everything tensed. I struggled to draw in breath. My body knew before my mind—danger was imminent. Like wild animals caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck, Schoby and I froze and looked at each other. I broke the moment and stood up.

 Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

As I started to tell Schoby that we should put on our body armor, a massive blast knocked me down; the impact reverberated through my entire body. Parts of the wall shook loose, and all the equipment that wasn’t nailed down lifted a foot or so in the air and crashed back down to earth. The dust, dirt, and sand that had caked the room were thrown skyward and hung in the air, choking and blinding me.

Another blast shook the building seconds later and sent me hurtling into the hallway. Confusion swept over me, and I sat halfway up. Everywhere I looked, bodies were pressed as close to the floor as possible. I rolled over, pressing my entire being into the ground. People began passing body armor to each other to lay over themselves when there was another earth-shattering blast.

I drove my face into the floor, trying to merge with it, to become as small as possible. Terror radiated from my gut up through my throat, lodging itself in my chest and brain. Death seemed certain. There was another blast.

My thoughts raced as I looked for a way to get to safety, but thoughts couldn’t save me. I prayed for my death to be fast. I hoped it would be one of the rocket blasts. The only alternative was being buried alive under the collapsing building. I looked up and saw a soldier from Comanche Company lying next to me, nearly face to face. We made quick eye contact, and I saw the terror in his eyes. I knew mine were no better. We were hit with another blast.

 Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

I became oddly aware of the Copenhagen. My mouth had dried up, and the dip felt like a stone against my gums. I spat it out. The wad of dip landed next to my hands. I became conscious of how long my nails were. I had read somewhere that WWI soldiers who’d gotten buried in trenches during shelling would try quickly to dig their way out to avoid suffocation. I started grinding my nails against the tile floor in rapid side-to-side motions. Get my nails shorter, I thought, in case I have to dig. Another blast rocked us. I marveled that I was still alive and wondered if the next would be my final one. Terror and helplessness consumed me. In my mind all that existed was survival. My thoughts were animal. I cowered like a mouse in danger, hiding from bright lights, as if the rockets were blasting away all layers of humanity. There was no higher-order thought, no purpose or meaning, no soul. Nothing existed except wanting to not die. Another blast. In the span of 30 seconds, six rockets had slammed into our combat outpost—30 seconds from man to mouse.

Then it stopped. Was it over? I stood up. My legs ached like I had just run 10 miles. My body was a jumble of sensations: My arms, legs, and all my joints felt loose all over, like a giant hand had picked me up, shaken me vigorously, and put me back down. The adrenaline made me high, but my head throbbed with pain. My taste buds, made prominent by dryness, scraped against the roof of my mouth. Oscillating between confusion and clarity, I walked into the Commander’s room; my Sergeant Major muttered to himself while he put on his body armor. “They can’t get me—think they can get me—they can’t get me.”

On the floor outside the Commander’s room lay the Captain who was supposed to replace me on duty. His face was beet-red and scrunched up like he was about to kick someone’s ass—fury instead of terror. I started to walk toward the command post, but I didn’t make it. The world exploded again—number seven—and I was knocked off my feet. I waited a full minute. Is it really over this time?

The seventh rocket turned out to be the last; the building was still standing. I walked back into the command post and noticed parts of the wall and equipment all over the floor. Schoby had somehow gotten on his body armor and was trying to work the radio. Our Battalion Operations Officer materialized from the smoke and dust, bellowing, “GET ON THE RADIO.” But it had been blown apart. I told him, and he shouted back, “GET TO A RADIO ON A STRYKER OUTSIDE.”

 Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

Courtesy of Augusto Giacoman

My head started to clear. Schoby and I made our way out of the building. No soldiers appeared to be hurt, but they looked as though they were waking up from a particularly deep nap. Their glazed eyes stared at me as I ran down the hall to the stairs. The first floor, where the Iraqi Army and police lived, was covered in rubble and looked like several walls had been blown out. I saw blood sprayed across one of the remaining walls as I ran out of the building, but I didn’t stop. We found a Stryker; I got on the radio and started reporting to higher command.

Slowly the world came back into focus, and I was flooded by relief, as though I were taking a huge breath of air after having been underwater too long. We took very few injuries, the worst of which was a broken leg, sustained by a man who had been taking a shower when the rockets hit. Had the Captain replacing me on duty arrived on time, I’d have been in the shower instead. Physically I’d escaped the attack unscathed, though I had probably been concussed. Those were a dime a dozen to an Infantryman. While on the radio, trying to bring some semblance of order back to our operations, a disturbing memory came unbidden:

When I was 13, I shot a frog with a blowgun. He moved slowly, gently hopping about 10 feet away from me. I aimed and, with a short breath, launched the dart toward him. It hit his lumpy skin with a thump. He kept jumping, so I shot him a few more times. I remember his fearful jumps and my sleek steel darts crashing into him one after another. It must have lasted about a minute. I went and pulled my darts out of the frog, and he hopped away. I think he lived, but whatever rudimentary consciousness the frog had must have felt utterly helpless and fearful; I understood that now. I thought that maybe the frog had finally gotten his revenge.

•••

Augusto Giacoman completed his undergraduate degree and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry from the US Military Academy at West Point. As an officer in the US Army he served as a platoon leader, an executive officer, and an operations officer. He deployed twice to Iraq, to Mosul in 2005 and to Sadr City in 2007-2008. He currently works at the management consultancy Strategy&, where he works with the world’s top businesses, governments, and institutions to create essential advantage and outpace competitors.

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She Lies Awake, Praying The "Widow Maker" Will Land Safely Tonight


Liesel Kershul used to worry about her Marine pilot husband only when he deployed. Now, with flight hours down and aircraft crashes up, she worries about him when he goes to work.

She Lies Awake, Praying The "Widow Maker" Will Land Safely Tonight


Liesel Kershul used to worry about her Marine pilot husband only when he deployed. Now, with flight hours down and aircraft crashes up, she worries about him when he goes to work.

By Liesel Kershul

My husband flies the V-22 Osprey. People call it the “widow maker” because of a series of fatal crashes during its production. Historically, though, the Osprey’s proven to be safer than many aircraft, and until recently, I’ve felt lucky it’s what Tom flies. I didn’t worry like my friends whose husbands fly F/A-18s. All the wives know those are the dangerous aircraft. But over the past several years, fatal aviation mishaps have been on the rise regardless of type model series. Now, even the “widow maker” doesn’t feel like it’s safe enough for Tom to be flying.

A few months ago, a KC-130 exploded in the air above Mississippi. Two days before, I’d received a text from one of my best friends, a KC-130 pilot who’d gone through flight training with my husband. She said she was flying out our way with her squadron and she’d see me in a few days. But the day she was supposed to arrive, news reports of a KC-130 crash started coming across my Facebook feed.

I felt sick as I stood in my kitchen staring at my phone. I prayed for it not to be my friend, and then I felt guilty for praying for something like that. If it wasn’t her, it was someone else’s friend. Someone else’s spouse. Someone else’s parent. Someone else’s child.

I called, but her phone was off. I sent her texts, emails, and private messages on Facebook. I reached out to her mother. I paced the length of my house as more details about the crash emerged. All 16 service members on board were dead. Six from my friend’s squadron. I called my husband at work and asked if he had details about the pilots. He didn’t.

 Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Hours passed, and I heard through the rumor mill that neither of the pilots were female. I was relieved. And then I felt guilty for feeling relieved. I went to bed but didn’t sleep much. I kept getting up to check my phone, each time saying a quick prayer before entering my passcode that I’d have a text notification. Each time disappointed when there were no new messages.

The next morning, my friend called me after her command okayed communication. She had been flying the other aircraft in the section with the one that had exploded, and though grieving and in shock, she was alive.

This has become my new normal. It seems like every few weeks there’s another Marine Corps aviation mishap. And each time I hear there’s been one more, I repeat the steps above: 1) Pray it’s not my husband or a friend. 2) Feel guilty for wishing it’s someone else’s loved one. 3) Wait anxiously to hear who was involved. 4) Feel heartbreak or relief depending on whether I knew anyone on board. 5a) If relieved, feel guilty for feeling relief. 5b) If heartbroken, send condolence cards and care packages to the families. Then curl into a ball and cry. A lot. 6) Wait a month—two, if I’m lucky—and repeat.

Worry has become my constant companion. Like a familiar perched quietly on my shoulder, it’s just out of sight, but I can always feel it. There was a time when it wasn’t like this, but something has changed in Marine Corps aviation.

The truth is, I used to worry when Tom deployed to combat. Now I worry when he goes to work.

And it’s the type of worry that eats away at you slowly and over time, until you’re either numb or exhausted, or some combination of the two. It’s the type of worry that becomes so all-encompassing it keeps me from focusing on other things in my life, like work. It’s the type of worry that keeps me awake at night, keeps me staring at the ceiling and counting endless sheep until I hear that glorious ping from the phone I keep on the pillow next to my head: a text message from Tom letting me know he’s on the ground.

We have this awful alarm clock next to our bed. It’s tiny, but at night, the light emanating from the numbers on its face is bright enough to cast a strange blue glow throughout the room. I spend hours tossing and turning in that sickly blue light, waiting for that ping, because when Tom flies nights, that ping is the most cherished sound in my world. It is the only thing that lets me relax enough to sleep.

Things I once enjoyed now bring with them a twinge of trepidation. I log on to Facebook with apprehension, because each time there’s a mishap, the news flies around social media at the speed of light, and the rumor mill immediately begins to churn out stories about who and how and why. We all send messages of love and prayers into the ether. We replace our profile pictures with the squadron patch encircled by a black ribbon and donate to the Wingman Foundation, and then we have to move on, until the next one.

My movement tends toward pacing. I have worn a path into the hardwood floor of our home. A small stretch of the hall now has a shinier luster than was once there; my stockinged feet have polished the boards with hundreds and thousands of passes. And those steps are not just for my husband; Marine Corps aviation is a small community, and I worry for all of our friends. A few years ago, after we lost a friend in a routine flight, I thought, something has to give. Somebody is going to fix this. But nothing gave. Nothing has been fixed. And I’ve wondered to myself, what will it take?

Tom hugs me and laughs when I tell him about my fears. He loves his job, and he loves his aircraft. Nothing I say could ever get him to hang up his spurs and get out of the cockpit. Age is the only thing that will do that. So, when he’s flying, I try my best to suppress the anxiety and to trust in his training, his experience, and his maintenance department. They all know what they’re doing, and they all work hard. But the data doesn’t lie. As more and more Marine aviators are crashing and dying, making it through each mission alive feels as though it’s become a crapshoot.

I know what Tom signed up for. We’ve been doing this for more than 15 years—he’s been doing it for 17—and any romantic notions I had about his career as a Marine succumbed to cold, hard reality many years ago. But with an unyielding operational tempo and flight hours at an all-time low, I’ve started to wonder if these squadrons are going to get the resources they need to be successful and reasonably safe. I’ve started to wonder if the spouses and families of these aviators are the only ones who care. Something has to give. They’re not just data points on a graph; they’re people I know, people I care about. They’re not just another tragic news story to follow and then move on from. My husband and my friends are not expendable. Not to me anyway.

•••

Liesel Kershul is a writer and a lifelong student of philosophy, politics, and human behavior. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, and an M.S. in applied psychology from Sacred Heart University.

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Rule #1 of Submarines: Don’t Crash the Submarine


Rule #2 of Submarines: Don’t Crash the Fucking Submarine.

Rule #1 of Submarines: Don’t Crash the Submarine


Rule #2 of Submarines: Don’t Crash the Fucking Submarine.

By Tim Patterson

In the moments immediately after the collision—after an alarm had sounded at 2 a.m.; after the boat had rocked violently to starboard, rolling 45 degrees and back again; after many of USS Philadelphia’s sailors were thrown from their beds; after a DVD player had flown across the wardroom and hit me in the face; after Jeremy Novotney had started shouting from one of the Officers’ staterooms, “What the fuck! What the fuck!”; and after I saw Rob Barnett take off running toward the engine room, hoping the nuclear reactor hadn’t been damaged—after all of this, maybe I should have worried about dying, but instead, I grinned.

I’d spent most of the last three months—June, July, and August, 2005—underwater, living 24/7 inside Philly’s compact steel hull with 135 sailors, exhausting myself over paperwork, sleeping little, and dodging the Executive Officer as much as possible. Every day I woke up with a weight on my shoulders. I’d never gotten along well with the leadership on the Philly; perhaps that was my fault.

 The author, Tim Patterson, is picture on top of the  USS Philadelphia  about one month before the collision. Courtesy of Tim Patterson

The author, Tim Patterson, is picture on top of the USS Philadelphia about one month before the collision. Courtesy of Tim Patterson

The paperwork got to me more than most, but it might have been tolerable had I not hated the Executive Officer. I thought of him as a raging micromanager who invented arbitrary tasks, trusted no one, and took no interest in developing his subordinates. I dreaded running into him or the Captain in the passageway. I avoided meals in the Officer’s wardroom, or waited to eat until after they’d finished. It took a toll on my sanity—the expectation of subservience, the pointless memos, the daily stress of trying to avoid their spotlight—and inside a submarine, away from the sun for months on end, sanity was hard to come by.

The night of Sept. 4, I waited inside Philadelphia’s control room as the boat surfaced in the Persian Gulf. I climbed to the bridge when it was my time to take watch and took a long look out at the horizon, scanning for other ships, relishing the first fresh air I’d breathed in a month. That evening the horizon was marked only by distant lights, sandwiched between a moonless sky and a black ocean. For the next three hours, I drove a leisurely 7 knots toward Bahrain.

At midnight, another Officer came to the bridge and relieved me. I descended two ladders to the Officer’s wardroom, where the cooks were serving midnight rations. Gladiator was in the DVD player. Russell Crowe shouted at the crowd, “Are you not entertained?” I ate a slice of pizza and passed out on the blue faux leather bench.

I bolted upright to the shouts of Tom McDermott, one of the more experienced Lieutenants on Philly.

“Tim, wake up! We gotta get the fuck up! We gotta get going!”

As my vision came into focus, he turned and disappeared. My Timex watch read 2 a.m. Half asleep, I looked around the wardroom. The 7MC speaker crackled with the voice of Chief Jason Vega Cruz, spitting out words.

“Rig ship for collision!”

The collision alarm sounded. Shit. And then I felt the boom.

 The  USS Philadelphia  crosses the Suez Canal going north in 2005. Courtesy of Tim Patterson

The USS Philadelphia crosses the Suez Canal going north in 2005. Courtesy of Tim Patterson

The far side of the wardroom rose up as the entire submarine rolled, and gravity pressed me hard against the bench and wall. Cabinets burst open. A DVD player and a Nintendo flew at me at eye level. I couldn’t move fast enough; the DVD player hit me in the face. The rolling suddenly reversed and then stopped violently. The submarine remained tilting 18 degrees to starboard. The roller coaster had lasted maybe four seconds. I stood up, leaning on the wall for balance.

Suddenly the boredom and monotony of the last three months were disrupted. It didn’t dawn on me until later that I had a job to do, or until even later that we might have been in mortal danger. My only thought was that bosses wouldn’t shine their spotlight on me, not today.

In the passageway, I ran into Rob Barnett, who’d been on the toilet when the collision happened.

“Who’s in maneuvering!?” we both asked.

My mind raced, hoping the answer was someone capable of operating the nuclear reactor in a life-or-death emergency. We shouted the name simultaneously.

“FALKNER!”

Mike Falkner was one of the newest Officers on the submarine. A smart guy, but in this moment we needed someone experienced. Rob turned and ran.

 Captain Bob Brennan supervises the other officers driving the submarine to ensure they maintained a straight course. Brennan took command of the  USS Philadelphia  after the submarine crashed. Courtesy of Tim Patterson

Captain Bob Brennan supervises the other officers driving the submarine to ensure they maintained a straight course. Brennan took command of the USS Philadelphia after the submarine crashed. Courtesy of Tim Patterson

Curiosity drew me to the control room. My route took me past the Captain’s door, where I saw Novotney was already inside the stateroom. Shit! My job! As Philly’s Damage Control Assistant, I was supposed to get to the Captain’s stateroom, set up DC Central, and direct emergency response teams. In my absence, Novotney had started to do my job. Seeing me arrive, he thrust a headset at me and ran off.

I listened to the first damage reports from throughout the submarine: There was water in the torpedo and fan rooms. One of the electricians reported a pool of water in the athwartships passageway. Small amounts of water had spilled everywhere, but no outside ocean water had flooded in. Damage reports slowed down after the initial 10-minute rush.

News spread quickly that a 52,000-ton Turkish merchant ship, the M/V Yaso Aysen, had slammed into Philadelphia’s side and gotten wedged on top of us. The two vessels sat roughly perpendicular, with Philly’s rudder stuck on the far side of Yaso Aysen’s hull. With neither vessel able to use propulsion, we drifted.

Turning to the navigator next to me, I asked, “Do you know what’s funny, Nav?” It didn’t occur to me then to keep my mouth shut; he must have been worried about his job. I repeated the question.

“Shut up, Patterson. Nothing is funny.” But he didn’t dampen my mood, and I kept grinning. For the next two hours, I kept DC Central running as we drifted toward shoal water.

In the post-collision chaos, some of Philly’s Officers had taken the initiative to run to spaces where they could help. Sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., Tom McDermott climbed to the bridge to deliver a flashlight to help see whether Philly was sinking.

Minutes later, his voice crackled over the 7MC loudspeaker: “Control, bridge, Lieutenant McDermott has the deck and the conn.” Tom’s voice sent a wave of relief throughout Philadelphia’s crew, and I breathed deeply.

 The crash ripped into the fiberglass covering the submarine's hull. This damage was located near the engine room escape hatch. Courtesy of Andrew Crawford

The crash ripped into the fiberglass covering the submarine's hull. This damage was located near the engine room escape hatch. Courtesy of Andrew Crawford

In the outside air, Tom could see the hull of the Yaso Aysen towering over us. He watched powerlessly as Philadelphia’s fairwater plane widened a hole in the merchant’s hull. The sound was like an awful car crash, like metal tearing, he described later.

As the merchant took on water, she gradually pushed Philly deeper. Every few minutes, it seemed, the digital depth gauge in Philly’s control room ticked off another foot, and the open bridge hatch inched closer to the water.

Tom hastily constructed a plan: Flood Philadelphia’s aft ballast tanks to sink the submarine’s stern deeper to give us just enough room to pull Philly’s rudder out from under the merchant ship. The only problem was that we weren’t certain the ballast tank vent valves would open; and if they did, we weren’t positive they would shut again.

Up on the bridge, Tom thought about something he’d said on the previous deployment, a sort of premonition: “This boat is gonna kill me. I’m gonna die in this motherfucker.”

In DC Central, I listened with apprehension as Tom gave the orders. Some of Philly’s mechanics stood nervously by the vent valves in the engine room, waiting for something to go wrong. But the valves worked. The ballast tanks flooded like they were supposed to. Seconds later, Philly drove out from under the merchant. After two tense hours, the separation came easily.

I waited a minute for someone to tell me what to do. The navigator had long since departed DC Central, so I was alone. Emergency reports from around the ship had stopped. I glanced into the control room, but no one paid me any attention.

I packed up my headphones and stuck them back in their cubbyhole. I hadn’t slept more than two hours that night; the thrill and exhaustion were getting to me. In my mind, the crash was already long behind us. I walked to the wardroom to grab a mug of coffee and breakfast.

•••

Tim Patterson is a 2002 graduate of the Naval Academy. He served aboard the nuclear-powered submarine USS Philadelphia, survived a collision at sea in the Persian Gulf, and mentored police in Afghanistan. Then he spent two years riding a motorcycle from Alaska to Argentina. In 2015, Tim earned a M.S. journalism from Columbia University. Reach him @tpatts33

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The Military Gave Her a Shared Sense of Purpose, But Not a Home


Andrea N. Goldstein lost her sense of home when she left home for college and the military. Moving to New York City, she learned to come home to herself.

The Military Gave Her a Shared Sense of Purpose, But Not a Home


Andrea N. Goldstein lost her sense of home when she left home for college and the military. Moving to New York City, she learned to come home to herself.

By Andrea N. Goldstein

I moved back to New York City in May 2017. It’d been planned all year: Finish my first year of graduate school after separating from the Navy, move back to New York during Fleet Week, get married in Battery Park on Memorial Day weekend, and start a summer internship at a Fortune 50 company. We called off the wedding a few weeks before the date, in the middle of the spring semester’s midterms. Our relationship had survived the military, but not civilian life.

 The author, Andrea N. Goldstein, takes a break in the turret of a Humvee during a training event in California. Courtesy Andrea N. Goldstein

The author, Andrea N. Goldstein, takes a break in the turret of a Humvee during a training event in California. Courtesy Andrea N. Goldstein

But still, after final exams, I moved back to New York. On the Amtrak train from Boston, the jutting, sloping skyline of Manhattan suddenly appeared behind multifamily outer-borough homes and tenements. I had made this journey many times before, but now I would be moving from the house I shared with my ex to my own studio apartment. I hadn’t lived alone in years, and I’d never lived alone in New York City. As I watched the city appear, I felt ready to let it swallow me whole. In the rushing, desperate anonymity of a city of 8 million, I prepared to piece together 12 years of fragments. Home is where you return to yourself, a friend had once told me, and as the train pulled into Penn Station, I was hoping to find it.

I had left New York City—where I was born and came of age—at age 18 for college, and hadn’t really returned since then. I’d gone to college in Chicago. My mom and stepdad moved full time to Kinderhook, a historic farm village in upstate New York soon after. After graduating I went to Rhode Island for Officer Candidate School and commissioned as a Navy Intelligence Officer, taking an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and obey the lawful orders of my Commanding Officers. I had surrendered some of my agency; my life was no longer completely mine.

I found a shared sense of purpose in the military, which temporarily soothed the rootlessness of a military life. In exchange, I had to suppress part of myself. I was confronted with the fact that the military is not a place for dreamers, for creativity. And, for a time, nowhere I went on leave reminded me of who I’d been without the Navy.

 Goldstein trying to look her vintage best in a recent assignment with the Navy Reserve in Sweden. Courtesy Andrea N. Goldstein

Goldstein trying to look her vintage best in a recent assignment with the Navy Reserve in Sweden. Courtesy Andrea N. Goldstein

After my mother and stepdad first moved up there, Kinderhook, New York, was just my “home of record,” the address that I never had to change during my seven years in the Navy, while I was based in California. Before and after each of my three deployments from two different units, I came home to Kinderhook on leave. I lay in the hammock with a book and ate apples picked from the orchard across the street, wars dissolving into memories. The best memories stayed with me; the bad days resurfaced only with sounds and smells I associated with being overseas. I had voted absentee in my adopted hometown’s elections, mailing ballots from the middle of the ocean and from bases in Djibouti and Japan. This civic act connected me to the homeland—the United States—and reminded me why I served on the days that seemed most endless and purposeless. I began to consider the town upstate where my mom and stepdad lived to be where I was really from. It was there that I realized that part of myself had been lost, because it was there that I began to return to myself after a long absence.

When I was on active duty, the ride between New York City and the transformative calm of upstate prepared me to leave on deployment and helped me rediscover myself when I returned after having been deployed. In my demobilized sequel, moving between where I work in New York City and the home I have chosen upstate, it still does. The fragments of my military and civilian selves find one another as the Hudson flows outside Amtrak’s dusty windows. A peer remarked that he always saw bald eagles from the window of that train. I’m still looking.

I have moments of invincibility, living in New York City, and as time goes on, they strengthen the overwhelming feeling that I’m in the right place: riding the brand-new Second Avenue Subway home after glasses of wine at a networking event. Promising dates reassure me that I will move on. My research is being incorporated into policy recommendations. I pass weekend afternoons with friends at Yankee Stadium and free concerts in Central Park.

 The author takes her traveling companion, Humps the Camel, for a helicopter ride, while deployed on Christmas Eve 2013. Courtesy Andrea N. Goldstein

The author takes her traveling companion, Humps the Camel, for a helicopter ride, while deployed on Christmas Eve 2013. Courtesy Andrea N. Goldstein

I have crushing moments of loneliness: when the chronic pain of degenerative arthritis reminds me that it’s only going to get worse. When I’m sitting in my cubicle on the 33rd floor and I learn that another former teammate has been killed in the line of duty. When someone whose company I genuinely enjoyed suddenly and inexplicably ghosts me, texts unanswered for days. I haven’t been single for this long in five years, and not since leaving the military; the exhausting monotony of dating is part of my military transition.

The quiet week after the Fourth of July, I attend my first veteran event in New York City. I start to feel a sense of belonging in a city where, since joining the military, I had felt out of place. I feel more accepted by fellow veterans I’ve met than I did by teammates while I was on active duty. We understand how jarring it is to come home while many of our friends are still at war. We feel torn, but we can’t deny we’re still enormously grateful to be on this side.

I feel seen.

On the last day of my summer internship, on my way to lunch with a co-worker, as I step out of my office onto 42nd and 6th, near Times Square, and let the humidity catch me, I suddenly begin to weep. I am not sad. I am not happy. I am overcome. I cannot name the emotions tumbling out of me.

And I recall something a long-lost friend once said to me over coffee in Bahrain, and that I’ve carried ever since: You are your own home. Perhaps in all those years of wandering, my unsettledness was a sense of being disconnected from myself. I had fused the pieces back together. Standing at 42nd and 6th, I realized I had returned to myself, and I have never felt more powerful in my life. I am a disabled veteran, and I got to come home. And I know my best day is yet to come.

•••

Andrea N. Goldstein served in the Navy on active duty from 2009 to 2016. She’s currently studying toward an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She has written for Task & Purpose since 2014, previously under the pseudonym Anna Granville. She is a 2016 Tillman Scholar. Follow her on Twitter @AN_Goldstein.

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Facing It


Drew Pham grieves for the family of the man he killed at war. His peers and commanders told him it was a good kill, but how can a kill be “good”?

Facing It


Drew Pham grieves for the family of the man he killed at war. His peers and commanders told him it was a good kill, but how can a kill be “good”?

By Drew Pham

I keep telling the same story over and over, but I can never get it quite right. Sometimes I start by saying that no one ever told me how it would feel to kill. The power of the act, the biochemical euphoria of it. No room for feelings, of course, in all the hours of training for one lethal moment. I pulled the trigger and I didn’t even have to think about it; my body just did it for me. No one ever told me how fleeting that euphoria would be, either. Blissful omnipotence followed by a lifetime trying to make sense of one moment. People I fought beside have said I did my duty. People I don’t even know told me that I got what I volunteered for. Whatever other people say, I’m still the only person who has to grieve for the man I shot to death one August day in Afghanistan; I’m the only person who has to carry the weight of him wherever I go.

 The 10th Mountain Division Soldiers occupy the heights of the Nerkh Valley, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The 10th Mountain Division Soldiers occupy the heights of the Nerkh Valley, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

One of the first people I told after that firefight was a combat-stress specialist, this Air Force Captain with big, soft arms and a corn-fed smile. She spent most of her days counseling soldiers who’d been ordered to see her—myself included—and handing out bottles of melatonin for the rash of insomnia in the task force from which no one seemed immune. She ran out of pills often.

I did the right thing according to her, so there was nothing to be sorry for. It was true. Him or me. Yet I refused to take her words or her smile seriously. It was her job to keep us in fighting condition. Though I’m sure she drew from a deep well of empathy for the soldiers in her care, she was just another cog in the same machine that kept us fighting. She never asked me about the man I killed. I had learned his name by then, pieced together what scraps of his identity I could from the dossier the Intel Officer compiled on him. I could have told you his tactics, where he fit into the enemy hierarchy, even his home village—but I’ve never learned the names of his parents, or what his favorite subject in school had been. I’ve never learned if he had a wife or children. This captain sat across from me in a plywood shelter with her perfect white teeth, her clean, crisp uniform, and told me that it was good that I’d shot this man dead.

My men, my peers, my superiors all said it was a good kill. When my Squadron Commander pinned a Combat Action Badge to my jacket, he said I’d earned it many times over and that I was good at shooting bad guys. Strange, I thought, I only ever shot one. He pounded the sharp prongs into my chest, called me a killer. It was as if he savored the enemy KIA as his own. I looked my Commander in the eye. There are these details I still can’t shake: I couldn’t close the dead man’s eyes. He still smiled, as if to mock me. He had this red prayer cap sticking out of his pocket. I could have let him live, told him to surrender, but I shot him five times. I wanted to kill him, and he left me with these threads of memory that I can’t shake. I don’t think my Squadron Commander will ever understand that. I saluted him as he pinned two more medals to my chest. Most days, the man I killed is just another hilltop in my memory’s landscape. Others—when I know I took away someone’s father, brother, son—he’s a sheer cliff face that I could never overcome.

 Afghan oil tankers burn after a Taliban attack outside Maidan Shar, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

Afghan oil tankers burn after a Taliban attack outside Maidan Shar, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

When I got out of the Army, I told this story to anyone who would listen. I thought that the act of telling would lessen the burden, that compassion might move others to carry it with me. My friends said that the violence hadn’t surprised them. I was a soldier at war. One friend called me a hero for what I’d done. Another said she expected me to kill, as if it were the same as a postman delivering mail. Others never spoke to me again. Most said I did what I had to do and changed the subject. At the dim bars and crowded parties where I found my old friends, it didn’t seem like the war existed outside the 15-second sound bites on the news. There was no space at home in the States for the the man I killed. My friends were more worried about the growing recession, their burgeoning careers, and the ever-present burden of student loan debt.

Their concerns were as valid as mine, but the enormity of what I’d done blinded me to that. I caught myself constantly saying, but people are dying. I turned down the invitations to brunch, Groupon hot yoga sessions, whiskey tastings at the ironic hipster dive bars. I thought that coming home meant facing what I’d done, that the people I loved would face it with me, but they didn’t. So I held on to my victim like a talisman, the one thing that definitively separated me from my friends. I thought of a line from James Jones’ The Thin Red Line: “He had done the most horrible thing a human being could do, worse than rape even. And nobody in the whole damn world could say anything to him about it.”

 The author, Drew Pham, on leave in Park Slope, Brooklyn a year after returning from Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author, Drew Pham, on leave in Park Slope, Brooklyn a year after returning from Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The harder I held on, the further I felt from home.

The war stayed in my heart, but it lingered in my bones too. Six months after I’d left the Army, I developed leukemia—a cancer in my blood-producing tissues. The doctors said it was likely a result of exposure to the many carcinogens that come with modern warfare, like depleted uranium in air-dropped munitions, the jet fuel in our vehicles’ engines, or the toxins emanating from our burn pits. The doctors told me that my cancer was connected to my service. Pounds sloughed off my body. My hair fell out in clumps from chemo and radiation. My mind slowed. During the worst week of treatment, I thought, I deserve this. I asked to see a rabbi, not as an article of faith, but because—as my wife said of her religion—Judaism embraces doubt. I wanted this man of God to take these details lodged in me like shrapnel—the dead man’s eyes, his smile, his red prayer cap—and help me grieve. When the rabbi came, he looked at the black tattoos snaking up my arms, my tan T-shirt inscribed with unit insignia, and said that he presumed that I served in the defense of our country. I told the same story again. He sat across from me in my antiseptic isolation room, a host of machines feeding me, killing me, marking my heartbeat. He looked at me with his red-rimmed eyelids and said he absolved me. No questions, no qualifications, just a cheap, unearned forgiveness. I want to say he quoted the prophet Joshua who was himself a soldier. I wondered if the destructive extent of Joshua’s conquest ever gave him pause. How often did he think about his slain foes? I’ve been cancer-free for three years, but that meeting with the rabbi still lingers. Would he have absolved my enemy had our roles been reversed?

I keep telling the same story; some days I think I’ll go on telling it for the rest of my life, trying to get it right. I want people to yearn to know the man I killed, as I yearn to know him still. Some days I think I will go on waiting for the people around me, the people I love, to help me shoulder our war and the people we kill. Other days, I return to a story in The Things They Carried: O’Brien’s hero thinks back on a man he killed, an act he still can’t sort out. Then he imagines sparing him. He stays his hand and lets his enemy pass into the morning fog.

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer and contributing editor at The Wrath-Bearing Tree. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Follow Drew on Twitter @Drewspeak.

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Less Than a Year After 9/11, She Fell in Love With a Marine


Liesel Kershul and her now-husband had been together only a few months when he was ordered to deploy. In their 15 years together, they've known only war.

Less Than a Year After 9/11, She Fell in Love With a Marine


Liesel Kershul and her now-husband had been together only a few months when he was ordered to deploy. In their 15 years together, they've known only war.

By Liesel Kershul

Less than a year after the Towers crumbled, I fell in love with a newly-minted U.S. Marine.

We met on the golf course at the old El Toro Marine Corps Base only a few miles from my childhood home. I’d just turned 19 and was working as a beer-cart girl for the summer. Tom was 23, a 2nd Lieutenant with dazzling blue eyes and a knee-weakening smile. He winked at me, and I’ve been smitten ever since.

 The author's husband, Tom, poses for a picture at the Kuwait-Iraq border in 2002. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

The author's husband, Tom, poses for a picture at the Kuwait-Iraq border in 2002. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Only a few months after we started dating, Tom was ordered to deploy to the Middle East as a combat engineer platoon commander attached to 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. He spent months on the border of Kuwait and Iraq, waiting for the invasion that would signal the opening of the second front of America’s War on Terrorism: Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A few weeks before he left, I watched him decorate a t-shirt in his sparsely furnished living room near the beach in San Clemente. He ironed on fuzzy, stenciled letters to read “F*CK TERRORISM.” I remember him wearing that vulgar t-shirt and thinking that, for him, 9/11 was personal; he had joined the Marine Corps in peacetime, and although a part of him was excited to go to war, I knew he was worried too. Not about his own safety, like I was; he was painfully aware of how many Marines he was responsible for, and he was determined to bring them home safely.

I didn’t hear his voice for almost eight months, but sometimes I would read about his unit in the newspaper because a Wall Street Journal reporter was embedded with them. What I read made me worry, but I tried to convince myself that he was well-trained and focused and fit and capable. At the time, I was convinced nothing bad could happen to someone so young and full of life.

He sent me stacks of love letters written on the backs of old Meals Ready to Eat, and, after his platoon reached Baghdad, I even got a few on stationary from one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. I wrote to him too. Every day. Hundreds of handwritten letters, each one labeled neatly at the top righthand corner with the number of days he’d been gone. I didn’t write about anything significant. I mostly just told him about my school work and my job and my friends. I left out the bits about how I spent hours in front of the television, hoping to catch a glimpse of him or his unit on CNN, until my eyes turned red and it hurt to blink. I didn’t tell him about the hours I spent with my neighbor, who had two brothers also in Iraq, following every battle and plotting them meticulously on a map pasted on her living room wall. I was obsessed, and somehow in my twisted logic, I thought that if I just cared hard enough, I could will him to come home safely.

 Liesel's husband, Tom, in Iraq in 2003. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Liesel's husband, Tom, in Iraq in 2003. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

He returned the following year mostly unscathed, but almost immediately volunteered to be one of the first U.S. service members to embed as a trainer with the Afghan military. He was hungry for more, and figured that this was what he had signed up for; why not volunteer to go? There was no easy way to get mail to him on that deployment, but I wrote letters anyway and sent them to an address in Kabul. He didn’t get most of them.

That was a rocky time for us, I felt abandoned and insignificant. We broke up and then got back together through a series of missed calls and nearly indecipherable phone messages. Most of the time, I had no idea what was happening to him or whether or not he was safe. There was almost no information coming from where he was in Paktika Province because it was considered the hinterlands, and there were no Western journalists crazy enough to go at that time. Every few months he would return to Kabul to organize supplies for the battalion of Afghan service members he was training and fighting with, and he would send me emails full of stories that, to him, were hysterical but absolutely terrified me. He once sent a photo, snapped by one of his interpreters, that showed him climbing out of his humvee which had been submerged over its doors in the middle of a raging river. In the photo, he’s laughing like it was all some great joke, but all I could think was that if this was his idea of fun, what’s the scary stuff like? I didn’t sleep soundly for weeks after I saw that photo. Truthfully, he did the best he could to stay in contact while he was there, even though it wasn’t easy, and I will never forget the sound of his voice on that scratchy satellite phone somewhere in the Hindu Kush when he called to wish me a happy twentieth birthday. It was the best present I’d ever received.

 Liesel and her husband, Tom, on Memorial Day 2005. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Liesel and her husband, Tom, on Memorial Day 2005. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Eleven houses and five combat deployments later, we still call the Marine Corps “home.” And this past April, I visited the place where an act of terrorism changed my life, and countless other’s lives, forever. Although my husband was commissioned in April of 2001, Sept. 11 was the catalyst for the wars he’s been fighting ever since he wore a single gold bar on his lapel.

In the museum at Ground Zero, I spent a long time simply staring at the faces of the men, women, and children who died that day: strangers whose deaths, although tragic to me when they had occurred, have taken on new significance over the past 16 years. I am bound to those faces and those lives and those stories in a way I had never expected to be. Our entire adult lives, Tom and I have known nothing but these wars. I’m proud of him and his service, but I still wake up 15 years after we first met and worry about him, just like I did when he was 23. Ten years ago, he traded in the explosives for a pair of shiny gold flight wings. He said he wanted to stay operational. He wasn’t made to sit behind a desk. So, we continue. Him to fight, and me to worry, with no end in sight.  

•••

Liesel Kershul is a writer and a lifelong student of philosophy, politics, and human behavior. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, and an M.S. in applied psychology from Sacred Heart University.

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Struggling to Find Purpose After "The Service"


Nearly two years after separating from the Marine Corps, Nathan Eckman struggles to define "service" and understand how to serve as a civilian.

Struggling to Find Purpose After "The Service"


Nearly two years after separating from the Marine Corps, Nathan Eckman struggles to define "service" and understand how to serve as a civilian.

By Nathan Eckman

 Nate studies at the Library of Congress for his undergraduate thesis on the history of the fallout of U.S.-Iran relations.Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

Nate studies at the Library of Congress for his undergraduate thesis on the history of the fallout of U.S.-Iran relations.Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

Every morning I get on a train in Queens, N.Y. sometime between 0600 and 0800 and head into Manhattan. Without fail, a construction worker is on board, donned in ragged Carhartt pants, hard hat in his lap, bobbing in and out of sleep. He’s on his way to build another man’s dream; I hope he’s fulfilling his. I know I’m still searching for mine. To my right and left are all sorts of people: nannies, teachers, journalists, financiers, government officials; the cast changes each stop. What’s unchanging is the focus of our attention. We fixate on the floor. The ceiling. The lights. Everything but each other. In silence, we make our way to our days. There are no cadence runs, no group obstacles, no camaraderie in the sense I’d become accustomed to while in the military. Collective pain has been replaced with collective revulsion at vile, unrecognizable smells; unit chants with screeching trains; brothers in arms with strangers passing by. For all the sensations a NYC commute offers, the most striking is a sense of constant, inescapable void.

I enlisted in the Marine Corps at the age of 19, mistaking the uniform for a badge of significance, a certification of importance, valid for life. In hindsight I don't remember it being a choice between whether to serve in the military or not. Joining was the choice between learning the true meaning of service, or not. The military—and no other work or action outside the military—promised me that same lesson.

Service, I thought, was enduring an eye-to-eye moment with an enemy combatant before you took his life. I thought it was having at least one night when darkness fell but your eyes couldn’t because adrenaline still rushed through you from a mission just accomplished. I believed that all other experiences paled.

While in the military, most service members develop—and maintain after they leave the service—a disdain for those who’ve never served. "Nasty civilians," we called them. While I didn't wholly buy into the idea, I think adopting a mild form of it reinforced in me the belief that what I was doing in the Marine Corps was more important than anything I could ever do as a civilian. And I came to believe that “service” was something I could do only in the military, a prerogative of enlistment.

Which is complicated for me, because I separated from the military feeling stifled by how little I had actually done. Despite deploying twice to 13 countries, I was never given a mission—neither humanitarian nor combat—other than to train. Instead of parading my experiences as a Marine, I often conceal them, out of fear that I only matter as much they do to me.  

Feelings of failing like this aren't new.

 Nate celebrates his one year anniversary with his wife Emily in Wilmington, NC. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

Nate celebrates his one year anniversary with his wife Emily in Wilmington, NC. Courtesy of Nathan Eckman

“On the eve of the Civil War,” the British military historian John Keegan wrote, “[Ulysses S.] Grant, aged thirty-nine, with four children at home and scarcely a penny in the bank, had made no mark on the world and looked unlikely to do so.” After resigning his commission in 1848, Grant became a serial entrepreneur—and serially failed. If not for the Civil War, Keegan writes, there may have been nothing to “rescue [Grant] from his social disability.”

I’ve begun to wonder, what could rescue me now that my uniform is off?

I remember the high I felt immediately after separating from the Marine Corps, how blissful life felt for those first few weeks—still waking up at 0600 each morning, but this time working, sleeping, and eating to my own cadence. Somewhere between the day I received my discharge papers and now—nearly two years later—that blissful feeling has faded, replaced by a more grounded sense of satisfaction. Contentment, you could call it. A contentment derived from a life of predictability, commanded by the unending stream of school assignments, offset by weekends spent meandering to NYC’s cheapest bars and restaurants. Some days that contentment brings me joy, others a sense of disillusionment. My civilian accomplishments are measured on a different scale from my Marine Corps accomplishments. As a result, I struggle to recognize my new accomplishments.

Shortly after I exited the Marine Corps, my “time in service” began to feel like a misnomer, a lie I had let perpetuate each time I took credit for my veteran status.

My youthful understanding of service—to become important to myself and essential to others—is what inspired me to join the Corps. But I’m a civilian now, and I’m still searching for that meaning in life. There’s no uniform I can put on now that helps me believe I'm serving in the way I hope. Now I’m an anonymous figure on the subway, a student, a husband. In each role I’m discovering what it means to serve outside of the military. It’s a frustrating journey, finding a place back home, and at times it’s defeating, occasionally propelling me to the computer in search of ways I can enlist again, as if I too, like Ulysses S. Grant, will serially-fail at whatever is next for me.

 

•••

Nathan Eckman was an Marine infantryman (0351) with Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment. During his service he toured on the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and deployed to Southeast Asia. Now Nate is a student of the Middle East and the Persian language at Columbia University. After college he intends on pursuing a career as a journalist covering international affairs.

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Finding Home in the Marine Corps


Joy Craig's childhood was anything but stable. After graduating high school, foster care forced her out, and she was homeless. Until she enlisted.

Finding Home in the Marine Corps


Joy Craig's childhood was anything but stable. After graduating high school, foster care forced her out, and she was homeless. Until she enlisted.

By Joy Craig

 Joy Craig (middle) with her family, circa 1976. Courtesy of Joy Craig

Joy Craig (middle) with her family, circa 1976. Courtesy of Joy Craig

The details of the dreams vary, but the electric shock feels the same each time. I feel it in my fingertips, my lungs, my teeth. One minute my subconscious has me trapped under a steel I-beam in a collapsed building or underwater, and I’m kicking with all my might while slipping further from the light, and the next minute I’m instantly awake and thrust into a fully in-progress, panic attack.

I look around. I’m alone. There is no intruder. I try to calm myself, control my breathing, and clear my head. I take stock.

I’m warm.

I’m fed.

I’m safe.

I wish I could say these nocturnal crises are less frequent now than when I was younger, but they persist and their potency remains just as visceral today as the panic I often felt growing up.   

To say that my mother was a nomad wouldn’t do her justice. Along with my two older sisters, I moved 14 times before my eighth birthday. I spent my eighth year living in El Centro, Calif. living with them, my mother, and her new, abusive husband. The morning after he’d flown into a particularly horrible rage, my stepfather demanded I go live with my father. Logistically, he knew I was the easiest to cast away, so after a 14-hour drive north, I moved in with a stranger who was unequipped to be a single father.

Try as he might, my father struggled at parenting, and I landed in the Arizona foster care system at age 16. In foster care, “support” ended on either your 18th birthday, or your graduation day, whichever came second. I celebrated graduation night in a new apartment I’d leased with a friend from school and her boyfriend. We quickly learned that our paltry paychecks caused intense fights over money, and we defaulted on the rent. Quickly, we were evicted.

 Joy Craig's high school photo. Courtesy of Joy Craig

Joy Craig's high school photo. Courtesy of Joy Craig

I’d been moonlighting at a Dairy Queen and a local movie theater, not only for the minimum wage, but also for the endless ice cream, nachos, and popcorn, which had become my main sustenance. I had no car and relied on the city bus. Without an apartment and barely scraping by, I became desperate and moved back in with my once-sexually abusive father. For the previous two years, we’d lived under a court-ordered restraining order, and although it was now lifted, I felt like the criminal.

The first night back at my father’s house, we talked candidly about the abuse and, with tears in his eyes, he promised he’d never hurt me again. He installed a deadbolt on the door of the spare room that could only be locked or unlocked from the inside. I believed it wasn’t that he didn’t trust himself, but that he installed it for my peace of mind. I didn’t trust him, but what choice did I have? Still, I placed a jar of pennies in front of the door each night after I bolted it.

Things were going well enough, considering the circumstances, until four months later, when my father told me he’d failed one of his court-ordered drug tests—marijuana. He was ordered to attend an eight-week inpatient drug treatment program. He’d certainly lose his job because of his extended absence and, as result, the house he was renting. I had one day to get my stuff, my cat, and get out.

I was homeless again, but this time there was no answer. My best friend at the time let me stay with her, but I quickly wore out my welcome with her mother. After they asked me to leave, I started staying at work hours after I’d clocked out to kill time and to see if one of my coworkers would take pity on me for a night. Without their knowing, I’d sleep in the backseats of the cars of my friends whom I knew were late risers; I’d be gone before the sun rose. I slept on the couch in the manager’s office of the movie theater where I worked. As each day passed, I became more desperate. The little money I made went quickly, as I learned the hard way that being homeless was actually expensive.

When I didn’t think things could get worse, I was fired from Dairy Queen, leaving me with only my movie theater job, which paid a minimum wage of $3.80 an hour for 25 hours a week. I scrambled to find another job, but without a car, address, or phone number, it seemed impossible. I took every extra shift I could, but saving for a minimum $500 deposit for a new place was never going to happen when I earned $95 a week. I sold everything of value that I owned: jewelry my grandfather had given me, books I’d had for years—even my clothes. When I wasn’t working, I was at the public library, riding the bus around town, or stealing a free movie at the theater. No one I knew could offer a solution.

In an act of absolute desperation, I sought out a girl from high school I’d heard had become a prostitute; I didn’t have the body to be a stripper. I cried when I asked her how she’d done it and explained that I just really needed a place to live. She interrupted me, saying she could introduce me to some people, but wouldn’t. Instead, she would take me to meet someone who could actually help me out, her ex-boyfriend, an Air Force recruiter.

The idea of joining the military had never crossed my mind. I didn’t know the first thing about the armed services, but if it would help, I was interested. The morning after speaking with my friend, I met the Air Force recruiter who gave me the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. He wanted to call me with the results in a few days, but having no phone number to give him, I had to return to his office.

 The author with her grandmother, Lillian. The photograph was taken six months after Joy joined the Marine Corps. Courtesy of Joy Craig

The author with her grandmother, Lillian. The photograph was taken six months after Joy joined the Marine Corps. Courtesy of Joy Craig

Two days later, the recruiter told me my score was “about average” and that maybe he could find me an administrative job in the Air Force, “…nothing too technical though.” He was condescending and smug, but I needed money. We scheduled a followup meeting to discuss specialties, but I was prepared to sign a four-year contract regardless. After I took time from work and rode the hot city bus across town; he stood me up.

Tears of frustration welled in my eyes as I left the office complex. Furious and desperate, I headed to catch the bus back to my pathetic job where I’d eat more pathetic popcorn. When I saw it pulling away from the stop, ensuring I’d be late for work, I let the tears loose. I turned back to find a phone to call someone for a ride. I rounded a corner and smacked right into the chest of a six-foot tall Marine recruiter with a shocking red stripe running down the legs of his crisp, blue trousers.

“You need a ride, ma’am?” he said with a smile.

The following morning, I signed a six-year contract for a technical specialty, but only after he agreed to help find a home for my cat. I departed for boot camp three weeks later. During those early, particularly chaotic days of Marine Corps Boot Camp, while my platoon-mates were dealing with shock and regret, I was grateful. Quitting was never an option since I had nothing to return to. 

Since those early days at boot camp, I’ve never been hungry and I’ve always had a roof over my head. Every day has been a financial struggle, but I’ve provided a good life for my daughters. Looking back now, I know that I owe everything I have to the Marine Corps for lifting me out of the hole I’d found myself in. Although I periodically butted heads with individuals within the Corps, my deep gratitude to the service never wavered. Twenty-three years later, I retired in the very courtyard at Parris Island where I’d become a Marine. And while I fall asleep each night knowing the roof over my head is secure, it’s never far from my thoughts how fragile that arrangement can be.

 Joy Craig with her daughters, Mariah and Nevada. Courtesy of Joy Craig

Joy Craig with her daughters, Mariah and Nevada. Courtesy of Joy Craig

•••

Joy Craig is an emerging writer and activist focused on veterans and women’s issues. Joy retired from the United States Marine Corps after 23 years of service as an Aviation Ordnance Officer and Drill Instructor. During her service she was awarded the Navy Commendation and Meritorious Service Medals. She’s spent the past two years penning the forthcoming memoir focusing on her experiences in the Marine Corps. Joy is a native Californian residing in the South Carolina Lowcountry with her two daughters. She donates her time coaching for Dragonboat Beaufort, a cancer survivor/supporter charity, and is an alumni of the Leadership Beaufort program.

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Failure to Fire


Dustin Jones misfired as Marines fell around him. Today, living stateside, he sometimes struggles to separate reality from dreams.

Failure to Fire


Dustin Jones misfired as Marines fell around him. Today, living stateside, he sometimes struggles to separate reality from dreams.

By Dustin Jones

I’m walking. It’s hot—somewhere around 120 degrees, but may very well be hotter. The sweat races from my forehead down into my eyes. The salt stings, and I can taste rogue streams that make it to my lips.

My torso is steeped in sweat. One might think we’d jumped into a pond, a safe bet based not just on our appearance, but on our smell.

 Stalker One in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 2009.Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Stalker One in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 2009.Courtesy of Dustin Jones

We walk, one heavy footstep in front of the other. Myself and two other Marines from Stalker 1, our eight-man sniper team, accompany a squad of another 16 or so Marines on patrol. Although we change our patrol routes, the fear of stepping on an IED is always present. As I walk, my eyes scan the ground for minor items out of place—discolored earth, rocks in piles, and markers of sorts. In the few short months we’ve been in country, several Marines have already died from IEDs; not one Marine has been shot. I think about the times I may have stepped on a pressure plate, but was lucky enough it didn’t detonate for one reason or another. I push these thoughts to the back of my mind and focus on the mission at hand.

I am on rear security, trailing at the end of the patrol. I look toward the west: kilometers of farm fields. The enemy may or may not occupy small one-story mud huts in the fields; we can never tell until it’s too late. I scan the horizon, occasionally looking through my 3-12 variable power scope. I look for things out of the ordinary—a family hurrying indoors when they should be working outside, aware of something we are not. A group of military-aged males are staring at us from just over 100 yards away. We watch them; they watch us—a Mexican standoff of sorts. We continue on our patrol.

As we walk, we leave the safety of our patrol base and march deeper into territory that’s not our own. The baseline—the normal conditions of the area: the people and atmosphere—seems off. Children who’d been playing outside as we’d approached have disappeared, along with their parents who’d been toiling in the fields. My situational awareness is heightened as the probability of attack increases by the minute; the farther we are from our patrol base, the further we are from help. The enemy knows this. We continue to walk and observe.

We hear a snap overhead. Bursts of machine gun fire begin incoming from hundreds of yards away to the west, and we dive to the dirt. The Marines return fire. All of a sudden fire comes from our left flank to the south. We’re being enveloped.

The rate of fire increases, forcing us to keep our heads down. Then I hear screaming. Someone’s been hit. A Navy corpsman rushes over to treat a Marine who’s kicking and screaming as his trousers turn red. If he’s been hit in the leg, I think to myself, it’ll take about 90 seconds for him to bleed out.

I’m in the prone as I scan for targets to engage. Nothing. Another Marine is hit, and his screams cut through the firefight. He pleads for help as his brothers treat him and attempt to stop the bleeding. The rate of fire continues to increase, and the firing of machine guns becomes almost deafening.

I continue to scan through the tree line some 600 yards away for the shooters.

 Stalker One observes movement from a tree line. Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 2009.Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Stalker One observes movement from a tree line. Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 2009.Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Eyes on target: three men in the tree line, 625 yards away. I adjust the scope on my rifle to place the round center mass of the shooter’s torso. No wind right now. I control my breathing—in and out, nice and smooth. I relax my muscles as I take aim. The reticle slowly rises and falls with each breath. When the reticle reaches the lowest point I should be at my natural respiratory pause, that pause between exhale and inhale. The thumb on my right hand switches the weapon from safe to fire. My index finger slowly makes its way from the side of the weapon’s lower receiver to a comfortable resting position on the trigger. I continue to breathe—in and out, slow and steady.

The two men are still firing in our direction while a third observes. A sniper's wet dream—a leisurely 600-yard shot at a stationary target with zero wind. I use the tip of my index finger to slowly pull back on the trigger. I know the shot’s supposed to surprise me if I apply the proper shooting fundamentals of trigger pull.

Click. Misfire. Shocked, I pull back the charging handle on the rifle, ejecting the useless round and chambering another. Another Marine is hit near me. He’s caught a round through his neck that’s cut through his carotid artery. It won’t take long for him to die.

Other Marines begin to scream as more are hit by accurate machine gun fire from the west, southwest, and south. I go to reengage as I apply the fundamentals again. Click. Another misfire. I tap the bottom of my magazine and pull the charging handle back another time, the immediate action drill for a misfire. Another Marine goes down and begins crying for help. Again, I attempt to engage. Click. Another misfire. My weapon is fucked.

 Dustin and his dog Swayze in Colorado. 2015. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Dustin and his dog Swayze in Colorado. 2015. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

I cannot return fire. All around me friends and brothers are dying, calling out for help as they bleed out. Some watch as their friends die by their sides.

The sound of machine gun fire is overwhelming. The heat is still beating down on me, sweat beading down my face. I struggle to keep my eyes open; the sweat stings. Click. Misfire.

I eject the magazine and throw in a new one. Surely this will work. I chamber another round and sight in hastily. A miss at this point in time is better than nothing. Click. Misfire.

The screams and machine guns are roaring. My heart rate is skyrocketing. My friends are dying. And I can't save them. Others try hard to help by providing aid or returning fire while I fail to engage. Useless.

I chamber another round. Misfire. Misfire. Misfire. Marines continue to die. The screams turn to cries. The ground turns from a dusty brown to a damp crimson.

I wake up. Sit up straight in my bed, heart racing, mind scrambling to separate dream from reality. I’m in Colorado. My dog, who lies at the foot of my bed, is startled and stares at me, concern in her eyes. Only she knows about the frequency of these nightmares, and only she sees the anguish they bring. It’s 3:30 a.m., and my day is set to begin shortly. I love sleep, but nightmares and wandering thoughts get in the way. I know how to keep operating though; my time in service taught me to function on three to five hours. I step outside for a cigarette. It’s the first week of January in Colorado and temperatures have dipped into the single digits. The sky is jet black. I look up at the light snowfall. The flakes are small and barely accumulate. In country we used to lie on berms of sand; we would stare up at the sky. We would lay there and talk about home. Sometimes, when I look up, it takes me back to my time spent overseas. I light up a cigarette, take a drag; I’m transported thousands of miles away back to Iraq and Afghanistan.

 A starry evening in Colorado, 2012. Often times Dustin goes out, looks up, and thinks about my time overseas. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

A starry evening in Colorado, 2012. Often times Dustin goes out, looks up, and thinks about my time overseas. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

•••

After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan during his four years in the Marine Corps infantry, Dustin Jones attended the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studied journalism. His interest in journalism developed during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009/10, where New York Times journalist C.J. Chivers and photographer Tyler Hicks were embedded with his unit. Several months passed before Dustin was able to read the articles and see the photos that the team produced. A story about his comrade’s funeral service by Chivers, accompanied by photos from Hicks, had him hooked.

He is currently a reporter in the small Montana town of West Yellowstone, and he is working on a book that focuses on the transition from military to civilian life. He has a dog named after Patrick Swayze.

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When The Purple Heart Weighs Heavy


Elizabeth O'Herrin handed the groggy patient his Purple Heart. Immediately, she worried she'd made a mistake, giving it to him so soon after his amputation.

When The Purple Heart Weighs Heavy


Elizabeth O'Herrin handed the groggy patient his Purple Heart. Immediately, she worried she'd made a mistake, giving it to him so soon after his amputation.

By Elizabeth O'Herrin

The soldier struggled to repeat himself, barely audible. Even in his deeply sedated state he appeared frantic. I volunteered my time at the combat trauma hospital during my off-duty hours, and felt unsure of how to act. But the colonel standing across the bed from me was a medical professional. She reassured the baby-faced young man lying between us that they had collected his belongings. Don’t worry, we'll track them down for you. The colonel was brisk and businesslike, but calm and warm. She had many more patients to visit that night, so she turned and left the soldier and me alone. I pondered for a moment about what I could do to help him. I pulled on a pair of gloves and started to gently scrub the dried blood from his hands with a wet cloth. He was fresh out of surgery, loaded up with morphine, and now known as a “BK.” Below-knee amputation.

Another volunteer came up, a guy who spent his off-duty time in the hospital like me. Unskilled, occasionally helpful extra hands. He held out a large bag. This must be the patient’s stuff. The volunteer set it down next to the bed without saying much and moved on. The soldier drifted in and out of consciousness, and I continued wiping blood and dirt from his knuckles. I thought maybe if he woke up and his hands didn’t have blood on them anymore, it might help. The soldier’s eyes flickered open. I cleared my throat and leaned in a little closer. I told him his bag had arrived. Did he want me to check for his Purple Heart? He mumbled a “yes” and managed to call me “ma’am,” even in his sedated state.

 Examples of Purple Heart medals. Courtesy of Major Will Cox/Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System

Examples of Purple Heart medals. Courtesy of Major Will Cox/Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System

I crouched and started digging through all the stuff he had had with him this morning, before he knew that by the time the sun had set that day, he’d have lost half his leg. In one Ziploc bag: ID card. Gum. Dogtags. Chapstick. I didn’t see the Purple Heart, and I began to worry. I felt like I owed it to him to find it and maybe bring him what tiny bit of resolution I could. Then my hand hit a heavy plastic case. I pulled it out and stood back up. I asked him if he wanted to see it. He nodded, eyes closed.

I held it up for him, and he took it between his hands. They were still dirty and bloody; my meager work had been interrupted by the arrival of his belongings. I noticed his face was still perfect. Smooth, flawless skin and beautiful brown puppy eyes. He stared at the medal. I leaned over, my elbows resting on the rail of his bed. I’d never seen a Purple Heart in person before. It was heavier than I thought it would be. We shared quiet reverence, from very different vantage points.

He stared at it, without adjusting his gaze. I started to worry that maybe I shouldn't have let him see it, maybe this was too overwhelming. Shit. Only moments before, he had recalled groggily what he remembered of losing his leg to the colonel. Much of it was blotted from his memory. After the explosion, he reached down and could feel the bones hanging out below his knee.

 The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, dove to the floor as mortars were incoming. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

The author, Elizabeth O'Herrin, dove to the floor as mortars were incoming. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

He was fixated on the Purple Heart in his hands, and I worried I hadn’t done the right thing by handing him the medal. “The Army ain't gonna have a place for me anymore, are they." It wasn’t a question. The realization crept over him. His eyes were the widest they had been since I’d met him that evening. He was still staring at the medal, suddenly alert. I took his hand and gently closed the case. "You don't need to worry about that right now. You just worry about getting better first."

My eyes welled up as I bent to replace the medal with his belongings, struggling to hold back tears. It was time for me to go. It wasn’t helpful when volunteers cry. It was time to take a few breaths, pull it together, remove myself. As I stood and turned to leave, I saw his name posted above his bed. I memorized it. I knew there was no more I could do except pray.

•••

Elizabeth O'Herrin served as an AMMO troop for the Wisconsin Air National Guard from 2001-2008, assembling and transporting conventional weapons for F-16 fighter jets. She received her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her MA from the Johns Hopkins University. She’s is a Tillman Scholar and the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Director of Programs & Scholarships. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post Checkpoint blog, Foreign Policy Best Defense blog, The Hill, The Association of American Colleges & Universities, 0-Dark Thirty, the Badger Herald, and the Starbucks Medium Collection. She is a member of Foreign Policy's Council of Former Enlisted. 

You can find her on Twitter here and on Medium here.

•••

Photographs published in this piece courtesy of Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System

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Panic Attacks Start Slow


Peter Lucier's first panic attack came on like an electric hurricane, blowing him back years to an IED blast site in Afghanistan.

Panic Attacks Start Slow


Peter Lucier's first panic attack came on like an electric hurricane, blowing him back years to an IED blast site in Afghanistan.

By Peter Lucier

The panic started slow. Woke up at six, groggy from the weed the night before. Half consciously stumbled into the bathroom and mechanically brushed my teeth. Had been home from the war for years. Had been out of the Marine Corps for years. Had never been lost in time like this.

 A good luck bunny talisman that rode on Peter Lucier's Light Armored Vehicle in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Peter Lucier

A good luck bunny talisman that rode on Peter Lucier's Light Armored Vehicle in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Peter Lucier

This time, the first time, I didn’t know how to read the signs—the darkening sky, the electricity in the air, the tell-tale indications a storm is blowing in—the electric hurricane. When the system, which had been picking up energy and speed in the unknown gulfs of my grey matter, made landfall in my frontal lobe, it touched something off in my brain. Everything, memories, emotion, motor function, and my sensory inputs were all suddenly connected, and my consciousness jumped seemingly at random throughout the whole knotted, scrambled system. Didn’t know that morning, the first time the panic came, that I was already caught up in the squall. The warnings were still too mixed in with the early morning space between pillow and first cup of coffee—the grey pool between dark, dreamless sleep and the day. The way you are trapped inside your own head in a dream—that’s how I was trapped now, unsure if I was asleep or awake, alive or dead, real or something imagined.

Got to the car before realizing something was wrong. The waves of realization, of panic; the tide of unknowing began creeping up the shoreline of my mind. Didn’t know who I was. Couldn’t remember.  Knew facts: My name is Pete Lucier. I am 27 years old. I am in Bozeman, MT. Could pull them from that place where dates and names lie. But memory was gone—like losing your sense of smell when you’re sick, or seeing nothingness when you close your eyes. Then came fear. The dread. My world became small. The voice in my head, no longer my own, from a deep part in my brain I was rapidly losing, tried to speak over the noise of the storm. Focus on your hands, then just your thumbs. Couldn’t move. Had forgotten how. Nothing was real. Was being blown about in the gale winds, soaked in the pouring rains. Was mindless, in the grey space.

In the grey place, nothing is real.  I was just a sack of meat that walks upright, covered in the absurdities of tiny white hairs, and scars, spots on my skin, the little white ovals in my fingernails, none of which convey meaning, or identity. I am Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time.

Coming unstuck from time means I’m never where I am. The past is as real and as present as now. I’m frozen in front of my computer screen, trying to type the story I’m telling you. I’m in a field in Afghanistan. I’m in my car, last October, unable to move, crying. Between the meds and the booze and the coffee, the Adderall, the weed and the adrenaline, the fear, the story is cloudy. It's always cloudy and it doesn't matter where I am or when I think about it, nothing stirs memories. There are questions I still don’t have answers to.

 Peter Lucier at a hunting reunion with his squad just a week after the first panic attack, five years to the day after their unit deployed to Afghanistan. Courtesy of Peter Lucier

Peter Lucier at a hunting reunion with his squad just a week after the first panic attack, five years to the day after their unit deployed to Afghanistan. Courtesy of Peter Lucier

I remember an explosion. I think it woke me up. It wasn’t far from the patrol base where I was sleeping. I was groggy then too, groggy like the morning in October, groggy like I am now. I remember smoking a cigarette, waiting to rush out on Quick Reaction Force (QRF). I remember being ready to run; then the word “hero” came over the radio. I remember my sergeant yelling at me to put out the cigarette. I think he thought I was being too casual, too cavalier. He didn’t know my hand was trembling, and that I was pulling the acrid, dry smoke into my lungs to try and steady myself. His tone startled me. I crushed the butt under my boot quickly. He turned to the group, and told us to take our time; the casualty was already dead.

 A Memorial Day tribute to Kaipat, the Marine who died in the IED explosion, five years after he was killed. Courtesy of Peter Lucier

A Memorial Day tribute to Kaipat, the Marine who died in the IED explosion, five years after he was killed. Courtesy of Peter Lucier

I don’t remember getting to the site of the IED blast. I remember being down on one knee on the east side of the cordon, facing outboard, away from the blast site, into the nearby fields, while others cried, or tried to pick up the pieces that were left of him, of the hero, of one of ours, who was now just pieces of meat scattered along the side of Route Crimson.

A motorcycle sped up Route Crimson from the west. It was approaching fast, from the dangerous side of the Helmand line, Taliban country. Was this a secondary? A follow-on? On the battalion’s last deployment, many of the Marines in the field with me now had seen a suicide bomber on a motorcycle. I hadn’t been there, but here we all were now, with seconds to decide whether this motorcyclist would live or die. If we didn’t kill him, he might die by his own hand, taking some of us with him. But what if we chose to become executioners, and killed an innocent man? Shooting, not shooting—both would be acts of faith, decisions based on imperfect information.

Would he turn? Would he see us? No time for escalation of force measures. No time to wait and see. On and on he sped. Was there murder in his eyes? Had he not heard the explosion? What spurred him along that morning?

Still speeding towards us. Did he have a family? This speck, brown skinned, brown clothes, brown from the dirt, speeding towards thirty heavily armed Marines, who had just lost a brother, thousands of miles from home? I couldn’t think, couldn’t process. I was stuck, frozen, like the first time I had had a man in my sights, like the first time I had heard gunfire shot in anger, like the October morning in Bozeman, the morning of the electric hurricane. The onrush of information overwhelmed me, but still the motorcycle man sped on.

“Just kill the motherfucker.” The order was shouted out to those on the west side of the cordon. This was it. The moment. We had shouted and waved; he hadn’t stopped. His life was ours now. We were legal. We were justified. We were pissed. We were still in those first frightened moments of mourning.

A Marine stood up and shouldered his rifle. Wait! I wanted to shout. Just give him one more chance. But I couldn’t speak. It was too fast, too damn fast. I still hadn’t looked at the blast site, still couldn’t look inward. I needed time. I needed to stop, to breathe, to comprehend, to understand, to process. Just wait! Hit pause! None of this felt right.

 The author, Peter Lucier, in the hospital the day after his first panic attack, waiting for the Ativan to flow through the IV. Courtesy of Peter Lucier

The author, Peter Lucier, in the hospital the day after his first panic attack, waiting for the Ativan to flow through the IV. Courtesy of Peter Lucier

I’m back in Bozeman. Everything is happening fast, too damn fast. The thoughts connect and collide and separate too damn fast, and everything is in the past. The sack of meat that I once knew as my own body is crying, the faraway voice, the one in my head, the remnant of myself, is fading.

Crack. Crack. Crack. Dust rose from the berm around the road. The rounds had hit dirt, not flesh. Brakes squealed. The man stopped. He could see us now: a ring of dust-covered Marines, menacing shapes of coyote brown and MARPAT, interspersed between lumbering, awkward vehicles designed to withstand an IED blast. Seeing our stubbled faces, our tears, he turned and sped away.

“What the fuck?” from the one who gave the order. There was a weight behind the question. It hung in the air.

“I missed,” the shooter said.

Phone call with mom made me feel better. It's OK to open the car door and walk inside. The world begins to reorder itself as foot falls in front of other foot, moving forward again, time not quite as fractured as it was before.

•••

Peter Lucier served as a Marine infantryman from 2008 until 2013, first with an anti-terrorism security team, than as a scout in First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in California at Camp Pendleton. Lucier deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 and is on Foreign Policy Magazine's Council of Former Enlisted. His previous work has appeared on Best Defense at Foreign Policy Magazine, and others. He is currently studying at Montana State University.

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The Repeal Changed Everything


Dan Misch spent nights on the Naval Academy bleachers crying and struggling to decide if he should leave or continue serving under Don't Ask Don't Tell.

The Repeal Changed Everything


Dan Misch spent nights on the Naval Academy bleachers crying and struggling to decide if he should leave or continue serving under Don't Ask Don't Tell.

By Dan Misch

 The author, Dan Misch, is photographed as a Midshipman on a Yard Patrol craft outside New York , N.Y. Courtesy of Dan Misch

The author, Dan Misch, is photographed as a Midshipman on a Yard Patrol craft outside New York , N.Y. Courtesy of Dan Misch

On weeknights after taps, while most other students slept, I would sit in the empty Naval Academy practice fields silently watching the Severn River pass by. Sitting alone in the dark on the cold metal bleachers with tear-streaked cheeks, this place was my sanctuary, though it brought me little comfort.

I wasn’t allowed to leave campus on weeknights as a sophomore year Midshipman, so I’d walk to the bleachers to escape the suffocating dorm rooms and grasp for answers while the clock kept ticking. Contracts had to be signed in the fall before junior year, which would commit me to another seven years in the closet under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. There was no one I trusted to talk with about what the commitment would mean for me, without risking being outed and ousted.

After a summer of debate, weighing the opportunities against the sacrifice, I signed the contract for two more years of school and another five years of military service. But the physical act of signing those documents released a lifetime’s worth of stress in an explosive anxiety attack, unbeknownst to any classmates or commanders. On the secluded rooftop of the dining hall, I grabbed the closest thing to me—a metal chair—and smashed it repeatedly against the concrete wall until my body gave in. Leaning over the side of the two-story building, I resisted thoughts of a head first drop.

 The author, Dan Misch, poses for a photograph while on lookout on the bridge of the Ohio-class submarine, USS Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Dan Misch

The author, Dan Misch, poses for a photograph while on lookout on the bridge of the Ohio-class submarine, USS Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Dan Misch

From then on, I pushed away friends whom I hadn’t told I’m gay to keep my personal life private and to ensure self-preservation. It became easier to keep that distance from the guys around me after graduation when I entered the submarine service and could live off base. At work, like at school, I avoided questions about what I had done over the weekend. Mostly, I kept to myself. Life continued this way through the years as I moved from station to station, remaining a stranger to the people serving dutifully around me.

And then, in the spring of 2011, news broke that progress to repeal DADT was being made in Washington. Though it woul