A veteran with PTSD must adjust to civilian life after losing his entire squad.
|Gunfire in the streets. Blood, red and hot and wet on his fatigues. Sand in his eyes, on his skin, in his disheveled hair, in his mouth. Heat, scorching and relentless pounds ferociously on his back. Sweat rolls off his face, catches in the nape of his sunburned neck, pools under his arms and across the top of his chest. Ear-piercing, gut-wrenching, soul-shattering screams drench the dry desert air around him. His mind muffles the noise—desperate to block out the onslaught of tragedy. His eyes, once bright blue and full of life, are hardened into sapphire orbs—veterans to far too many tragedies of war and violence. Two thoughts dominate all others: We need to survive. Don't die, brother. His pleas choke him--caught behind chapped lips and clenched teeth. They reverberate in his skull like a broken record.
He is the medic, the healer, the rescuer, the fixer. No one is supposed to die on his watch. Not his teammates, brothers in arms; not his sergeant, steadfast and loyal—always—to the mission. He must save his squad; it is his duty, his personal mission, his reason for staying in the field. He will die to protect his brothers and his commander. Blood is everywhere—in the sand, on his pants, under his short-trimmed fingernails, in the wrinkles around his knuckles and the divots of his nailbed. He wants to scream, cry, curse, and damn the whole world for causing this endless war. Except—no screaming, crying, cursing, or damning will save his brothers. No amount of words will banish the horrors he sees daily.
His nightmare continues at home despite receiving an honorable discharge with a Distinguished Service Cross award. Popcorn pop, pop, popping in the microwave remind him of gunshots he must avoid. People on the streets could be terrorists in disguise. A briefcase could be an IED. Enclosed spaces such as cars, city buses, and elevators are metal death traps. Night terrors haunt him at night while flashbacks torment him during the day.
He just wants the torture to end. He just wants to feel safe again.
Sidney Hollis Artebury, only twenty-two, will never regret his brave decision to serve his country—even if his nerve-damaged right hand, his dominant hand, will never have feeling again. Even after watching the chosen brothers he swore to protect at all cost die under his sure and swift well-trained field medic hands. No, he refuses to regret his decision to serve as a field medic on Sergeant Desmond Andrews's squad in the United States Army because protecting his loved ones' freedom is as crucial and natural to him as oxygen.
Yet, he hears the desperate pleas of his family members:
Get help, you need help, please.
Their pleas are as desperate as his brothers' pleas while they laid on the rocky sand dying under his crimson-stained hands. His widowed but strong-willed mother prays day and night for him. His two younger siblings, only fifteen and innocent, don't understand why their older brother pushes them away. He can't end their misery and heartbreak; he can't stop his flashbacks and pain. He wants to help them, to assure them, to shield them—it's in his protective nature, after all—but he can't. His training, designed for quick fixes on a blood-drenched and war-torn battlefield isn't meant for life at home. He never watches the news, and why should he when he spent four years witnessing an endless tragedy? He won't even watch it to help his siblings with their history homework.
Alcohol numbs the pain. Alcohol blocks out the memories of screams and pleas, of hot air and hotter sand, of blood and dirt and sweat and tears. Alcohol tumbles him into dreamless oblivion at night while it guides him into a blissful stupor throughout the day. Alcohol, too, seems to soften the pain he feels as his family falls apart. His kind and loving mother fails to sleep most nights—tear-stricken and ill with worry. She loses her ability to smile and laugh, to solve problems involving homework and friends turned enemies, to maintain her nurturing influence over his constantly squabbling siblings. His younger siblings, worried over trivial matters such as cracked phone screens and pop quizzes and difficult teachers and classes, cannot understand his sudden cold and distant attitude. To them and his mother, he is still overseas—far beyond their reach—fighting a battle to survive. He is lost in the darkest parts of his mind, aided and soothed only by the bitter tang of alcohol.
Thursday, he attends a veteran support group. He meets several men and women, some young mothers and fathers or sons and daughters, willing to share the horrors they witnessed overseas. These brave and proud men and women wounded in the worst ways possible—physically and mentally and emotionally—share stories of comrades lost, of families confused and concerned and worried sick, in an effort to support each other. While they are patient and kind, accepting of each other's unspoken fears and boundaries, he cannot bring himself to speak. He understands their pain, just as he knows they would understand his, but he fears their condemnation for failing as his squad's medic. What if they see him as a coward--not a healer--who allowed his comrades to die? His heart hammers in his chest, his palms sweat, and his eyes dart back and forth as the four white walls around him morph into the six flimsy beige flaps of his temporary home overseas.
There, sheltered from the blistering sun, his sergeant and four fellow brothers-in-arms laughed at some insignificant joke he shared.
There, sheltered from the cunning plans of radicals, he could pretend he was still whole, that the tragedies of war could not possibly touch him, that his comrades never died in the field.
"Why the Hell did I have to survive? What's special about me?" His caustic words shock the group into silence. Feelings of self-loathing and spirit-crushing guilt engulf him like a tsunami.
No one expected him to speak with such ferocity when he remained silent during most of the meeting. As no one moves or says anything, Sid realizes his mistake—he just had a flashback in a room full of strangers. That flashback, still vivid in his mind, forced his rage to the surface, and in his rage, he revealed one of his many new fears—he has no purpose for living. His comrades--his brothers--found through survival and not blood, died on the battlefield. They abandoned him because he failed to keep them alive; he failed to protect them. Luck didn't save him from the IED; he survived as punishment for failing his brothers.
"You survived because God has a purpose for you, Sid," Kent states. The support group leader is resolute in his assertion.
"God?" Sid scoffs, "I was a Christian; I prayed every day and night for the safety of my team; I begged God until I couldn't breathe that my brothers would survive the war. They died, right under my hands, because I couldn't stop the destruction an IED caused. They had families that loved them, friends that missed them, and people that depended on them yet they died. God doesn't exist. If He does, He doesn't care."
"God does care, Sid," Karen testifies in a smooth Texan accent. "I was a medic, an' I lost my entire team on a scouting mission 'cause we had bad intel. I didn't believe in God until I was captured an' tortured for weeks by a terrorist cell. I thought I'd never escape, an' in a last-ditch effort to survive, I bargained with God. Next night, a retrieval team arrived an' took the cell out. My team's request for evac never went through, and I was far from where they died. Somehow, another team found me barely alive but still breathing. I'm only here today 'cause God sent that team to me."
The special forces veteran is confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of her life.
Sid sits back down and retreats into himself as he avoids eye contact and fiddles with a loose thread in his ratty t-shirt. "Well, God might care, but that won't bring my brothers back. That won't erase the horrors I relive each day and night. That won't change the guilt I feel—I failed my brothers because I failed as a medic. Why else would they die?"
He leaves the support group first. He promises to return, but he won't be back. Not for a while. He needs to find closure first. He isn't ready to share his experience, and he sure as Hell isn't ready to accept help.
Sid returns home and drains a bottle of Jack Daniels trying to find relief from the deep ache he feels in his soul. He wants to bury the few happy memories he has of his time overseas, laughing with his brothers, because the ghost-like echoes of their booming laughs hurt worse than their mournful screaming. Deafening silence hangs thick as a blanket over his cold and lifeless apartment. The surreal silence, made louder by dusk's creeping shadows, amplifies the joyous laughter of his brothers.
The memory won't go away--not even after he finishes his current bottle and opens another.
The memory shifts. His brothers choke on their laughter as blood coats their lips--a blinding flash of light, pervasive ringing in his ears, acid on his tongue, and the smell of copper on his hands lingering in the stale air. No matter how quick his hands work to stem the bleeding, his comrades die one after the other—constant, consistent testimonies to his failure as their medic.
Curled up in the dark yellow-carpeted floor of his bedroom, trembling hands tangled in his hair at the roots, he clenches his teeth and slams his eyes shut. Why won't the memories stop? Why didn't the alcohol help? Shadows flit across the walls—the rough carpet turns to coarse sand. Is his sweaty skin due to scorching desert sun or another guilt-driven night terror? Where is he? What is he doing here? Why is the silence, the loneliness, so loud? His brothers' laughter, choked past blood-stained lips, mocks him—too harsh and frigid for a once fond memory. Their laughter haunts him day and night, on the battlefield and off the battlefield, with or without alcohol.
Wednesday night, Sid breaks after six days of unrelenting torture. Resolute, Sid's sure and swift hands yank open the first drawer of his nightstand and retrieve a sleek black metal box. His father's polished black Beretta M9 rests on a dark red pillow. The gun was his father's service weapon before he retired from special forces at twenty-two to work as a civilian doctor. Sid inherited the gun as a gift for his tenth birthday just a few months before cancer finally claimed his father's life. For a moment, Sid admires how the moonlight shimmers on the smooth metal barrel. This gun saved multiple lives on the battlefield--both his father's life and the lives of his father's comrades. It is ironic, almost perverse, that the same gun should be used for violence instead of protection. Worse still, the gun's violent purpose tonight is not for self-defense, but for self-harm.
The heft of the gun in his lap, the coldness of the handle as the sticky palm of his shaking left-hand wraps around it, and the steady pressure of the perfectly round barrel against his left temple remind Sid of the lives he took on the battlefield, the people he failed to protect, and the family members he hurt. All reasons why he doesn't deserve to live and should pull the trigger. He steels his resolve, tightens his shaky grip on the hatched texture of the handle, slows his breathing, and applies just a hare more pressure on the trigger. A slip of paper resting stark against the crimson pillow catches his weary eyes before he manages to achieve the blissful peace he needs.
Curious, Sid removes his finger from the trigger and lowers the gun, unsure what course of action he should take now. He should see what the slip of paper says—maybe it belonged to his dad. His resolve to end his life starts to waver; if he doesn't end his life now, he will lose his nerve. He will have to survive another day, week, or month of chilling laughter and agonized screams. Still, his curiosity is too strong to ignore.
Why is that piece of paper sitting in the metal box? When--and how--did it get there?
Sid trades the gun for the slip of paper and brings the paper into the pale blue moonlight with his nerve-damaged right hand. On the slip, written in plain black pen ink with his father's cursive script are the words:
"Here's to my comrades, one and all/Those who will live and those who will fall."
The quote, while anonymous, held significant meaning to his father. It was his father's favorite quote--one that Sid didn't understand when he was ten--so Sid asked his father to explain it. That was nearly a decade ago.
"It's a reminder that while the ones we love may leave us, they will always be with us—that we should honor those that die serving by living."
"But, I still don't understand; what does that mean? How can someone leave without leaving?"
His dad smiled and laughed as he ruffled his hair, "Don't worry; you'll understand one day.”
The memory, warm and wholly innocent, doesn't haunt him like the memory of his laughing comrades. Instead, the memory helps Sid finally understand what his father tried explaining to him twelve years ago, and the quote gives him a reason for living. Sid puts the slip of paper back into the metal box, snaps the latch close, and buries the inherited gift in the deepest part of his closet. That way, the gun is out of his sight and unable to tempt him with blissful oblivion again. He decides to give the support group another chance. He won't give up alcohol--not yet. He can't reconnected with his siblings and his mom overnight. However, he can choose to live in honor of his fallen comrades who died honorably protecting the country they cherished. Even if a part of him will always be overseas with his brothers-in-arms forever fighting an endless war.