“I didn’t want to have to shoot him, so I just started yelling really loud in his face. He looked so scared.”
It was the middle of the night and Roger was sitting up in our bed looking straight ahead, speaking aloud to the darkness in our bedroom. It was February 2005.
“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked, struggling to open my eyes. I sat up.
This was the week after Roger came back from Iraq in 2005. He volunteered to go over in December as a casualty replacement. This means he was taking the place of a marine who had passed, been injured, or was missing for another reason.
He said he was excited to go, but I knew him better. I mean, this is why he trained for over a decade. He was supposed to be excited. He was expected to pound his chest with his tight fists and stand on the rooftop of our Shamrock house and declare to the United States that he was ready to go.
Roger was the type to get on the floor with puppies, save toads from under our minivan, and he even knew how to create the most perfect rose out of pink frosting. He was forced to kill a snake once in our house on Tarawa Terrace, and before he did, he said, “I’m sorry.” He was a different kind of warrior. A compassionate warrior, one who wanted to help make Iraq a better place.
When he left for Iraq, he traveled in baggy jeans, a light gray sweatshirt, and sneakers. He checked weapons and his old, green seabag at the airport. He would fly to Kuwait first, then travel to Iraq by road.
“Why are you flying in civies?” I asked him. It concerned me because he never traveled in civilian attire.
“It was in my orders.” Usually he was with hundreds of other marines, all dressed the same, each smelling like pine scented barracks cleaner, with babies on their hips and crying girlfriends or wives hanging heavily on their camouflaged arms. This time, he was with one other person in civies. I still don’t know his name.
It was weeks before Christmas 2004 and I remember it seeming dark, not the sky, the everything. I wasn’t inconsolably sad, but afraid. Numb. We’d gone through many deployments before but never during a war. At the time, we had three sons. Tyler was 13, Sammy was six, and Max was three. It was a fast goodbye. A dazed one.
Their unit suffered many mortar attacks at their camp while he was there, but he learned to expect it. It was the shortest deployment we ever went through. He came home on Valentine’s Day 2005. The entire unit was there for a full one, but because he joined them late, this time in Iraq was short.
While he was there and when he came back, his favorite things to talk to me about were the young Iraqi children he played soccer with and the dog who he befriended. He was thin when he returned so I wonder if he gave that pooch all his food. I wish I knew more details, but what I do know is that when he talked about those young kids and that dog, he seemed more like Roger. When he talked about other parts of Iraq, he was robotic. But what he didn’t want to talk about just found its way out in the middle of the night.
“I was guarding a bridge. My only order was to make sure nobody crossed it. If they did, I had to shoot.”
He told me there was an old man who did not understand English who wanted to cross. He seemed desperate, afraid.
“I kept yelling as loud as I could at him. I said ‘no’ over and over again.” His mouth was turned down as he explained this to me, and his lower lip shook just a little. Roger wasn’t a yeller.
“What happened?” I asked after some quiet moments.
“He turned around and went back,” he said quietly. This wasn’t his first restless night of sleep since he came home, and not the last.
“He just looked so afraid,” he kept saying.
Not everyone who is in war is a cold-hearted killer who craves the action and wants to fight. Like Roger, he went to Iraq to help make it a better place for those who had to live there. He did it for those who called it home. He did it for the young soccer players and the stray dogs.
I wonder if he would have ever gone for help. It was a different time then, almost 20 years ago. Social media wasn’t everywhere so there wasn’t as much chatter about PTSD and the stigma was there shaking its crooked finger at men’s egos.
Four years later he joined the National Guard and then went to Iraq with them and never came back. He never had the chance to get help for things he saw, and I never really did understand how much he needed to talk about it. I didn’t want to push him, but didn’t want to let it go either. All I can hope for now is that he really is resting in true, self-forgiving peace, and that there are therapists in heaven.
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