“9-11 Wake”

by Tara Coughlin

We all have our masks. Different versions of ourselves meeting different demands in our lives. But you wear the mask long enough and it melts into your face and supplants your identity. Masks are insidious that way. How much of you is you, and how much of you is what you do? Most of us don’t even notice, it happens so gradually over the span of years.

For nine years I wore my Army mask, off and on through deployments, trainings, monthly battle assemblies, as I moved up the ranks and took on different leadership roles. A Reservist coming back from each period of active duty must slip between roles, seamlessly going back to being the Friend, the Family Member, the Business Professional. This was harder each time. At the end of my enlistment I forcibly peeled the Soldier mask from my skin. It wrenched off painfully, leaving little chunks stuck behind in my unconscious. Jargon that would spring to mind during meetings. Clipped movements happening in inopportune places. Reflexive responses to certain sounds. Physical prescience in the fine down of hair ruffing to porcupine, and the quiet voice that whispers, “360 degrees.” A cueing phrase with the power to bring every moment of training to the surface. Sometimes, stepping out into the night with every atom poised for reaction, I can feel the coldness coming over me. Be ready, always ready. In these moments of strange numbing clarity, crack open my chest cavity and you will find nothing inside but dust and cold air.

And sometimes there are the intense reactions, unbidden rages. An interaction with one of those men who make me wish I was wearing a burka. You know the type, eyes grotesquely roving, as though you’re just a thing. Pathetic, pitiable really. Yet still the thought comes involuntarily: What if I shove this pen through your ocular nerve? What I really want is my uniform, and the cold comfort of mechanized steel at my fingertips. An assault rifle over my shoulder, a sidearm nuzzled into my ribs, a K-Bar riding my thigh. And that steadfast surety of aura protecting me. I’m never truly on my own; behind me stand legions more of my own kind. I have none of those comforts or protections now. My uniform and the bearing it bestowed were armor. Sometimes I miss it. But now is time for a different way.

I began writing this in the midst of my MBA. There I sat, dividing my brain into sections. It can do many things at once. Compartment A writes a paper on health care reform. Compartment B plots logistics to rent out my house. Compartment C creates a self-training matrix, in preparation for a new job opportunity. A tiny section of D makes a to-do list for office work on Monday. The military fertilized this gift in the loamy depths of my brain. There I cut up my emotions into little pieces and dropped them into an ice-cube tray to freeze in my heart. I told myself later I would take them out and let them dissolve in the warm mouth of my mind, but not until its safe. Until then, ice ice baby.

But when on reaching Calm, and trying to go back to those feelings, instead of ice I find calcified remains, little lumpy rocks that will never melt. What do I do with these?

Military duty does not lend itself to relationships either. Your partner wants the real you when you come back, not the amalgamated robot wearing your skin. It takes a long long time to change back. And really, it’s about changing forward. Piecing yourself together into a whole person again. That is the trick of it. I’m still learning.

I took a photograph over there during a convoy, through the windshield of my truck. That image felt like my predominant view for all those years. The road stretched out before me, a lover beckoning to explore adventure around every curve. I still love the road. I travel it now without uniform or armaments, my mind a rapaciously sharpened sword. Sometimes in peace and tranquility, sometimes in twisting angst, I am ever in search of that Next Big Thing along the great path. The road never judges, only holds you silently in her winding embrace, witnessing your process of becoming what you really are.