I hear the scream: OPEN YOUR EYES! But I don't want to. It is comfortable here. I can hear the battle in the background. But with my eyes closed, it is far away. Like someone playing Call of Duty in the other room. OPEN YOUR EYES, NOW! It is me screaming. I know I have to. I just don't want to. I know what will happen when I open my eyes. Bad things. OPEN YOUR FUCKING EYES, NOW. OR YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! And then everything goes to hell. Immediately, I hear the gunfire next to me. I feel the searing heat burning through my uniform. I taste and smell ... black smoke. I didn't know that colors have a taste, but this is it. Oily, slimy, filling my lungs, choking me. People are screaming. Some are screaming to return fire. Someone is screaming that he can't feel his legs. Max? I think it is Max. I get the sensation of being underwater. Of drowning in a pool of fire and smoke and oil and the sand that feels like talcum powder and invades everything. I need to open my eyes. Before I drown. I feel the panic. I take a breath. I can't breathe. I'm drowning. OPEN YOUR EYES! NOW! I suck in a breath as if I had been held underwater too long. I'm sitting up in bed. My eyes are open now. My heart is pounding. I must have screamed, because Jewel is stirring. "Is everything ok?" she murmurs. "Yeah. Go back to sleep. Just a dream." And she does. She turns over and starts to breathe evenly, deeply, soundly. 3:36 am. It is even earlier than last time. I know I won't be able to go back to sleep. I'm awake. And the rest of the world is dreaming as soundly as Jewel. So I edge out of bed, quietly grab my running clothes, and ease down the hall to the bathroom. I've gotten good at this. What else is there to do this early in the morning? I grab a cold glass of water and down it before heading out. Hydrate or die, right? But then I regret taking the cold water as soon as I step out into the chilling morning air. Running helps clear my mind. I shake off the fog of the dream as my feet pound out the rhythm on the pavement. I used to like running. It was a challenge. I wanted to see how much I could push myself. See how far, or how fast, or how long I could run. Every day was a challenge. But now, I don't think about running. I just run. Things have been like this since returning from the last deployment. And I say last in the truest sense. I left the military six months ago. Four combat tours in ten years and I decided enough was enough. But on the positive side, I also had three great kids and another on the way. Something about returning from combat every time made me want another child. So now I lead this great life. I have a job, kids, a great wife, a house, cars... everything is great. Just great. And then I stop running. Where the fuck am I? All these streets look alike and I don't know if I turned right or left leaving the house. I am standing in the middle of a cul-de-sac that looks like all the others. And I have no idea where I am. I turn around and walk out. At the intersection, I just stand there, and look, and try to find my way home. "Hey Julian, I really need those TPS reports," I hear Bob, my manager, say as he pokes his head into my cubicle. I quietly chuckle that we actually have something called TPS reports. Didn't they watch Office Space and realize how ridiculous it sounds? I try to keep my composure. "I emailed them to you yesterday." Bob looks puzzled, as only Bob can do. Then he recovers. "Oh, I must not have gotten to that email yet. I get like 50 to 100 emails a day and I just can't get to them all. Do me a favor? When there is something pressing like this, make sure you stop in and let me know you have completed it. We all have to make sure we are meeting the deadlines. Thanks." You mean like I did yesterday? I think. Remember when I came by your office and said, 'I just emailed you the TPS reports' and you asked me which shade of blue looked better for the font in the presentation you were working on, then you went with the one that I didn't choose and proceeded to give me an unsolicited lesson on the finer points of presentations? You don't remember that, do you? "No problem. I thought I had mentioned it to you, but you were probably busy with other things. I will try to emphasize it more next time." Like stapling it to your forehead. "Thanks," Bob turns to leave. He says over his shoulder, "You are doing great work here. You are going to go far. Keep it up." But I saw it in his eyes. He really means that he wants me to keep working hard so that he doesn't have to. That's ok. I have a job. And it is a good job. A stable job. I can't say it is fun, or exciting, or mentally stimulating. And I don't really fit in with the rest of the workers. They obsess about emails and reports and strategies and presentation font colors. And by obsess, I mean talk about them, not actually do anything. That is why Bob says that I am doing well. I actually do stuff and let them stress about the font. This isn't hard stuff. But I keep telling myself that these people don't understand real stress. I hear them complaining about stuff that I think is ridiculous. But to them, it is really the most important problem in the world. And I don't mind them thinking that I am just a really laid back person that doesn't get worked up over things. I can make a decision or choose to defer and specify what information we need to gather. I can make plans, formulate ideas, use my brain. I can get along with these people. But I can't fully relate to these people. Because when it comes to combat experience, they don't want to hear it. When I first started working here, Bob introduced me as "Julian, who served in combat." It was nice at first. All of the "thank you for your service" comments. I felt that people backed me up. I also thought that talking to people about my combat experiences might help to ease into civilian life. It might help me deal with it. But people got that look on their face when I talked about being in a combat zone. Like they are afraid to hear about it. Or they feel sorry for me and don't want me to live it out again, like I am going to go crazy. Or they just don't know what to say. "Thank you for your service" really means "thank you for not making me deal with the reality of war." So when I say I've been in combat, they all say the same thing. "Oh." Awkward pause. Wait for it... 3... 2... 1... Ok. I'll let you off the hook. "So what do you do?" And I see the relieved look in their eyes. Then the happiness comes out when they realized they get to talk about themselves. So I smile and nod and occasionally say, "wow." The last tour was hard. I saw more combat, lost more soldiers and friends, and then there was the Improvised Explosive Device (IED)... I heard the debriefings about dealing with combat stress and PTSD. But I had survived three other tours. This one was harder, but I knew how to deal with it. I had done it before. I just needed some down time, some time with my fellow soldiers and just plain time. Time heals all wounds. But then I left the military. Things were different. Too many changes at once. I thought it would make things easier. It didn't. OPEN YOUR EYES! NOW! The sounds of gunfire. The taste of black, oily, greasy, powdery sand smoke fills my lungs. I am upside down. I have to get out. I open my eyes. It is disorienting. But I have to get out. I start to climb towards daylight. That must be where I need to go. I can hear Max screaming, but I can't see him. I can't figure out where he is. I just need to get out. And then the light fills my vision. It is blinding. And the sounds of gunfire are louder. We are trying to form up. I can see three HUMVEEs down. Mine was overturned. Others are trying to get through the wreckage to form a defensive line. I get my bearings. Friendlies to the right. Go there. I move. As I come around the back end of my overturned vehicle, I see him. He isn't dressed like me. And he is dragging a form that looks like Max, but I can't be sure through all the blood and soot. This guy who isn't dressed like me is holding a weapon that doesn't look like mine. He looks at me and I see his eyes. They are burning with hatred. They look at me and I see his weapon begin to rise toward me. NO! I scream. But my mouth doesn't work. My lungs are filled with the black smoke again. I can't breathe. I'm drowning. I just need to breathe. And the dark room envelops me again. I am in bed. At least I am not sitting upright. I must not have screamed this time, because Jewel doesn't move. I just hear her breathing, slowly, rhythmically. Or maybe she is just getting used to it. I guess it is time for my run again. 4:08 am. At least I got to sleep in. A little victory! I didn't get lost this time on the run. But I didn't really run a whole lot. It was more a jog. And some walking. But at least I got out. It has been harder and harder to keep running. I just am not into it. I have this routine going. I wake up screaming. Then I go for a run. I shower, shave, make coffee, breakfast, the kids come downstairs. We enjoy our company for a little while. I like the sounds in the morning. Even all the grumbling of not wanting to get up and did you get all your homework done and eat faster, eat slower. This is reality. This is life. This is family. This is the reason I served. "Can you pick up some salad on the way home from work?" Jewel asks. "No problem," I reply, as a piece of cereal goes flying from one side of the table to the other. I don't even care who threw it. Kids are great. Salad. In the salad aisle. Grocery shopping is still one of those things that I haven't gotten back into yet. There are so many damn choices. And you have to think about putting them all together to make a meal. Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), the deployment delicacy, were simpler. Or if you were lucky enough, you could eat at one of the "Dining Facilities" (D-FACs) just gave you a choice of hot meal or burgers. But standing here in this aisle of choices, this takes thought. What kind of lettuce, I think. Green. "Staff Sergeant?" I hear from behind me. I know that voice. I turn around and sure as shit. There he is. "Billy Bob! What the hell are you doing here?" William "Billy Bob" and I served two tours together. We were in different platoons, but we connected. He is funny as hell and a great shot. Nothing fazed this guy. "I live here." Dry. Witty. Billy Bob. We catch up for a little while. He asks how the family is and I ask if there is anyone special for him. Not one, many. He would never settle down. But at least he was an honest person and didn't drag girls along. He hung out with girls like him. Funny and not looking to get attached. Just for fun. Same old Bill. He starts telling this story about this out of control party. Just as he is getting to the best part, I see it. It's his eyes. They aren't telling the same story. He looks at me and he remembers too. He wants to talk about it, but this isn't the place. And would I even want to talk about it. It is just a glance, but I recognize it. We remember Max. But we don't talk about it. We finish up our chit-chat, promise to get together some time, and go our separate ways. Things are different when you are no longer there and you take off the uniform. Yes, there is still a bond. But it isn't the same as when you are deployed and have no one else to talk to and end up talking about back home, and growing up, and your wife's cooking, and simpler things. The reality of being in a combat zone wasn't hard. It was coming back to reality that was hard. Because when you are in the combat zone, you have the great memories of being back home. But back home, you have to deal with everyday life. And you don't have great memories of combat. You have memories of talking about your idealized home with your buddies. Reality is tough. He looks at me and I see his eyes. They are burning with hatred. They glow red, like the devil. This is as close as I've ever been to the enemy. At least a live enemy that hasn't surrendered. And he wants to kill me. And his adrenaline is pumping as much as mine. I can see it in his eyes and the sweat running down his face. And I don't think. TI-TI-TAT. I don't even remember raising my weapon and pulling the trigger. I just hear that familiar three round burst. I can't miss. He is right in front of me. And he knows it. He didn't have time to get his weapon all the way up. And I see his eyes again. Time slows down to a crawl. I see the slight raise in his eyebrows, expressing surprise. Then the slight widening of his eyelids in shock. His eyes dart down slightly, then back up, to look right into my eyes. And then there is acceptance... and then nothing. Life escapes him. He isn't an enemy or my friend or a threat. He is no longer a he. His eyes are devoid of life. Black eyes… open forever... looking straight into my soul. I feel like he escaped into me. He grabbed hold in his last moment and will torment me forever. His hatred for me will last beyond his life. And as his body collapses to the ground, everything speeds up again and I see Max. Bleeding, pleading with me, thanking me. "You saved me" he says over and over. "Not yet," as I grab hold of him. Let's see, where was I going? To the right. To friendlies. As we gather into the defensive position, my instincts take over again. Pick a target, exhale, squeeze the trigger. Pick a target, exhale, squeeze the trigger... We are going to get out of this. I can breathe. I slowly come to consciousness in my bed. No screams. No drowning. Just awaken. 1:34 am. Too early to run, but I won't be able to sleep. I don't know what to do. I go downstairs. Thankfully, I got a bottle of wine when I was shopping. I open it and sit at the table. Nothing is moving. It is quiet. But I can't hear the silence. The things in my head are not going to keep quiet. People don't understand me and I don't want to understand them. The silence burns inside of me like the HUMVEE I escaped from. I take a drink of the wine. I can't live like this. I just want to people to understand my pain. There is only one way that I know that can make them understand. I look on the table. I brought this from upstairs. I can use it and people might understand. They might get a hint of what I've been keeping inside. My hands begin to shake as I reach forward. Will Jewel and the kids understand what I’ve done? Will my friends, family, co-workers understand? Will they care? I have to do this for me. And I begin to type. “I hear the scream: OPEN YOUR EYES! But I don't want to..."
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