Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by John Melton
“There I go again, butting my head up against conventional wisdom.”
I look at Blue, alert and eager for something: a treat, the leash, anything I can pick up and throw…but apparently none of the commands he’s supposed to be learning.
“They really do say it, Blue. Doesn’t that offend you?” The dog cocks his head in the questioning way dogs do. I sigh, take a deep pull from my beer and muss the fur on his nugget of a head. “It’s probably my fault for trying, buddy. You being my first old dog and opening doors being your first trick. Well, that and playing stick. You’ve got that down don’t you.”
Blue reacts to the word and I realize I’ve just initiated break time, which means ten minutes in the back yard tossing stuff.
“All right. One more time and we’ll go.” I stiffen my posture and snap my fingers, taking on my instructor persona. “Cold Blue Steel, heel.”
Blue heels next to the closed door with the lever style hardware, rapt with attention. He loves it when I call him by his full name.
Blue lunges toward the handle, nudging it upward with his nose. The latch doesn’t quite release though and he’s on all fours again.
He jumps again. This time the door swings open from his momentum. Blue enters an empty, dark bedroom in the house I’m renting while on temporary active duty; for the last four months I’ve been at Twentynine Palms, California, training to be an instructor/Army liaison at MCAGCC—the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. The family is holed up in post housing back at Fort Bragg, my current duty station on the opposite end of the country. I’ve only seen them once for a short weekend and miss the hell out of Janey and the girls.
“Good job, buddy,” I say, handing the dog a treat. He wags his tail, seemingly glad to accomplish the task for me, but he needs to be refocused as always before the next one. I stand in the door opening, and snap my fingers again. Blue is ready now.
He just stares, panting.
“Light,” I say, pointing at the switch by the door. Blue makes like he’s going to do something, then lies down and stares at me again. I don’t understand. He did it a couple of times early on last week. But never has seemed to get it since.
Thing is, I need him to get it, as desperate as that sounds to me; I need an animal to help me manage the latest manifestation of my PTSD. This new and unwelcome symptom is the strangest damn thing. When I’m inside any building, even a familiar one, if I can manage to open a closed door with trembling hands, and the light is off, I have to reach around the jamb—from the hallway—and flick the switch. I can force myself into any dark room of course, but I will suffer a heart pounding, chest squeezing panic attack each and every time. If a door is open and the lights are on it’s no problem whatsoever …Door already open with the lights off, I get a flash of anxiety, but I’m able to enter. Upon crossing the threshold, however, my head swivels to one of the blind corners in the room as I fumble for the light switch.
As I stand here analyzing my condition, I feel the uneasiness rise. I felt it first when the DoD therapist here on the base suggested I put in paperwork to receive a dog trained specifically for soldiers with PTSD. My first reaction had been to burst out laughing—which I noted was exaggerated in the moment—but probably typical for a hooah who thinks he can shun emotional support. My therapist’s placid gaze told me she wasn’t kidding. It also made me realize I probably should open up to her henceforth. If I wanted to get anything out of our sessions that is. I’ve been going for four months at this point. She doesn’t judge me, I trust that by now. Because judgment is there, inside my head, all around me. Or so it just seems, according to her.
I regret outright laughter as a response to her offer, of course. There were more practical reasons I could have used that would have left me more stable looking in front of a lady I barely knew at the time: How would my old dog Blue take to having a young go-getter working in the house? Or my wife will only tolerate one pet at a time, after all, have you seen the cost of quality dog food these days? I could have even hopped on a fake high horse and told the therapist stoically that someone else out there could use the dog more than me.
It would have been okay, I suppose. Blue might have enjoyed the company really. He’s good with other dogs. And truth be told, I was the one in the family who put the kibosh on taking hamsters, a guinea pig, and a pair of parakeets at various junctures. No, the reason was me. I turned down the therapist’s offer because somehow training Blue on my own felt like the lesser thing, less help from others.
Less … “Look, he needs a service dog’s help.”
I wonder what Janey’s reaction will be, because she doesn’t know yet about any of it. It started the week after I arrived for my training here and I still am loathe to tell her. That was when I reached out to a therapist for the first time though. I’d rejected that idea of the “Army Issue PTSD” dog pretty quickly into our sessions, but it was only last week that I got around to training Blue on my own. Avoidance is weird, how we put off doing something, even if we think it will help with the daily, grinding management of our problem. Over the last couple of months it was easier to just pull all the doors off the hinges and never turn the lights off at night. Why not? You can leave door slabs leaning up against the walls when the place is a rental and your family is thousands of miles away. And you can leave the lights on twenty-four seven when the electric bill is on the government dime.
Beneficial or not, the real reason I got off my duff with Blue last week was because I had to. My new orders were cut. I’m staying here in Twentynine Palms for the next two years, in the non-deployable billet I’ve sought since the day I returned from my second tour in the hellhole that is Iraq. It’s something my wife and I have been working on for a while, hoping for. Janey’s family is scattered throughout southern California. It will be the first duty station close to her home in the sixteen years I’ve been in. I’m happy for her. And it wasn’t a certainty by a long shot. I must have impressed somebody here at the school.
I don’t want to tell her I received my orders yet when she calls today. Keeping her in the dark—on both matters—is kind of bogus. I know why I didn’t call her right up and tell her about the orders. If I did that she’d want to fly right out and start the nesting process. Up until now this place has been nothing more than a temporary “bachelor pad” as she calls it, never allowing herself to get her hopes up that the Army staffers would do us right for once. But I need more time to get Blue squared away, thus the reason for keeping my new symptoms from her all summer. I want his training to seem like something I just taught him because we were bored these last months. Not something I desperately need—or else suffer the embarrassment of perpetually freezing in front of any closed interior door of a building, unable to open it and enter normally.
After a few sessions of the therapist mining my thoughts, we traced my new symptoms to a triggering event involving some live-fire training back at Bragg, just before I shipped out to the west coast. Beyond that though, it all goes back to Najaf in 2004, and a grueling month where my unit cleared out Shiite militia enclaves—building after building, one room at a time. God knows it. I know it. My therapist knows it. Janey would know it if I let her all the way in, into my own dark corners. I have told her some of my bad war experiences, at least what a man can tell his wife without scaring her too much. Some things you can never tell them though.
And the doors thing, or Blue being pressed into service at the ripe old age of nine? No. Thus the need for more time, more practice, more therapy. It’s something I know can’t be rushed, therapy, but I can’t shake the feeling that I should be further along by now. The doors thing is the latest, but before that it was the sleep issues. I’d go to sleep and dream of being chased all night long, wake up exhausted every single day.
It totally sucked. Janey felt so bad for me. She’d try her best to keep the girls quiet, sneaking out of the house early with them on mornings after I’d tossed and turned. I sleep better these days. Less dreaming, less constant dreaming at least. So I have to think this thing with the doors will go away someday just like it came. I’m sure I could make the adjustment to Janey seeing me struggle with it, if I knew it were temporary. She’d have my back at social gatherings or other people’s houses. Blue could handle the rest. The three of us would be able to hide it from the world, I have no doubt. But then I think of the girls, of them watching me wait by a door while old Blue takes his sweet time getting to me. Maybe I should just get a young, trained dog, come to think of it.
I take a deep, fluttering breath, the kind that comes from dread, of momentous tasks ahead. The slow exhale is something else I’ve been taught. It’s supposed to help me get present, in that sliver of time and space where everything in my world is okay. I’m safe. I’m not back in the Shiite slums of Iraq, stacked along a wall with other hooahs, ready to toss a grenade and rush into a dark room. Where I’m also not in an imagined future, panicking outside some closed door, while my family looks on, the shame burning into me like a brand.
Two days later I’m in the truck heading to the home store. I’ve discovered Blue does better on the lights when the switches are the standard toggle type. So I’m swapping out all the modern “Decora” kind the last renovator had installed. I’m happy with the progress, but can’t help but feel it’s a step closer to a deception I’m looking to pull off.
My phone chirps as I’m changing channels from sports radio to country music. I look at the number. It’s the spouse of a fallen soldier in my combat unit. She calls randomly every once in a while to ask me a question about his time in Iraq. He used to keep a journal which she has. Some of his entries are just whacked out, man. That’s why she calls. Even now, knowing there’s no way I’d answer that call, my hands are sweaty on the steering wheel.
I know where this comes from too, thanks to the therapy. It’s the survivor’s guilt aspect of PTSD. When I see that number I flash back to Najaf, when D’Antonio, her husband, was first in our team of four infantrymen. We were about to enter a room to be cleared. I was second in line. My squad leader had called for the shotgun, because the door was locked. Saunders moved up and pumped two shells into it, destroying the hardware and flinging the door open at once. D’Antonio rushed the dark room first, the beam of the Surefire mounted on his weapon spotting the far wall.
As he crossed the threshold a thunderous torrent of AK fire erupted from inside.
I was right on his tail, got hit too, but my body armor saved me. The squad proceeded to clear the room and occupy the building. By the time they got down from the second floor, the medics—with ultimate skill and American efficiency—had already removed D’Antonio to a triage area a block away, where he bled out from his wounds. But his big blood spot remained there in the door opening. We had to hop over it the rest of the day because in my unit it was taboo to walk in our own spilled blood.
When I arrive at the home store I pull into a parking spot and turn off the engine. I think about D’Antonio some more. Hell of a guy, always cracking jokes. Soldiers need laughter in their camp, I reason. He was good at knowing when. I chuckle at some examples of that, prolonging the video of the mind until someone pulls into the empty spot in front of me. I look up. We make eye contact. I glance at my watch as I exit the truck instinctually, having disregarded the social norm that precludes staring out your windshield for fifteen minutes straight.
Once inside I head straight for the electrical aisle, D’Antonio still on my mind. As I look for the right switches I flash to the conversation we’d had just before we entered the building to be cleared, the fourth one in an hour. The last one for him it turned out. He’d volunteered to go first even though it was my turn. I let him. It was as simple as that. Two men, interchangeable parts in the machine of warfare. No one judged him or me in the moment.
But afterwards? Now? Tomorrow?
A loud crash somewhere in the store snaps me out of my thoughts this time, sending me into an instinctual crouch, the hairs of my neck on fire. I attempt to hide my reaction from the lady standing next to me by reaching for a random package of wire nuts displayed on the lowest shelf.
“Here they are, Dammit!” I say, plucking them off the hanger and feeling like I’ve overplayed my ruse a bit. But her non-reaction to both the sound and my sudden movement makes me realize she’s oblivious to both. Like a normal person would be. Or maybe she’s just being kind. I shake my head, continue my search for the right switches. On my way to the checkout line I toss the wire nuts on a shelf next to some duct tape.
Back at the house I begin the process of swapping out the rest of the switches so Blue can manipulate them easily. I’m feeling good enough about his training, about things in general that I do the work with beers in hand and the Red Hot Chili Peppers cranking.
Cal-i-for-nia rescue me …
Two rooms later I’m putting the tools away when my phone rings. It’s Janey. Maybe it’s my progress with Blue or the beers but I’m suddenly excited to tell her about my orders.
“Hey, babe,” says my husband, his drawl coming out a little, which tells me he’s been drinking. My therapist says I’m supposed to resist the urge to pounce when I know this, even though he drinks far more than he did before his deployments. He’s no alcoholic, he says, whenever it comes up. Because of his current training, we’ve been apart for months though. It’s hard for me to judge. Right now I just miss him, so do the girls.
“Hey Mac,” I say with the lilt in my voice I know he likes. Everyone calls him Mac, even our ten year old when she’s feeling feisty. “How’s the desert?”
“I’ll take this dry heat over low country mugginess all day.”
“Tell me about it,” I say with a note of commiseration. We initiate the ritual of small talk. He goes on about the stark difference between the hot days and cold nights in the desert, and how boring the base is when off-duty. I’m usually willing to be a good listener when I can tell he’s missing us, but truth be told, I’ve got a therapy session in fifteen minutes!
I tell Mac it’s a spin class I’m trying to get to, because the sessions are a new thing for me and I’m not sure how long it will last. I don’t want him thinking I’m scared of what he’s becoming or anything ominous like that. As a typically self-reliant person, I only went on the suggestion of a spouse in Mac’s old unit, partly out of curiosity. She’s been through much worse; her husband is a raging alcoholic, and had been emotionally abusive to their son. But she came to me one night with bruises on her own arms and torso. It chilled me to hear how he’d changed over time. It’s hard to believe that type of behavior can seep into a household, over the course of several deployments.
As I listen to him, I’m getting the sense Mac could extend the small talk and anecdotes for quite a while. I’m reminded of his calls home while on deployment. He’d ring out of the blue and just talk as if he’d come in from yard work on a Saturday. I’d always imagined our overseas phone calls would be more dramatic, more soulful, considering each one could be the last. But they weren’t that dramatic or soulful. They were: “Hey, how are the bushes on the north side of the house? You know they don’t get much water runoff,” or “Make sure you sign off on the new SGLI paperwork and drop it off at the unit clerk.”
When the lulls in the conversation would come—those dreadful gulfs in emotions and words—I would sense he wanted to tell me something deeper, more personal. I could only imagine the things he’d seen, and dread the things he may have done. You can’t ask though. You can never ask to truly see inside their world. So you wait. I wait now through more chatter about the girls’ activities, discussion of some bills that need to be paid. We endure our next lull.
“Hey, babe,” he says at last. “I have some good news.”
Mac proceeds to tell me the word I’ve wanted to hear for a long time … Home … After being a supportive military spouse for fifteen years, living in unfamiliar locales, I get to be close to my family. During his long deployments, the girls and I became accustomed to high-tailing it to my parents’ retirement ranch in Palm Springs for extended stays. But with the girls’ father and my spouse in harm’s way there was always the underlying tension from waiting, dreading a call from the unit. Then the anticipation of leaving mom and dad’s would creep up towards the end of the deployment. Leaving meant a transition back to stateside garrison duty. Normal living. Safety for Mac.
“Oh, honey, I’m so happy for you. It’s about time the Army came through for us.”
“All we did was put in the paperwork. I doubt the people movers at the Pentagon had Sergeant First Class Brian MacPhail’s personal agenda in mind—or his wife’s.”
“Hey,” I say, softening my voice. “You’ve done a lot. We’ve sacrificed a lot. If they aren’t considering you in that way then they should.”
We talk about the new job he’ll have. We talk about the people we know in Twentynine Palms, which, because it’s mostly Marines there, turns out to be very few. I kind of like that actually. The military circles can seem small after you’ve been in for a while. When we get to the timing of my trip out with the girls, he’s saying the right things, but not as engaged.
“Everything okay, Mac?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine. It’s just …”
Five seconds of silence ensues.
“It’s just what, hon?”
An exhale travels thousands of miles and he tells me he’s having a hard time with a new aspect of his PTSD. It’s been that way for several years. Things come and go: sleep troubles, angry outbursts, the drinking, or just utter silence. Something is always there though, underlying, fraying the fabric of our lives. It’s the only hard thing between us. I know I shouldn’t—I’m not supposed to at least—view it that way. It’s a part of him I must accept now, part of the person I married out of love and desire. It’s his responsibility to continue working through it though, to face it instead of minimizing it. Because it greatly affects our relationship. More than he knows.
Mac chuckles when he describes this new thing with doors and lights, which tells me he’s already minimized it, a clear defense mechanism. I let it ride for today though, because lo and behold he tells me he’s been seeing a therapist about it. This is a welcome development that I respect him for making. It had to be hard even bringing it up to a stranger, let alone me. It might as well be bed wetting to him, my manly man of a husband who just wants to move on, to not be hamstrung by psychosomatic tendencies.
He summarizes a few of their sessions, some things the woman has shed light on for him. With a measured tone that is intended to not indicate alarm, I say, “Wow, Mac. That’s intense. I’m glad you decided to see someone. And she thinks it’s from your experiences in Najaf? Kind of makes sense.”
“Yeah. Has to be, right?”
Another lull occurs, but it’s okay this time. We’re connected. If we were together we’d be holding hands now. I’d look down at those hands, those strong, protective hands, and I would rub them until he or I had something to say. No rush. I doubt I would tell him about my own sessions yet though. It might seem like I’m one-upping him.
“I know it affected you that day … what happened to D’Antonio. But it wasn’t your fault from everything you’ve told me.”
“I know,” he says. “It’s just something that’s been hard to shake. I don’t know why. Over ten people died in our unit in three day’s time. Why is that one haunting me?”
“I don’t know, Mac. Maybe it’s because the others didn’t happen in front of you.”
He expands a little, not a lot. But I’ll take it. Anytime he opens up and shares it’s good for him and us. We end our conversation on solid ground, happy, or so it seems. I’m booking a ticket for next week. I’m excited to see Blue’s new “tricks” as Mac calls them. More minimizing. When I hang up the phone I’m left to my own thoughts, my own quiescence.
It ends when I go into the kitchen and realize we’re out of Diet Cokes. I need my Diet Coke for the therapy session. I have to make an extra stop on the way to “spin class” now. I’ll definitely be late. This causes an utterance I’m glad the girls aren’t here for. Despite the moment of aggravation, a smile now crosses my face as I exit the tiny base housing unit we’ve called home for the last four years. Let’s just say there’s not a lot of sentimental attachment. The girl’s weren’t born here, it’s far enough away from mom and dad that it warrants a visit once a year, and even then they have to stay at a hotel nearby.
I hop in the car and drive faster than I should on post to the therapy session. No MP’s are in sight to impede my progress, so I’m lucky. As I pull up to the office, I realize my level of distraction caused me to blow right by the commissary. On the way I’d rehashed moments from the last few years where Mac’s post-war persona jumped out at me. It’s mental homework I was supposed to do for this week’s session. There are a few notable occasions, but I’ll open today with the first time I noticed it, when he came home on leave during his first tour in Iraq.
The ‘effin sippee cup incident.
He’d traveled for over a day, fresh out of the war zone. Me and the girls got to do the whole welcome signs on the tarmac thing when he arrived. We ran to him. We hugged. It was all good. Then we got to our place and it was like a cloud had descended over him. He was sullen that first night. We made love but I could feel the tension all over his body, knotty muscles and new scars I was not acquainted with.
The next day he totally freaked out when our youngest daughter whined over being given the wrong color of sippee cup. She got a profane earful about how privileged she was to even have potable water at her disposal, how kids in the war zone suffer while she lives in comfort and safety. But it went on for a while and eventually he gunned us all down with biting comments. It was awful.
He calmed down and felt the fool within an hour, but it scared us. I guess that’s when I realized he will always be different. What I didn’t know was that my own problems—normal everyday stuff—but some taller hurdles, would forever be minimized. When you’re the spouse of a survivor of war, tethered to a broken soul, you begin to second guess your right to say: “Hey, what about me? I’ve got some issues too.” You begin to think your hurdles in life can never add up to what your husband deals with: death, remorse, blood-soaked memories, surviving even.
So you swallow the urge to vent. You bury your issues. Oh, there is some solace in comparing notes with other wives. It’s always healthy to get some of the Army b.s. off your chest every once in a while. There’s even ripping our men while they are away over cocktails. God, does that make a girl feel shitty. But then you go home and he Skype’s you. He’s gotten out of bed to do it, looking exhausted from never-ending duty shifts. That’s when you feel lower than low for even thinking those thoughts, let alone cackling over a tall glass of wine. Safe from any sort of danger.
I decided to trade my Pinot sessions for real therapy after stumbling home from being with the ladies one night. I woke up the next day with a massive hangover, and faint memories of downward looks from the women when I unloaded against Mac. I’d crossed a line, and I made my first appointment that very morning. It’s going well now, a month into my sessions. I’m actually looking forward to testing some new ways to strengthen our bond. I’ll even help with Blue to show I get it. We’re in this together.