Landing at New York's JFK airport felt normal enough. I had flown several times over the span of the previous two years. Before then, I never stepped foot aboard an airplane.
Required to wear my dress uniform, despite my formal discharge from active duty, was not bothersome. Although I'd heard of returning soldiers being spit on, cursed as baby killers, threatened too, I felt no shame for my actions. Because of that, I'd spent enough time at the PX buying every ribbon, braid, and medal I'd earned and wore them proudly as if they might shield me from something unanticipated.
I suppose, I wanted to make my WWII father proud of his only son, maybe even a little envious since the award I felt most proud of was awarded only to infantrymen who saw actual combat. Dodging bullets, or squirming in the mud while rounds hissed the air overhead. Our enemy used red tracers. Every third one lit up like Satan's saliva. Lift your head two, three inches and die.
Of course, we were not always face down in the mud. Often we gave better than we got. My greatest accomplishment, I knew as I walked along the concourse returning to life as a civilian, was that I lived to do it. The heroes did not walk, were carried under the drapery of the Stars and Stripes.
Clearly, I recall standing at the top of that last flight of steps and seeing my entire family below watching for me. At first, they did not see me. Then, my mother did and all of them did.
I also recall how I felt. Emotionless. I expected to feel joyous, wanted to feel exuberant. Even the smile that moved my mouth, failed my eyes. I looked down a flight of steps and saw strangers and I did not understand why.
There was something very wrong. Not a thing I could see really. Everyone appeared to be the same as they had looked a year earlier.
As if standing outside myself, I watched our interaction, felt myself doing the expected, heard myself speaking the proper words, but that cold calculation of the survivor witnessed this return to life without touching its warmth. Something had died within me and until that moment, I had not missed it and by then, I knew it was too late to regain it.
Perhaps my family and later my friends had anticipated actions or reactions from me that were not forthcoming. Or what they saw of me was obviously not who I'd been before joining the Army.
I did not know, but knew some impenetrable barrier erected itself between us. That's not to say they treated me differently, but yet pulled inward as if wondering who returned in my shoes.
A worm had hatched deep inside me in dark recesses where once streamers of happiness took root to radiate out in uncontrolled laughter. Childhood memories and the black footprints of their passing into oblivion absorbed more than light. I resided in a place where two of me lived.
Days into weeks, and I discarded old friends, my old employer, old girlfriend, found new people who never knew me before an M16 became my closest friend, a belt of ammunition suspended my ego.
Waking me unexpectedly proved threatening as combat wariness drove me to reach for my weapon, fight without if needed.
Dreams drove tomorrow into the trenches of yesterday's deaths. The sound of helicopters raised goose bumps as fear and readiness drilled hot pulses of adrenaline through me. I can recall falling to the floor at mealtime when someone dropped a plate and the noise explosively filled my mind with fight or flight.
The worm in my head demanded more than I had to give, and soon the only solution was attempting to drown the bastard. At first, it was beer, then whiskey, then drugs, and back to alcohol. Sleep rode waves of liquid oblivion. On the flipside, rode shimmering flames of rage.
I feared owning a gun and drove my car fast enough to rattle every loose bolt. My music was loud, insulting, ripping apart the layers of society that dared approach me.
Yet, most people who knew me never saw what I experienced, never knew of my extreme anger, the need to run, to crawl into those dark recesses, and dig archaeologically for a past that could never again exist.
Ten years. I spent ten years living as a ghost. I learned to co-exist and formed true friendships, but always the hand on my back drove me relentlessly off the path and deeper into a forest without sunlight.
Finally, I awoke in a city nearly on the opposite side on the continent. Physical pain crippled me. Crawling to the bathroom, I wept for the first time. I wept for what I'd done in war. I wept for release, wept for forgiveness, wept for the everlasting embrace of death, or the opportunity to finally, live a true life.
Begging a God I felt sure turned His back on me the first time I raised a weapon, aimed, and pulled the trigger with the intention of killing an unknown man or woman, something changed.
A spark lit the dark recesses, where childhood dreams hid under a low small bed with sailboats on the blanket, and small toy car waiting where I might reach them when moonlight woke me in the middle of the night to witness the wonders that lay entwined by billions of stars.
Hope peeled away a first onionskin layer of pain. I prayed then, feeling God's gentle and encouraging touch maybe for the first time in my life. I promised to give up using chemicals that numbed, drown, and muffled my emotions. Promised to walk whatever path He laid before me without reaching for false assistance; walk it without questioning its destination and attempting to fulfill the deeds passed to me along the way.
The pain that crippled me lifted, and I fled to the nearest emergency room. When I returned to my dreadful underground apartment, which had matched the place I lived in my mind, I did the unthinkable. I poured out six bottles of beer, and never touched one for any reason since. Promise kept.
Yet, I cannot say that the dark recesses glow only with embers of past joy, and hope for the future. The memories of war weigh like cast iron chains, and require serious effort to lift and move them at 2 a.m. An effort that those I love ease with their love, and the path lies open, fogged in by occasional doubt, but clear enough for the next step.