During the summer of 2007, I worked on a construction crew with two former Iraq war vets who told me anecdotes about the conflict. Like the vast majority of vets (contrary to common civilian expectations, and the events of this story) they adjusted back to civilian life with few problems. This story was originally published in Ouroboros magazine in 2011.
“They’re gonna hit us, they’re gonna hit us, you’d better get the fuck up, Tye.”
It’s three in the morning and Jeremy is digging through my closet. I roll over and grab my glasses off the nightstand, flip the lamp on.
“Jeremy calm down—”
“Turn that fuckin’ light off!” he hisses.
I flip it off, grope for my jeans, hear the click of a magazine being slapped home.
“Jeremy,” I whisper. “Calm the fuck down, man. You’re home, in Spearfish, in my house. There’s no fucking insurgents outside. Just sit down a minute.”
He’s at the window, shaved head outlined in the glow of the lights of the lumber mill. He cradles a rifle against his chest.
“You hear it? That truck?”
I listen. Amy and I live on the edge of town, a half-mile from the mill. I recognize a big diesel engine straining uphill with a full load. It’s early, probably the first truck of the day.
“It’s just a logging truck, man. Put the rifle away.”
“That’s not a fucking logging truck,” he says, bolting from the window out of the room. I curse and feel relief that Amy’s working a twelve at the hospital. She never really understood Jeremy, and has even less since he came back from Iraq.
I find my sneakers and make my way to the front porch. I open the door to find Jeremy, kneeling, AR-15 lined up on the headlights of the approaching truck.
“Shit man, it’s a fucking logging truck. Put the gun down.”
“You’d better get down,” he says.
He’s close to firing, panic surges up my spine. Tackle him? Make a grab for the rifle? But I do neither, frozen in the moment, my brain still bleary from sleep.
I say, as insistently as I can, “Hold your fire, hold your fire. Watch the driver.” He doesn’t speak, or lower the rifle. The truck comes parallel with the end of the drive, a bearded baseball-capped form visible in the cab. Jeremy’s finger eases down off the trigger.
“Fuck,” he says with a deep exhale and reclines down onto the porch, rifle propped up. I sit down next to him as the truck rumbles on, the driver unaware of how close he’s just come to death. I’m shaking with adrenaline, but it feels good and I’m very aware of how alive I am.
“Jeremy,” I say. “Are you all right?”
“Close call, bro, fuckin’ close call.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
“Coulda swore he was coming right at us.”
Now I’m shivering in the sub-zero South Dakota air. I say, as casually as I can,
“Hey Jeremy, can I see the AR for a second?”
He hands it over without a qualm, eyes still on the road. I stand up, and he does too. He follows me inside, but glances over his shoulder when he closes the door. I set the rifle aside, give him a hug and still holding onto his shoulders, say,
“Jeremy, I think you need some help.”
Before that night, Jeremy coped pretty well for a man only a month back in the world. The first three days of his visit he was calm. He talked about Iraq in a detached, casual way, as if he was describing events that had happened to someone else.
In one story his squad had set out a container of tea in the mid-morning sunshine, and when they’d climbed the roof to retrieve it in the afternoon, they’d come under mortar attack. When the bombs hit, Jeremy felt a gout of warm liquid splash across his face and back, thought one his comrades had been badly hit. But the only mortar round to hit the roof had landed squarely on the five-gallon tea container, vaporizing it. They’d radioed to the company below in joyful hysterics, “Tea down! Tea down! Repeat, the tea has been hit!”
Some of his other stories held no shred of humor. Once, while on patrol across Baghdad, they’d gotten word of a marked insurgent in a car nearby. They’d maneuvered toward the apparently unsuspecting man and Jeremy was given the order to shoot him from the passenger window of the Humvee as soon as they came alongside. Suddenly they were called off. The squad pulled over and watched as the man’s car came to the crest of a hill, then was torn to shreds by the chain gun of an Apache helicopter, rising from behind a row of buildings a half-mile distant. I asked why he’d been selected to take the shot, as he’d served as a medic. He’d replied, “because I was in the front seat.”
I listened closely, but it was all so far beyond my experience. I usually didn’t know what to say to him but “fuck man,” or “Jesus Christ” in a tone conveying incredulity and sympathy. Jeremy didn’t seem to expect or demand much else. He seemed, more than anything, content to have someone listen. I felt an unbridgeable separation between us. Here was a friend I’d grown up with, hunted with, biked single track across the Black Hills with, now so changed I hardly recognized him.
He’d bulked up, smoked a pack a day, and took to drink every night. I’d asked him why he’d started smoking, and he said, “Man, over there, it’s like money. You turn down a cigarette from a hajji, or don’t have one to return, it’s a big insult. It’s your ass.”
“Well, you’re back in the States, can’t even smoke in bars anymore. You think about quitting?”
He shook his head, grinned. “Nope, too soon. Still might sign on for another tour.”
I scoffed, “Oh Christ, a fuckin’ lifer,” and Jeremy laughed. But something in his face was mocking me, and my pretend knowledge of army life.
When I hinted that maybe the war had been bad for him, Jeremy took it as an affront. So for the first three days I laid off about the smoking, the heavy drinking, and kept the idea that the war had hurt him to myself.
But I couldn’t remain silent after what happened. This was not just bad habits. But when I suggested professional help, Jeremy got defensive. He said, hands up,
“Nah, fuck that, you just don’t understand. Look Tye, it’s like, you get used to that shit over there. You wake up to suicide bombers for a year, you can’t just snap out of it as soon as they ship you back.”
“You almost shot that driver.”
“Just startled me. Woke me up from a nightmare. I’m fuckin’ fine dude. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m just saying.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not like that. I don’t need a fucking shrink.”
“Look, I’m not trying to get you to do anything,” I lied. “I just want you to stay out of trouble. OK?”
“I know, I know. I’ll be all right. We going riding this afternoon?”
I nodded and he went to the back porch for a smoke. I joined him to watch the sun come up. We came inside and he grabbed his jacket off the couch, found his keys.
“I’m gonna go get some breakfast.”
“Nothin’ open but the Perkins.”
“I know. I just don’t want to be makin’ a big breakfast when Amy gets home.”
“Probably a good idea.”
“So what’s up? You gonna to tell her or what?”
“What’d you think?”
He grinned, sucked at his teeth. “You know, you don’t have to. This isn’t a big deal.”
“She’s my fucking wife, Jeremy.”
“All right, all right, I’ll see you later.”
Listening to his bronco start, I realized I didn’t want to tell my wife. Out of friendship for Jeremy, and because I hated to tell her bad news after a twelve. But when she got home, she wasn’t exhausted or in a bad mood. Happy to be home. Threw her keys on the kitchen counter, pulled her hair out of her ponytail, and asked what we’d done last night.
“Oh Jesus,” she said, when I finished. “He had the rifle out? Loaded and everything? Christ all-mighty this is a big deal Tye.”
I nodded, standing at the bedside. “I know. I know. I just don’t want to force him into anything. Give him some time to re-adjust.”
“Tye, honey, this is just too dangerous. I sympathize, but we can’t let this go. He needs to see a counselor.”
“Well what if he doesn’t want to? I can’t make him go. Nobody can.”
Her tone hardened. “Then he sure as hell can’t stay here. If something were to happen and people found out, we’d be liable.”
“Christ,” I said, sitting down next to her.
She reached over, took my hand. “I know it’s hard, honey. You’ve been friends since you were kids. But this isn’t going to just go away. He’s got to go see somebody. He needs help.”
“He just gets so defensive,” I said. “Every time I point out how hard it’s been on him, he gets angry. Like I’m implying he’s weak.”
She wrapped her arms around me, made little circles on my lower back.
“Well tell him that’s not how you feel about it. Combat’s not something people just up and get over. Look I worked with the vets at the State Home. Nobody gets used to combat. The only way to cure that trauma is to talk it out.”
“So you tell him that.”
But when Jeremy came home I didn’t. I felt like an imposter. I hadn’t been to Iraq. What the fuck did I know? We’d dropped out of college at the same time. I found a job at the local bike shop; Jason signed up for a four-year stint in the army. At the time, in 2005, I’d been OK with that. Sure things in Iraq had turned to shit, the war clearly a mistake, but what other options did Jeremy have? He was bored by school and work. Hunting, mountain biking, skiing, these only partially filled his need for adrenaline. Besides, he’d been trained as a medic in the Guards, so I figured he’d be safer than most. But I didn’t really consider the choice my friend was making. Recalling my lack of concern over his decision, it now felt wrong to tell him what to do with the consequences. But however it might humiliate or hurt me, the best thing for Jeremy was to convince him to see a psychiatrist. I decided—as we left the house to ride on Crow Peak—that I would wait until we were good and drunk that night to bring it up.
After the ride, we stopped at the house to change. I invited Amy to Flanagan’s, but she turned me down. When Jeremy was outside, she called from the kitchen, where she was getting dinner for our cats.
“Did you talk to him yet?”
My hand on the doorknob, watching Jeremy outside.
“Not yet,” I said. “I’ll bring it up over beers.”
“All right. But I don’t want him staying here until he agrees to goes in. OK?”
We drank Guinness and Boddingtons until the bar got crowded at ten thirty. I never found the right moment to tell Jeremy my wife’s ultimatum. He was in a good mood, catching up with Brandon the bartender. Eventually we got so drunk I doubted he’d remember or understand it. I decided he wasn’t going to wake up tonight, no matter how many logging trucks drove by. So maybe Amy would let it slide. When we left the bar I was shitfaced, but Jason was near blacked out. His left eye wouldn’t remain open, and he fell off his bike twice before we left the sidewalk. Once on the street he weaved badly back and forth across the centerline.
At Big Park, halfway home, we got stopped by a black and white. When he hit us with his spotlight Jason pulled off the road, walked slowly across the sidewalk to the trunk of a nearby black walnut. The cop hopped out of his car, bundled in a black winter parka.
“Hey,” he snapped, aiming his flashlight. “Your serving all over. You two been drinking?”
Jeremy flashed a big smile at me and my chest tightened with fear and excitement. “All fuckin’ night, asshole,” he shouted, and leapt back on his bike. I spit out a profanity and pedaled after him. Looking over my shoulder I saw the cop get back in his car, roar after us.
Up ahead, Jeremy looked almost sober, ducking low branches and laughing as he carefully maneuvered across the icy sidewalks.
“Jeremy!” I yelled between heavy breaths, “where the fuck are you going?” But I already knew.
We reached Spearfish Creek on the western border of the park. It was shallow here, the wet stones showing clear and bright beneath the moon-lit water. Heaving our bikes up like triathletes, we splashed across, stumbling on the algae-coated streambed. We crossed an empty field behind the old power station, then a glade of shrub oak. The cop would have to drive all the way around the park, we knew, and by then we’d be long gone. It was possible we’d get picked up when we had to cross Main Street, especially if the cop had reported us. But we’d probably slip through. As this thought flashed across my mind, I suddenly felt lucid and supremely aware and alive. My freezing shoes, Jeremy’s low form ahead, the crunching grass below my wheels, the puff of my breath over my handlebars all felt intensely real.
We came to the road leading to the east entrance of the park. There was a gate at this end, closed in the summer to traffic, but open outside of the tourist season. As we approached I saw that it was closed tonight, and I remembered the big hockey game they’d had in the east side of the park that afternoon. The chain-link looked visible to me in the moonlight, and I started to slow, ready to toss my bike over and keep going. But when I saw Jeremy a dozen feet away from it and still pedaling hard, I screamed his name out.
He saw it just as I yelled, but too late. He went over the handlebars when his wheel hit, and crashed face-first into the fence. I threw my bike aside to find Jason on his knees, holding his face, blood pouring from his mouth, half his front teeth missing. By the time the cop arrived, he was pacing in the road, spitting blood and tiny pieces of enamel.
Two days later, after the orthodontist had built a bridge for his shattered front teeth, and Amy had come home from her mother’s, I came to the hospital to pick him up.
“I need a fucking drink man,” he said in a hollow lisp. “I can’t sleep.”
“What, the Vicodin ain’t working?” He grabbed his green duffel bag next to his chair in the waiting room.
“Yeah it works OK, but it ain’t the same. And I’m almost out anyway. I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”
“Yeah but you can’t drink right? ’Cause’ it’ll fuck up the antibiotics?” He shrugged.
When we got in the car, I asked in a level voice, “So what’s the deal?”
“They said they’ll drop the charges if I agree to go to counseling. Attend the veteran’s group. And AA.” He shook his head. “Goddamn. What a fuckin’ deal.”
I didn’t mention that the police had already let me off when I told them the story about the logging truck.
“Doesn’t sound that bad. You’d rather go to jail?”
“Oh yeah,” Jeremy said, voice thick with saracasm. “That’s what he said, that he’d worked a deal for me, because I’m a veteran. Like we were fucking hurting anyone on bikes.”
As we left the parking lot, this new reality seemed to sink in, and Jeremy’s face got stony.
“Fuckin’ pig,” he said. “Goddamn it, I don’t have time for this shit.” He turned to me. “Will you drive me to Sheridan?”
I thought about what Amy had said. Sheridan, the drinking, they were all just ways to avoid dealing with his demons. I let out a sigh.
“Jeremy,” I said, “why don’t you just go to the fucking meetings? It’s not like you have a job right now. And it can’t be that bad. Besides, Amy’s not going to let you crash at the house if you don’t. Come on, I know you want to stay in Spearfish anyway.”
His eyes closed to slits and his mouth turned to a hard line. He spoke looking down at his feet.
“I sign up and everybody’s like, ‘hey you’re a hero, we love you.’ And when I get over to that sandy shithole, everybody writes the same thing: ‘be careful, we love you, come home safe.’ Then I come home, raise a little hell, and everybody’s treats me like a fuckin’ child. That goddamn pig. Makes me want to jump the fucker.”
He spit out the last word, slammed a fist onto the dash. Watching his anger, a new viewpoint slide into my mind. I realized that I actually had no authority over him, and that it wasn’t my place to suggest he see a counselor. He hadn’t hurt anyone but himself. No matter what, it was his goddamn right to go to get drunk, cause trouble, and avoid help. They were his memories, nobody else’s. We were all colluding civilians, trying to make a soldier into something he wasn’t. All for our convenience, not his. I said slowly,
“Look Jeremy, I’ll drive you to Sheridan, if you want me to.”
He was breathing hard, staring at the floor. He didn’t speak for a minute. Finally he cursed, rubbed his face. “Fuck man, I’m stuck. Ain’t a thing I can do about it. You’re right, I don’t want to leave, have to live with the old man. It’s just such a pain in the ass, putting up with this shit. But they’ll get me one way or another. No way around it. I got no other place, but with you guys. But I’m not quitting drinking, even if I go to the goddamn meetings. Shit, I drank more before the war.”
This wasn’t true. But I felt compelled to sympathize, as a penance maybe, for not speaking my mind when he joined. For endorsing a man when he was in danger across the sea, and rejecting him when he returned, a product of that danger.
“You know Amy, she’s just worried about you. It not like she wants to kick you out.”
“I’ll do anything I can to help man, money, whatever.”
“Yeah?” he raised an eyebrow at me, the beginning of a grin.
“Yeah man, anything.”
“All right, then let’s start with a fuckin’ drink, huh?”
“Here,” I said, taking the turn to Queen City. “Let’s get a bottle. I need one too.”
He relaxed in his seat. “Now you’re talking.”