by Travis Switalski, Sr.
There are twenty-eight chairs inside of this waiting room. I know because I have counted them well over twenty times while going over today’s strategy to face another therapy. I’ve spent a copious amount of time bullshitting my way through each session, trying to get cleared and return to my unit and the boys. My presence here is an order, despite the fact that all I’ve ever wanted was to fight for my country, and maybe even be a Platoon Sergeant one day so I could lead troops into war, in the shit, “over there,” wherever “there” may be. Instead, I am here. This place is for the weak, the unfit. Cowards. This place, the “Fourth Floor,” is the Army’s mental health clinic, a place where Army personnel go to commit career suicide. It’s called this regardless of where you are stationed or on what floor of the clinic is actually on. Here, I’m actually standing on the fourth floor, so in some way at least, I am committing career suicide in the appropriate fashion.
Dr. Paliani is the name of my shrink. She’s a short, thin, blonde-haired woman whose office is decorated in all things Chicago Bears. I don’t dislike her and sometimes I think she’s actually pretty smart. Most of the time, I just nod or tell her what I think she wants to hear. More and more though, she’s been asking open-ended questions that I have a hard time answering. “How does that make you feel?” or “Tell me more about that.” I am sure that my method is failing, but I continue on.
All around me, the walls are painted a faint mint green, the same color as most of the clinics in the hospital. Mint green and faint yellow must be required colors of paint for all depressing government institutions. There is a chemical antiseptic smell in the air. It is not an overpowering odor, but it is constantly there. It makes me think of sickness and death, of open wounds and amputees. The smell is sweet, but laced with a bite like ammonia. It doesn’t help the churning in my stomach.
A female Sergeant sits a row ahead of me in the waiting room, nearest the flat screen television that is airing “The View”. Her blonde hair is pulled into a tight bun, which gives her a stern look and makes her seem angry. She is turned side-saddle in her seat and is talking to the Marine Corporal in the row behind her. The Marine is a mountain of a man who cannot be more than 25 years old. His desert-tan pixelated combat uniform is stretched tight over his massive frame and it is obvious to me that he’s a gym rat like most other Marines. His nametag reads “Sampson”. Corporal Sampson is doing his best to impress his new-found lady friend by telling her of his vast combat experiences. Another man, an older gentleman who looks to be in his eighties, waits alone nearby. He sits in the corner reading a copy of “Field & Stream” magazine, his “WWII Veteran” hat pulled down low enough that it’s hard to make out his face.
I sit in the farthest corner nearest the window and try not to think about the new Platoon Leader. He’s the real reason why I’m here right now. After our tour to Iraq, I had a bit of legal trouble. DUI’s and fighting downtown are apparently cause for mental health services. The problem really is that the Lieutenant and I just don’t see eye to eye. He can’t see that civilians and their bullshit law enforcement officers are only targeting soldiers. The cops are filling quotas while the club and bar owners take our money. Soldiers drink and soldiers fight. It isn’t just civilians though, it’s other soldiers. POG’s, Personnel Other than Grunts, guys and gals who spent their days on the Forward Operating base or “FOB,” “Fobbitts” getting paid the same as guys out fighting the actual war. They sit at the bar telling their bullshit war stories, telling stories that they heard from Grunts but treating them like their own. All of the fighting and drinking has convinced the Lieutenant that not only do I have a drinking problem, but that I also suffer from PTSD and shouldn’t be around soldiers. He, being a West Point graduate and a guy who has never been to combat, is incapable of appreciating my special brand of leadership and soldiering. This guy shows up with his take-charge attitude and college-boy bravado and acts like he’s King Shit. The fact is that he doesn’t know a damned thing about soldiering or combat or survival. He cannot understand what he has done to me. Professionally, he has taken away the only thing I have ever known how to do, the only thing I have ever truly loved. I have given everything to the Army and the boys in my unit. I’ve sacrificed myself, as well as my family.
Corporal Sampson distracts me with his own display of bravado. He is impressing the lady Sergeant, whose name is “McIntyre,” with his tales of combat in Fallujah. He is like all of the other Marines I’ve ever met – full of bravado and crap. Yet she is buying it, and my blood is boiling over faster with each remark he makes.
Sampson reminded me of a kid who was in my squad. Miller. He was going to win the war all by himself, but he wouldn’t listen to those of us who actually knew about war. The explosion that finally ended his bullshit was so bright that it left Miller’s silhouette burned into my mind. The flash of light blinded everyone near it, while the sound deafened the entire night. The ringing in my ears muffled the sounds of Miller’s screams, making it hard to locate him. I ran to where his image once was, only to find a cloud of dust and debris. It occurred to me that he may have been vaporized, but no, that kind of explosion left a faint, wet, metallic-scented mist in the air. In the daylight it was like a pink fog that lingers and sticks to your uniform. I heard Miller crying out louder than before. Perhaps I was closer to him, or, more likely, the ringing in my ears was waning. The rest of the platoon went looking for him too. There was a panic out in the dark Iraqi street while the Lieutenant and the Squad Leaders tried to control the chaos. Sergeant First Class Grimes, our Platoon Sergeant, barked out orders for everyone else to set in a security perimeter while he located whoever it was that got hit. I continued to search for Miller; he couldn’t have gone far.
I could see a courtyard door slightly ajar not far from where the explosion happened. I moved slowly down the sidewalk toward the open door. Everything around me seemed to move in super slow motion. My feet felt heavy as I moved closer. Miller’s screams had intensified, and I could hear his cries for help with sharp intensity. I pushed the heavy blue metal door open with my foot and brought my weapon up to my cheek as I entered the courtyard. I could see a set of Army-issued tan suede leather boots on the ground, feet and legs attached to them writhing in pain. Sergeant Miller lay supine, crying out, with his hands pressed tightly against his crotch.
I knelt down next to him to assess the damage. That sickly copper smell surrounded us. Everything seemed coated in blood. Miller’s breathing was labored and even in the dark of the courtyard, I could see that his skin was a strange, transparent white. He seemed to have calmed down since I got there, though his eyes were wide with shock.
“Are my balls still there?” he asked.
I surveyed the situation. At first he wouldn’t move his hands for me to see, but I eventually pried them from his private region and got a better look. He was bleeding profusely, and if his balls were there, then they were mangled beyond recognition.
“Yeah, dude. They’re still there.”
A look of relief swept over his face, which made me feel better about lying to him. I pressed my hands into his wounds to slow down the bleeding. It seemed like I was plugging the hole in the dyke with my index finger. There was so much sticky, wet blood all over the both of us. I lost track of time while I held Miller’s ball sack between my fingers. The Platoon Sergeant, along with the aid and litter team had shown up with the medic and began working on Miller’s shredded member. I guess his legs were blown up pretty bad too, because they carried him out with a tourniquet on each leg. I sat in the courtyard with a couple of guys from first squad who had come in to help police up Miller’s equipment. The new kid, Vasquez, offered me a cigarette, which I accepted with a nod. Typically, I wouldn’t acknowledge his presence because he was an FNG, a Fucking New Guy, but considering the circumstances, I made an exception. So there I sat, smoking a Marlboro, covered in Miller’s blood and scrotum tissue, with an FNG I didn’t give two shits about. The only good thing about it was that Miller had finally shut the fuck up.
Corporal Sampson is still going on with his bullshit war story and if I close my eyes, I can hear Miller’s voice talking about how great he is.
“Yeah, I must’ve wasted like thirty of those fuckers on the first day!” he says.
Christ, help me, I’m sitting behind Audie Murphy, the most decorated war hero of his time! Sergeant McIntyre’s smile deepens, unable to hide how much she is into him. Corporal Sampson is just like those fucking phonies I knew from downtown.
“Wow! That must have been really hard on you, I’m so sorry” she says.
“Nah, they’re just rag-heads. Shoot ’em and forget ’em!”
She nods again, totally impressed by his Hollywood version of the Marine Corps. She has obviously not seen any real combat. I bet she’s one of those POG’s who gets “deployed” to Kuwait and still makes the same amount of “Hazardous Fire Pay” that the guys in Baghdad get. The old man in the corner has a smirk on his face and I realize that he’s also listening. Corporal Sampson is relentless in his pursuit of the lady Sergeant, and he is beginning to sound like a recruitment commercial for The Corps. They begin to talk in hushed voices and I can see that they are exchanging phone numbers. She met this guy in a looney bin! Corporal Sampson continues on about his feats of derring-do for some time after he has already sealed the deal with her, until Sergeant McIntyre is thankfully summoned by the receptionist.
The room is quiet for now and all I can hear is the old man turning the pages of his magazine. “The View” is still on the flat screen, but only the closed captioning is on, which is a blessing. I look out the window at the distant mountains and begin to wonder what it would be like to live out there, alone, without a soul to trouble me. I’ve had this urge before, to run away from this life and start anew, no more Army or wars, no more appointments. A couple of months ago, I went on leave to see my father in Washington. He and I were sitting on the ferryboat heading to Port Townsend out on the Olympic Peninsula. We got on the subject of Iraq and combat. I thought of Vasquez getting killed, but how could I put that into words? My father is a fisherman, he’d never seen the world, never had to look into another man’s dying eyes. He never had to kill.
“What happened to you over there?” he said
“It’s not worth talking about.”
“Why? What happened?” He squinted at me like I was broken.
“Stop fucking asking me already!”
I had never raised my voice to my father, but at that moment, I felt like I could kill him, just snatch the life right out of him. He’d been in the Navy as an active reservist but never saw combat. He treated the military like a corporate job, not as a soldier. When I’d first told him that I was enlisting, he couldn’t understand why. My father’s grey hair blew in the ocean breeze and he shook his head and turned away from me. We were strangers now.
It’s the same look my own kid gives me these days. He doesn’t even know me now, and my wife and I have hardly spoken in months. She can’t understand that taking care of the boys was crucial to my own survival. They both look at me like I am an invader in the house. When I left for combat, to them I was a dad and a husband. The person who came back was anything but. I had changed. When I was in Iraq, all I could think about was getting home. Now that I’m home, all I can think about is getting back to Iraq. To them, I am here in the physical sense, but they know that in my mind, I am far away.
Never have I felt more alone. All of the guys I’ve served with, all of the men who I felt like were my brothers, they were guys who looked up to me, guys I’ve led through war. Now they have abandoned me because of this Lieutenant. Six months of appointments. Six months of waiting to get cleared to go back.
For a moment, I was able to forget my anger, sitting there next to my father as we looked out over the water of the Puget Sound. I thought about the solitude out there, and that’s when the urge began, as I thought of getting wounded and Vasquez getting smoked. Wasted or zapped, or smoked, or killed. Dead. We were both alive when we were on the chopper, flying away from the madness on the street. I was naked, with a tourniquet squeezing my left thigh to stop the arterial bleeding, strapped down to an Olive Drab Green litter. Vasquez lay next to me. The medics were scrambling around the Blackhawk’s cabin, pulling out all manner of medical equipment in order to patch up whatever wound was spewing Vasquez’s blood. His head was turned toward me and I could see him blinking. Looking at him I got lost in something, maybe inside his soul. Then, everything just ceased to be. No sounds, no engine running, no medics screaming. The medical chemical and fuel smells had dissipated to nothing. It was the feeling of being completely and totally alone. I was at peace.
“Hey Staff Sergeant!” Corporal Sampson says, scattering my thoughts.
I hate that Marines say “Staff Sergeant.” It sounds condescending no matter how respectful they try to be.
“I’m just waiting to see the Doc, you know?”
I glare at him.
“No, shit? That’s why you’re here, huh?”
The Marine frowns, and it warms me inside to know that I may’ve wounded him. Like a good Marine though, he recovers from the initial assault and persists in pursuit of conversation.
“Yeah, I got my shit fucked up in Fallujah, so I gotta come here to get my meds. You ever been to Fallujah Staff Sergeant?” he says
“Nope, can’t say that I have,” I lie, hoping to end the exchange.
“That place sucks! You’re lucky you’ve never been,” he says.
Marine Corporal Sampson begins telling his combat tale much the same way he relayed it to Sergeant McIntyre, only in a voice that is supposed to convey a sense of camaraderie between us. It is a distant and hollow story, which gives his tale a Vietnam Hollywood movie quality. In the story, Corporal Sampson is the world’s greatest Marine. He speaks like he would have made better decisions than his leadership, and how he ran out under fire and saved Private So- and-So, or how bad his leadership sucked and that’s why guys from his squad got wasted.
I roll my eyes the more dramatic he gets. Real war isn’t about being a fucking hero or about medals. Real war is about surviving utter chaos with a bunch of people you don’t really know, and the only thing you all have in common is your service and combat. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see that the old man has stopped reading his magazine and is now gazing up at the Corporal.
“Yeah, if it wasn’t for us, that place would still be a hotbed of the insurgency. Thank God for the Marines! Right, Staff Sergeant?” Sampson says.
“Listen Corporal, I don’t give a shit about you or your fucking platoon of Jar-Heads. I was in Fallujah too, and if that mission had actually gone down like you said it did, we wouldn’t have lost all of those guys. Now, turn the fuck around!”
Corporal Sampson is stunned, like I slapped him in the face. He turns around slowly and faces the front of the room. Whoopi laughs silently, her words flying across the screen of the TV. The receptionist soon calls for Corporal Sampson, who stands at the position of a tent peg before conducting a flawless left-face and moves toward her.
“Little hard on him don’t you think?” a voice says.
I turn to see the old man facing me with a quizzical look on his face.
“Come over here,” he says.
I freeze for a moment, uncertain whether or not he intends for me to move closer. We’re the only two left in the room.
“Hey kid, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. Get your ass over here!”
I move over and take a seat closer to him. He stares at me through cold, gray eyes, with the “Field & Stream” magazine rolled up in his right hand as though he may hit me with it like one would a dog.
“I was like you once, back when I got home from the war in Europe. Thought I was the only guy in the world besides my Army buddies who understood anything about suffering,” he says.
He has a deep voice with a southern drawl, the kind you typically hear in North Georgia or Tennessee. His face has deep lines in it like huge crags in the Earth. He is a weathered and tough old bastard; that much is clear.
“I jumped into Normandy with the Hundred-and-First Airborne in 1944. Crazy shit, that. Fought all the way to Hitler’s castle in the mountains and liberated a couple of them death camps. Killed a crap-load of Kraut’s and lost a ton more of my friends. Served in Korea and ‘Nam too. Can you believe that shit kid?! Three wars in three decades! Retired from the Army in ’68 just after the Tet Offensive. You ever heard of Tet, kid?” he says.
I shake my head in the affirmative, as he does the same.
“Yeah, we lost a lot of good boys on that one too,” he says
He stares off into the next room, his eyes penetrating through the brick wall. We are sitting in silence again, alone in the waiting room together. He turns his attention back on me.
“When did you start fighting in this war son?” he says.
“2003 in Iraq. Plus two more tours there since then,” I say.
“You feel like you’ve had enough of it?” he asks.
“I haven’t even thought about it until now, I guess. I’m up here because I was sent here by the Chain-of-Command. I didn’t come here on my own, Sir.”
“That isn’t what I asked you, is it? I asked you if you have had enough of it.”
My mind is reeling; the old man has put me on the spot. I am not sure that I have had enough, I’m not even sure I know what “enough” means.
“I guess I don’t have a choice. Whether I’ve had enough or not is inconsequential, my career is over. Everything I’ve worked for is gone,” I say.
“OK, so you’ve had enough. Let me tell you, we all get to that point sometimes. I’ll bet that a couple of years ago, Sergeant, you were much like that Marine who you just verbally assaulted. Just like I was once as you are, bitter and cold, just plain old mean. You see, that kid hasn’t done as much as you, and you haven’t done as much as me. We all have our end. We all have that place where enough is enough. That young Corporal is at his end and, whether you like it or not, you are at yours. I reached mine well before I retired from the Army. I just didn’t have the option to get help back then. I’m sure that you were taught the same mentality as a young soldier. You know, I was in love with the Army once, too. I gave everything I had to every war and every soldier I ever was a part of. The military had given me everything I had ever needed. Camaraderie, friendship, a sense of purpose, a sense of duty. I thought I had it all in the Army. The truth is that all of that crap is fleeting. We only belong to the Army for a short time in comparison to the rest of our lives, kid. Our marriage to the Army will ultimately end in death or divorce, period. You can’t stay in it forever, and at some point you’ll have to decide that you and yours are more important than an organization that is incapable of loving you like you love it.”
His eyes glitter with both pain and compassion. He understands where I am at. For the first time, another person knows what I’ve lost and how I feel. He has been me.
The receptionist calls my name, but I do not want to leave the old man. He has the answers I need. I begin to stand but he stops me. His grip is fierce and strong on my fore-arm.
“What’s your name kid?”
“Mitchell Wheeler McCart, Sir”
“Well, Mitchell Wheeler McCart, I’m Anderson Horton and I’m glad to have met you today. Listen to me. Don’t hang on to that anger inside, it’ll just burn you up. Don’t worry about your career, son. A career is only good if you’re alive and sane. Just remember what I said to you today, you hear?”
His grip lightens and I slip from his grasp. I look at Anderson Horton and see a man who has struggled through some very frightening and sinister things in his life, a man who has faced the enemy on the outside, as well as the enemy within. The old man’s journey has been long and arduous, and it continues. In fact, that is why he is here on the fourth floor. I, too, am on a journey. I have been on it for some time and didn’t even know it. The journey has taken me to this place, right now, to a mint green room with twenty-eight chairs. It will carry me beyond this room, past the Army and combat — the smell of bloodshed a distant past. I think of the mountains in the distance, the great expanse of the Puget Sound. Tension lifts from my chest. My name is called and I rise, steady on my feet.