“All men who go to war die kid. Anyone who comes back, well, they came back cheated.”
In a poorly lit bunker that reeked of smoke and strong alcohol, Lieutenant Dandridge took a sip out of his canteen and inserted the magazine into his rifle. His hard, bloodshot eyes stared right through me, as if I wasn’t there. “I’ve been cheated too many times,” he said.
Those words from the first night I was deployed to Iraq would stick with me for the rest of my life. Even after I got an honorable discharge for a knee injury and returned to civilian life in England, I never escaped the battlefield. My hands shook when I tied my shoes, and I ducked every time I heard a helicopter. At night, my war experiences haunted me in the form of nightmares, in which I hauled dead civilians out of cars with scarlet blood stained on my hands.
You cannot possibly comprehend or describe what war is like unless you’ve experienced killing other human beings for survival. The deafening roar of bursting mortars and gunfire assaults all your senses; the smell of death and machinery overwhelms your conscience. It is incomprehensible. On my best days, I told myself I killed to survive, and on my worst, I told myself I committed acts of madness. The only thing that kept me sane was my wife and church pastor, who helped me find a software engineering job and recover from my knee injury. During the next two years, I slowly adjusted to normal life, or as normal as it could ever get.
Then one spring day, as I pulled into my driveway on 42 Berkeley Drive, London, some neighborhood kids set off loud fireworks around the street corner. Instead of fireworks, however, I heard the shrapnel as it shredded through the trailers where my comrades had lived. Even though it had been two years since fighting in Iraq, I felt the thunder of mortar rounds and rockets shake the ground.
“Contact! Contact!” Sergeant Leighton called over the radio. “IED, small arms, mortars! One KIA, three WIA.” There was a burst of staccato gunfire and a frantic cry. I cursed at the radio as we hurried to the scene, knowing we were too late for at least one of our comrades. “Where are you, where are you?” the sergeant cried.
I jumped off the driver’s seat and bolted out of the Rover sedan, fearing it would explode. My heart raced dramatically, beating like a military drum inside my chest, and every breath grew more rapid and shallow than the last. I searched the clear sky for bomber aircraft and the street corners for ground troops, but the enemy did not reveal his face. Instead, I caught sight of a a Cadbury wrapper blowing down the sidewalk, a blackbird rustling birch tree leaves, a neighbor walking her Collie, and two little girls strolling down the sidewalk, carrying backpacks. Then a second firework went off.
My men and I dragged the three wounded soldiers into a bunker, gasping for breath. One man appeared so pale and bloodied that I failed to recognize him as my own soldier. I did not know if he was alive or dead, but it did not seem to matter. We would all be dead soon enough. An Iraqi girl ran away from us crying, a bullet wound in her shoulder.
“Dad, Dad?” Charity, my seven year old daughter, called. She and my younger daughter Audrey were walking home from the school bus. “Why are you hiding?”
I cautiously stood up from the side the car and pushed my daughters toward the house. “Contact, wait out. Get inside now,” I commanded in a hushed tone.
“You said we would take the tube to the London Eye,” Audrey protested.
“Get inside, that’s an order,” I replied sharply.
Once we entered the house, I immediately locked all the doors and windows, my hands trembling as if I were drunk. I checked every room in the house for intruders, including the chimney and the storeroom cellar, and turned off half the lights in the house. Once I had secured the building, I paced back and forth in the lounge restlessly, keeping alert at my post.
My wife Janet set down the newspaper she had been reading on the sofa and scrutinized me closely. “What’s ailing you? Are you taking the girls to the London Eye?”
“Not today,” I replied, my eyes darting between the windows and around the room.
Just then, a knock was heard at the front door, which caused me to recoil in fright. Charity hurried to answer it, but I sprang to the door and grabbed the handle before she could.
“No one answers the door,” I instructed quietly. “It’s not safe yet.”
“What’s are you talking about?” Janet demanded. “What’s wrong?”
Charity tugged on my hand with misty eyes. “Please, daddy, it’s just my friend.”
“Let me check first,” I decided, squeezing her hand. “Wait until I give my word. Don’t make any sudden or loud movements.”
Janet called after me, but I ran upstairs to the room above anyway and looked through the window. There appeared to be a girl and a middle-aged woman standing on the porch, who knocked once again on the door. Judging by their clothes and their body movement, I realized that the visitors were civilians, not intruders. Without a car, they must have walked to our house from somewhere close by, which meant they were a resident of the neighborhood.
I cautiously crept down the steps and told Charity that her friend was at the door. As Charity opened it and went to play outside, Janet pulled me aside in the kitchen. “What’s going on?” she pleaded in a firm whisper. “You’re trembling, you can’t sit still, and your face is deathly pale. Tell me what’s wrong, although I fear I already know.”
“I heard bombs, Janet,” I admitted, struggling to keep my voice steady. My breathing quickened. “There were mortar rounds, rockets, and IEDs, outside our house.”
Janet’s gaze unwavered, but her voice shook slightly. “Calm down. You’re getting yourself all worked up, and you’re scaring the kids. You’re scaring me, James. You’re not in Iraq anymore; you’re in London, in a safe neighborhood guarded by the police of the Scotland Yard.”
“But I heard them,” I insisted, panic rising in me. “You’ve got to believe me.”
“You heard fireworks, James, not bombs,” Janet corrected, tears collecting in her eyes. “I know because… I heard it too.”
Seeing her tears somehow snapped me back into reality. I wrapped my arms around my wife and held her in a close embrace, stroking her hair. She embraced me back and rested her head on my shoulder. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I just want-”
“I know,” she coaxed back. “Just breathe. Everything’s going to be okay.”
As I began to breathe slowly and deeply, my heart rate decreased and my panic subsided. I felt the tension in my shoulders leave as my muscles relaxed.
“Just breathe,” Janet repeated, her own body relaxing as well.
When I closed my eyes, I remembered something a comrade had once said to me. “The only thing they never tell you in boot camp is to just breathe.” He was laying down on the bed in the barracks, with a gun concealed underneath his pillow. “Every breath is a gift from heaven. You never know which will be your last. So before I go into the chaos of the battlefield, I always say a silent prayer… and breathe.”