You seldom know when you’re about to walk into a moment that will stay with you forever, a stain on the skin of your soul. Yet there he was, inhabiting one such moment, a man hard and coiled like a spring with the sand of Afghanistan gritted between his teeth, rifle always at the ready. Older than his evergreen looks despite the stories told in scars on his face, he was born to lead, to protect, to teach, to love. In this moment, James was leading a combat infantry team racing high on adrenaline and rage. He was popping open the trunk of a dinged-up Toyota Corolla – the BOLO was always for a dinged-up Toyota Corolla in those days, those parts - after chasing off its drivers at gunpoint. The latch released, and his stomach dropped as the dry heat and pervasive smell of burning trash washed over seven young girls trussed up and drugged out of their minds, folded around each other in heinous oblivion. James and his team knew that sex trafficking was prevalent in those parts, but looking into the empty eyes of its victims, elementary-aged girls in bloody rags who should’ve been running, playing, and learning in the midst of the innocence of childhood, wrenched his heart and seared a deep determination into him that never left.
I didn’t know him then, but 4,800 miles across the Middle East and deep into the Dark Continent I was living a life that, unbeknownst to me, would prepare me to begin to understand his own.
Red clay dust, chicken feathers and my African print dress billowed out behind me as I revved the 250 Honda death-gripped between my legs. Weaving carefully between thatched roof mud huts, three-stone cooking fires and barefooted, shaved-head children I rushed, skirting potholes and navigating hairpin turns I knew by heart. I pulled into the bustling compound of Madame Afia Bisa – the ancient shirtless woman who had been delivering the babies of Asiri for generations. A juju ceremony was taking place there, as her daughter was the local fetish priestess. I pressed through the throng of villagers who, even after years of seeing my surprisingly white skin, still never got over the shock of seeing a ghost-like “obroni” moving among them as one of their own. Sweat curled wisps of long brown hair framing my face, opposing the only pair of blue eyes the villagers had ever seen. I could hear the new mother’s low moans before sweeping back a tattered cloth that served as a door. Momentarily blind in the lightless room, I waited for my eyes to adjust from a world aflame with West African sun to the darkness of the dirt floor bedroom which doubled as a birthing room, dark as a womb itself.
The disparate lives we led worlds apart were different in so many ways, but together they stood in such stark contrast to the latte, smartphone, constantly online and overweight culture bubble of typical American life where even the poorest and the incarcerated still have cable TV and three-square meals a day. Having both eaten from the tree of knowledge living on the edge of humanity where death is as much a part of life is as living itself, neither of us fit very well back into a world of excess and entertainment where survival is a given and the world lies in digital form at your fingertips. When we would try to explain to others what we had seen and experienced they would nod and smile, cut us off or not care at all, their minds unable or unwilling to grasp the foreign torrent exuding from our souls.
Then one day there we both were, standing like normal people in the street of a sleepy suburb over a cheerful, rightfully innocent child playing with a puppy, our lives intersecting for the first time. After years in the bush teaching thousands of people at once about HIV/AIDS while waving a wooden penis and condoms over my head, or slurping down wild rat intestines, or jumping out of planes, I thought I’d never be nervous of anything again. But here I was talking to a man whose swagger and charm were inherent, with well-earned scars that rivaled my own and a swoon-able Bostonian accent. All of the sudden I was a girl again, weak in the knees. This was the day I was lured in by how defined he was by love - love of his daughter. He gave up his purpose for her, the life he loved so in the military. Roller skating, bike riding, flying kites, and fishing with his little girl were what he lived for now.
The next day I saw him again, in the driveway of one of our elderly neighbors, all of whom he had freely fixed something for in their home and with all of whom he had logged countless hours of conversation. He had brought a pack of Bud Lites to share and a few more neighbors began to congregate, attracted by his magnetism to talk politics and neighborhood life. I liked how he brought neighbors together the way people used to talk to each other by mailboxes and on front porches before technology took the place of conversation. I couldn’t stand the taste of beer and had never had more than a trial sip of one in my life but I wanted to talk to him. I accepted a bottle from someone graciously, popped it open with my ever-present pocket knife and sipped it casually as if it was a normal occurrence for me, talking to someone else until he approached me. These caps twist off, you know. You don’t need to pry them off with a knife. The accompanying grin sucker-punched me, causing my cheeks to blossom red as I began explaining that in Ghana drinks came in either plastic bags or glass bottles and there was never a bottle opener in sight.
This was the day I was lured in by his intensity, by the way he needed to share his experiences, imparting to others the intricacies of the world he had witnessed. I didn’t realize then that this deluge of words and connection from him never stopped, with me or with anyone else. The quickness of his movements was rivaled only by the quickness of his speeding mind, and his mouth never stopped trying to keep up with it. I tried to hold his arresting gaze when he spoke, blue eyes vivid beneath the brim of his hat in the late afternoon sun, but his flying hands always caught my attention. Watch my eyes, he told me, not my hands. His surety was addictive but hard to look at straight on. Then there was that half-smile that moved up to his eyes and the baseball cap over his high and tight, both constants from childhood that remain to this day. There was the way he would laugh suddenly and genuinely in conversation, a laugh that makes you feel good about yourself, like he is right where he wants to be in this moment, talking to you.
The other part was that for once, here was someone who… got it. He listened and shared his own stories and was able to comprehend the gravity lurking behind my own. He too had driven or ridden in a variety of vehicles in various countries, had tried his hand at indigenous language and had squatted with locals over delicacies unheard of in most Starbucks crowds and social media platforms. While he was eating foot-kneaded footbread flavored with the sweat of Afghan men I had been enjoying pounded fufu flavored with the sweat of Ghanaian boys. While he was running PSDs in the Middle East as an Army soldier and a contract security operator, I was riding in a hand-dug canoe slowly taking on water while illicitly crossing borders between West African countries.
Though my experiences opened my eyes to some of the highest highs and lowest lows of humanity, I did not experience one of the most darkly intense edges of life, the knife that continues to carve our world in countless twisted ways… war. Though one of my fellow volunteers and friends died during our service, I don’t have to live with memories of slaughter, torture or dismemberment. I never had my buddies’ lives exploded in front of me, leaving a gaping hole in a family back home as his blood seeped slowly into the soil of a land they would never see. I never pulled a trigger with the barrel pointed at a man or watched as a soldier’s brain fell out of his skull, squelching sickeningly at my feet. I never had to worry about tripwires that would send improvised exploding devices full of shrapnel and rotting human feces exploding into me and those I’m responsible for, aiming to maim and kill us through mortal injury and infection. My friends didn’t return home only to disappear from the world mysteriously in tragic suicide... actual or staged. I’ve struggled to save the lives of skeletal infants slowly succumbing to AIDS but I’ve never had to defend myself against an enemy who uses women and children as shields, commanded by faith to end my life violently by any means.
Because of this, when I returned to air conditioning and drive throughs just as he did, I was able to continue on with life buoyed by my experiences instead of remaining trapped within them, reliving them in nightmares, hearing them in normal everyday sounds and expecting the enemy to resurface around each corner. James always says that it wasn’t the fighting that disturbed him the most but the unspeakably monstrous nature of the enemy he fought, specifically their willingness to mutilate women and children and the cultural acceptance of pedophilia. A common local saying that still bounces around in his head since he witnessed the devastating brutality it engendered was “Women are for work and breeding and little boys are for fun and pleasure.” Fighting for one’s country and life is one thing – noble and direct - but standing by per rules of engagement while children are raped by sweaty kingpins or women are legally stoned to death upon their husband’s whims, twisted, outraged and hurt him deeply. Eyes open, body and mind ready and able, yet hands tied… frustration and fury know no bounds.
Combat veterans who have seen combat make up ten percent of the one percent of those who serve in combat arms in the U.S. military. My husband served eight tours that brought him through various countries across the Middle East and the Balkans. He has seen and experienced more than should exist in one human’s life.
War changes people. I would argue that the most difficult part of experiencing war isn’t living through it but returning home afterwards. Returning “home” is virtually impossible because you are a changed person viewing life through different eyes. The home you return to is full of people who have also changed during your absence, along with the culture. Upon returning home you see things through the lens of what you gave up to keep this country free. You look upon people - all of whom you put your life on the line for - and the mess in which our country is embroiled, and wonder if it was all worth it. Tragically, the feeling is so often a resounding “No.” Freedom is so easily taken for granted when nothing else is known. It’s easy to idealize the idea of home and family when you’re a world away from them. Fitting back into a culture after you have stepped out of it for so long and have seen so much can be surprisingly difficult.
Physical injuries obtained during service are tangible, logical, treatable. The fractured L3, herniated discs, stenosis, sciatica, back, wrist, knee and shoulder injuries James sustained from events in country can be explained on paper and treated with surgery and pills. What most people don’t know is that the fight doesn’t stay in country when you leave. Its face doesn’t look like Islamic Jihadists forever. It comes home with you in your bones. It permeates your consciousness and seeps into the many facets of your life from the trivial to the sacred. It is reflected in how you see the world, how you act upon it and how others see and treat you. You’re still fighting, every day, a faceless, formless shape-shifting enemy that takes the guise of anything and everything. This is a fight that others can’t see or even begin to understand. One that isn’t documented or rewarded or recognized. The countless compounding effects are misunderstood to be just an unrelated string of events that make up your life, a life lived within a compromised body and a scarred soul.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects everyone differently due to the experiences they endured and their own history and personality. My husband’s PTSD is characterized by hypervigilance. This is different from the stereotyped aggressive disorder that makes soldiers returning from war lash out randomly with bouts of uncontrolled anger and aggression. This is the type that causes them to stay on high alert even when they’re no longer in a combat zone. The kind that takes a toll of exhaustion and anxiety as they constantly protect themselves and those they love from dangers seen and presumed.
When my husband returned home from war and ended his military career for good, every time he closed his eyes the dangerous world there that had become his new “normal” blended with what should have been his normal life back at home. His nightmares were as vivid as real life. They were inundated with Taliban fighters chasing his young daughter while he endeavored with everything he was to rescue her… ending up with him strapped to a chair and her head being pulled out of a blood-filled bathtub by his huge grinning foe, separated from her body like the dozens of actual disembodied heads of children that were seared into his memory. This, coupled with prescriptions to induce sleep from the VA, led to him sleepwalking with his rifle, standing guard over his daughter’s bed while she slept or patrolling the backyard in his underwear. In order to avoid the trauma of nightmares and danger of sleepwalking every night he threw away the prescription and stopped sleeping. Insomnia became his new normal, which nearly killed him more than once as his brain would eventually shut itself off at inopportune times, such as when he was driving. As has happened many times throughout his life, luck or a higher power must have been watching over him because he walked away nearly unscathed from his beloved Silverado, which was totaled when his brain quit on the way home from work one day at the end of a 50 hour work week with about 12 hours of cumulative sleep time throughout the entire week. Soon thereafter between acute sleep deprivation and a specific pain medication prescribed to him by the Veterans’ Association for back injuries, James began having grand mal seizures. One day he was taking the trash out when his 6-year-old daughter saw him go rigid and fall over on the cement driveway on his face. Her scream brought me sprinting to his side as his face smashed over and over on the pavement, shattering his occipital socket, breaking his teeth and turning his face into ground beef before I reached him and held his bloody head in my hands until the convulsions subsided. A subsequent seizure occurred, .9 mil in hand at an indoor gun range.
The fateful day I met my would-be husband on the street was one year after he ended his last contract. He had been medevac’d out of Afghanistan and had just stopped using a cane after healing from the extensive back injury that still plagues him every waking minute of every day. These were his sleepless days, tortured and misunderstood. One complete year of respectful friendship after our instant connection and then a three-month whirlwind romance occurred before we finally moved in together and got married. I had two dogs – a gangly German shepherd and a sweet little lover of a pit bull - and their presence helped James settle at night, since two other sets of eyes and ears were protecting the house with him and for him. I read a lot about PTSD and spent hours and hours listening to James tell his stories, explain his life and how he got there. This was how I learned that when the kids would scream in play he was brought back to the day when an Afghan man punished his wife for suspected adultery by dipping their daughter into a vat of boiling oil up to her bellybutton. The girl’s screams scarred James’ mind forever as medics bandaged her, preparing her for transport. Letting him open up was how I learned that when he’s in tight spaces like attic crawl-spaces or MRI machines his mind goes back to the day he and his team were dangling off an edge in an MRAP wondering if the team following would respond before their truck shifted slightly, sending them 50 feet down crashing onto the rocks below. Though I will never truly comprehend what he went through, I will always be here to listen to him and remind him of who he is – a loving, committed father and husband, a hero and protector.
Seven years and two blue eyed babies later, we are living what most would deem a normal, happy life on a farm out in the country. James is an electrician, is starting his own home inspection business, and is still fighting for freedom and morality through a nationwide fraternal organization. I stay home with our children while running my nonprofit organization and working as an Angora rabbit fiber farmer and freelance writer. These days saturated with spit-up and fairy tales, full to the brim with family bike rides, school projects, home repairs and play dates are our new normal. Deep into the meat of family life, the fight against the enemy no longer has the grip on us it once had. Together we are forging a path, focusing on goodness and creating the best life we can for our children.