As I looked into his eyes and squeezed the plastic bottle one last time, I knew something had changed in me; but I didn't understand what until about three years later.
Coming to the end of my second tour in Afghanistan, I was for all intensive purposes - doing okay. We had had a hard tour. Water was not always readily available, the food was not something we looked forward to - there is only so much pasta and sweetcorn a man can take. The insurgents had fought hard and resisted our incursions in the Upper Gereskh Valley. Overall, we had done a good job with only a few casualties across our area of operations.
My immediate commander brought me back into the main camp for a few weeks to normalise before we returned to civilisation - he said that I had gone 'feral'. I wasn't opposed to the idea of sitting in a nice air-conditioned operations room with good coffee, a TV that played Aussie aerobics, and snacks from home. My life had gone from 500mph to slowing right down, and I began to think back through what had happened to me in the previous six months. I'd been shot at, and shot back. I'd experienced first hand a competent man making an incompetent mistake, and the result was a bomb being dropped perilously close to my position. As a platoon, we had been largely successful in finding and avoiding IED's (improvised explosive devices) - our only major incident was thankfully minor, when one bomb in a devious three bomb ambush partially detonated. The man who was caught in the center of this sudden dust cloud was lucky enough to limp through the sand with nothing more than a fractured foot and an injured mood.
As I sat there thinking back, I couldn't help but feel that it had been pretty bad ass. I had filmed the majority of my experiences on a helmet camera and had some exciting footage. At the time I felt invincible, I felt like I had ascended to new heights of manliness. It didn't take long for my life to fall apart. During those weeks I spent in the air conditioned operations room we received devastatingly accurate motar and rocket fire. It came at random times and was incredibly unnerving. Also, an Afghan police checkpoint was hit by a suicide car bomb that devastated the entire base. A wave of casualties came to our base and I volunteered to assist the overwhelmed medics. The man I treated was dying, although at the time I believed that he could be saved. His condition was hopeless, his body disfigured. All we could do was make his ending a painless one. He passed away staring into my eyes, and everytime I tried to close his eye lids - they popped back open.
I left Afghanistan not long after, full of bravado. I subsequently, left the Army not long after, still full of bravado. I felt like I had done something that no other man could measure up to. I felt like ten men would fit into my shadow with room to spare. Not long after though, I began to fall apart. I became irrationally depressed and agitated. I found it incredibly hard to relax and paced around my one bedroom apartment for long periods of time. To cover this up, I worked out two or three times a day, I dated as many women as I could fit into my schedule, and I worked three jobs. Doing all these things made me feel like I was doing well. It made me feel complete as a man. Looking back all I was doing was putting a small bandage on a large psychological injury.
Fast forward three years. I travelled the west coast of South America, taught English for a year in Colombia, and fell in love. I worked in the United States teaching young girls how to shoot. I went to China for a year and taught English to babies. I travelled through Thailand, Cambodia, and India. I saw all the beauty the world has to offer - sunrises, sunsets, mountain tops, glaciers, white beaches, and blue seas. All the while I became the man I should be, the man I was before Afghanistan.
The hardest thing I have ever done is to admit to myself that I am broken. When I left for South America, I thought I had the world figured out. I thought I knew how humanity worked - and I didn't like it. My love, my experiences, and my encounters taught me the contrary. The world taught me to love things again, love taught me how to be a man again.
To be a man I had to admit that I was the problem, not the solution. It wasn't easy, but I was helped along the way. My definition of what it is to be a man no longer contains the words warrior, veteran, or survivor. For me, becoming a man again was about accepting that I was in danger. In danger of drowning in my own darkness. Now, I have come to terms with what war has done to me. I don't feel any sense of bravado. I, without a doubt, suffer the effects of post traumatic stress. In the past, I have medicated myself with prescription pain killers, alcohol, women, and other distractions. I am lucky to have a regular dosage of the one medicine that helps me - love. True love, is a force more powerful than any distraction. It has brought me to conclusions. It has taken me away from depressive intrusions of the mind. It has made me a man. It has saved me.
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