It’s different from when I left. At least it is to me. The same bright sunshine that once gave me content warmth now seemed to burn and make me want to hide in the shadows. The same bright smiles my loved ones gave me now seem like they are painted on out of pity. The same peaceful state of my home is now seemingly an impending war zone. I sat in my room, the same room I had before I left for so very long. The peaceful blue painted walls, the calming sound of the ceiling fan turning, the comforting presence of my family just downstairs. My room felt like a fortress, I knew I was safe, nothing could touch me. When I was a child and I had a nightmare and all I had to do was scream for my mother and she was here, holding me in her arms with the light on. In this room, this is what I once felt, this is how it should feel; peaceful, safe. But it’s not, not anymore.
The walls are now closing in, the sound of the fan now seems deafeningly loud, the presence of my family that was once comforting, now seemed restricting. That once safe, protected feeling was ripped away from me in an instance. All my thoughts stopped when I heard a child scream outside. To anyone else, it would have sounded like a few children running around, screaming, while playing a game. But to me, it threw me back to Afghanistan. The smoldering desert I was living in, fighting in, for so long. Screams echoed everywhere. Children crying out for their mothers, screaming in pain as their lives were cut short in the crossfire of my team and the enemy. One child in particular caught my attention, he wasn’t crying or screaming, standing there looking lost, just watching this hellish scene unfold. His eyes met mine as I searched the perimeter for adversaries close enough to shoot down. He looked at me as he picked up a fallen rifle of a man shot down by one of my comrades. He pointed the gun straight at me. I pointed mine back and in an instant his life was gone. It seemed that whole scene took hours, but in reality it was just seconds. Seconds to take a life. The screaming wouldn’t stop. I blinked my eyes open as if I had been sleeping. But I knew I wasn’t, I was in the thralls of a painful, horrifying memory. The screaming of the children outside were now dulled, as if someone had stuffed cotton in my ears, but the ones from the memory, those were as loud as if they were standing in my own room.
I don’t know if people notice how different I am, if they don’t understand, or if they just don’t care. But I know I’m different. I know things have changed. After the war, after being under gunfire for years it just kind of sticks with you. I’m now almost always in a state of fight or flight. I’m always looking at exit strategies, always looking at threats that could appear from nowhere. I hate how I’ve changed. I hate how I look at pictures of myself from high school, the resident football star, with a shining smile on my face, and then I turn to a mirror and I see a completely different person. The smile has turned rotten, there are now faded scars scattered on my body, the happy gleam I had in my eyes has now dimmed to a faint glow of fear.
When I left for war I knew what was coming, I knew what was in store for me. But still it shook me to my core. Still, now that I’m home, my very being is a wavering existence. Over there, in that war zone, I did things for my country. I killed men my age, I saw children carrying bombs that were shot down, blood and gore littering the sand. Over there the same rules here, in America, didn’t count. Didn’t matter. In war, morals don’t exist, only orders and obligations. When I came home, to this place, where in the rules were now back, set in stone.
I walked around town, thinking of the day I first returned. My father looked at me with pride. My mother with happiness that I was home. To my father, men weren’t supposed to be this way. We were supposed to be tall, strong walls when the storm came. Unwavering. Emotionless in a way. But I couldn’t help but get carried off in the storm after I came home. My mother may be happy I’m home, but it feels like I never returned, like my mind and soul were left in that war zone. I’m no hero, I’m just a traumatized man with a military record. As I walked past all the buildings, all the people that once knew me, I knew it would be the last time they saw me as the unwavering hero.
I looked down at my hands, holding the M9, the tool that with one pull of a trigger could take a life so easily. I close my eyes as I feel the walls of my mind closing in, the screams getting louder. How could I have done those things? How could people call me a hero after all the things I did, I don’t deserve this. To be here, alive and well, when all my brothers in arms are in voids of the Earth while their wives cry at their feet, when I killed people. The voices of my family, my friends, echo in my memory, once again calling me a hero. But if a hero is someone who kills people, destroys lives with one fatal move, I don’t want to be a hero. With shaky hands I put the barrel of the gun in my mouth, fat tears rolling down my cheeks, as my existence rattled. Here I am, the smalltown hero, with a gun in his mouth. Their hero had fallen. I had let everyone down.