He scared me some and I always hoped that when I saw him, I’d be on the other side of the street. He’d just start yelling and I didn’t understand because I was just a kid. It was the helmet and fatigues that got to me. Why was he wearing them? It was like he was still in the combat zone and we were his battlefield, this quiet, lonely town.
I wondered why he had no help or care. Didn’t anyone love the man with the broken mind, the spirit split in two by the war? Did his family desert him, walk past him on the street as if he were a stranger? Were they afraid to take him in?
What about his country? Did we give him enough food and respect, or was the medal we pinned on him compensation enough for all he’d given up? Was he just to rummage through garbage cans, screaming at “the enemy” – townspeople fleeing as if they knew he had murdered and they were next? Was he to spend each winter under discarded cardboard boxes, on top of steam-filled grates? If so, it didn’t seem fair or make sense to me.
I tried to talk to him but he was too far-gone. He never saw me, even when my terrified hand offered some bread. Those ghosted eyes bore right through mine. They were lost to something that wasn’t here and wasn’t now. I couldn’t think of anything more terrifying than a once healthy mind that was cracked off from itself.
By the time I was a young adult I’d been trying to suppress something that also tortured me. I had this empathy, this way of getting inside someone and feeling what they felt, seeing what they saw. I hated it mostly. It could be painful, but there was one thing I wanted to know: what went on inside this soldier’s head?
I was nervous but I couldn’t let it go. It was obsessing me. So I sat in the park one day and watched him, waiting for the opportunity.
After he secured a half-eaten sandwich and some pop from an open can, he sat among the birds, cursing them. I watched his breathing, imitated the ins and the outs. I got in sync. He was getting agitated. His breathing became shallow and rapid. His mind was firing up and so was mine.
Suddenly I was in:
Iraq 2003. We were there. Three man team – Humvee. I’m a gunner: combat military police. Patrolling freeways looking for roadside bombs. Then out of nowhere – Boom! An explosion. Heat, force, dirt flying. Scared shitless but all safe. Lucky this time. Adrenaline. Laughter. Holy fuck. Need to come down. Need a drink…
The soldier was flipped out of this memory by his mind going blank, and so I got bumped out also. I stared at him, amazed to experience such a terrifying ordeal. Suddenly he got up and retrieved a small bottle of whiskey he’d hid under some autumn leaves. He drank it back, whipped the bottle away, then hid behind a tree. He scoped out two people walking through the park. His eyes were back on the enemy.
Again I tapped into his breathing, relaxing into his mind:
Back in the Humvee – a different day. Orders are “shoot on sight.” Two people wearing enemy uniforms. This was a no brainer. Even though they weren’t shooting at us, I took the opportunity. I shot them both – DEAD! DEAD! A strange euphoria filled my body. The greatest orgasm ever felt. Flying higher than possible on any drug. Alive, knees weak, attuned to every little thing. Screaming, “I got em. I got em!” High fives from below. I was out of my fucking mind. Killing was amazing!
Then that crushing feeling. Getting sucked into that deep hole of fog. The guilt, the madness. Thrill turned to anguish. “Look what you fuckers made me do! I took lives. I took them!” I felt feverish, like I wanted out of my own body. I cycled down into depression, such a lowness of spirit, such damage inside me. I wanted to put a gun to my own head. I was confused. What was I to do? My orders told me I was right, but my soul told me I was wrong. My body enjoyed it. Was I sick or just an animal with no control over how I would react? I sure as fuck wasn’t ready for this.
Sobbing broke me out of the man’s flashback once again. I took some deep breaths, glad to be out of his dark spiral. The freedom I had. Holy! Now I understood the cycle, the insanity. Day after day reliving just a few moments that had altered his life forever. The judgment calls that weren’t his, that asked him to go against everything he’d ever been trained to be: a good person who respects life.
Now I understood why I liked him. A human can’t live in the mind of a machine.
I wanted to rip those fatigues from his body and tear those memories out of his head, but I was powerless. I just had to let him be. This was his fate – to be forever haunted by the ghosts that he’d created.
The last time I saw him, I plucked up the courage to thank him for his service. I was grateful that he’d done what he thought was the right and honorable thing. Again he stared right through me and I felt sad that he’d sacrificed his mind for us, so that we could be free…