This archived article was written by: Cristopher Palo
It’s been five years since I came back from Afghanistan, four since I got out of the Army, and they haven’t stopped. The nightmares, the anger, the loneliness, the absent mindedness, the fear.
They are still all consuming in my life, affecting every other aspect of it. Relationships, school, everyday mundane activities become the hardest thing to do because I have to force a smile and fake a laugh to fool the world into thinking that I’m not reliving some horrific event in my head.
Sleep is ever elusive. When I close my eyes, I see fire and rage and blood. I see my sweet fictitious world shatter and replaced by the pain of reality. The reality that shows the true Hell that others refuse to see. A reality that I have first-hand account of and that I revisit every time I close my eyes.
My mind is constantly bombarded with images of beautiful landscapes scarred by death and destruction, yet I’m supposed to put on a smile and carry on about my day, not showing people I’m struggling on the inside.
Constantly holding back tears, I find ways to cope even for a minute. Sometimes all I can do is take it minute by minute.
I focus on others, whether it’s hatred or love. I put everything I have into them, so I do not have to actually see the horrible mess I am. Its a short-lived treatment for my pain.
I’ve had two-real relationships since I’ve been out, everything else is superficial. Both times I’ve let someone in, they become scarred. They finally see the real me without my mask on. It terrifies them. They try to play it off like it’s okay. They try to do what they consider the right thing but, eventually, it becomes too much, they can’t handle me. They leave.
They can’t understand. They don’t know what it’s like to have another man’s femoral artery in your hand, blood squirting all over you as you frantically try to clamp it off and save his life. They don’t understand that no matter how many arteries I’ve clamped, it does not erase the harm that I’ve caused.
I’ve seen the very worst that the human race has to offer. I’ve seen just what one person is capable of doing to one another and yet I’m supposed to fit into society like a neat little cog, back in the machine that is society.
I make off-colored or disgusting jokes about death and violence, and all around me there are gasps of offense. Those that gasp don’t realize that those jokes are actually a defense mechanism; a mechanism created to rationalize the terror I’ve seen.
Even after all I’ve seen and been through, I would give almost anything to be back there.
Back where I’m normal. Back where my mind is conditioned to react to threats and situations.
Training has created a mindset which allow multiple focal points in a single situations. Multitasking is key, paying attention to how many and the locations of enemy combatants, how many rounds are left in your magazine, how many civilians are in potential hazardous areas, what is the potential collateral damage, are your troops doing well and what are their strengths and weaknesses.
My mind was conditioned to handle all of this and react with life or death decisions in milliseconds. You’d think that with the ability to do all that focusing on a simple pre-calculus, economics or history test would be a piece of cake, it’s not.
Focusing on one thing becomes a near impossibility, when you were forced to develop ADD.
How do you undo all that training and conditioning? How do you shut off defense mechanisms when your body doesn’t know they are not needed anymore?
Ten years, three continents, 15 countries, three wars; I was an 18-year-old kid when I started. After a decade, I had become warped into a weapon of war and I was good at what I did.
At 28, I was released back into the world with no real training to handle this new situation. Now, I find myself being the awkward, crass and often mean person in the room, receiving odd looks from others who silently judge me for what give become.
After all I’ve been through, all the Hell I’ve seen and experienced, how the hell was I supposed to come back normal?