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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.

 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 would be months before the repeal went into effect in the fleet, the news eased my fears. I remember when Obama pledged to end DADT during his 2008 campaign like it was yesterday. As Washington began the repeal process, the future, my future, remained unclear.

Around that time, an officer on my submarine asked for help moving to a new apartment down the street from where I lived. He and I had been on the ship together for almost two years, but we’d only ever talked about work. As new neighbors, he and I would grab beers near home after work, and one night I cautiously came out to him at the bar. He’d had gay friends in college, and without hesitation he accepted me and this news.

We started spending time together outside of work and invited other officers from the submarine to join us. I became better friends with the other officers as I began to feel more comfortable, and they became better friends with each other. As the wardroom grew closer, morale improved, and the team became more effective. I felt more confident as a duty officer and began to develop better working relationships with the crew than I had had at any other time in the Navy. I wasn’t afraid to be myself anymore—to share a laugh or a story. I showed my personality at work for what felt like the first time in my life.

 The author (right) and his friend pose for a picture in 2012 after Misch left the Navy. Courtesy of Dan Misch

The author (right) and his friend pose for a picture in 2012 after Misch left the Navy. Courtesy of Dan Misch

I can’t recall ever talking about what it was like serving under DADT with other members of the wardroom or crew while the policy was still in place. When the repeal was enacted, the crew went through an hour-long sensitivity training to teach sailors that it was now okay to serve while openly gay, and that it wasn’t okay to discriminate. Perhaps because spending months underwater already makes submariners a tight knit group of people, no one seemed to have a problem with it. We depended on each other for our lives, to make it home safely, and it didn’t matter who was waiting back home if no one made it back at all. Being able to do your job was always what mattered.

By the time the repeal went into effect, I was near the end of my tour and commitment. I had already decided to get out of the Navy and received my honorable discharge in the spring of 2012, five years after my Academy graduation. Across the country, another class of Midshipmen was preparing for graduation after a week of ceremonies that included Ring Dance, a prom-like event where Midshipmen and their dates dip their class ring in waters from the seven seas.

The year I left the Navy, after the repeal had gone into effect, I learned that two male midshipmen attended Ring Dance as each other’s dates. While I wanted to feel happy for the couple and proud that we had achieved this milestone, I couldn’t help but feel cheated out of some happiness of my own. I was angry and jealous, having skipped my own Ring Dance, not wanting to go stag or pretending to have a girlfriend.

Over time I’ve come to appreciate the progress and the chance they had, and now, 10 years after my own graduation, my fiancé and I will attend my reunion to make new memories and to rekindle the Academy friendships that I regrettably left behind.

•••

Dan Misch is a U.S Navy submarine veteran and Naval Academy graduate who served on three nuclear deterrent patrols in the Pacific and three years in a reactor refueling overhaul. Dan is now a project manager for the federal government at Argonne National Laboratory and an advocate for investments in clean energy technology as a means for economic security and mitigating climate change. He was a fellow with the Atlantic Council for his work on the Veteran’s Energy Seminar to educate other veterans on energy security issues. He lives outside Chicago, Ill. and is an avid swimmer with US Masters Swimming.

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Some Journeys Home End With a Bullet


William Gehrung was a veteran who'd written for The War Horse. In late August 2017, he killed himself. Fellow War Horse writer Nate Eckman remembers his friend.

Some Journeys Home End With a Bullet


William Gehrung was a veteran who'd written for The War Horse. In late August 2017, he killed himself. Fellow War Horse writer Nate Eckman remembers his friend.

By Nate Eckman

I saw a lot of myself in Billy, until the day he put a bullet in his head. Then I drew a line. That was not me; though, a few days before, it wasn’t him either. I thought of him the way I thought of myself, he could never. I suppose that’s the most rattling part of his suicide: If it could take him, then who else? Me too?

I have entertained convictions of self-pity and welcomed immobilizing forms of melancholy before, neither of which ever seemed significant enough to admit. The thoughts would infiltrate but never occupy my mind. They seemed too fleeting to acknowledge, something I could overcome myself. I second guess that behavior now, because last I knew his were too. Last I knew, two weeks before he took his own life, he was excited about what was next: working on another piece for The War Horse, training to rejoin the military—though not the Corps—to finally accomplish one of his lifelong dreams—a dream many of us share but never see through—to join the ranks of those in Special Forces.

What’s most maddening about his way of dying is how deceptively it portrays his way of living.

 Courtesy of William Gehrung

Courtesy of William Gehrung

Suicide suggests he spent a day on this earth weaker than most men, or that he never attached himself to much worth living for. These are both lies. Billy—“G,” we called him—possessed a rare combination of physical, artistic, and personality-driven attributes that made you wonder if there was a thing he couldn’t do well. I remember laps with him on the flight deck, running with no particular number in mind, and me desperately wishing he’d tire. I remember returning the favor in the pool, the one place I could outperform him. His physicality wasn’t an end in itself but an expression of his aspiring spirit. One best exemplified during my first deployment with him: When he wanted to quit dipping, he forced himself to run laps every time he craved a pinch. He brought us all into his stride, raised everyone around him to his standards. Jordan recalls one of the earliest days he met G, who, disgusted by Jordan’s tardy and sloppy appearance, slapped him in the face saying, “I’m going to fix you,” and he did. He had animated what it meant to be a Viking—a member of 3/2 Kilo—not just by leading, but by drawing the logos for our deployment memorabilia, through both deployments. Most vividly, I remember the late evening trips to his barracks room or the berthing space, where we’d exchange books and talk about the news, curious happenings in society, and our future as writers.     

I hope memories of the way G inspired us to a higher, happier, way of life aren’t lost in the sadness that follows his death. I hope his cool head in trying times, snappy humor in the worst of conditions, and encouraging drive for self fulfillment is what we remember in his absence. After reading through each text we shared leading up to the last weeks of his life, I still can’t find a single sign he was depressed, or that he was dropping a hint for help. The fact that he wanted to go back into the military could be read as a sign he was dissatisfied with life on the outside. Something I think every veteran has felt. And if every veteran has felt that, feels that, how many more thoughts away are we from reality’s harsh hand… forever, I’d rather feel his again… but reality has taken Billy’s place now.

Read William Gehrung's War Horse piece, "In The Absence Of Trust And Confidence."

•••

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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Balancing Authority and Understanding as a Young Lieutenant


Nina Semczuk struggled to walk the line between being "that guy" and a pushover when she became a new officer. One private's lunch paid the price.

Balancing Authority and Understanding as a Young Lieutenant


Nina Semczuk struggled to walk the line between being "that guy" and a pushover when she became a new officer. One private's lunch paid the price.

By Nina Semczuk

Don’t be “that guy,” our instructors told every cadet and newly minted lieutenant. “That guy” was a fresh second lieutenant, usually from West Point, but not always. “That guy” would attempt to establish authority in small and petty ways—by having subordinates stand at attention in all interactions, or by flipping out if a salute wasn’t rendered correctly, or at all.

 The author shakes hands with General Casey during her commissioning ceremony. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author shakes hands with General Casey during her commissioning ceremony. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

No lieutenant, especially the handful of females in my basic officer class, wanted to be seen as a ball-swinging, chest-puffing, insecure new officer. But it still happened. We knew no soldier would listen or respect our authority if we acted like that—hypervigilant and overcompensating. But we struggled to learn where the fine line between confident leader and quiet pushover lay.

One day, shortly after joining my first unit after officer course, I headed to a meeting with a couple lieutenants and a senior NCO. As we made our way down the sidewalk, a group of soldiers walked by without saluting.

“Hey! Did you miss the four officers?” barked the NCO. He jerked his head, indicating our group. I hadn’t even noticed. The soldiers looked sheepish and quickly lifted their arms to salute us. I was farthest from the group of passing soldiers, and I was relieved it hadn’t been on me to spot them and point out their mistake.

“You can’t let them get away with that,” the NCO said. “They know they’re supposed to salute. It’s a lack of respect when they ignore you.”

“Well, this brigade is where standards go to die,” joked one of the first lieutenants. He elbowed me. “Semczuk, next time you gotta yell at them. You’re the butter bar,” he said, looking at my golden lieutenant rank. I felt a prick of apprehension.

A few weeks passed, and I still hadn’t piped up. “You can’t be shy when you become platoon leader,” said the same first lieutenant who had elbowed me, and then taken me under his wing. All I had to do was correct someone ignoring the rules, he reminded me. But which rules? In our brigade, discipline was sloppy, and the line was unclear.

 The author, second from left, during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author, second from left, during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

My very first day arriving to the unit, a senior warrant officer and an NCO didn’t address me with the requisite “ma’am” for female officers. I wondered if it was carelessness or just how the “real army” worked outside of schooling. I would have attributed it to them sharing my gender, but they also avoided saying “sir” to the captain who was also in the room. When he didn’t say anything, I considered it the unit’s norm. After all, he had more than five years of active duty service under his belt; he would know what’s what. But when the senior warrant and NCO said some rude things about the previous female lieutenant whom I was apparently replacing, laughing at her perceived sluttiness, I felt they’d certainly crossed the line. But the captain said nothing.

So when my comrades badgered me about correcting soldiers, I felt stuck.

It’s not like I had shied away from confrontation in my previous lives. In high school, I had dealt with rude Dunkin’ Donuts customers on a daily basis, letting them know they could make their own coffee if they had a problem with ours. During my college days in Boston, I had answered a knock on our apartment door, which opened directly onto Beacon Street. A woman and a young man, strangers to me, stepped into the doorframe as though they were about to bypass me. I threw out an arm, catching the woman on her collarbone and shouted, “What are you doing?!” Startled, the woman and young man jumped back. “We’re Marisa’s family,” the woman said. I had succeeded in scaring and meeting my roommate’s family, all at once.

 The author during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

A few weeks passed at my new unit and, as the only female lieutenant among hundreds of men, I was still getting used to the stares. The newness of the tank brigade started to fade, and with it faded my discomfort. I became tired of taking shit from the other lieutenants in my section, who’d point out any imaginary slight or minor instance of disrespect to try to get me to exert authority. I felt dangerously close to being labeled a pushover.

Not much time passed after having those thoughts, when I found myself heading to the dining facility, on my own, to get lunch. As I got closer to the building, a blonde-haired, pink-faced private walked toward me, only a foot or so separating us. I waited, and hoped, but his arm didn’t twitch. He walked by me, no salute, not even an attempt—a slap in the face at this distance. Deliberate disrespect, my comrades back at brigade would’ve said. So I took a breath and turned.

 The author in uniform. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author in uniform. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

“Hey! Did you forget how to salute?” I asked, borrowing a friend’s favorite rebuke. I was proud how loud and clear my voice sounded.

The private turned and stammered out, “I’m sorry!” He flung his left hand toward his patrol cap, attempting to salute me with the wrong arm. A split-second later, realizing his mistake, he started to switch hands, but knocked into the lunch tray in his left hand, scattering the contents onto the grass.

“Sorry, sir! I didn’t see you,” he stuttered out as he dropped to pick up his milk carton.

“Sir?” I asked. My cheeks started to heat up. At closer look, the poor private had coke-bottle thick glasses. He was so scared; he had saluted me with the wrong arm. And now his lunch was in the grass.

 The author when she was a cadet during Leadership Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, Washington circa 2011. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author when she was a cadet during Leadership Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, Washington circa 2011. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

I stooped to help him gather his food, hoping he couldn’t see my red face, embarrassed for him, but mostly for myself.

“Thanks, sir—I mean, ma’am,” he said, finally catching sight of the blonde bun under my patrol cap. He gathered his things and fled.

I shook my head, a rueful chuckle sputtering out. Of all the soldiers on post, I would come across the rare private who genuinely didn’t wish to flout the rules of respect.

•••

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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His Closest Brush With Combat Was a Dramatic Helicopter Landing


Sam Gisselman's prided himself on his marksmanship and wanted to see what he was capable of doing during combat. But he was never chosen for combat patrol.

His Closest Brush With Combat Was a Dramatic Helicopter Landing


Sam Gisselman's prided himself on his marksmanship and wanted to see what he was capable of doing during combat. But he was never chosen for combat patrol.

By Sam Gisselman

Our Sergeant Major, Big Cat, had been pumping me up all week about going on my first combat patrol, asking if I was excited to “get my first taste of action.” “Yes, Sergeant Major.” It had been all I could think about. But the evening before we were to set off in our helicopter to a team site, I had all-night radio watch. The next morning my eyes burned and my body ached from fatigue as we hopped on the Huey, and I was too tired to feel like it was anything but business as usual. As we flew across the open desert, the drone of the helo’s engines and the cool breeze flowing through the open doors lulled me into a stupor. Big Cat sat across from me and watched as I had tried to fight off sleep.

 View from the author's last ride of his deployment. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

View from the author's last ride of his deployment. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

After what felt like an hour, Big Cat and the door gunner perked up and looked down toward the ground. Other members of the group followed suit, and suddenly, the helo rapidly gained altitude, making a wide circle over a mud-hut village that was split in half by a silty river. The helo climbed until we couldn’t make out the people we had seen wandering the streets, and the small white bongo trucks that weaved their way through the village were barely visible. We began circling the village from high above, and I tried to ask Big Cat over the noise of the helo’s engines what was going on. He threw up some unrecognizable hand gestures, so I nodded like I understood and went back to dozing.

For no reason that I can remember, I opened my eyes a few minutes later, and a second after that, the helo started to drop. As we dove, the floor fell out from beneath us, and my rifle that had been sitting between my legs rose in front of my face. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I reached out with both hands and squeezed the buttstock. Only my harness kept me from slamming into Big Cat, or flying out of the helo as we dive bombed the ground.

 The author on the rifle range. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

The author on the rifle range. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

Big Cat smirked as we plummeted and remained eerily calm. Huggy Bear, as stoic as can be, peered out the helo door like a passenger on a long road trip. I gathered my wits as the helo forcefully leveled off, smashing my body into my seat. We banked hard to the left, missing by only a few feet the mud huts that had been only the size of Lego blocks seconds before. We raced over the huts and fields like a trackless roller coaster, flying by a local who had stopped and watched with amazement as we whizzed by. The adrenaline rush got me high, and I found myself smiling and laughing. I was caught up in the thrill of it and, embarrassed, wondered later why I’d reacted as I had.

 Camp Bastion. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

Camp Bastion. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

I was a year and a half into my service, and not wanting to look like a boot, I rarely took pictures, showed outward signs of emotion that might make me seem out of my depth, or talked during my outings with Huggy Bear or Big Cat. Being a lowly corporal at the time, I was always on edge around them. One mistake and I would be pulling weeds and painting signs for the rest of my time with the unit. After what seemed like dozens of banks and turns, the helo threw its nose up in the air to brake. Before the chopper touched down, Big Cat threw off his harness and rose out of his seat. He was smiling and looked to be in a good mood. The team site, he said, had been taking fire upon our initial approach.

We’d come close to combat, but still had no contact. I’d always been comfortable with my rifle, and now that I was deployed, I craved the chance to see what I could do with my weapon when it really counted.

My mind quickly snapped from our dramatic landing and my feeling of embarrassment to the combat patrol ahead that day. Finally I’d get my chance to go on patrol and gain some real combat experience. But at the mission briefing, my name wasn’t on the list; the team didn’t know who I was and didn’t feel comfortable with me coming along. I asked Big Cat if there had been a mistake. No mistake, he said, and there was nothing he could do either.

I wasn’t the only one left behind. Big Cat introduced me to the team’s Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) who brought me with him to the mortar pit. The Army mortarmen there were as fluid and efficient with their mortars as I was with my rifle.

 The author posing on the range. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

The author posing on the range. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

As the mortars thundered and the mortarmen scurried about, I sat and wondered why I was even there. The majority of my Marine Corps career I had trained for combat, and now I wanted the chance to do what I’d been trained to do. The opportunity was right there in front of me, but still out of reach.

•••

Sam Gisselman joined the Marine Corps in 2011. He was deployed to Afghanistan in September 2012 and a month later was promoted to corporal. He returned home in May 2013, and within the next year was promoted to sergeant. Gisselman left the service in April 2015 and enrolled in college. He’s currently studying human physiology at the University of Oregon.

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He Craved Normalcy, But He Could Think Only of Getting Back to War


As a veteran Drew Pham understands craving both normalcy and war, but as his kid brother struggles with the same push and pull, Drew feels lost to help. 

He Craved Normalcy, But He Could Think Only of Getting Back to War


As a veteran Drew Pham understands craving both normalcy and war, but as his kid brother struggles with the same push and pull, Drew feels lost to help. 

By Drew Pham

Looking back, I can’t help but feel responsible for my brother’s decision to join the Army. I remember when he was five, he would sit in my lap while I played war games on the family computer. We often sat together on the couch watching war movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon.

In high school I was in Junior ROTC. I wanted to be a soldier. I hoped my brother would choose another route. He was even tempered, confident, witty—things that I wasn’t. He ran varsity track; listened to ska and punk; and while I was too busy to notice, he developed a passion for cooking. When I left for college, my brother joined JROTC. After I joined the Army, I forbade him from enlisting just as my mother had forbidden me. He enlisted in secret as soon as he turned 17. She signed the papers without argument. Maybe I had worn her down. I was secretly proud of him.

 A blue star hangs in the window of the author's home. Courtesy of Drew Pham

A blue star hangs in the window of the author's home. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The first time my brother deployed was difficult. I had just returned when he left in 2012. The strange landscape of a loved one’s deployment meant being at war in the walls of my own home—a blue star in the window, a calendar to count off the days, checking war coverage the way most people check the weather—while knowing that just outside, America hardly resembled a nation at war. When my brother returned, he posted a quote on social media from Apocalypse Now: “When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” I knew exactly what he meant. When I left Afghanistan, I felt like someone had carved off a chunk of my heart and buried it in the sand. Now that the Army has sent my brother back, I wonder how much of his heart will be carved off this time and how much will remain when he returns.

I visited him not long after his first deployment in 2013, while he was on leave. Our mother implored me to help; he was coming home drunk every night, and she didn’t know what to do. My brother kept everyone at arm’s length, which frayed his relationships. I remember coming home one night to see him standing alone in mom’s living room, smelling of grain alcohol, breathing heavy, lost in some thought or memory. Watching him in the dark, I was helpless. It didn’t matter that we had grown up together, had both fought in Afghanistan, or even that he looked up to me, I couldn’t go back in time to undo what he’d endured. He’ll never be the same, he’ll never be my kid-brother again.

 The author's mother, sister, and wife at a tattoo parlor in Richmond, VA. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author's mother, sister, and wife at a tattoo parlor in Richmond, VA. Courtesy of Drew Pham

On Thanksgiving in 2016, my brother told me he planned to go to culinary school after he left the Army. A new life. A fresh start. I texted him in March to ask if he was ready for civilian life. He said he wasn’t getting out, the Army had involuntarily extended his contract for a deployment to Afghanistan. My family planned to meet him in Richmond, the month before his unit departed in July.

My brother moved through the world like a stray cat that week in June, ready to fight or flee at the slightest provocation. He said little, avoiding people around us, watching the terrain, driving as if an ambush lay just around the bend in the road. He was only at ease after a few drinks, and even then, he didn’t talk about the war with my mom or sister.

My sister took us sightseeing, though it was mostly for my mother’s benefit—my brother’s silence worried her. On our second day together, we were stranded in an art gallery by a summer storm, thick pellets of water striking the steaming pavement. During a lull, my brother left to get his car to pick us up. Five minutes turned into 30. My mother panicked. She wanted to call the police, something must have happened. My sister and I went looking for him instead. When we finally found him, he looked like every hair on the back of his neck must have been standing up. I’d seen that look before—in soldiers shocked by IEDs, after a first firefight, and once in a man who had just taken a life. My brother never liked diagnoses and labels like PTS. He called what he’s experienced—that simultaneous yearning to return to war and return to normalcy—as soldier’s heart. I liked that—soldier’s heart.

 The author's brother in Richmond, VA. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author's brother in Richmond, VA. Courtesy of Drew Pham

That night my sister treated us to dinner at the Italian restaurant where she waits tables. We ordered drinks. My brother finished his cocktail as soon as it came. Then another, and another. I’m sure there were more, but I stopped paying attention; I wanted to ignore the truth for at least one night. Diners in starched button-downs and cashmere sweaters talked about corporate mergers and weekends at vineyards. The storm outside rumbled, and I thought about people a thousand miles away who were killing each other. Though surrounded by family and a hundred strangers, I felt alone, as if my war had cut me off from what was right in front of me. Although I had only spent one year in Afghanistan, I felt as if the world had passed me by, that my youth had dissipated, and my life had run its course. Over the years, I’ve watched my brother, hoping he would never feel the same way. I needed to speak to him alone, man to man, but he avoided me. At the end of the night, my brother gave me his keys, he was in no shape to drive.

The following night, we went to see my sister’s band perform at a punk-house. In that damp malt and hops perfumed basement, we were encircled by military-aged youth nodding and shifting to the singer’s hoarse screams, the vibrating guitars, the machine gun rattle of the drums. The music and crowd activated the manic heat of combat in me, thrown into sharp relief by the young punks huddled around us, so disconnected from the war my brother and I fought. From the corner of my eye, I watched my brother exit the room. After the first set, we agreed to leave after my sister’s performance.

 The author's sister's band performing. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author's sister's band performing. Courtesy of Drew Pham

Outside the mouldering punk-house and stopped outside his car to smoke. I tried to tell him that whatever he was feeling, I felt it too. I said the summer heat, the crush of bodies, and the adrenaline-fueled rock set off my fight response, but the more I opened up, the more I felt him closing off. I understood what he was doing—he’d been pushing us away the whole trip. As we smoked, my brother told me he was considering extending his tour. He said he wanted to see his men through the entire deployment. I was proud of his selflessness. I was ashamed that I wanted him to be a coward. Ashamed that I could not stop his impending departure.

The morning I left Richmond, we exchanged few words. He drove me to the train station and stopped at the curbside to let me out. He stayed in the car. We didn’t share an embrace, instead he shook my hand, his eyes still locked forward. I understood then what my wife has known ever since I returned from Afghanistan six years ago. When soldiers go to war, they take us—siblings, lovers, friends, and parents—to war with them, and when war wrests a part of them away, it takes a part of us too. When will I learn to embrace what he has lost at war? To love this void in him as much as the fair freckles he shares with my mother and sister, his quiet wit, and my childhood memories of him?

•••

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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Learning How to Talk About War Helped Their Family Heal


You can't hide anything from your children, John Sims learned. When their family began talking openly about his three decades of service, the healing began.

Learning How to Talk About War Helped Their Family Heal


You can't hide anything from your children, John Sims learned. When their family began talking openly about his three decades of service, the healing began.

By John Sims

Editor's note: This is the third essay in a three-part series about succumbing to years of trauma, and learning to how to heal on his own, and with his family. Read his first essay and his second essay.

Christmas of 2016 started as most Sims gatherings had: lots of Steve Martin movies, funny YouTube videos, and good-hearted ribbing and banter. But this year, Theresa and I began to broach with our kids the subject of our quest for healing and growth and, surprisingly, the jokes stopped. As we began to disclose some of the struggles we had faced as a couple during our military life, our kids began to do the same.

 The Sims Team at home on the start of their Healing Journey. Courtesy of John Sims

The Sims Team at home on the start of their Healing Journey. Courtesy of John Sims

Starting with a suicide bombing in Kabul on May 18, 2010, we unpacked, as a family, some of the difficult events I had experienced and brought back home during our war years. Theresa and I had learned that you can’t keep much from your kids, regardless of age, and just as they’d picked up on the hard times Theresa and I had endured, they also had begun to pick up that she and I were working hard to change.

It floored me that our children saw traumatic wartime events, from the Kabul bombing to attacks of 9/11 to countless Permanent Change of Station moves, with clarity equal to mine. Until now, I had seen the trauma from my vantage point, but now, I was hearing it from the perspective of those I love most. Revelations about how these events had affected them were painful to hear. For the first time, we were opening up about deep feelings, and, while not without lots of tears and sadness, the process was largely therapeutic and positive.

 Marcella's Graduation from George Mason University in 2015. Courtesy of John Sims

Marcella's Graduation from George Mason University in 2015. Courtesy of John Sims

That Christmas began to feel more like a wellness retreat than a holiday gathering. In the past we had spent our time laughing and quoting lines from our favorite Steve Martin movies, but this year we shared the latest books we had read and wellness tips we had learned, from yoga poses to breathing techniques. These weren’t potato chip books, but meaty, substantive books about growth that comes from struggle by authors like Viktor Frankl, John Steinbeck, Brené Brown, Deepak Chopra, and others.

Our conversations began setting the foundation for us to become emotionally healthier, more compassionate individuals and a stronger, more loving family. I shared how I was benefiting from my daily meditation practice, Theresa offered her faith and spiritual growth, Marcella shared stories of how she had become more compassionate with struggling Marines and Soldiers, Billy kept us riveted us with his harrowing and dangerous climbing adventures, and Annalisa and Johnna gave great cooking tips and kept us well fed. Through these experience, we began to sense that we had grown from and were stronger as a result of our past trauma and struggles.

 The Sims family with Danny Boy at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year's Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

The Sims family with Danny Boy at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year's Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

For the first time in years I felt that I was not only in the same space as Theresa and our children, but that we were truly connected not just physically through hugs, kisses, but also intellectually and spiritually. The cone of silence cracked. The suppressed fear and sadness we had all endured from Desert Storm, Kosovo, the Pentagon on 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan began to dissolve, and made room for a kinder, gentler, wiser me. By acknowledging my fear and sadness, I began realizing there was nothing wrong with me, just that bad things had happened, and now I was learning how to leave them where they are: in the past.

 The Sims family at Boulder Crest Retreat. Courtesy of John Sims

The Sims family at Boulder Crest Retreat. Courtesy of John Sims

Theresa suggested that New Year's Eve could be a symbolic and powerful day to start anew. The six of us drove to Boulder Crest Retreat, a little over an hour from our home in Alexandria, VA. Ken had invited us to visit when the grounds would be quiet, while everyone was gone for the holidays. After walking through the gardens, we spent some time with the three former race horses that live on the grounds. Their great presence felt like an invitation to connect with them, and challenged us to surrender control, something I hadn’t been good at doing. In my previous visits to Boulder Crest Retreat, I was drawn to Danny Boy, an awe-inspiring and massive workhorse. Watching Theresa and the kids connect to the horses gave me a sense of peace, and I was thankful to slow down and be with them.

Time stands still when I’m at Boulder Crest. I feel as though I’m on sacred grounds; this was once home to native warriors. There’s a historical richness I relish, knowing the land was surveyed by George Washington. And at the eastern edge of the property is a labyrinth. For centuries, those in search of wisdom, from warriors to monks, have walked labyrinths’ single path in and out as a meditation practice to gain inner peace and clarity.

 The labyrinth at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year's Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

The labyrinth at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year's Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

Our family began to walk. Some of the kids carried large rocks to symbolize the weight of their struggle to release. We walked in unison and with similar purpose, but there was also space for us to be with our own thoughts. I began to think of us as a “warrior family.” We were accepting our experiences as an Army family, both good and bad, and we were choosing to thrive.  

The day was drawing to a close, and it was time to get back home to Alexandria. On our drive out of the Blue Ridge Mountains we stopped into Mom’s Pies for slices and cups of coffee. As we sat together and devoured our slices of apple, blackberry, and pecan pie, a warm blanket of love seemed to engulf us, and we began to repeat Steve Martin lines and tell jokes.

We unloaded a lot of junk from our rucksacks that Christmas holiday of 2016. It didn’t just fall out on its own, we took it out. We did it through honest conversations, attentive listening, and lots forgiveness and empathy for each other. The work’s not over. There’s still a lot to unpack, but now there is more room for greater peace and joy. Today, we are more accepting of life's ups and downs. Our struggles aren’t over, but from this hardship we are now better equipped to forge a new path of service after the Army. Where this path might lead we shall see.

•••

John Sims served 30 years in the U.S. Army as both an Infantry NCO and Field Artillery officer. His assignments included command and staff positions from squad to strategic levels. His operational deployments include Desert Shield/Storm, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was the senior operations officer in the National Military Command Center during the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon. John and his wife, Theresa, have four children, all serving in or in support of the United States military.

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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.

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.

By Adam Stone

“Griffin three, this is Griffin one. What is your location?”

“Griffin one, this is Griffin three. Currently at your six o’clock, moving to your nine.”

“Griffin three, say again. Coming in garbled and inaudible.”

“Griffin one, roger that. Currently at your seven o’clock moving to your—”

Silence.

White noise.

Static.

His finger rests on the toggle switch while he listens to the emptiness over the crackling speakers, as if he’s hoping that a voice from the other side, a ghost in the machine, will shed some light on what had happened a few hours before. Finally, the captain flips the switch off, and turns to face his audience.  

 Taken when the author was deployed to Iraq. Courtesy of Adam Stone

Taken when the author was deployed to Iraq. Courtesy of Adam Stone

“Those were the last words heard from Griffin one and Griffin three. At approximately zero-one, the two aircraft collided somewhere in this vicinity.” The captain pauses for a moment. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he takes a long, slow deep breath, exhaling the pain in his heart that’s carved clearly on his face. Slowly he begins again, “First responders have been on scene since approximately zero-two. They have cordoned off the area, and subdued all fires. We are here to identify what we can, and to bring the crew home."

Home? Where is home? I’ve heard that “home is where you hang your hat." If that’s true, then we’re bringing them back to the barracks, to their apartments, to their houses. I have also heard “you can’t go home again,” so where do they go? Which is it? Everyone here knows what the captain is referring to, that we’d be bringing them out of the Carolina swamp to return them to wherever they hailed from, to a place that some tried to escape from.

Approximately 75 Marines from multiple units have gathered in the early morning hours on the banks of these North Carolina swamps. We have all been specially trained in emergency reclamation and aircraft recovery, a job we pray never to have to do.

A young lieutenant standing behind the Marines begins to give everyone present a handful of small plastic flags. One red. One white. One blue. Their resemblance to our national ensign does not escape us. I begin picturing flags around the bases at half-mast, flag-draped coffins, words spoken as Old Glory is passed to mother, or to spouse “on behalf of a grateful nation."

The captain continues, “The markers you are being handed are to be placed within the cordoned area, around areas of wreckage, or anything that is part of, or might be a part of the incident.”

“The blue flag is for non-biologic material,” he says.

Non-biologic: You mean the parts of our aircraft we’d learned to love, and spent countless hours repairing. Aircraft that have taken us to places around the world, and have pulled us out of harm’s way. Did we do something to cause all this? Did we forget an important part of the process? Was this our fault? Was this my fault?

“The red flag is for biologic material.”

 The author in Afghanistan in 2010. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author in Afghanistan in 2010. Courtesy of Adam Stone

Biologic: You mean our compatriots, our comrades in arms, our friends, our brothers, our family. Friends whose marriages we celebrated at bachelor parties and receptions, friends we cheered when their children were born over cigars and whiskey, friends we consoled in the bars as we tended to their broken hearts. Friends we will never see again. Friends I will never see again.

The captain touches the bridge of his nose as his forehead wrinkles with worry and tears begin to form in the corner of his eyes. Once again he takes a deep breath and exhales, brushes away his tears and looks back to the Marines.

“The white flag is for the unknown,” the captain finishes.

What can be unknown? I know a femur from a fuselage. I know what bone looks like and what a bearing looks like. I can identify an aircraft tire from my brother, Tucker. What can he mean by “unknown”? We know the difference. I know the difference!

 The author in Afghanistan in 2012. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author in Afghanistan in 2012. Courtesy of Adam Stone

As the Marines stare at their collection of flags, the captain adds one last thing, “You should be aware it’s unlikely there will be survivors, but there’s a chance nonetheless.”

Survivors. Two aircraft collided in the middle of the night over the swamps of North Carolina. How can there be survivors? And if anyone did manage to survive, what will become of their minds and bodies. Is that really survival?

The captain slowly walks between the Marines, touching the shoulders of a few as he passes. Every Marine he touches is holding back their own pain. Their eyes have swollen from tears; all the while they’re wringing their hands or pulling on their clothing. All eyes are on the captain as he stops before one young Marine in the back of the audience who’s barely able to stand. The Marine is riddled with pain, shaking uncontrollably, tears flowing down his face leaving trails in the dust on his cheeks. The captain, wraps him in his arms and they slowly kneel and cry together.

When they break their embrace all eyes shift to the lieutenant who begins assigning Marines to their search areas. We begin donning our protective clothing and respirators; none of us are paying full attention. The lieutenant’s voice is just white noise, like the radio static we heard a few moments before. It’s not out of disrespect; we are thinking of the task at hand: to find those we love. As we wade into the swamps, we hear the lieutenant’s final words to us: “Ok gentlemen, be careful, and bring them home.”

Home. Can we ever truly go there? Have any of us here ever known it. Will a part of me be left in this swamp, or is it already long gone?

I’m silent. This could have been any one of us, could have been me. We all love to fly, we all cherish escaping gravity’s relentless hold. Now, we’re searching for our brothers. I knew all of them. I knew their names. I knew their families, because we are their family. They are my Family.

Deeper into the swamp with my brothers I wade—knee to waist to chest deep. We search relentlessly, barely keeping our heads above the water. Not one person complains about the humidity, or the water sucking all the moisture out of our bodies. No one’s worried about the water moccasins, or the alligators, waiting to pull us down. I refuse to leave behind my brothers and the wreckage to become part of the landscape. All I care about are my flags, so my brothers may return home.

 The author has retired now, and is working on his college degree. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author has retired now, and is working on his college degree. Courtesy of Adam Stone

Red for biologics. White for unknown. Blue for non-biologics.

Red flag. Is for goodbye my friend.

Blue flag. Is for there is no repair this time.

Red flag. Is for you will be missed.

Blue flag. Is for no more turnarounds for you.

Red flag. Is for Semper Fi, my brother.

White flag...

What I hadn’t learned during training to be a crew chief in helicopters or to work on military aircraft—what nobody is told, the part they conveniently left out—is that when jet fuel ignites, it burns at such an alarming temperature it is almost impossible to extinguish. It burns so hot that it will melt bone to bearing.

White flag!

A flame so intense it will fuse femur to fuselage!

White flag!

A blaze so violent it will merge helmet to hair and skin!

White flag. White Flag. WHITE FLAG.

•••

Adam Stone is a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant with 20 years of service, including multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous peacekeeping deployments around the world. He is married with four kids. He’s a stay-at-home dad and beginning his college career in pursuit of an English literature degree.

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She Stayed Quiet When Marines' Wives Called Female Marines "Sluts." Then She Met Joy


Liesel Kershul had forgotten life on the painful outskirts of the wives' "sorority." A friendship with a female Marine has Liesel determined to change that.

She Stayed Quiet When Marines' Wives Called Female Marines "Sluts." Then She Met Joy


Liesel Kershul had forgotten life on the painful outskirts of the wives' "sorority." A friendship with a female Marine has Liesel determined to change that.

By Liesel Kerhsul

Editor's Note: Liesel Kershul and Joy Craig wrote each other open letters. Neither of the writers saw each other's before publication. Read Joy's letter to Liesel.

Dear Joy,

Something you said during our conversation when we met in New York made an impression on me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. You told me that during your 20-plus years in the Marine Corps, you often felt excluded from the military spouse “sorority”—a sorority of which I am a part. You said that in a vocation surrounded by men, you craved female friendship. You described spending “mandatory fun” events and barbecues on the outskirts—worried that spending too much time with the other male Marines would make their female spouses uncomfortable, but not feeling welcome to join in conversations with their wives. It was as though you had one foot in each camp, you said, but weren’t accepted fully in either.

 Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

I want you to know that I can relate to what you described, because I have spent time on the outskirts as well. Before we married, my husband and I dated for five years, and I often felt excluded at events. I clung to him at unit barbecues and the birthday Ball, and not because I was shy. It didn’t matter that I’d been through two deployments with him, I hadn’t earned a ring yet, and so it felt as though many of the wives thought of me as “temporary.” I once overheard a spouse in Tom’s unit say that because Marines go through women like water, until I had a ring on my finger, I wasn’t worth the effort to befriend. There were exceptions. One spouse in particular defied the flock and took me under her wing, but during those first five years they were few and far between. I spent most events glued to Tom’s side, listening to jargon-heavy stories while saying nearly nothing. For me, the experience was bizarre. I’d never been blatantly excluded in any other setting, and feeling unaccepted was painful.

Anyone who has ever been to a unit barbecue will recognize this phenomenon: The wives almost always cluster together, sipping wine or something suitably feminine, while the Marines spend their time huddled around coolers of beer talking shop. It’s admittedly archaic, but for the past decade it hasn’t been something that I thought much about. Having earned my ring, I was secure and comfortable in my “permanent” status as wife—my days on the outskirts happily forgotten.

 Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Although now I am the first wife to welcome a girlfriend into the fold, I hadn’t given much thought to what it must be like for female Marines in the highly stratified social setting that comprises our military reality. I’m the type of woman who relishes female friendship, who comes from a family of daughters and was a sorority sister in undergrad.

I’ve spent my career working mainly in non-profits, a female dominated sector, in female heavy industries. I’m unaccustomed to feeling isolated anymore, and it surprised me when you told me how it felt to be a female service member on the outskirts.

And upon reflection, I don’t think your misgivings are unfounded. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of wives pigeonhole female Marines in much the same way as their husbands often do. Recently, I overheard a spouse comment that the women exploited in the Marines United scandal had it coming because they were “obviously sluts anyway.” I’ve always cringed when I heard things like this, but in the past I’ve rarely corrected them. I want you to know that after speaking with you, I’ve found my voice.

The day after I got home from New York, my husband and I had a “mandatory fun” barbecue to attend. In all honesty, although as a girlfriend I used to dread these events, as a spouse I love them. I don’t consider them “mandatory fun” but rather just plain old “fun.” For me, they’re where I get to catch up with friends who live extremely busy lives and are happy to have the time to chat for a few hours without any distractions, knowing their kids are at home with a sitter. But that night, our conversation still fresh in my mind, I made sure to introduce myself to all of the female Marines in the room. And then I introduced them to the other wives, who were, for the most part, gathered in the kitchen drinking a sweet, pink cocktail.

 Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

I could sense how uncomfortable it was at first for one Marine in particular, and I wondered guiltily if that was the first time anyone had made the effort. She seemed confused when I introduced myself, and even jokingly asked me if I was a spy. That comment drove home how unusual it must be for a spouse to try to get to know her. But by the end of the night, I felt like we’d bonded a little, and I hope she felt welcomed among the wives. I wouldn’t say we were kindred spirits, but I like her and I hope our paths cross again. And maybe the next time she’s at a “mandatory fun” event, she’ll consider striking up a conversation with a spouse. I, for one, know that I will never again let a female Marine feel like she exists on the outskirts.

In solidarity and friendship,

Liesel

•••

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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Marines' Wives Are All the Same, She Thought. And Then She Met Liesel


Joy Craig writes in an open letter about the chasm between Marines' wives and female Marines, and about a budding friendship that has softened her distrust.

Marines' Wives Are All the Same, She Thought. And Then She Met Liesel


Joy Craig writes in an open letter about the chasm between Marines' wives and female Marines, and about a budding friendship that has softened her distrust.

By Joy Craig

Editor's Note: Liesel Kershul and Joy Craig wrote each other open letters. Neither of the writers saw the other's letter before publication. Read Liesel's letter to Joy.

Dear Liesel,

Meeting you in Manhattan this spring and, more importantly, liking you has forced me to rethink the years-long grudge I’ve held against military wives. I’ve been taught not to like your kind.

When I was a young Marine, it went against my gut instinct. I was raised a polite person and always tried to make friends, but Marine wives and female Marines typically react like oil to water. But when we met I realized that you’re not like most Marine wives. You have your own career, your own independent thoughts, and a spunk I really admire. Before you and I can become friends, I’d like to address the silent rift between us.

 Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

During my 17 enlisted years I attended countless command functions where Marine wives gave me dirty looks, made snide remarks, and gossiped about me, often with their husbands’ encouragement. Some pulled me aside to advise that I “stay the fuck away” from their husbands, branding me a predatory whore. Eventually I got sick of the “Jezebel” title and began to snap back. My standard response became, “Don’t flatter yourself, he’s all yours,” or worse, “If I wanted your husband I’d already have him.” This won me no friends.

I had hoped after becoming an officer, things would be different. Maybe the higher pedigree would calm down the juvenile pettiness between wives and women Marines. I was wrong. While the enlisted wives threaten you to your face, the officer wives are much more “bless your heart” about it.

 Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Shortly after joining my first squadron as an officer, I attended a “Hail and Farewell” party to welcome new officers and send off those departing. Just after arriving I realized the cold shoulder routine extended across the enlisted-officer boundary. Despite my attempts at conversation, the wives congealed leaving me to talk with the only wife married to her husband during his enlisted years. With her low-rent nature and mother-of-three body, she too had been shunned by the beehive.  

Since then, I’ve declined giving officer's wives the opportunity to get to know me, quickly dismissing them after a sugary, limp-wristed introduction where we struggled to find anything we had in common. What did they know of my life or the chip on my shoulder? I’d size them up and instantly know where I stood with them, and they with me. And this, Liesel, is why I like you. You’re a breath of fresh air.

Few of the Marine wives I’ve met speak of their own accomplishments, boasting instead of their husbands’. I began to believe this was what they’d wanted all along, winning the, “I found someone to take care of me” contest. They looked at me with pity, that I had to work for a living or that I was a destitute, single mother who, sadly, would likely never land a man.

They were taught the rank structure of wives, and how officially they didn’t wear their husband’s rank, but unofficially they all knew their place. Senior wives routinely induct new wives into the spouses “club,” laying out the standards of behavior and etiquette, gathering for afternoon teas and girls’ days, while their husbands do the mens’ work.

A fellow female Warrant Officer explained to me how she, upon her husband's commissioning, was invited to attend an afternoon tea at the commanding general’s home to welcome the new spouses into the Marine Corps. She was shocked to find off-duty enlisted Marines, in uniform, being paid to serve the officers’ wives. Happy for the extra cash, these Marines were likely unaware of the visual first impression that enlisted Marines were subservient, even to officer wives. Listening to this story both infuriated, and stuck with me.

 Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

It didn’t help that the wives of my new coworkers were near the top of the status heap: the wives of Marine Fighter Pilots. It was pilots’ wives who, at my last duty station, mutilated Marine Corps uniforms with scissors, sewing machines, and bedazzle guns into sexy outfits adorned with the Marine Corps emblem and their husbands’ ranks. The pink-camo monstrosities at the Officers Club that night sealed the deal for me; I would never be friends with a Marine wife. Until you’ve endured the soul crushing rites of passage your husband and I have survived, no, you don’t get to wear his rank. You don’t get to slap a sticker on your car claiming you have, “the toughest job in the Marine Corps,” or desecrate the uniform I fought for the right to wear for a “girls-night” at the O-Club.

I do realize much of the poor behavior I’ve witnessed is encouraged by the husbands, and of course, tradition. I get how wives must act, the appearances they have to keep. They’re expected to maintain the “perfect hostess” image forsaking their own opinions and identity… I understand. I’ve been forced into equally uncomfortable molds, with the added responsibility of being a warfighter. While trying to raise children I had to deploy, pay bills alone, stay fit and fight for my place in arguably the most misogynistic fraternity in the United States.

 Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

But here’s the hitch; other than you, I can’t think of anyone outside of my sisters in arms who could understand the pain and loneliness I felt being a woman in what is still, very much, a man’s Marine Corps. You know as well as I do that we are pitted against each other because I am expected to do something no one ever admits to: keeping your husband's secrets from you.

We’re not supposed to talk about it, but there is a reason the phrase, “What goes on deployment, stays on deployment” exists. If women Marines and wives don’t get along, maybe I won’t tell the truth about the hookers in Thailand, the strippers in Guam, or the debauchery during our last deployment. Maybe I won’t mention the times they hit on me either. So these men return home, shoot holes in my credibility, spread lies about me, and maybe a few truths, but either way, most wives dislike me before we ever meet, and it’s all by design.

 Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Liesel, I need you to be an ally and I want you to be my friend. I’m writing you this now for the same reason I wore fancy underwear beneath my uniform all those years, to remind myself that the men don’t have control over everything. If you and I can be friends, maybe we can help tamp down the out-of-control “boys will be boys” mentality that keeps giving the Corps its self-inflicted wounds. The other services don’t have this problem to the extent we do. It is unique to the service we share, and you and I can work to mend it. 

Semper sororibus,

~Joy

•••

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


Nina Semczuk oversaw 25 soldiers and all the human mess that goes along with that. But would a civilian executive see the value in her experience?

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


Nina Semczuk oversaw 25 soldiers and all the human mess that goes along with that. But would a civilian executive see the value in her experience?

By Nina Semczuk

Editor's Note: Names of individuals mentioned in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.

“You must be used to order and discipline, coming from the military,” the executive said. “Things can be fast-paced and dynamic around here.” He folded his thin fingers together and looked at me. The office was silent, gray, and situated high above the teeming streets of Manhattan.

I pushed myself back in my chair, swallowed, and tightened my left hand around the pocket-sized notebook I had brought to the interview. I started flipping through my mental rolodex of Army memories, trying to find one that I could turn into a pithy anecdote that would convey my ability to handle the open position’s duties. Fast-paced, dynamic, and the ability to multitask, were listed on the job description. Hmm, multi-tasking—here’s one:

 Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

I pictured Sergeant Tilley’s pistol sitting on the desk in front of me. We were in Kansas in our rat infested company area, a crammed 900 square foot portion of a low-slung one story concrete building. I was charged with babysitting the weapon after Tilley had been hauled off for questioning by the criminal investigative division. When I had taken charge of the platoon months prior, the outgoing platoon leader had said, “Sergeant Tilley is one of the platoon’s best soldiers.” At 19, the haggard teen soldier was still mischievous and testing the boundaries. He’d show up to physical training hungover, and would try to shock me and the platoon with comments about his rough, and possibly abusive, Oklahoma-country upbringing. Shortly after I took over the platoon, he found himself in a relationship with a woman, a mother of two girls, nearly 10 years his senior.

 Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

That gun I was guarding was found in his truck, loaded with hollow point bullets, unregistered and illegal at our Army post. The investigators found it after his former best friend, Rodriguez reported to me that he saw Tilley and his lady friend sneaking out of the barracks with his brand new flat screen television. Tilley and Rodriguez had been inseparable battle buddies until a night of heavy drinking—the alcohol supplied to the teen soldiers by the mid 30s mother of two—when Rodriguez had stumbled into her younger daughter’s room. He urinated on her floor while the nine-year-old child slept a few feet away. We had opened an investigation, disciplined him, and taken away his promotable status. Since the woman hadn’t called the police or reported the incident in a timely fashion, and we were bound to a he-said she-said after the fact, and we did the most we could do. I hadn’t anticipated Tilley’s encore, breaking into the barracks and stealing his best friend’s TV. 

We were days away from our massive training exercise in the Mojave desert, and I was juggling a huge load of intelligence analysis with limited manpower, but that pistol on the desk signaled the computer had to wait. I had to deal with soldier drama, what leadership referred to as “soldier issues”—investigating infidelity, mucking out a filthy soldier’s living quarters, disciplining a sergeant for sexual harassment, chasing an AWOL soldier, and more. I dealt with the full spectrum of human conditions while trying to get our actual work done. Should I tell the executive interviewing me how I had juggled a criminal investigation, AWOL soldiers, and a tyrannical company commander while tending to our platoon’s daily operations? Some of it was intelligence work, but much of my work would be similar to his corporate duties: endless meetings, PowerPoint presentations, and Excel workbooks.

Nope, not appropriate for this conversation. I scanned my memory for something else.

 Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

This job was my chance to climb back on the career ladder after restarting my life as a civilian. The position was one step above entry level, which made it all the more appealing as a 27-year-old trying to catch up to my peers in the civilian world. Almost six months had passed since I started an editorial internship in my career pivot from Army officer to writer, and I was living off of savings while earning minimum wage in New York. The money wasn’t going to last me much longer, and I refused to leave the city without making my pivot a success. I had shunned the traditional officer-to-civilian career route of using junior military officer recruiters to secure a safe but boring middle management job in fossil fuels in the Midwest. This might be my only shot; I had no other interviews on the horizon.  

Another memory surfaced, and I tried to brush it aside. No, can’t use that either, I thought. I had recalled my platoon sergeant, a new transfer we were excited to have from an infantry unit, Sergeant First Class Timan, sitting on a cot in an open bay at the National Training Center in the California desert. Sergeant Timan rocked back and forth and muttered to himself, while the male members of my platoon surrounded him. I had been summoned when he started rocking and stopped responding to his soldiers. As I made my way to his cot in the rear of the male sleep tent, my first sergeant pulled me aside and said he suspected Timan was having an Iraq flashback.

Our unit had stepped off the buses that carried us from Kansas to California a few days prior. Older soldiers who had deployed to Iraq commented how similar the National Training Center looked. The bay Sergeant Timan sat rocking in was only a temporary staging area. We were poised to move out to the mountains and conduct our operations for the next few weeks, and my platoon needed every soldier possible. We were short every noncommissioned officer billet which meant my abundance of junior soldiers had limited oversight.

 Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Our new platoon sergeant stayed behind in the staging area. He had refused to move even after our Command Sergeant Major and battalion commander had yelled in his face to remind him of his duties, and in an attempt to snap him out of his daze. He continued to rock and mutter, refusing eye contact. I had to leave him and focus on the upcoming decisive operations mission. At 23, I had 25 soldiers to keep alive, six specialized trucks to employ for intelligence collection and analysis, and less than 15 months of active duty experience, six of which were spent in officer training. Did this count as “dynamic”? I wondered, picturing the job description I had memorized before the interview.

Nope, not useful either. I brushed the recollection aside and focused on the gentleman in front of me who waited for my response.

I thought about what the executive had said. You must be used to order and discipline. “Order and discipline” made me think about my old unit’s morning ritual. At 0620 each morning, we’d line up in formation, hands behind our backs, right palm over left, standing at ease. The morning bugle call reveille would sound. First sergeant called us to the position of attention as the bugle call played and a cannon fired in the distance. After the last note faded from the speakers, a scratchier recording would start—The Big Red One song. We opened our mouths to sing the opening line, “Toast of the Army, favorite Son! Hail to the brave Big Red One.” Out of tune and at different paces, we’d lose the sound of the recording over the drone of all the company formations grouped across the fort’s lawns.

 Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

It was the only time of the day where we seemed to be disciplined, simply by our tidy formations and unified mission to sing our unit’s song. The song would end, and we’d all scatter for physical training or sick call, the orderly lines that had made up rectangle-shaped formations dissolving as individual soldiers moved off. I couldn’t think of a time where the chaos of the Army was more muted than in those early morning hours.

Probably not what he means by orderly and disciplined.

His office was still silent, and I hoped I hadn’t waited too long to answer. “I’m very organized,” I said. “I used to be in charge of 25 soldiers.”

He looked at me. His idea of neat, orderly soldiers was so foreign to the reality of my messy, very human platoon of individuals. I thought about the interview tips I’d gotten and the prep I’d done. I fished for the appropriate phrase to capture my capabilities, potential—my Army experience reduced to a phrase.

“I did a lot of project management,” I added.

He smiled. “Ok, tell me about that.” I exhaled and started sifting through my mind’s Army scrapbook again. This memory, appropriate; that one, not.

***

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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Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD


Heroin allowed Jenny Pacanowski to escape her PTSD in small doses. To get sober she had to deal with her trauma head-on, or accept that she would die.

Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD


Heroin allowed Jenny Pacanowski to escape her PTSD in small doses. To get sober she had to deal with her trauma head-on, or accept that she would die.

By Jenny Pacanowski

The first time I snorted heroin felt like the peace of a sunset at dusk, the ending of the day and beginning of darkness. Even though I had a great service dog and a solidly maternal house dog, I struggled. I searched for an alleviate my pain by escaping my memories, instead of investing in the internal workings of my mind and body.  I hated myself. My choices. My looks. My existence was guilt ridden and shame flowed like the blood in my veins.

Eventually that’s where the heroin ended up too, swimming in my veins with all the other poison that circulated through my body. I treated it like anxiety medication. I shot up and went to work without my service dog. I shot up and went to class. I shot up and went to the store. I shot up and felt brave enough, or numb enough, to be social with my family and friends outside my home. I felt so numb I could easily navigate the side effects of my PTSD without fear.  The heroin lifted the pressure that sat on my chest, it provided relief from the expectations that were drowning me.

Why couldn’t I get better faster? Why was every day a continued struggle, even with the three years of therapy I could accrued? I wonder still: Why am I still in pain? Why are my internal wounds still bleeding? Why do I still feel alone? Why am I so fucked up? Why am I so crazy? Why am I still struggling? What’s the point? What am I doing with my life? Why is surviving not satisfying? Why continue to survive when nothing is sustainable, not happiness, not relief, not love, not compassion, not humanity?

As the Why’s and What’s consumed me, the heroin brought breath and the freedom of emptiness. I maintained my mask for six months and successfully flunked out of college, because heroin trumped finals week.

The heroin as anxiety medication was not enough. The heroin wanted to be center stage.

It enveloped me, and I was no longer a suitable foster home for bullmastiffs. I maintained some strength in who I was by surrounding myself with Boo and Kiba. However the dogs’ care suffered, diminished to feeding, couch sitting, and lots of sleeping. Being awake was brutal and when the heroin ran out detoxing was like dying with my eyes open.  I finally broke down after a year and half of abuse and told my PTSD psychologist what was going on. Everyone had witnessed my triumphs of losing weight and successfully navigating the world without my service dog. As I plummeted back into anxiety and isolation most people thought my PTSD was flaring up and I let them think it. Being labeled a drug addict was unforgivable by society. Having PTSD was an admirable war wound, and mine had scabbed over. But with enough agitation the scab broke open and bled for all to see.

I exposed my weeping needle-pricked arms to the psychologist. He looked at me solemnly and stated, “You are out of my scope. I will give you a recommendation for an addiction therapist.”

I hated my addiction therapist at first. He was objective and seemingly lacked empathy for my pain. However, with Boo, my service dog, as my witness at the sessions, my path lit up again. Mindful breathing was another answer, one that didn’t take the destructive shortcut of injecting heroin into my veins, a shortcut that I’d relied on to access my breath.

The Why’s transformed into How’s, as in how to respond instead of react while identifying where the emotions physically manifested themselves. I started mapping out the intentions of my goals—what would improve my life and also others in my same situation—to begin narrowing down what my purpose was in this world. I came to the understanding that my heroin use was a direct symptom of my PTSD and my need to escape it. We discussed how to communicate to my family and friends what I was going through, what I needed from them, and who I am as a person, not as an addict going through it.

I simplified my life, changed my schedule by creating a more structure schedule. I developed my language with a conscious filter which required dropping the sledgehammer reaction to external stimuli, instead evaluating while breathing through my reaction and picking the suitable tool to respond with. I started to evolve. Sessions with previous therapists had been like having coffee with a friend as I bitched, replayed situations and traumas. This therapist was giving me applicable skills to do in my everyday life, my everyday anxiety, my panic and depression and How to get through those previously debilitating moments.

I gained momentum, retraining my brain and solidifing strength within my sobriety.  I moved away from the birthplace of my addiction. I left my boyfriend and my drug-abusing circle of acquaintances. To save money, I lived in my parents’ garage for six months sleeping on a full size mattress surrounded by my two dogs and two cats. I made a plan to move to Ithaca, N.Y. to join a veteran artist, writing, and farming community. I tried to improve myself every day and embrace the pace of going slow instead of letting the impulses control my actions.

Sitting on the edge of Lake Cayuga, I learned to breathe and feel the sunset in my bones, my heart, and my soul without the heroin.

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***

Jenny Pacanowski is a poet, combat veteran, and public speaker. While deployed to Iraq with the Army, Jenny was a medic and provided medical support for convoys with the Marines, Air Force and the Army. She also did shifts in the Navy medical hospital. In Germany, she was part of a medical evacuation company. Jenny is a 2017 Writing Fellow. 

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Reliving Military Sexual Trauma on Her Last Day of Active Duty


Joy Craig hadn't wanted to spend her last morning of active duty reliving sexual assaults, but there she sat in the base NCIS office, talking with an agent.

Reliving Military Sexual Trauma on Her Last Day of Active Duty


Joy Craig hadn't wanted to spend her last morning of active duty reliving sexual assaults, but there she sat in the base NCIS office, talking with an agent.

By Joy Craig

    It was the last thing I had to do. The final official order of business before I could wash my hands of the whole filthy event. This was not where I wanted to spend this particular morning, confessing my deepest secrets to a stranger, but there we were. Winona and I introduced ourselves to the agent, then sank into the deep, leather chairs across from his desk. The chairs seemed better suited for a comfy New England library than the office of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service aboard Parris Island, S.C.

 The Harbor River spans between Parris Island and Port Royal, S.C. Courtesy of Joy Craig

The Harbor River spans between Parris Island and Port Royal, S.C. Courtesy of Joy Craig

“I understand that you’re here to discuss a sexual assault, Chief Warrant Officer?” the NCIS agent began.

“No, sir. I’m here because my commanding officer insisted I make this appointment.” I’d made up my mind not to give the name of the Marine captain who had taken it too far on not just one, but three occasions.

“Well, your CO was right; you don’t need to protect him. He can’t do anything to you now. You know that, right?” he pressed.

How could I explain to the agent that I wasn’t afraid of the man? It wasn’t fear of him that kept me from reporting the assault; it was fear of the fallout. I was sure, if I wanted to, I could destroy this officer’s personal life and career, but the cost to me would be unbearable. I’d witnessed it too many times with female friends and colleagues: the dismissal, public shame, and retaliation that often befell women who “cried rape.” I’d experienced it myself early in my career. No, I wasn’t being quiet because I was afraid; at my rank, reporting the assault wouldn’t end well for me.

I focused on the matter at hand, took a measured breath, and explained how my CO, XO, sergeant major, and I were discussing the handling of an alleged sexual assault in our command. I had a feeling the CO wasn’t aware of how frequent sexual assaults were in the ranks of the Marine Corps, so I casually had mentioned that I had been sexually assaulted a couple of years prior by a captain I worked with. Maybe it was because the XO and sergeant major were also women that I felt comfortable revealing this with them, or maybe it was because they’d all worked with pilots themselves. They’d seen these men chase their vices first hand.

I was trying to relate to the accuser, a young woman I’d worked with before. I wanted to show the CO, the only man in the room, that it was more common than he probably understood. I joked, “Who hasn’t been sexually assaulted?” But the commander didn’t get my gallows humor, and upon realizing that he was now the senior person with my secret, he made the appointment for me, for no other reason than to cover his ass. “He could give two shits about me personally,” I remarked.  

I went on to explain how the executive officer had gotten upset by my story and left the office while the SgtMaj nodded, understanding it were entirely plausible. They both knew I was telling the truth. The XO later admitted in private that practically the same thing had happened to her on deployment.

 Joy Craig aboard Parris Island, S.C. in 2013. Courtesy of Joy Craig

Joy Craig aboard Parris Island, S.C. in 2013. Courtesy of Joy Craig

“It’s a part of their playbook: Break in and pass around the new girl,” I added with a smile, forever trying to lighten the mood. I sank further into the leather chair as the agent gave me a frustrated look, failing to see what was funny about not reporting an assault. I knew he was just trying to do his job; playing coy was pointless. “The damage is done. He’s probably forgotten about the whole thing. He’d be stunned by an investigation, I’m sure. His version of events and mine are probably very different. I’m sure he believes I wanted it all; he’d say I’d consented. Besides, he’s moved up and will probably be a CO soon himself. Pilots are untouchable.”  

“Will you tell me what happened?” the agent asked. “Off the record?”

I knew there was no such thing, but I indulged him: “A few months after I checked into my squadron over on the Air Station, we deployed to Japan. One night after ‘mandatory fun’ at the Officers Club, the captain knocked on my barracks room door and pushed his way inside. I put up a pretty good argument and made enough noise that the major, who lived next door, came over and pulled him out of my room.”

Sitting in that room, I thought about Marc, my boyfriend at the time. He had never trusted these guys around me, and it was a source of constant strain in our relationship. Trying not to give anyone the impression I was available, I had spoken about Marc constantly, avoided giving any kind of flirty impressions, and dodged the drunken nights at the O-club. That was until the major I reported to, had pulled me aside and scolded me for not acting like one of the boys. He’d explained, when the boss says, I’ll see you at the officers club on Friday evenings; it wasn’t optional. He made it clear that I’d attend future events.

Explaining this to Marc had caused an argument that, as I sat in the agent’s office, I began replaying inside my head.

“So, there’s a witness?” the agent asked, interrupting my daydream.

“Well, to the first one, I guess. Although you’d never get that major to testify against one of his own.” The very idea was absurd. “Six months later we deployed to Twentynine Palms. The same captain managed to get me away from the group one night and forced my hand down his pants. He wanted me to jerk him off, but I threatened to yell and was drawing attention, so he gave up. A week later, all the officers went to Palm Springs for a night, and he just wouldn’t leave me alone.” I shook my head and fought the memory I was exhuming. Grief threatened to overwhelm me as I sorted through the events that had led to that night, and how Marc eventually had ended our relationship when it became too much for him.

Winona reached over and put her hand on top of mine. She always knew when I needed a pull back from the edge.   

 The iconic We Make Marines sign spans Boulevard de France aboard Parris Island, S.C. Courtesy of Joy Craig

The iconic We Make Marines sign spans Boulevard de France aboard Parris Island, S.C. Courtesy of Joy Craig

“I gave in,” I confessed, wanting to hurry the conversation to its end. I looked the agent in the eye. “He was never going to stop. The only way to get him to leave me alone was to fuck him and get it over with.” I paused and absorbed the sting of the bandage I’d just ripped off. “I’ve endured worse.”

I knew that if I refused to tell the agent the captain’s name I’d be able to leave the office without being roped into an investigation. I just had to get through this