Those three little words, unfit for duty, destroyed whatever confidence I had left. I lost the home I bought for my family to the bank. Everything fell apart at once.
I felt like Job in the Old Testament. In seven months I had lost my marriage and my career. 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 gave up. The spontaneity I had lived my life with was gone. My humor changed. Somehow, I failed to notice the changing of the leaves, or the smell of fresh cut grass. The world had lost it’s color, and I lost my desire to live any longer.
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. My finances took a severe blow, but most of my worries centered around 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 when 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 lost their luster with a quickness. The people I met were great folk. 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. All I saw was darkness, as far as I could tell, no light broke through the eternal night.
I thought I had hit rock bottom, but I had no idea how wrong I was. Depression weighed heavy on my mind. To combat the suicidal thoughts, I spent hours in Fountain Nature Park. For a brief moment, my wanderings brought me peace.
As I meandered through the park, cold winter air nipped at my neck. The icy breeze blew through the trees and sent chills down my spine. I sat on a concrete bench and looked out over the pond, I grew colder. 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 reduce the darkness in my mind. It was a distraction, nothing more.
Any progress I made in my workouts came slow. I grew disillusioned with my studies, 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.
Of all the things I longed for, I wanted to be at peace. Neither my studies nor my efforts at the gym brought me the calm I sought. At night, when my demons howled, I would wish for a new start.
“I’ve fought for over a decade, I’m done fighting. I only 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 lowest point.
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. My physical form returned 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?
It would take time, but things would get better. 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 didn’t care. My no-cares attitude applied to my studies as well. The VA (Veterans Affairs) paid my tuition, and I should have cared. But, 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 I spoke 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, I met her at a tiny trailer in a 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 had ensued. Wonderful, but weird.
I came in to work on math and I sat at my usual spot at the end of the row. I turned my chair 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 my parents raised me. Church was not something I did. My life had become a nightmare. 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 and made me feel welcome. Without even noticing it, I found peace. The more I went to church, the more peace I found. My life was still a train wreck. I found mental clarity at church, and in time, I found the courage to live again.
Now, if I could only do something about this rage I hid in my heart.
In my defense, my rage came from my time at war. Well, it enhanced it at the very least. At war, everything moves with a swiftness. 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 your edge sharp is that people who shouldn’t get cut, does.
For someone who spent his adult life fighting one war or another,it’s uncomfortable to have a dull edge.
If I was to be 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 true. I meant to hurt myself. When the quiet of night fell, I was all alone with my thoughts and past. 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. I wasn’t given much choice in the matter. The nice thing about the VA is that there are good people that work there. I’ve had good people in my corner throughout my journey.
I still go to therapy. I’m better but far from perfect. Therapy helps. Church 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. My peace and calm comes from the One that died for me.