I wake up this day just like every other—not actually sure if I ever went to sleep. I step outside while it’s still dark, just before the sun really starts to light anything up. I walk around the gun pit and think about my day, my life, my family, and this hell on earth of a COP that I’ve come to love. The only thing I hear this early in the morning are the few guys on guard duty smoking, waiting for shift to end and the distant sound of the Afghans praying. No one actually sees me; they never do. I’ve become very good at not being seen after doing this for so long.
Most people I served with can’t stand to be alone, but it’s different for me. I’ve grown accustomed to it. In my solace I find the only peace I’ve ever known. There’s something about being here that makes me normal. My friends and family don’t understand what it’s like. Before I left, I wanted nothing more than to stay home, but after months here I don’t think I can ever go back—not as the same person at least. I don’t miss home like the others. I don’t spend time with the guys I grew up with anymore. I ignore everyone who tries to open up and talk about anything serious, and I always give an answer that’s short, with a false smile and a joke.
I walk around as per my usual routine, minding my own business. I stop first in the ammo bunker to make sure all my mags are filled, check that my gear is set up right and that everything is where it needs to be in case I need to get in it quickly. I then walk outside, climb up on top of the wall surrounding the gun pit, and check out the mountains and think. What’s weird about today is that my buddy came out not too long after me. He’s a chubby dork, but I love him to death. He could always make me laugh. I looked over at him, and the first thing I said was “What the hell are you doing up? You never get up early.” He was a lazy, illiterate dude, but good god he was useful in combat. His response in his famously agitating broken English way was, “Just chilling man. What are you doing up there? Thinking about life, being all smart and shit?” He constantly busted my balls about everything, which in part helped me keep my sanity—though I’d never let him know that.
After sitting on the wall for a while, we decide we should go clean the gun considering we’re both up anyways. We might as well be productive. An hour or two passes, and we just talk. If it weren’t for my buddy, I don’t know how I would have made it through the deployment. He had a way of making me smile, even on the roughest day. That day he could tell something was up, but he knew better than to ask. My problem wasn’t that I hated my life or that I was depressed. It was that I just didn’t know how to respond to anything anymore or how to form a connection with anyone.
All I remember after that was hearing a loud boom. It echoed throughout the COP. It didn’t even phase me. I honestly had become dead inside. While everyone else ran, I just remember taking a knee and continuing to clean the gun. To this day I don’t know if it was complacency or if I just didn’t give a damn anymore. I zoned out, not hearing the next explosion or any of our returning fire.
Then my best friend in the world came sprinting back, and he ripped me up from my knee and screamed at me, “You stupid motherfucker! Let’s go you stupid fuck!” I started to realize where I was, and I ran to the bunker to gear up. Within minutes, we were back outside ready to start shooting. When we got going, we were relentless. I remember running and loading round after round after round. The smoke from all the rounds made my eyes burn, and I couldn’t breathe, but I knew better than to stop firing. If we stopped firing that meant someone else was possibly pinned down. The COP relied on us for defense, and we never let them down.
All I could hear in the whole valley was the echoing of 105 mm shells landing one after another on the enemies’ position. I’ve busted my ass so hard by this point that I’m literally moving off of pure determination. This is what I live for. This is what makes me feel truly alive. Finally after almost an entire day of shooting, and when everyone outside the wire gets back in, we can relax and take a break. It was miserable. It was exhausting, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. As the guys outside the wire came in, most of them stopped past our gun pit. Everyone from Majors to Sergeant Majors came in and shook our hands, telling us thanks for saving their asses. One told us, “God damn, you guys are some bad motherfuckers.” We always joke how anyone can walk a mountain, but it takes a real man to sling rounds like we do.
Those pats on the back meant something to me. I don’t know why, but they made me think that everything we had done, all the pain and suffering we had gone through, was completely worth it. After a while, we started to relax and talk about everything that had happened. By that point the thrill had worn off for me and I sank back to where I was before. This is why I can never go home. I only feel alive when I’m here shooting rounds and doing some form of good.
No one will ever understand how war affects the mind. War is terrible, and I hate the pain it causes, but something about being in those mountains made me whole. I was depressed not because I was there but because I knew I eventually had to leave. Most of my platoon can’t wait to get home. They have wives, children, and family they wish to get back to. I have those things as well, but I don’t want to go home. I’m afraid I’m different, changed, scarred, and not for the better. My great sadness was leaving the only place I ever truly loved. I miss it every day.