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Too Far From Home

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At night I go to bed and in the still peace of darkness everything comes back to me: the sand whipping my face and the crunch it made in my mouth, the blazing sun, the sweat dripping from my back, the kids chanting, playing stickball by the road, the screams from the enemies, or from my friends. I see Mike’s shining face. His piercing blue eyes see right through me. I toss and turn. I wake up in a sweat, heart-pounding, only to find myself in my own room, too far away from the war. Once you’ve seen the war, there’s no going back, no return to innocence, no way to stay oblivious. No, the war is right in front of your face. Everyday, it’s right under you nose. And there’s nowhere else to look, no place to turn your head without getting an everlasting glimpse.
Mike and I were born one day apart in the same hospital, so of course our moms became immediate friends. We were raised as brothers; best friends for life. I remember when we would TP his neighbor’s house, the ones who always yelled at us anyway. And they came out one summer night with a blinding flashlight and a gun, yelling real loud, and we looked at each other and then ran like animals into the woods. We both thought we were going to die that night. I remember when my parents were going through a bitter divorce and I spent a lot of nights at his house, with his family, who didn’t yell. And most of all, I remember how we always wanted to join the Army, from elementary school on. And we made this promise to each other, that we would join together and be stationed together and be the kind of heroes that we always looked up to.
We joined, fresh out of high school. We felt on top of the world, like nothing could ever bring us down. In Iraq, Mike and I always tried to stay together, and the guys in our unit got so used to our togetherness they grew to accept us as a single entity. We would talk together and worry together and count down the days until we would be home and we could have fun like old times. But one day I wasn’t by Mike’s side. We were on combat duty, and one moment I look over and see him, a hundred yards away, talking to someone else in our unit. The next minute I hear what sounded like a hundred fireworks going off all at once, a blinding explosion. I wish I were blinded, even deafened, and that I would never have to save seen or heard my best friend being ripped apart like some worthless stuffed animal. I sprinted to where he was. My heart was pounding, beating like a soldier’s drum, ready to burst from my chest. I cried out for him, hanging on to any last shard of hope that he might be alive, but he was nowhere to be found. A pit formed in my stomach. Pieces of him were all around us. Just like that, by some sick kind of magic trick, Mike was gone forever. I sat in a trance for hours. I didn’t talk to anyone for days, weeks. I wanted to scream, to cry, to ask why. Why him? Why now? What did he do to deserve this? It was no use. He was never coming back. And that bottomless pit in my stomach kept growing and growing until it was larger than me, ready to swallow me whole.

It wasn’t until Mike was gone that I truly considered the effect of war. All the fighting, the lives lost, and for what? Other people I had known had died, but the death of my best friend made things considerably different. I saw and felt all the suffering, the unbearable pain, and the helpless feeling. Yet I still knew that I would go back out the next day and fight for my country, even if it meant my own death. There would be no turning back. It’s just hard to live when death is staring you in the face each and every day.
Now, I’m back home. Alone. My day consists of me eating. Sitting. Staring. Listening to other people’s conversations, but feeling so distant. I walk around in my fatigues, looking for some recognition. Maybe someone would say thanks. Maybe someone would tell me that they understood how much I’d been through, and what I was carrying: the weight of my best friend and an entire country on my shoulders. In Iraq, I used to get up thinking that the very day may be my last, and I tried to make it count. Here, no one cares. No one understands. No one appreciates, and no one bothers. Walking through the supermarket yesterday, I passed a young mother and her toddler. Her son pointed to me and whispered to his mother, but she yanked his hand and they turned the other way.
Surprisingly, Iraq wasn’t the worse part. The worst part was coming home. Over in Iraq, I had lost my best friend. I had killed the enemy in a fight for our country. I had seen murderous eyes beg for mercy, and innocent starving children standing on the street corners, asking for some food. The worst part was coming home, and seeing my other friends, very much alive, and our children, still innocent and well-nourished, and seeing everybody take their life for granted. People went on with their lives, their trivial activities and gossip and worries like what to wear to Friday night parties or who to root for in the next ball game.
Each day I see Mike’s face, glistened with a permanent layer of sweat. His piercing blue eyes see right to my very core. He asks me why I wasn’t by him that day. I ask myself why I couldn’t have been there and looked out for him like a better friend. He asks me if I’m enjoying my life, and I say no, no I never will. Not anymore. Some days I wake up and think that I can move on and that I could leave it all behind. And some days, for the day, it works. But the next day, I’m right back where I started.
War is brutal, and it leaves no one unscathed. It takes some of us, or parts of us, and leaves the rest. We learn to get by with less. War will take your brother or your friend, your leg or your heart, your sense of feeling or your innocence, your dreams or your smiles. Maybe it will take your ability to sleep through the night, maybe it will take your optimism, or your ability to see a person as a person, instead of a threat. It will take you to a place in your head where you never come home. And when war takes something, it never gives it back. There’s no place to get away.




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