Palm trees don’t know that it’s Christmas. Civilian life doesn’t know your tour is over. Leaves swaying soft in a sunny wind sound like a Cathedral Christmas choir. If you listen hard enough beyond the mortar shell explosions in your head, you can almost hear the echo of a church organ fade into wind on its way to the ocean. That is the soft woman’s voice Away in a Manger, in Afghanistan.
But you aren’t in Afghanistan. You are in an open field in Florida. One that is dotted with carnival rides caught in different Sugar Plum Fantasy stages of transformation. Some are folded tightly aboard their truck trailers, still caught closed, transient, like your Veteran soul. Others bend to the sky, cranks and hydraulics move weathered mechanical arms tipped with glossy cars. Empty seats that will be filled by nightfall, spinning with screams and the giggles of a carnival rock soundtrack you intend not to hear. You only take in calm Christmas songs, fed to your ears by a pocket device. Each perfectly pitched piano sonata calms the shaking of your machine oil stained mechanic’s hands. The choir rounding The Carol of the Bells will soar and plunge in perfect sync with the roller coaster, like it did the night before.
The reflection of your workday ahead has made your coffee cold. Cold, but black and sweet as you have always drank it. Now, sitting on a trailer hitch, pushing back shoulder length amber hair covered in a Marine patched camouflage hat, you take a sip. Old boots kick at field grass lacking the beauty of yours at home, Kentucky.
“Kentucky is the only state that could have succeeded from the Union! Everything we need to live, we can find in our own backyard.” ~ is the statement you shared with fellow Kentuckians and a Northern girl. And maybe it was your ‘backyard’ that kept you alive. Your senses have been trained from boy to ‘seven time black belt’ to react or retract. So now, you did the latter.
Though it was a military man that coined the phrase ‘moral injury’, categories cannot stop pain. The pain from images so real, it can turn night into day. Military training taught you a code. A code of honor, Geneva conventions, a moral integrity, that what you fight for is worthy: freedom for your country, and the ones you love that live there. But when you are not fighting another army, the lines begin to gray. Combat with civilians, shots fired at a pregnant woman or armed child, a dog; leave one in a different place when you are home again, stateside. Only the careless tongue would say: ‘There are no rules in war’. You’re a Marine. Marines care deeply about what keeps them ‘clean’, and it is the rules of war that ‘keep us clean’.
Another carnival dinosaur awakens and telescopes into the sky. It scrapes and groans as it limbers to a smoother movement, now slashing the sun. Corridors of caravans pull snug to create a fairway of games, toys from China, steamy food trailers and inflated rooms with plastic walls. The sounds and smells buzz and pull you back inside a Humvee, knee to knee with buddies in desert combat boots. Afghanistan doesn’t know it’s Christmas. The whistle of an incoming mortar is loud and sheer. A shadow crosses your face and taps your hat brim down.
“Wake up, Sleeping Beauty!” Your colder coffee spills. You accept an outreached hand to pull yourself up from the trailer hitch, and dust off the past. The smile and slap on your back makes you know you are among those who made it out of the Humvee ~ alive, to walk now across the fairground, though with a limp. The ground crackles as if it were that same ground that was on fire. Red and Green. Silver Bells. Peace on Earth. War is Hell. Tinsel shrap metal lingers in another Carny Christmas nightmare daydream, and you begin your work day.
© ruth follmann
Please consider a donation this year to the men and women who have served to protect our freedom with their lives. We salute you all, Merry Christmas.
PTSD Foundation of America ~ Providing Hope and Healing for the Unseen Wounds of War
Soldier’s Best ★ Friend ~ You fought for us. Now it’s time to help you back home!
Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, Fort Myers, Florida
If you need to talk to someone yourself – please call the Veterans Crisis Line @ 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 911.