ON BEING HOME |
April 13, 2007
ON BEING HOME
Name: SGT Derek McGee
Posting date: 4/13/07
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Rhinebeck, NY
I am home now; it’s nice I guess. Things are different. So am I. It is hard to get excited about things, anything really. Food is all right, I get sort of excited about that, and women -- well one anyway. Maybe I’m more mature now; maybe I’m just bored, I don’t know.
I gave up hunting. I regret this because I love venison. I never was very good at hunting and now I just don’t want to do it anymore. I never actually killed a deer, but I scared the hell out of a few. What is the point? They don’t even shoot back. Part of me wants to never touch a gun again, and part of me wants to wrap my hands tightly on my old sixteen, get the scope dead-on, lovingly reapply the camouflage tape, strap two magazines together, throw a round in the chamber, use the meaty-tip of my thumb to flirt with the safety, and go home to Fallujah.
It’s not that loud noises terrify me. It’s just that I don’t respond appropriately to them. My heart goes off like a Led Zeppelin drum solo, my diaphragm sprints, pulling-in far more oxygen than I need, and I want to fight back. But there is no one to fight, there is nowhere to go, nothing to do. I’m supposed to just go on normally, but my body doesn’t know that and though I tell it, sometimes it takes a while for it to listen. There was a time, when a noise that didn’t belong was heard, people looked at me for some leadership, they wanted me to tell them where to go, and what to do; now they just look and think: who is the weirdo hyperventilating at the bar because a waitress dropped a tray. This woman I see at the Vet Center said that the body can reabsorb adrenaline in five to ten minutes. She said to control my breathing and concentrate on something else and remind myself that I really am normal. It works. She is a very smart lady.
I don’t sleep that much at all. Unless of course I’m drunk. It gets tedious though, to start drinking nightcaps at seven so that sleep will come at two. It’s actually worse than just tedious; it’s harmful. You think that drinking will make things better, but it doesn’t. It lets the bad thoughts in. It lets the irrational thoughts in. I spent twenty minutes at a bar the other night, pretending to play a golf video game even though I didn’t have any quarters and I hate video games and I don’t play golf. I watched this little jerky computer-generated guy in funny clothes drive a few white pixels towards a flag. He never got the ball there but I wasn’t thinking about him; I was thinking that if I had taken the vehicles and checked up on the foot patrol instead of deciding to give my worn-out men a break -- I wanted them to get a chance to take their gear off for a minute, the patrol was almost back anyway -- if I had checked their route for them, maybe, just maybe...who knows. So, this stupid fucker in plaid pants sucks at golf and now Mike and John are gone and when I said goodbye they couldn’t hear me because there were holes in their heads that maybe wouldn’t be there if I had decided to check up on the damn patrol. Drinking doesn’t help.
The smart woman at the Vet Center explained it to me. She is very smart. You see, for seven months I ran around everyday wearing eighty pounds of armor plates, ammunition, grenades, water, maps, little cards telling me how to say, “Where are the weapons hidden?”, bandages and tourniquets and this powder that burns the skin to stop the bleeding, radios, and little cards that say, “Sorry we destroyed your house -- go here and we’ll give you money.” It was hot and we carried all this stuff and when we took it off we lifted weights and ran and did all these things. Now I am home. I just had an operation and I sit around and do nothing except take Vicodin, which kills pain that I don’t really feel anyway. I don’t follow the directions; no, I save it up for special occasions. What the hell are special occasions?
Well, she tells me (the smart lady), my body is just not used to inactivity. She says that if I exercise, my body will feel normal again, and I won’t wake up five to six times a night. I suppose she is right. I want to tell her that I don’t mind waking up every forty-five minutes or so, it is a nice break from the dreams, but I’m afraid she’ll think I’m crazy. She is a shrink and has to deal with crazy people all day, so I don’t want to burden her any further. Tomorrow I will start running, or maybe the day after. I should stop smoking and drinking tomorrow, or the day after, as well. I tell her this. She smiles and nods and hands me a card where she has written the time I’m supposed to see her next week. This is good. I’ll come back next week and tell her that I should stop smoking and drinking tomorrow -- or the next day.
I wake up early and feel compelled to get stuff done, like all good motivated people. I can’t get back to sleep, there is too much to do. I’m ready to hit the ground running and get everything accomplished. I’m so overcome with energy, even though I only got three hours of sleep, that it is hard not to flop around and wake up the beautiful girl next to me. I have so much I want to do, I can’t go back to sleep now. I should be studying maps and intelligence reports. There has to be a pattern to these ambushes. What if we put a sniper team in over Route Fran? They might see something. Fuck it, let me bring my team in there overnight, we’ll shoot something. Are we carrying enough ammo? Are the vehicles ready? What can I do to keep the next patrol from taking casualties? I don’t actually think about any of those things. What I think is that I should be doing something important now, but I’m not. Eventually the beautiful girl next to me will wake up, look over and see me staring at the ceiling, and most likely think: I wish he would get motivated enough to clean his room and do his laundry.
I miss all the guys. If they were all around me, piled into bunk beds, I would be laughing right now. We always laughed no matter how lousy things were. You didn’t think about the bad stuff -- well you thought about it just enough to make jokes about it. One day -- there were many, actually -- I was fairly certain I wasn’t going to make it. Not just me, we all thought like that when things got bad. It wasn’t paranoia; three marines had burned into nothing and one was found walking around alive, but still on fire, two days earlier and we were going to the same spot to show the world we weren’t scared. Don’t tell anyone, but we were. “Elwell,” I said to my driver, “I have no clean laundry.”
“Me neither; where are we going with this?”
“Well, I don’t want my parents to get a box of dirty underwear and socks.”
“Alright, I see where you’re going. You’re saying that today isn’t a good time for us to die.”
“Well,” I said, “I don’t want to be a pain in the ass. But if it’s all the same to you, why don’t we just die some other day.”
“Fine,” he said, “I guess I’ll just stay away from the roadside bombs today. But Sergeant,” he continued, paternally, “you really should stay on top of your laundry; you’re a Sergeant for Christ’s sake.”
Somewhere around then my girlfriend left me, or I pushed her away -- I don’t blame her, love happens sometimes, that’s all. I found out that she was gone from an email she forwarded to me, which had come to her from her new boyfriend. She sent me this joke -- I don’t even remember what it was -- because she wanted to make me laugh. She didn’t realize that the email also contained a week’s worth of replies to replies between them. They seemed good for each other. It hit me in the face like a two-by-four.
Everyone said that they were disgusted because it was the worst time for someone to have to deal with a break-up. They were so wrong. It was the most thoughtful thing she ever did for me. When else can you say, “Well, my girlfriend is banging some other dude? Who cares? At least I’m not on fire. When does the next patrol leave?” If she had waited until I got home, when I would have had time to think and dwell on things; well that would have been bad timing.
The next day, when we were leaving the wire, I told everyone in my vehicle, “Don’t worry, boys. Nothing can happen to us. I’m invincible right now.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Well, think about it. There is no way God would let my ex-girlfriend and her lousy new boyfriend get my life insurance money.”
“It’s still in her name, you moron? Why don’t you change it?”
“Because,” I said, shocked at their ignorance, “Then I wouldn’t be invincible.”
It was always like that, always jokes. But they’re off living their lives somewhere else now, and it just isn’t as funny anymore. I see some of them from time to time. I talk to them as well.
I’ve seen a lot of bad behavior from my friends, since being home. I watched them beat the bejesus out of a guy at a bar for not really doing anything at all -- except maybe not backing down convincingly enough. Since then I’ve heard that two broke their hands on faces and one had his jaw broken for him; those are just the ones I know about. When we talk on the phone they tell me, in a light sort of way, about the bender they’re on and about the many wild fights that just seem to find them. Me too. We pretend it’s funny. Once I blurted into the phone, “Loud noises make me act, well, you know, a little odd.”
“You’re fine,” my friend said, “Just thinking about loud noises makes me act odd. I almost passed out in Best Buy the other day because of anxiety. You should talk to someone at the Vet Center. They’re giving me these anti-anxiety pills.”
“I don’t want pills,” I said.
“But you want to talk. Go see them. They’re smart.”
After September 11th I became addicted to CNN. I kept it on 24/7, even when I was sleeping. That lasted for years. I don’t watch the news anymore. Every time I see a clip of those in Iraq, I feel a guilt that makes me squirm. Why am I here on a couch with a beer and this girl, who I really like and everything is so great for me, and they are doing my job for me? I don’t belong here. I should be there. I don’t watch the news anymore.
I have been punched on two different occasions since being home. Both times I froze and didn’t do anything about it. I was afraid. It’s not that I didn’t know what to do. I do. I can. It wasn’t that I was afraid of whomever it was that was punching me. I was afraid that if I started punching back I wouldn’t stop. The last time I punched back, I stood in the turret of a humvee and sent four hundred rounds of 7.62mm, belt-fed ammunition into a residential neighborhood, into houses, peoples’ houses, and there was a mosque there, too. I didn’t ever want to stop. Part-way through I stopped shooting for a moment, ducked into the vehicle, opened the rear left door and kicked a cooler and everything else out. Then I sat on the roof of the humvee, lifted my legs up to my chest, eased my finger back onto the trigger, and the soothing “bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-bup” began again. Below me, where my feet had been so firmly planted seconds before, they shoved the body of Captain John McKenna. I didn’t know at the time that it was my platoon commander. I didn’t know anything that wasn’t in my gun sights. We sped off to the nearest base and I threw bandages down to the guys in the vehicle, pulled the radio receiver up from below -- everyone else was too busy to talk on the radio -- and it was then that I heard, from Gallagher, who was holding John’s head, “Hang in there, Sir.”
I prayed for the first time in a decade. I thought I had forgotten how. It comes right back. I suppose it is comforting to know that the next time I need to pray it will come back again. I tried to think of something profound to say. Something that would penetrate the unconsciousness and revive the man below me.
“Don’t give up, you tough Irish fuck.”
That is what I said. It was ridiculous and crass, but if anything would have worked, that might have been it. It didn’t matter. He was dead even before his knees had given out and left him pouring his life onto the filthy streets of Fallujah. We didn’t know that. He was gurgling and twitching and we wanted him to live so I said it again.
“Don’t give up, you tough Irish fuck.”
I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
So, I forget what my point was, but I think it has something to do with this; if you get a deer this year, I would love some of the meat.
Note: This post appears in Derek McGee's beautifully-produced small press book WHEN I WISHED I WAS HERE: Dispatches from Fallujah, which can be ordered directly from The Crumpled Press.