How do you recover from pulling the bleeding torso of your brother out of shit filled water while taking fire, the bottom half of his body turned to pink mist 30 seconds prior, his entrails dragging in the dirt, laying your body across his to protect him from further harm and to fire upon the enemy, hearing the sounds of battle around you while also hearing the last labored breaths of your friend as he drowns in his own blood? And how do you get up again to do the same job you did yesterday?
In the years since the War on Terror officially began, America’s longest war to date, something like 900,000 men and women have come back broken in body, but there are no numbers counting those who have come back having been broken in ways we cannot see. There is nothing we can watch or be told that can paint a picture clearly enough to really understand what those who experience combat actually live through and carry with them from that point forward. No movies or books can paint the picture for those of us who haven’t been there of how ugly and brutal war can be. Please don’t mistake what I am saying here:
Movies and books that tell true stories of war can be compelling and powerful, but they are also impersonal and easily forgotten.
For those who will never experience combat, the closest we can get to learning what war really is like, and in so doing learn the cost of the freedoms we enjoy, is to know those who serve or have served, to hear their stories, to look into their eyes, to sense the tiredness they carry from their time of service and the sadness from the loss of brothers, to feel floating there a heaviness from the bits they will never speak aloud because they would rather carry that weight on their own than to share with you the darkness they encountered.
If you want to know what strength it takes to overcome trauma, sit with the quiet servants and wait. When you do, you will see the ghosts of war emerge around you. The friends who were lost long ago will be there once more, their stories will come forth time and again, the good and bad remembered by those who were there. You will hear laughter about shenanigans and stories of the kind of heroism and brotherhood storytellers throughout the ages have sought to convey. You will also hear sorrow from loss. What you will not hear is regret about serving, regret about standing shoulder to shoulder with brothers, or self pity. You will hear time and again that they would do it all over if need be, regardless of the cost to life and limb. They would do it again for their brothers in arms, and they would do it again for you and I.
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. (John Stewart Mill)
Those who have chosen this life know that peace, safety, and security are sometimes only won by force. They willingly have done their part to win that peace. They will never tell you that they are better than you, but they will tell you their lost brothers were and that their friends still standing are.
My brother died today in my arms and I have to wash the blood and bones off my uniform when we get back to base. Fuck. We’ve got a new mission tomorrow and we are rolling out at 0-6? Roger that.
Get paid, motherfucker.
Those who face combat live every day of their lives afterward carrying the ghosts of war with them, every unspeakable trauma and lost brother is there. In this, as in all trauma, there is a death to a part of the human soul. To survive war and life after war, there must be acceptance of that death of self because the ghosts are always there as a remembrance of what has been lost. It takes a tremendous amount of strength to accept that death daily and then to carry on despite it, days turning into weeks, into months, into years.
Willingly dying a thousand deaths takes a strength I have seen hundreds of times yet that I am unable to fathom.
From the ashes of war rise warriors who will willingly lay down their own lives or walk through their lives after war quietly carrying ghosts within themselves as the true burden of our safety and freedom because they can, because their shoulders are strong enough to bear the weight of our safety, and because they choose to put themselves between the rest of us and the wolves howling at the door.
This strength that rises from the ashes of war is beautiful, fierce, and humbling because it is a strength that only comes from dying a thousand deaths.
* I write from my personal experience and observations gained over 20 years as a sister to, volunteer in support of, friend of, servant to families of, and adopted den mother of more military men than I can recall the names of whose stories I have heard and now carry within me, whose ghosts I have seen, and who (I hope) have felt their burdens lighten even if only slightly for knowing that they are seen and loved for who they are not by what they have seen or done in war.