“How was it?” people ask, smiling. They talk to me as if they are connected to the war in Iraq. Connected to the service that they were too lazy, too undisciplined, too political, too whatever to join themselves.
“Hot and sandy,” I answer, refusing to feed their idea of glorified war, already reinforced daily by MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and more.
Civilians don’t understand that we are Marines, we don’t need pity when we deploy—it’s what we are trained to do, what we volunteer to do.“Oh,” they reply, the smile fading from their face when I give them a cold stare to make them wonder if I killed any hajjis, ragheads, camel jockeys, sand niggers, or any of the other offensive terms we are taught to call the people we are at war with in order to dehumanize them until they become our enemy. “Are you going to have to go back?” they ask with dramatic sympathy. It’s as if I am awaiting orders for either parole or execution. They never consider that we don’t mind going. That this is our job, our choice, what we do to pay our bills, feed our kids, pay off expensive college loans. Civilians don’t understand that we are Marines, we don’t need pity when we deploy—it’s what we are trained to do, what we volunteer to do.
“I don’t know. It depends on what unit I’m with after I PCS or if I can get attached to a team on an IA billet.” I throw out as many terms and acronyms as I can to boggle their civilian brains. Again, a blank stare. I don’t explain that PCS means Permanent Change of Duty Station or that IA billet means Individual Augment. Both mean you’re assigned to a different unit, mission, people, maybe even a different war.
“Do you want to go back?” they ask, ignoring my acronyms. “I wouldn’t mind going to Afghanistan,” I answer out of habit. I have learned that the crazier I make myself appear, the fewer inappropriate personal questions they ask.
They change the subject when they realize they can’t empathize with my response. Instead, they focus on simple things, like the weather.
“How hot was it?” Their relentless curiosity about a world they will never experience should be flattering, but instead it makes me sick to my stomach like I’m caught in a sandstorm and inhaling too much dust again.
“The week before I left we had a barbecue and at twenty hundred, I mean 8 PM, it was still 110 degrees outside. It was at least 115 during the day. On our way home we had to stop in Kuwait for four days. There it was closer to like 120.”
I don’t tell them it snowed in January. It’s not my job to fix their misconceptions.
“Wow, that’s hot,” they say in their most enthusiastic voice. I don’t remind them that under flak jackets and Kevlar helmets, carrying a daypack, rifle, and pistol that it’s more than hot—it’s fucking unbearable.
They ask about the sandstorms, the bombings, the people, but all they know of war are images from television and retold stories from nephews, distant cousins, or someone who knew someone who went over there at some point.
“Yeah. It’s hot,” I shrug.
I didn’t used to be this cynical or this brazen. I don’t feel salty or even sad. It’s like I no longer live my life and instead watch it through a television screen waiting for the character that looks like me, sounds like me, but isn’t really me to react to the various situations invisible producers create from an office offset.
I dream of giving everything I own to the homeless man on the corner of my new neighborhood who stands at the intersection and holds a sign every night that reads:“Homeless Vet suffering from PMSD: Post-Marriage-Stress-Disorder”My friends try to be supportive, but don’t get that the only support I need is to be left alone. They volunteer to help move my stuff out of storage—stuff I don’t want anymore—but I tell them I can manage on my own and hire movers with the money I saved up over the deployment. As I unpack, I wonder why I bought this stuff in the first place, clothes and trinkets that once had meaning, jewelry and coins that I insured for their value. It all seems like a burden to move into my latest temporary living arrangement. I dream of giving everything I own to the homeless man on the corner of my new neighborhood who stands at the intersection and holds a sign every night that reads:
“Homeless Vet suffering from PMSD: Post-Marriage-Stress-Disorder”
But his grocery cart is already full; he doesn’t have room for my trash too. I roll down my window and give him all my cash and spare change instead. A friend comments that he probably spends it on booze. Good for him, I think as I roll up my car window without smiling and turn the corner, watching the man count out my spare change in the rearview mirror. He always looks disappointed in my charity of leftovers from the day’s expenses. Sometimes he throws the coins at my car and screams expletives. I simply drive on, happy that I’m not the only one having a bad day.
It’s only been three weeks since I arrived back in the states. I spent six months in a combat zone and what do I have to show for it? A couple more medals and ribbons to pin on my Dress Blues. Cheap souvenirs from the various “hajji shops” on base that I toss in boxes labeled “shit I don’t need.” Bags under my eyes from insomnia. A headache from another hangover.
My friends drag me out so they can brag and tell strangers I’m a Marine and I was in Iraq. That I was there and now I’m home. “Safe,” they announce to their captive audience. People thank me, shake my hand, and buy a round of drinks.
“No thanks, I’m good,” I say, but another beer and shot are ordered anyways.
The strangers ask, “So, how was it?” with a tone in their voice like they are good listeners. Like I can finally tell them the truth instead of some patriotic, bullshit canned answer they’ve heard so many times before. Like I can confide in them and share the sins I carry alone so as not to burden loved ones. The bar is loud and they are drunk and I consider bearing my soul, if for nothing else than to get them to leave me alone.
“It’s over,” I say as I raise the shot glass of unknown liquor to cheers. “To America,” I announce, feigning hope. I gulp the alcohol I didn’t want. It burns my throat, and for a second my numb body tingles.
“To being home!” they add as they slam the small glass on the counter.
After an awkward pause, they finally leave to talk to a prettier, friendlier girl at the other end of the bar.
* * *
I accidentally started therapy a year ago.
“Let’s talk about grieving,” my therapist says from across the room.
I smile, a trick I learned as a shy child. Being a thirty-year-old combat vet in therapy hasn’t changed my best line of defense. In fact it’s made it more convincing—it’s no longer an innocent kid hiding behind a sweet smile, but a woman who is disarmingly quiet with a thousand yard stare, all masked by a practiced response. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work on my therapist the way it does to strangers in dim-lit bars.
I thought she was a vocational counselor when I met her at a mandatory Individual Ready Reserve muster two years after I left active duty. The following week when I walked into her office and saw the fake plants and heard the soft sounds of crashing waves from a hidden stereo, I realized she wasn’t going to help me with my resume.
I leave out that I pretended to be an investigative journalist to pass the time during the quiet deployment. I even kept a blog about life in a war zone for a handful of followers who stumbled upon the page, but the most interesting subject I was allowed to write about was my ongoing obsession with running.As I stare and smile, shadows from the late afternoon sun pass through the soft, iridescent curtains into the sterile room. She’s added plants and soft lighting, but it’s still a government owned facility. She waits for a response to regain control of the conversation. I wait until she looks down at her notes trying to figure out a different way to ask me the same question.
“I went to a memorial service when a Marine officer was killed in Iraq,” I blurt out like a child running through her day’s events at the supper table. “I didn’t know him, but the whole base was invited so I went.” I leave out that I pretended to be an investigative journalist to pass the time during the quiet deployment. I even kept a blog about life in a war zone for a handful of followers who stumbled upon the page, but the most interesting subject I was allowed to write about was my ongoing obsession with running. I don’t tell her that I took a massive, digital SLR camera to the memorial service to play this pretend role, and capture this side of war. I hold onto my secret. I didn’t feel grief, but such shame that I left as they sang the last hymns and said the last prayers. I had never met him, but saw this as an opportunity to run for my pretend Pulitzer Prize.
That week, I blogged about the marathon I was training for.
She doesn’t say anything. A moment passes and she looks down at her notebook again.
“About a year ago, a captain that I used to hang out with died in Afghanistan. I didn’t really know him either, but he was the housemate of an ex-boyfriend. I didn’t go to any memorials or anything, but I remember reading about it online. It still seems strange that I knew him and now he’s just gone.” My voice trails off as I watch her entire body relax. This is the most I’ve ever revealed during a session. “That’s it really. My dad’s mom passed recently, but I never met her. All my other grandparents and family I do know are all still living. People always tell me I’m lucky, but it’s not luck. They’re all going to die someday. Waiting isn’t lucky.” I catch myself rambling and shift my posture to cross my legs and arms.
At my first appointment, I actually had a copy of my resume in hand. For the first six months, she helped me navigate the VA disability claim process—not a small feat. Then it was just habit to make my next appointment at the end of the hour. She tells me she’s treating me for “transition disorder,” even though I returned from Iraq more than three years ago.
“Are there any other relationships that ended and you had to grieve? Boyfriends or friends?”
I think of my past relationships. They never lasted long and usually ended in an unspoken mutual agreement. Friendships and boyfriends all come in and out of my life quick and quiet. I recognized that our roles in one another’s lives had been fulfilled. I sit and study the mundane, government furnished carpet, forgetting to answer her question. The office buildings on base were covered in the exact shade of cobalt blue carpet.
“No?” She asks.
The fake birds chirp from her CD player and a little patch of sun hits my bare thighs and draws my attention. I notice goose bumps popping up on my soft skin like tiny sand dunes emerging on a barren landscape. I scratch at them.
When I finally received my disability letter from the VA, we both cheered in her little office. I remember thinking afterwards what a funny thing to cheer about. My final diagnosis was: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (also claimed as depression and anxiety). Getting the government’s recognition was a bittersweet victory, especially considering the hours spent submitting medical documentation and sitting with various doctors reliving the trauma.
“Well, I want to specifically talk about a loss of oneself. Do you think you are the same person you were before you joined the marines?”
“No. Of course not,” I unintentionally roll my eyes.
She wants to save me. I can see that she feels like she can save every veteran if given a cape, the ability to fly, and all the time in the world. I respect her for her sincere passion and dedication, but I don’t want to be saved—not like this.
“Ok, good. Do you like the person you’ve become?”
I fight the urge to become hostile. “What the fuck kind of question is that?” I want to snap like an angry teenager, but she has never been anything but kind to me. Instead, I simply shrug my shoulders and say, “I am who I am. It simply is what it is now.” I hate the cliché phrase that has become an answer for everything, from the meaning of life to receiving a moldy pastry at a café. I hate that while it has become an everyday phrase, it’s true—it is what it is, I am who I am now.
I don’t like who I have become. I don’t like the chemicals I was exposed to, the vaccines they injected in my bloodstream, my acceptance of killing another human being in the name of war. War. For an act so big, the word just seems too small. No, I don’t like Captain Prifogle who sits in therapy out of habit. I like Libby, but she’s a POW or MIA. The war has long since ended, but I’m still waiting for the body to wash up on shore so I can give her a proper burial.
She pauses and lets me reflect for a moment. I let the silence wash over me like a crashing wave on jagged rocks. The cold discomfort of who I’ve become envelopes my skin, seeping into my bones. I catch a glimmer of the emotional being I once was and a chill runs down my spine. My whole body trembles like I’m having a petit mal seizure as the wave washes Libby back to sea. My stomach burns as sand enters the cracks and crevices of the stonewall Captain Prifogle pretends to be.
What she doesn’t get is that I need to be the hero of my story, not a damsel in distress needing rescue by a motherly shrink.
But nobody tells you what the cost of this strength is. Nobody tells you that you have to be stronger than who you were so you can kill her. I was tricked. Now I have to mourn the person I was and I didn’t even give her a fighting chance. She had strengths too, they were just different.“You need to mourn the person you were,” my therapist interjects, ending our staring contest. “You can never be that person again and you need to mourn that loss in order to accept who you have become.” She starts reading the names and definitions of the universal stages of grief. Her voice is flat, like I just need to put a check in each box and move on to the next: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She makes it sound like a simple equation: giving up 24 years of being Libby + stages of grief = moving on. I wonder if this will last forever. Will she just keep making appointments in a sad attempt to rescue me? Will I just keep showing up because of my OCD we haven’t discussed yet?
“You’re so much stronger now,” she says with a go team go flare.
Everyone says this. When I jolt up from nightmares and reach for my pistol, or have a sudden unexplainable panic attack in a crowd. “You’re so strong now,” they tell me like it’s a goddamn consolation prize. “You’re so strong,” they say, but what they really mean is, “you’re a Marine, I thought you were supposed to be tough and fearless.” They always use that word, strong. Yes, I’m stronger now. The Marine Corps made me tough. Strong enough to stifle the emotions that used to make me human. Tough enough to beat out the individuality that made me Libby. Yes, I’m fucking strong. I’m “step right up and see the strongest women in the world” strong. But nobody tells you what the cost of this strength is. Nobody tells you that you have to be stronger than who you were so you can kill her. I was tricked. Now I have to mourn the person I was and I didn’t even give her a fighting chance. She had strengths too, they were just different. I’m waiting on her to give up on me. I’ve withdrawn so much that everyone else has given up and moved on, why can’t she?
I think about Libby. The girl who dyed her hair purple because she thought it was pretty and brought out her green eyes. The girl who didn’t walk through the grocery store, but tap danced through the aisles for no reason other than she really liked to tap dance. The girl with so much energy that her dad nicknamed her Tigger. Libby, the girl who was brave enough to move to Scotland and then later to New York City; both times she was flat broke, but fearless and faithful. She knew the universe would provide and she was grateful that it always did. Happy, but physically weak and emotional.
I think about Captain Prifogle. The woman who joined the Marines because her dad told her she wouldn’t make it. The woman who learned military tactics and how to give a five paragraph order like she was ordering a meal. The woman who led Marines in a combat zone; who shouted “kill” over and over and over again until killing another human being wasn’t questioned by her instinct for survival of the species. The Marine who runs marathons, lifts weights, has a sculpted body, knows how to kill someone with just her hands and given the right circumstances would execute without a second thought. She appears strong and callous, but is broken and sad. Some days the weight of her decisions and the things she saw are too heavy to carry and she can’t get out of bed. On those days she thinks of the rock biter from the NeverEnding Story. She remembers the scene after The Nothing swept away all of his friends and left him helpless and alone. He looks at his hands and says, “They look like big, good, strong hands, don’t they? I always thought that’s what they were.” The Nothing has taken Libby and no matter how resilient Captain Prifogle appears to be, she’s left with nothing but big, lumpy, rock hands.
But I am strong now.
“We’re not the people we used to be and we need to accept who we are,” my therapist says as a soft acoustic guitar plays over a flowing river in the background. She likes to remind me that she is also a veteran. I like to remind myself that she was in civil affairs and instead of trained to kill, she was trained to help.
I bite the side of my tongue because the pain occupies my mind and stops me from crying. I don’t want to mourn the person I was before the Marine Corps. I knew and liked her. I don’t know this person that wakes up every morning at 0430 and inventories the lines on her face. Who is this person who goes to work in drab colored clothes and does what she’s told in order to collect a paycheck? I don’t like this woman who can’t remember the last time she sat with her sisters and laughed until she snorted, or tap danced through the grocery store.
“Ok, I think that we’ve gone over enough today, when do you want to make your next appointment?” My therapist closes her PTSD guidebook and opens her monthly calendar. I take a long, deep breath, and let out a sigh of relief. I schedule my next appointment to visit Libby in the cold, dark prison holding her on an indefinite sentence.
She walks me to the front office. I say goodbye to the veteran, student-workers at the front desk who look younger and younger each month. They all smile too.
What I don’t say in therapy is that sometimes I wish I had died in combat. I wake up. I go to work. I do what I’m supposed to do, and in the quiet of the afternoon I daydream of a world without me.I drive home breaking the speed limit and swerving in and out of lanes. What I don’t say in therapy is that sometimes I wish I had died in combat. I wake up. I go to work. I do what I’m supposed to do, and in the quiet of the afternoon I daydream of a world without me. Who would fill my position at work? Would my boyfriend be dating someone else? How would my life be memorialized on Veteran’s Day in my small, Indiana hometown? I dream of a world where I died as a hero. A world where my life had purpose. I dream about how others would grieve me—not the woman I’ve become, but the girl they knew. The girl who didn’t train her mind to kill in the name of war. The girl who laughed, explored, and wrote obsessively in her journals. If I die now, I’ll be a blurb in the San Diego Union Tribune and the lives of those around me.
Of course, I’m not waiting for my therapist to give up on me. I’m waiting for Captain Prifogle to give up on Libby. Why won’t she accept that Libby is never leaving the internment camp holding her?
I make it home safe in spite of myself. I open a journal I haven’t touched in months. I write the date and time and scribble out my answer:
I can’t grieve the person I was because she’s still out there.
Everyone else has moved on so it’s up to me to find her…
The following month, I forget to go to my appointment. My therapist never calls to reschedule.
* * *
Originally appeared in the anthology Incoming: Veteran writers on Coming Home by So Say We All Press, 2015.
Interview posted on Incoming Radio Episode 10: Undesirables.