“So, you have no desire to get re-married?”
I sat in the small white office. It was as bland as the doctor I told my problems to. A diploma hung behind his metal desk. His desk was empty of clutter, the lone object on it was his desktop computer. Dr. Wilson Friskers peered over his glasses at me.
“Why not? Do you find being single a better choice?”
“No,” I said as I shook my head. “I think that God put some of us on the planet to be alone. I’m one of them.”
“So, it’s God’s fault you’re not remarried?”
“No. It’s no one’s fault.”
“Then why not pursue love? Are you afraid to try again?”
“I’m not afraid. Why waste my time trying to find someone and going through all the trouble? People aren’t real with their feelings. Why go through all the effort, when they won’t stay? I’ve been in relationships before, they all end the same way.”
“How do they end?”
“Usually, the other party pulls up and leaves like a whimper in the night.”
“They just leave. Don’t you stay friends with them?”
“What sense does that make,” I asked. The doctor looked at me like I was nuts. I wasn’t sure that I hadn’t made the leap to full-blown insanity. Part of me wanted to enjoy the full benefits of love. The other part was hell-bent to never experience anything to do with that dastardly emotion.
“You sound a bit jaded, son.”
“Yes. You’re very bitter.”
“And that’s why I pay you 165 bucks an hour.”
“And now sarcasm…”
Dr. Friskers, I called him Doc, was a middle-aged man who looked like life had taken him behind the woodshed on numerous occasions. His gray hair was parted on the left side, his goatee was neatly trimmed. Doc looked professional. Tired. But professional.
He cleaned his glasses and looked at me. His eyes showed zero emotion. I was just a number to him. At this point in my life, I knew I meant nothing to most of the folks in my life.
Which pushed me to the point I am at today. It was time for a change. Doc looked at his watch and put his glasses back on. He smiled.
“Our time is drawing short, Fredericks. Is there anything else you would like to get off your chest?”
“Well, I will see you next week. Does Thursday at 1300 fit in your schedule?”
He reached for an ink pen and wrote down my appointment in his small ledger. I stood to my feet and turned to go to the door. Friskers stood and extended his hand to me.
“Thank you for your service to our country.”
“Sure. For all the good it did.”
I walked out and looked up at the sky. The sun sat high in the sky. People mowed their yards, the smell of fresh cut grass should have been strong, but I didn’t notice it.
My silver Dodge Ram 2500 sat by the curb. I bought it after things began to fall apart. It was the one thing I was proud of doing since I returned from war. Someone had keyed the entire truck in a fit of rage.
“Probably a jilted lover. Lord knows they’re a full-blown horror show when things go bad.”
Due to the scratches and other minor flaws, I got the truck at a drastically reduced price. I didn’t have a problem with the scratches on the truck, it reminded me of me. We’d both survived our experiences.
Large white flurries began to fall from the sky. I got in my truck and opened the large console. Yellow pill bottles littered the bottom. A bottle of whiskey lay in the floorboard. I poured a handful of pills and washed it down with whiskey.
“Time to go back to work.”
I drove through the snow to my new duty station. If you’ve seen one military posting, you’ve seen them all. I’d arrived at Colorado in December from Bayern. My transition from Germany back to the States had not been easy. Everywhere I looked, I saw signs of decay. The society I had fought to preserve was nowhere to be seen.
It was just another day in hell.
My soldiers were in the motorpool when I arrived back at work. Mondays was slotted as a day of maintenance. The rest of the week it was where I kept my squad; out of sight, out of mind was my creed.
For some reason or other, my soldiers respected my methods. I rewarded them time off when it was possible. In every situation, I proved I had their back. To top it off, I never asked them to do something I was unwilling to perform.
“Sometimes, you just have to grit your teeth and do what is necessary.” This had been true for the past several months in my life. With another deployment looming on the horizon, I was stressed beyond my limits. Weekly meetings with Friskers became my norm. I saw more of him than I did of my family.
Then, the marriage fell apart. Well, it fell apart years ago, we kept pretending everything was okay for a while. At the end of it, too much pain was spoken, and too little love was given.
We both conceded that continuing forward was futile. She moved out and took our children with her. I was alone with my bitterness. For a while, I had work to distract me from the pain in my heart.
Until that was taken from me to. Life happened all around me, but I was standing still. I was rooted to my personal ground zero. The ashes of the life I had built drifted lazily in the air. There was nothing more that I could do.
I had done more than my share of damage to my marriage. The trust we had started out with was nowhere to be found. My career had started with a bang and ended a quiet whisper. Three words sealed my fate:
Unfit for duty.
Those three little words, unfit for duty, destroyed whatever confidence I was left with given all that transpired. The house I bought for my family was repossessed. Everything seemed to fall apart at once.
I felt like Job in the Old Testament. My marriage was destroyed, my career lost, and to top it off, I had 90 seizures in seven months. Plus, I gained over 100 pounds in the same timeframe.
“Where’s my pile of ashes and sackcloth?”
Somewhere along my path in darkness, I came upon a spot where I gave up. The spontaneity I had lived my life with was gone. My humor changed. Somehow, I failed to notice the color of the leaves, the smell of fresh cut grass, the world had gone gray.
I would often quote Fiddler’s Green. It was something we said every Friday at the close of business.
Halfway down the trail to hell,
In a shady meadow green,
Are all the souls of dead troopers camped,
Near a good ole time canteen,
And this eternal resting place is known as Fiddlers Green.
Marching straight through to hell the infantry are seen,
Accompanied by artillery, engineers, and Marines,
For none but the shade of Cavalry men dismount at Fiddlers Green.
Though some go curving down the trail,
To seek a warmer scene,
No trooper ever’ gets to hell,
Ere he empties his canteen,
And so rides back to drink again with friends at Fiddlers Green.
So, when man and horse goes down,
Beneath a saber keen,
Or in a roaring charge of fierce melee,
He stops a bullet clean,
And the hostiles come to take his scalp,
Just empty your canteen,
And put your pistol to your head and go to Fiddlers Green.
For some reason the ending made sense to me. I had often considered suicide to be a coward’s way out of bad situations. Yet, every time I considered it as an option, I found more reasons to not go through with it. My family was almost twenty hours away in Mississippi, and I felt alone. Dark thoughts clouded my mind. I struggled to stay afloat, financially, but most importantly, in my mental health.
To combat the loneliness I felt, I went to McDonald’s every morning and had breakfast with a group of veterans. On most days it was enough to keep me on an even keel. The days it wasn’t enough, I had friends at the university that provided the balance I needed.
Still, the darkness persisted. I tried relationships, but they quickly lost their luster. The people I was involved with were great folks. It wasn’t their fault things didn’t work out. I’ve often heard that love is a matter of timing, if that’s the case, I have the worst timing in the history of ever.
Alone in the dark, I searched for hope. I found none. There was no light nowhere to be found.
I thought I had hit rock bottom, but I had no idea how wrong I was.
The cold winter air nipped at my neck, as the icy breeze blew through the pines. It didn’t help the concrete bench didn’t absorb heat. A small smile crept across my face.
“Mom was right, every day is not a bad day.”
I bounced between one horror and the next between 2013-2015. To combat my increasing weight, I joined a gym. It did little to alleviate the darkness in my mind. It was a distraction-nothing more.
Progress slowly came with the maximum effort I gave. My educational goals were losing their luster, I was going through the motions of having a life. In the loss of my house, funny isn’t it how a house is not a home without love in it, I moved into a one-bedroom apartment. It was in the ghetto of Colorado Springs.
It didn’t take long for me to become discontented with the gym. Sure, I made progress, but it didn’t bring me peace. Of all the things I longed for, I wanted to be at peace.
“I’ve fought for over a decade, I’m done fighting. I just want to be a man of peace.”
And still, I struggled. I met many nice people during my studies, but few stuck around. Three people stuck it out with me. Today, I can say they are my friends, but only because they stuck by me when I was at my worst.
My disillusionment with life grated on my nerves. This non-caring, go through the motions husk was not who I am. I’d never been so low. At the end of 2015, I came home to find a notice on my door.
In light of the recent repairs and upgrades to the apartments, there will be an increase in rent. Your payment, beginning 01 January 2016, will increase to 700 dollars a month. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions.”
Questions were not in short supply. I had plenty of questions. “I can’t afford to live in this dump now, how will I make it come January?” There was only one option on the table, one lifeline left to me. I picked up my phone and called home.
“Hello,” my mother said on the other end of the line.
“Hey, mom. I’ve got a small problem.”
“My rent’s gone up again. There’s no way for me to stay here, can I move home?”
“You’ll have to ask your dad, hold on.”
Of course, my father told me to come home. In 2016, on a cold day in January, I moved home to Mississippi. Physically, I was home. Mentally though, I’d never left the blood-soaked sands of Iraq.
My mind was still a battlefield. Still, I was home.
Pawpaw always told me that things must get worse before they can get better. Things had gotten worse; would it ever get better?
Yeah, it would. Eventually. Every journey of recovery begins with a single step. Then another.
My first step toward recovery was moving home. I had spent a decade away from childhood friends and family. Time had slipped by. People who were children when I left, now had children of their own.
I was no longer the person they’d known. All around me were the whispers. “He’s changed,” they would mutter when I walked away. My personal favorite though was what they said when they thought I couldn’t hear them. “He knows better than to act like that.”
They were right. I did know better; I just didn’t care. My no-cares given attitude applied to my studies as well. The VA (Veterans Affairs) paid my tuition, and I should have cared. However, I was at the end of my rope with my math classes.
In a fit of frustration, I decided to call a local university to check for a tutor. They didn’t have one but put me in touch with a local teacher who assisted with all math-related chaos.
After speaking to the VA, I called the math teacher. She said she could meet me the following day. At noon, on a Tuesday if memory serves me correctly, I met her at a small trailer in an equally small town.
We became good friends rather quick, and with the same quickness, I brought my grades up with her help. My mom would drop me off at the trailer, and I would catch a ride home with my tutor. It was weird having someone I could depend on in my life after so much calamity ensued. Wonderful, but weird.
I came in to work on math and I sat at my usual spot at the end of the row. My chair was turned so I could face the door. I caught the tutor looking at me.
“Nothing. Do you go to church?”
“Do I sound like someone who goes to church?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I wondered if you would like to go with me.”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know. I’ll think about it.”
That was the whole conversation. For years I had wandered far from the way I was raised. Church was not something I did. My life had become a nightmare, and even with the horrors I lived with, I refused to acknowledge that church could help ease my burden.
My term ended, and I passed math. My tutor and I went our separate ways. Still, I could not shake the impact she had on my life. She made me want to be better than I was. I even broke down and went to church with her on a Wednesday night. I sat in the back and waited for the altar call. Then, I slipped out and went home.
Emotions I had not felt in years bubbled to the surface. I didn’t know what to do with them. So, I ignored them. Still, my mind drifted to the math tutor, and I often wondered what had become of her.
I stayed away from the math tutor and church. One day while I cruised social media, I came upon the math tutor’s picture. All those emotions I suppressed came back. “Quit it. You’re a train wreck, there’s no reason for you to destroy someone else.”
In a moment of pure spontaneity, I sent her a private message. It read something like this:
Do you know of a good local church that I could attend? Hope you’re doing well.”
It took no time at all for me to get a response. She sent back:
“Yep. My church. Services are Wednesday night at 715, Sunday @ 1000 and 6. Hope to see you there.”
I started going to church, and the math tutor introduced me to her family. Everyone greeted me enthusiastically and made me feel welcome. Without even noticing it, I found peace. The more I went to church, the more peace I found. Sure, my life was still a train wreck, but with the mental clarity I found at church, I found the strength to pick up the pieces of my shattered life.
Now, if I could only do something about this rage I hid in my heart.
In my defense, or in the lack of it, my rage was brought on by my time at war. Well, it enhanced it at the very least. At war, everything moves quickly, and the tables can turn in a millisecond. I, along with many others, thought anger kept us sharp. “I’ve gotta keep my edge…” The problem with keeping an edge is that people who you should never hurt gets hurt because of the sharpness of said edge.
For someone who spent the bulk of his adult life fighting for one meaningless cause or another, it’s uncomfortable to allow your edge to dull.
If I was to be totally honest, anger didn’t help me during the war. It clouded my mind and kept me distant from people. “Trust no one but yourself,” was my mindset. War was like a big free-for-all, where the only rule was survival.
When I came home, I kept playing the game of life by the same rules. People I never meant to hurt, got injured by my mindset and the ensuing actions I took to stay alone.
I never meant to hurt anyone. Well, that’s not entirely true. I meant to hurt myself. When the quiet of night fell, I was all alone with my thoughts and all that transpired during my deployments. The long shadows of night were nothing compared to the shadows of my memories.
Church helped. I knew that God would forgive me, but I could not forgive myself for what I’d done. Blood stained my hands, and no amount of time would cleanse them.
Several years after moving home, I sought help. Granted, I was pushed to look for it. The nice thing about the VA is that there are good people that work there. I’ve been blessed to have people in my corner throughout my journey.
I still go to therapy, I’m better but far from perfect. Therapy helps. Church probably saved my life. I’m forever indebted to my math tutor. Her timely intervention was the shot in the arm that revealed that life was worth living. Of course, my story would not be complete without giving thanks to my family. You guys are always there, even when I am unworthy of your love and patience.
I’m not dumb enough to say I’ll never walk-through darkness again. If I must take that long walk, I know where to find my peace. It can be found at the feet of a man called Jesus.