Previous – Satan’s Laugh Part 3: First Steps Home
The nightmares had returned as the sedation was tapered. They had morphed too. Now it was Sammie and Leslie who were being tortured or killed. And now that he wasn’t the focus anymore, he didn’t wake up at the climax, but continued dreaming until the horrifying image of his wife or daughter’s corps shook him awake. Sometimes the bad-guy took the shape of a rotund drunk Navajo who cackled mercilessly over their dead bodies, smearing their blood on his own face like war paint.
Jim had come to fear sleep, and he was getting less and less of it. As the drugs wore off, his memory improved, and he would lie awake staring at the blank television screen in his room continuously revisiting every decision he had made over the course of the last several years. He would pick apart every bit of information he could remember, critique every action, and always he came back to the same conclusions. He had failed everyone.
Leslie and Sammie were dead because of his decisions. Warlock and Monkey were dead because of his decisions. Many Iraqis were needlessly dead because of his decisions. Why had he been spared the inevitable consequences of his decisions? Why were K9 and Mutt still alive? Why had they been consigned to a partial existence? These thoughts played over and over again in his mind any time he was conscious and not otherwise occupied. The nightmares were even worse, and there wasn’t much other than mindless television to occupy his time awake.
“Lieutenant Colonel Harwood,” someone said coming through the door.
“Major,” Jim replied.
“The O5 selection board results will be published tomorrow, and your name will be on it,” said a Colonel who Jim didn’t recognize. “The hospital director told me I could pass you the good news.”
“Oh,” Jim said without any enthusiasm.
“I’m Doctor Chelwood, from mental health.”
“Oh,” Jim said with even less enthusiasm.
“I hear you haven’t been sleeping well,” the doctor said, looking at his clipboard covered in paper instead of at Jim.
“Is that a recent thing?” still looking down at his papers.
“Not really,” Jim had been having trouble sleeping since he arrived in Iraq, but things had been worse lately.
“How long has it been a problem.”
“A while.” Another scratch with the pen on his clipboard, but nothing more.
“Do you have trouble shutting down your mind at night?”
“Sometimes.” What business was it of his what he thought about before finally managing to fall asleep. Besides, Jim thought, I’m probably nothing more than a fifteen minute block on the schedule, and I won’t mean anything to him after he leaves.
“Tell me about your dreams,” the doctor said casually.
“I try not to dream,” was all the reply Jim could muster. The thought of reliving those dreams was more painful than he could contemplate.
“Do your dreams wake you up?”
“Sometimes.” It was a lie. They always woke him up, but if all this guy was going to do was run down his list of pre-determined questions, Jim didn’t really have much else to say.
“Have you had any thoughts of harming yourself or wishing you were dead?”
“Yes,” Jim admitted against his will. The memory of K9 pinning his arm against the table floated into his consciousness. He felt a wave of tension grabbing hold of his chest and throat, and his heart started racing almost uncontrollably.
“Yes.” Did this guy really care that he constantly wished he hadn’t survived the attack? The single syllable eeked out of his throat, almost stifled by the rising panic attack.
“Have you thought about how you would do it?”
Jim just nodded. He couldn’t bring himself to admit verbally that those kinds of thoughts were still in his mind. He felt like it was a form of moral weakness to even entertain them. He was such a weak man.
“Do you have the means to do it?”
He shook his head ‘no.’ How could he. He was watched ’round the clock and still couldn’t move out of bed without help. The doctor apparently didn’t look up from his papers to see Jim’s response.
“Didn’t catch that. Do you have the means to do it?”
“No,” Jim sobbed. It was the only sound he could make. He had lost control of his voice, and tears were streaming down his slowly healing face while his chest heaved violently.
“I understand you lost your wife and daughter recently,” Doctor Chelwood said casually, “would you like to talk about that.”
Jim couldn’t answer. The panic rose from his chest to his throat. His voice was completely paralyzed and he felt like his chest was going to burst open.
“They died in a car accident, right?”
The panic attack overwhelmed him, and he completely blacked out.
“Shepherd,” he heard K9 say through a dense fog.
“Hey, Shepherd,” K9 repeated, “snap out of it.”
Jim blinked a few times, then turned and looked at his friend.
“They tell me you’ve been staring at that blank screen for over an hour.”
Where had K9 come from? Wasn’t the Colonel here?
“Are any of us here okay?” Jim answered, trying to regain his bearings.
“It’s a sliding scale, but no. I don’t think so.”
“Last I remember, the head shrinker was going over a psych-eval checklist.”
“Worthless docs and their forms. They seem to believe that their magical checklists will cure us,” K9 growled. Apparently he’d already experienced that kind of care. No wonder the suicide rate among recently disabled veterans was so high.
“He never even looked at me,” Jim said, still staring at the blank television screen. “Just stood there staring down at his clipboard. Wasn’t even really listening.”
“He ask about your family?”
“I don’t think I can talk about that yet,” Jim admitted.
“He kept asking me about the convoy as if that were the only bad thing that ever happened.” K9 paused for a long moment, leaving the weight of their shared past sitting heavy in the room. He started saying something, and stopped. Started again with the same result. Sat there silently for what felt like an eternity, then finally eeked out a quiet and shakey, “Do you have to leave your lights on too?” Jim just nodded.
Jim had just been delivered back to his room from another long rehab session. That was the routine. Try to sleep, eat bad breakfast, live through the interminable rotation of students and residents, try to ignore the talk shows his roommate watched all day, eat a worse lunch, go to therapy, choke down dinner, go through the rotation again, and try to get at least a few hours of sleep before the dreams started. The monotony of it sapped what was left of his fragmented soul.
“Dad’s at your house working on getting things packed up.”
“My house…” It didn’t feel like his house. He’d only lived there for a short while before he left.
“We’re having everything moved into storage while you do rehab. The landlord has agreed to cancel the lease. Is there anything you want kept out?”
“Clothes would be nice,” Jim offered. He was so tired of these tissue-thin hospital gowns, PT uniforms, and gray sweat-clothes. It was all they gave him to wear. You’d think that with all the advances in modern medicine they could have at least come up with a better alternative for the gowns.
“Have you thought about where you want to go after they release you?”
“No.” He couldn’t tell his mom what he really wanted. She wouldn’t understand.
“Your dad thinks they’ll medically retire you. Do you think that’s true?”
“Yeah.” He was going to be pushed out of the only life he’d known as an adult. Between the loss of his family, loss of his career, and apparent loss of his future, he didn’t feel like he had anything left to lose. “It won’t be long before they unceremoniously dump me on the VA.”
“Close the door, would ya?” Jim’s new roommate growled. They’d moved him out of intensive care some time ago, but only recently filled the second bed in his room. The new guy was an infantry major who had been struck by an IED in Afghanistan, and he was a first-class jerk. All the infantry Jim had ever been around hadn’t cared in the slightest if someone else saw them taking a dump or performing any other necessary bodily functions, but this guy seemed to think he was special. Jim ignored him. He couldn’t stand being closed in the small confines of the bathroom. If the new guy had a problem with seeing him on the pot, he could look away.
Jim heard the blast of shaped charges and flash-bangs, followed closely by gunfire. Something had gone wrong. Raids weren’t supposed to go like this. It must be an ambush. He was a few yards behind point but couldn’t tell who it was. More gunfire from seemingly nowhere but he saw the point-man fall to the ground. More gunfire and another explosion.
Jim startled awake with his heart racing and cold sweat on his neck and hands. It was dark. Where was his team? Why didn’t he have his rifle? How many were injured? Did he loose another one?
Inspecting the shadows of the darkened room lit only with the flickering of a television screen he slowly realized it had been a dream. He was in the hospital room. His roommate was watching some kind of action movie that was in the middle of a gunfight scene. Jim jumped out of bed on his one good leg and turned off the noise.
“Who do you think you are?” the roommate shouted, turning his movie back on again.
“Turn that off!” Jim warned.
“I mean it. Turn it off!” Jim shouted. The roommate ignored him. “Turn it off now!” Jim ordered at the top of his lungs.
The roommate answered with a raised middle finger. The sound of more explosions and flashes of light from the television were driving Jim mad. He couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed the offender by the throat and started choking the life out of him while dodging the wildly flailing arms.
“Maybe you’re okay with living in darkness while celebrating and wallowing in the scum, trash, and inhumanity of the world, but I’m not,” Jim screamed, tightening his grip on the thick neck, “I’m not going to sit here and watch it.”
The roommate was turning purple. Jim didn’t care. He needed the noise to stop.
“I found Mutt,” K9 said as he pushed his wheelchair through the door, “it isn’t good.”
“Dude’s almost a vegetable.”
“He was talking when they evac’d him.”
“They said his brain swelled up and caused lots of damage.”
“Does he know where he is or what happened?”
“Don’t think so. Didn’t seem to recognize me. Just sat there drooling on himself watching Teletubbies or something like that.”
“Damn!” Another lost soul to lay to his charge. Mutt would live a half-life at best, and take his family down with him as they gave up all they had to care for the large baby that had formerly been their son. Why was fate so cruel.
“I heard about your roommate,” K9 started to say.
“I actually wanted to kill him,” Jim said flatly, “I wanted to choke the life right out of him.”
“Seems like overkill.”
“He wouldn’t turn off the movie, and I woke up in a nightmare,” was all the explanation Jim could offer.
“What’re they going to do about it?”
“Keep me in a single room, and make more time for me on the head-shrinker’s schedule. I guess I convinced them I actually have issues.”
“Jim, I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me,” said Colonel Chelwood.
“There’s a difference between won’t and can’t. You keep asking me about things I don’t have answers for. You’ve asked me a couple of times if I’m having a harder time coping with the loss of my wife and kid, or dealing with my deployment. What makes you think I can separate the two?”
“You blame the loss of your wife on your deployment?”
“I blame the Air Force. I blame the government. I blame the people who can’t seem to see anything in a human beyond a number. I blame people who forget that Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are human. I blame bureaucrats who refuse to look beyond the statistics and policy to see the human toll. I blame myself for not going AWOL, for not resisting an order I knew was pointless. I blame myself for being a part of that system. Yes, I blame my deployment, but only as an ugly example of the inhumanity and evil that masquerades as heroism.”
Colonel Chelwood nodded, but didn’t interrupt. This was by far the most he had ever managed to get out of Jim.
“I can’t tell you how angry I am, or even who I’m most angry at. There aren’t words. I want to use my bare hands to slowly strangle the family members of every politician and bureaucrat that made the long list of infinitely stupid decisions that killed Leslie. I want them to helplessly watch while I do it. I want them to understand what it feels like. I want them to see how depraved humanity can be when manipulated and desperate. I want them to feel what desperation is… because that’s what I saw every day over there. I want them to understand the utter futility of what they are trying to do and the costs that come with it.”
While Jim said this, he crushed something invisible, his hands and arms shaking with the effort. He also progressively spoke more quietly, more deliberately, and more slowly – to the point where words were coming out in elongated half-voiced whispers that escaped through tightly clenched teeth.
“I want to find that drunken son of a bitch who killed my wife and kid and tear his beating heart from his chest with my bare hands, then show it to him before he dies. I want to find the judge who let him off after his last four drunk driving convictions and send her to see the kind of justice metered out in places like Anbar.”
The Colonel had leaned in to listen, but sat up and drew a short breath as if he wanted to say something when Jim paused. However, he sat quiet for a moment to see if Jim had anything else to add.
“And when that’s over,” Jim continued, “I want to die. I want the world to forget me like I never existed. I want to never be angry again.”
“Jim,” the Colonel started to say, but Jim didn’t hear.
“They’ve taken away my family. They’ve taken away my faith. They’ve poisoned memories of my past to a point where they’re too bitter to revisit. They’ve taken away my future. They’ve taken away my hope. They’ve taken away sleep and rest. They’ve taken away my ability to feel empathy, patience, joy, compassion or love. They’ve taken away everything but anger, hate, and despair. They’ve taken away almost everything that ever really mattered and replaced it with corruption and cancerous rot. Why couldn’t they just take the last thing left to me and get it over with?”
As Jim finished saying this, he sank completely forward onto the desk and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes while the doctor sat silent.
“Oh God, I want to die!” he whispered over and over again between sobs. The Colonel said nothing, but put a hand on Jim’s shoulder for a moment before stepping out of the room to call an orderly. A few minutes later, the orderly appeared and wheeled a silent Jim back to his room.
“Shepherd, you in here?”
Jim didn’t answer.
“I’m going to turn on the lights, okay?”
Still no answer. It was odd to have the lights off. Jim had kept it like the noon-day sun in here round the clock. K9 flipped on the lights and saw Jim sitting in his bed staring blankly at the wall again.
“Anything new with the shrink?”
“Does it ever get easier?” Jim asked in an exhausted tone.
K9 understood this to mean that Jim had finally managed to talk at least a little about what he was feeling. “First time is the hardest,” he said sympathetically, “but not by much.”
“Rehab hurts less.”
“I’m pretty sure pain is part of the healing,” K9 reminded him.
“Why did you stop me that night?”
“Because I couldn’t be responsible for another dead friend.”
“I think you were too late to save me.”
“No, not yet.”
“Can you still hear it?” Jim asked, changing the subject. “I can, even from here…”
“Yeah, but I try to drown it out with other things. There’s more than one kind of laughter.”
As his physical wounds healed and he became more proficient with the prosthetic he had been given it became more and more clear that the physical injuries were only part of what kept him in the hospital. Colonel Chelwood, it seemed, would have the final vote for when Jim could leave the hospital and continue rehab on an out-patient basis. In fact, his face had healed enough that they weren’t doing much active rehab for the burns, and his stump was almost completely healed up.
If the physical therapy got easier, his sessions with the Colonel more than compensated. He was constantly exhausted. Each visit, the Colonel would make Jim relive at least a portion of the last two years. They would talk about it, analyze it, try to unpack it. Just forming the words to discuss the undisputed facts seemed a bridge too far, but he crossed it over and over again. Each time, he would swear he’d crossed it for the last time. Each time, he would step forward when bidden and cross it again. It was a mechanical motion, but over time he began to hope that it might eventually take him somewhere better than where he was.
“Jim,” Colonel Chelwood said to start their regular session, “your family needs some closure. It’s time to bury your wife and daughter.”
Jim had been avoiding even thinking about the prospect of rescheduling the funeral. He just didn’t feel ready to deal with the finality of it. He wasn’t prepared to face the reality either. As long as he didn’t see the caskets it could be abstract, it could be buried.
“I understand the plan was to hold it in Boise, is that right?”
Jim just nodded as he visibly sagged.
“We can arrange for a wound-care nurse to accompany you, but it’ll only be for a few days. You need to come back here immediately afterwards.”
“Can Staff Sergeant Kelnhoffer come with me? Please…”
“We don’t normally use another patient as a medical escort…”
Jim sank further.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Next – Part 5: Saying Goodby