Eye's Across the Styx
Dear Dawes... You asked me why I joined. That was a mystery to me in the desert and now that I know, I wanted to share it with you.
I’m sitting in the SeaTac Interzone aviary, rare sun pouring through. No sign of birds yet. Baggage claim buzzer and carousels' metallic rotation vibrating through the murmur of travelers, luggage wheels clicking over seams in the tile. The air is heavy and everything moves accordingly. Still waking up, all of us in this forgiving in-between.
I had lunch with my dad's younger brother yesterday at a little Vietnamese cafe in the international district. He ordered two beers the same way he said he remembered doing in Saigon. He was eager to tell me everything about my dad I could think of to ask. He came alive with his love and admiration for him and revealed him to me in unexpected ways.
My uncle was drafted during the war, deployed with an infantry unit the month my dad returned home. He filled in a lot of the gaps in my dad's military history. According to my mother, my dad never fired his weapon and was basically rear-ish—perhaps something he told her by way of telling himself. Simpler that way, I suppose. My uncle didn’t believe that was true. According to his DD-214, my dad was wounded, and that he received a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and an Air Medal Badge. His unit was often exposed and vulnerable. “He was in the shit,” my uncle said. “Does it matter if he ever pulled the trigger?”
As if remembering him was not enough, my uncle has the same eyes as my dad, eerily so. It was surreal. These silvery blue portals. I had to catch myself from falling into them as if to recover my dad from the other side. Same laugh, too. I wanted to believe it was him. For a while, I pretended it was, that we were not just father and son, but combat veterans sitting across from each other. I believed that if I had been to war, he would see me and understand that I forgave him for all the violence and chaos. He would be so sad because I understood, but all would begin to heal. Sitting across from my uncle, I silently imagined that alternate reality and, without saying anything, he wiped tears from his eyes. We drank our beers and ordered two more.
You asked me why I joined. That was a mystery to me in the desert and now that I know, I wanted to share it with you.
And that’s it, really. A glimpse behind the curtain and the show goes on. No closure but what I do now for myself and future family (I’m seeing a girl. You’d dig her, man. She’s a goof and a fox. She shakes me out of nightmares and makes me run with her before dawn—go figure. I’m falling hard).
Heading to my gate. Layover in Incheon, then Saigon. See you when I see you.
My father died in his favorite chair while holding my mother’s hand. I read it in an email. A U.S. flag was draped over his body when they wheeled him out of the house. I was drunk in the red-light district of Nuremberg when he died, three days before I found out and one month before deployment. In the Army’s infinite good taste, we left Germany on Thanksgiving Day, 2008, and soon were stationed at a small combat outpost east of Baghdad. It was a rough year in the desert. In the first four months our battalion lost 64 vehicles. People I knew died. Candy died because he was the first one through a door rigged to two blue jugs of homemade explosives. Some kid from our unit went ballistic at the mental health clinic in Balad and killed five other patients with a 9mm. A couple soldiers shot themselves. We all drove over IEDs or land mines. You just learned to live with it and to protect yourself from the truth the best you could. For a time, I thought I wanted the chance to kill somebody more than I wanted to go home—though the urge seemed most pointed in long stretches of boredom. We would lay in ambushes through the night not even moving to piss, fingering our triggers, gutting Copenhagen to stay awake, giving ourselves ulcers waiting to see something, anything that might justify why we were there at all. I can honestly say we likely would have shot a kid holding a sand shovel if he was on the road past dark. Not to say we didn’t kill anyone, but most of the people we saw had already been shot or scattered to pieces by Apache gunships. I felt pretty dead myself when I did finally come home and would tell people at the bar that I was living on borrowed time, even though it always felt cliche. We would laugh and get drunk and sing songs like we were in an old movie.
Ever since I got out, it seems like once or twice a year I would hear about one of the guys I deployed with dying on another deployment or after they got out. Billy got shot point-blank in the face by a crooked Afghan cop. Hall died when his truck got blown up. Vasquez, too. Moon, Mularz, Pearman, and Tittman all overdosed on opioid cocktails. After he got out, Dawes became addicted to pills the VA gave him for back pain. His girlfriend found him in the garage with a shotgun in his lap and a hole in the side of his neck. He was too fucked up to keep the barrel in his mouth but bled out anyway. I read that in an email too.
I miss those guys. I miss my dad. Sometimes I drink whiskey late at night and cry like an abandoned child. Sometimes I go looking for someone to punch me in the face. Sometimes I run my dog. Sometimes I fall in love like a plummeting anchor.
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Ulf Pike is a fifth generation Montanan and infantry combat veteran of OIF 08-10. He read books and wrote about them at Montana State University while fighting wildfires with the Forest service in the summers. For the past five seasons Ulf has staffed a fire lookout tower in Idaho with his dog Zuul where he recently completed his first book. His work has appeared in The Wrath Bearing Tree and SmokeLong Quarterly.