If there is one certainty in life it is that eventually, we will all die. This could be seen as a great motivator for us to accomplish any and everything we set our minds to, including PTSD. During the course of our lives, we every once in awhile, dwell on that fact. We all wish it will happen the same way - 80 years from now lying comfortably in our beds surrounded by those you love, holding your hands and kissing your forehead as you slowly and painlessly fade out.
For the most part that was my idea of death growing up. None of us, my brothers and sisters who I served alongside, could imagine it any other way. However, the ugly truth about death is how suddenly it can come upon us without warning or mercy. Any human being alive right now could die at any moment, in any place, for any reason. That is number one thing I took home with me from Afghanistan. Despite everything I saw and went through our lives at any moment could be over.
I have killed people. I pointed a weapon and pulled the trigger. Killing in the infantry was different. It was not always close and personal, but when it was, it was brutal and messy.
As a young infantryman death was a part of life. From the time I entered basic training to the to landing in Afghanistan my whole existence revolved around killing the enemy by means of fire and maneuver. Whether that be down in his valley, his village, his poppy fields, caves or tunnels we were going to find and kill him by any means necessary. That was the attitude of every soldier in my unit no matter how young or inexperienced. Despite all this one fact remained for the majority of us death was surreal. One human being dying violently at the hands of another was something we had never experienced or even imagined we would take part in.
Because of all this I try not to think about death.
There was no denying that killing had made me permanently different. Not better, not worse - different.
I also asked questions like: “If you take a human life when you die, will God punish you?” or “Does he give soldiers a Military Exclusion Clause?” or “Is there even such a thing as God?” and “Who are we to ratify such conduct?”
My answer will always and forever be simple, either you or they died. It was indeed Hemingway who had written that “to truly respect a man you must feel he would kill you if need be”. I never discussed it with anyone else and rarely thought much about it. Nonetheless, in knowing the answer, I also came to know myself. So, when it comes to war, I usually spend my time remembering the more mundane realities. Foot blisters, sprained ankles, ringing ears, and sunburn - not to mention the gruesome smell of burning human waste that filled the air everywhere you went.
The aches and pains of life during my tenure act as a constant reminder of the war. The only consolation I find is the memories I share with those I served and suffered with. The paragons of men I had come to know as brothers—the tough, obnoxious, testosterone filled, tattooed hooligans who had endured it all. Only to return to strenuous lives at home. Overwhelmed with emotion and anger, they aged quickly before having the chance to gracefully grow old. Many of them simply burned out early. Mentally weary and physically fatigued. Not so much by the IED blasts or gunshot wounds they endured but by the agonizing unseen moral wounds that constantly tormented their existence. The incidences that cause us such heartache are impossible to describe to anyone who had not been there to witness it alongside us.
I could never forget those who had died and those who had suffered more than I. These men were the quintessential Patriots, America’s warrior sons, whether or not they ever considered it or knew it. Some had returned with minds pushed so far over the edge by it all that they could not fully come back, and some never would or will. I still regard them as a family. Lifelong comrades brought together and kept close by powerful and permanent, forged in combat, kinship. It compelled us to drive forward, both on and off the battlefield.
It will forever compel us if we never forget we are still not fighting alone.