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Issue #67, Starting Over

The Dark Month

Christopher Collins

The Dark Month

When I hold my firstborn, Patrick, for the first time, embracing him against my chest, my Army-issue brown T-shirt is still damp with sweat and blotched with patches of dried sand from the nineteen-hour trip from Afghanistan to Ohio. My son is six weeks old, buttoned to the neck in a long-sleeve white onesie with a brown giraffe on his chest, and I can smell the stench of breast milk on his breath. His body is warm and fleshy and light—just a little heavier than the 8.79 pounds of an M16A2 rifle fully locked and loaded with a thirty-round magazine of 5.56-millimeter ball ammunition. And as I hold him between my calloused, dried palms and peer into his blue eyes, that same methylene dark as his mother’s, I realize his entire existence is just delicate enough that if I want, I can rip him in two.

I am home for only fifteen days of emergency leave. Patrick has a gastrointestinal problem, some undiagnosed issue with his stomach and throat. Angela and I anxiously await news from a specialist from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to inform us if he will need a procedure or not. And although my leave is short, I can hold my infant son for only thirty seconds at first. The image of his body snapping like a pencil between my hands comes to me again and again, and vomit rises in my throat.

I give him to Angela.

“I don’t want to hurt him,” I say.

She smiles. She thinks it’s the fears of a new father. It’s not.

I still feel isolated in the center of a desert’s minefield. I’m not yet ready to be home from war.

***

In early December 2002, seven thousand miles from where my son utters his first sound into this fucked-up world, I am six months into my first combat deployment in Bagram, Afghanistan. As a military police platoon leader in charge of base security operations, I am with my platoon, making rounds to the various checkpoints, just as I do every day. In the watchtower overlooking Entry Control Point (ECP) 1, I make sure the private in the overwatch position is awake. I double-check his weapon, ensuring it is loaded and on “safe,” that it is ready to “rock and roll” at a moment’s notice in case an ambush happens below. I inspect the tower’s range card to make certain it’s filled out properly—weapon type, ammunition, elevation, range, and description of targets.

Down at the checkpoint itself, I ask the staff sergeant if anyone in first squad needs a break from searching the hundreds of Afghan day laborers that file onto base. I tell him I’d be happy to pitch in for a few hours so some of his soldiers—my soldiers—can relax from the heat. At ECP 3, I confirm that the extra ammunition the team sergeant ordered was received, and at ECP 5 I ask the second squad leader if his squad needs any more coffee or hot soup for the thirteen-hour shift each soldier works every day.

But it’s at ECP 1-Alpha, Bagram’s northern security checkpoint—an eight-by-twelve shack, stacked waist-high with sandbags and cut with a drop-down Plexiglas window—where it happens.

The ECP’s plywood walls pulse from the explosion. I am standing inside with two of my men, and my body convulses from the detonative vibration. The initial jolt radiates along my jawline and teeth, like a hard slap from an angry spouse. My ears ring. The subsequent sonic boom, like a cannon fired in the distance, throbs in my chest cavity and slowly unravels along my arms and legs. The blast of energy is a cow whip; it lashes out and snaps back in its final second, fizzing into a tinge of heat that pricks the tips of my fingers and toes.

Desert sand as fine as talcum drifts down from the cracked ceiling of the ECP. I rub the thick dust from my eyes and nose and cough, spitting onto the planked floor. Even in December, it’s scorching inside the shed, and my saliva immediately dries on the wooden floorboard.

The “boom” lasts only a few seconds. Landmine, I think. Probably a blaster.

It happens every two or three days. The majority of the time, it’s an animal; a goat or sheep liberates itself from its stacked-rock enclosure, wanders too far beyond the village in search of food, and “boom.” Fine red mist. Eviscerated chunks of inflamed animal meat.

Sometimes, though, it’s a human. The Afghan soldiers who stop by to “work” the ECPs with the soldiers of my military police platoon usually let us know which.

As dust settles in ECP 1-Alpha, one of my MPs asks, “Blaster, sir?”

“Yeah, pretty sure. Sounded close, too.”

We both look out of the hastily cut window of the ECP. Maybe 100 meters northwest of the base’s perimeter, there’s a plume of brown dust.

A soldier in combat quickly learns the art of munitions identification based on sound and vibration. A whistle and thunk: mortar. A whistle and thenk: a rocket-propelled grenade. A kaboom in the distance: a landmine. A jolt like the blaster, but with the vibration of pummeling surf, where the body feels as if it is spinning and spinning: a VBIED—a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. But this explosion was definitely a blaster.

Within a few minutes of the explosion, a Bagram farmer struggles up to ECP 1-Alpha. The man’s brown kurta—the long, collarless shirt worn by most Afghan men—drips dark blood. He is cradling a small boy in his arms. The boy—maybe seven years old—shivers in the desert heat. His cries are dry coughs, and his jet-black hair hangs just over his ears, sopped in blood and sweat. He slides from the man’s arms as if he were a large wet fish flopping onto the wooden floor. The man frantically screams Dari words and phrases, and although I do not understand the language, I understand the situation.

The boy triggered an old Soviet antipersonnel mine, likely more than twenty years old. This is one of the many dangerous features of a landmine: it can lie dormant for decades, asleep in forgotten battlefields, waiting for a noncombatant to rouse it with a misplaced step, a carelessly tossed rock, a soccer ball kicked just a little too hard by a young boy with a strong right leg. 

It’s shocking but also striking what damage an antipersonnel mine can do to the human anatomy. Only two shredded stumps remain of the boy’s legs. Bursts of blood rhythmically spray into the air. A bone shard, maybe six inches long, juts from his right knee, its spiked end as sharp as a bayonet’s point. On the ECP’s creaking floorboards, blood and sand congeal into a thick red-brown syrup. The goo sticks to the soles of my combat boots.

The boy arches his body up, feeling along the floorboards and in the air for his shins, for his feet. He slaps nothing but sand and blood. Smuck. Smuck. It’s a sound I will never forget: the resonance of his hands rising from wood.

His cry grows louder; his shaking intensifies. Then, at one precise moment, as his black eyes widen, as his brown skin pales, a tranquility overcomes his body.

***

Thoughts of that day in December 2002 still awaken me from a prescriptioned sleep, but what actually transpired is fuzzy. I remember breathing hard inside my armor, my mouth dry, sweating so profusely that it ran into my eyes and dripped from my face. I’d swear the temperature that day topped 115 degrees, though logically I know it couldn’t have in December. Various cognitive-based therapies have attempted to mine my memory of that morning. What I see are 35-millimeter slides rotating forward, sometimes backward, from a projector. Some of the slides are in color; some of them are in black and white. It is my mind’s shrapnel of trauma.

Did I hold the boy’s body while my two soldiers, both EMTs in civilian life, attempted to stabilize him? I remember the bone shard in what remained of his right leg flinching up and down, up and down. Sometimes it seems the movement of the stump was extremely fast. Other times, the whole scene moves laboriously, a long, drawn-out panorama of my two MPs, the man in his bloodied kurta, and the boy.

Who radioed the operations center for the combat medics? Did I order one of my E-4s to radio the operations center, or did I do it myself? Two combat medics did arrive at the ECP. I only remember one, though. He was a buck sergeant, and when he saw the boy, he screamed, “Fuck!”

And, most important, did I pray? I cannot remember. As a lifelong Catholic, I prayed every day—Hail Marys, Our Fathers, Salve Reginas. But I cannot remember saying any prayer, or even making a simple sign of the cross as the boy’s body exhausted all breath, as his torso weakened against the floorboards.

What I do remember is this: feeling an absolute enmity toward God.

I was raised on the belief of heaven and hell. I was raised to believe in sin and the power of God’s redemption. As a soldier in Afghanistan on my first combat deployment, I believed in the moral justification of war, and of the mission I was tasked to do in the country. I believed in killing the enemy. My faith raised me to believe that good happened to those who were good and bad happened to those who were evil.

But the boy . . . ?

There was so much blood, and it drained so fast from his body into the sand. Human blood travels twelve thousand miles in one day as it courses through the body’s circulatory system. Yet in that eight-by-twelve-foot shack seven thousand miles from my wife and newborn son, the Afghan boy’s blood traveled mere inches as the desert sponged up each living drop.

And looking at the dying boy lying there in the ECP, the only question I could ask myself was, Why would a benevolent God allow this to happen?

***

Back in Ohio, I feel that my infant son has two arms. He has two legs.

On my third day home, I gently squeeze Patrick’s right shin between my index finger and thumb, tracing the bone down to his foot inside his cotton onesie. His toes are so small, but even through the clothing I can feel each individual one. Each. Individual. Toe. All five of them.

I can only think to myself: What have I done to deserve him?

***

It's Saturday, December 4, 2010. Today, Angela and I are celebrating Patrick’s eighth birthday with the family. The theme is “Pirates.”

Patrick’s chocolate sheet cake is covered in dark blue icing to represent an ocean. The bottom quarter is a brown sandy beach with two palm trees. Two large skull balloons float above the chair where Patrick will sit to blow out his candles. Patrick, his two cousins, Micah and Vance, and his younger sister, Sophia, all have black eye patches, but their swords have already been taken away—the “pirates” were too much in character fighting with their weapons.

Angela has placed the children on the steps that lead to the second floor of our house. She wants a picture of them for the album to remember this day. Instead of saying “Cheese,” each kid decides to say “Aargh.” Patrick smiles at Sophia, who is only four. He’s missing a top front tooth, and he sticks his tongue through the hole. She giggles.

I take a long, slow drink of the usual—Jameson Irish Whiskey. The irony of all the skulls in the house for my son’s birthday does not escape me. Patrick is now one year older than the Afghan boy was.

Angela calls December the “dark month.” Although I should be celebrating the birth of my son, December is always a month of mourning. I cannot let go of Afghanistan. I cannot let go of that boy in the guard shack. And after two subsequent combat deployments, both to Iraq—one in 2004 and another in 2009—there is so much more I cannot let go of.

I cannot let go of the little girl eating from the garbage dump during the ambush in Kan’nan, or the decapitated boy lying on a board of wood in Muqdadiyah. I cannot let go of Kameel and Saayed, who worked for me as interpreters and were both executed once I left the country in 2005, a fact I discovered during my third deployment. I cannot let go of the little boy who was intellectually delayed or the fourteen-year-old girl who was gang raped—both were used as suicide bombers in Ba’qubah, the capital city of Diyala Province, a place I still patrol in dreams. My memories are concrete blocks placed on my chest, gradually crushing out my breath. I just cannot let go.

My deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq have broken the glass of my moral compass; the vicious acid of war, of watching so much human destruction, has dissolved the magnetic arrow of my morality. Now, I have difficulty finding north. My arrow just spins and spins and spins. By 2010, I have hit the peak of my deterioration and succumbed to depression.

My son’s birthday party is the first social event I’ve attended in a while; for the most part, I don’t even leave the house. Instead, I lie in bed for two or three days at a time, unshowered, missing work at my job as a high school teacher.

Spurts of severe anxiety and panic attacks have me patrolling with a loaded gun at night—or sometimes even the middle of the day—to clear the house.

When I do sleep, the nightmares are uncontrollable. I thrash, punch, scream, fall to the floor. Dreaming of a mortar attack, I roll from bed and split my head open on an end table. Blood drips from the three-inch gash, staining the carpet. I refuse to go to the hospital, and Angela uses butterfly Band-Aids to “stitch” the wound. It leaves a permanent scar.

I also forgo any religious services: no Mass, no Holy Days of Obligation, no Easter Sundays, no Christmas with the kids or Angela’s parents. In a moment of utter despair, I tell my wife, “I hate God. Fuck him!”

***

The Monday after my son’s pirate-themed birthday party, I report to the Cincinnati Veterans Administration hospital for an appointment. My war generation has its own separate clinic. “It’s a white trailer outside VA main,” the scheduler on the phone said. “You can’t miss it.”

Ten-foot-high construction fences section off parts of the parking lot. The VA is building a new four-level parking garage and two new hospital wings, and also adding a multi-million-dollar upgrade to the main hospital itself. They need more space to accommodate the influx of service members from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, veterans trying to cope with the injuries of modern war: traumatic brain injury, amputations, post-traumatic stress disorder.

I see license plates from Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia; Veteran plates of all branches and many wars. The lot is so full that I have a tough time locating a parking space on the blacktop.

I feel anxious; I had to rush from my job just to get here on time. The school day ends at 2:30 p.m., and though the high school teaching faculty are supposed to stay until 3 p.m., when I told the assistant principal I had a weekly doctor’s appointment at the VA for the next few months, he said it would be fine. The administration hasn’t really bugged me with any additional duties since I returned from Iraq less than six months ago.

I finally park about 150 feet from the white trailer. A big blue sign on the corner of the trailer reads “OEF/OIF”—Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom. Until the new wings of the hospital are completed, this is where I will come. For the next four months, I am to work through a weekly regimen of Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), a trauma-focused psychotherapy to help me evaluate and ultimately change the discordant memories I have of Afghanistan. I am to meet once a week with a trained psychologist to discuss the trauma of that December day. Although there are more traumas to discuss from my multiple deployments, just as the blaster was the triggering event for the Afghan boy, the boy is the triggering event for me. His death is the internal landmine I cannot escape from.

I hesitate in the car for a moment, deciding whether I should leave. I do not want to talk about the boy. I do not want to ask myself why I think this event happened, or examine my thoughts and feelings about it, or write it down.

But when I made the appointment, Angela pleaded, “Please go for us.” It is for her and the kids that I’m doing this. And it’s for me, too. I start walking toward the trailer.

The psychologist’s office is small, a little larger than ECP 1-Alpha, maybe fifteen-by-fifteen feet. The doctor has one window behind her. She keeps the white blinds closed.

“Mr. Collins. Sit. Please.”

As I sit in the black upholstered chair, I notice her desk is a typical governmental pedestal with laminate-wood top and steel legs. I have had many like it in my eleven-year military career. I have counseled so many soldiers across desks like this one, and I have written so many orders that have put men’s lives at risk.

“My name’s Rachel,” she says. “Do you prefer I call you Mr. Collins, or may I call you by your first name?” I notice that she chooses each word carefully when she speaks.

“Chris is fine,” I say.

The doctor wears a vanilla-colored Aran sweater. I gaze at the stitch patterns cascading down the front. I bought a similar one when I visited Ireland almost twenty years ago and gave it to Angela when it no longer fit. The doctor sees me staring, and immediately, I blush. I don’t want her to think I’m looking at her breasts.

“You know, Doc,” I say. “When sailors would drown off the coast of the Aran Islands and wash up on the shore in Galway Bay in western Ireland, the bodies would be so bloated from sea water that people would only be able to tell who they were by the stitch patterns in their sweaters. The stitch patterns represented their clan names. Like those patterns in your sweater.” I point.

“Huh. I did not know that. That’s an interesting piece of information.” I cannot tell by her face or the tone of her voice whether she’s just humoring me.

“Yeah. I wrote a poem about it once. I forget its title, though.”

Rachel asks, “So, you like to write?”

“I do. Mostly poetry, though. I teach high school English, so I not only like teaching it, but writing it, too.”

I try to relax. I loosen the knot of my tie and unbutton the top of my starched white Stafford shirt.

She shifts her gaze from me to a three-ring binder that sits on the left side of her desk. She slides it in front of her and asks, “Well, Chris, do you know why we are meeting today?”

I sigh. “Well, yeah. To talk about my is-sues.” I lengthen the two syllables.

“In a relative sense, yes,” she says. “We’re here to talk about trauma.” She takes a breath. “But before we get into all that, I want to say ‘Thank You.’” Rachel stares directly into my eyes.

Her stare makes me uneasy. “Why?” I ask. “Why are you thanking me?”

“Because,” she says, “of your courage. So many wait so long to seek treatment. I’m happy you had the courage to come in sooner rather than later. Chris, I have some veterans who wait more than forty years to seek treatment for their PTSD. And some never do. I’m happy you didn’t wait. I’m happy you’re here, now, today.”

The doctor’s words shock me. It’s the first time anyone has ever told me I have courage for admitting to something I felt was a weakness. Disclosing PTSD in the military is grounds for losing your security clearance; it’s grounds for losing command of your troops; it’s grounds for losing any and all respect from your subordinates. I have openly acknowledged an inability to cope with the memories of war or to psychologically process its aftermath. And this doctor sitting behind a typical government desk is thanking me for it.

Immediately, I start to cry.

***

This is what I know: more than fifteen years have passed since I witnessed the senselessness of that December morning inside ECP 1-Alpha. So much of what I once believed was destroyed in a few minutes of war. Good happens to the good, and bad happens to the evil. What evil could have dwelled in a seven-year-old boy to make him deserve such suffering? No matter how many priests I have questioned or how many books of theology or philosophy I have investigated, there is nothing that can give me a suitable answer.

Although I completed four months of therapy, the memory of the boy still treks with me daily. It’s a scab I unconsciously pick at, an infection that will never fully heal. The boy’s fate still remains. Some days are worse than others, and his blood mixing with the desert sand feels as real and as present as evening dinner on the kitchen table. I see him. I smell him. I taste the iron and dust in the air. I can stay locked for hours, sometimes days, at the base of the Hindu Kush with him on the floor of the ECP. Clenching my fists, I hiss, “Not fair.” But what is fair in this life?

At the end of each year, when the trees are bare and the temperature is frigid, it takes determined effort to remain upbeat when I can think only of death. Yet December is also a month of life: I was born in December, as were my son, my mother-in-law, and Christ. Patrick’s birthday is the only one in that dark month that truly matters to me. It was his life, after all, that first anchored me back in this world. I do not want my son ever to feel the pain I experienced. I never want him to hear Smuck, Smuck. So, I try. Each and every day, I try to work through the dark memories of war.

I have a recurring dream of the Afghan boy. He is in one of the U.S. Army’s Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units. He sits on the edge of a gurney covered in a clean white sheet. He wears a yellow shirt and brown shorts that reveal both stumps, but they are wrapped in bright white gauze, and no blood seeps through. He has a hospital wristband attached to his left wrist, but I cannot read his name—for some reason, even standing right next to him, I can never read his name. He licks a vanilla ice cream cone, and two trails of ice cream trickle down his right hand. He smiles a toothy grin, so content sitting on the gurney’s edge without his legs. He is happy, and he is peaceful, and he doesn’t notice me.

Author Bio

Christopher Collins

Christopher Collins is a husband, father, former military officer, and twelve-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve. He received his PhD in... read more

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