A Soldier Died Today

Only the dead have seen the end of war.
―Plato

Today I found out that a close friend’s nephew had died when I received an email with the details of the funeral mass.

I was a bit curious. We have been friends since childhood. We grew up together on the same street in Phoenix. Her nephew could not be much older than my nephews. I looked him up on Facebook. Shock.

His Timeline photo was a military shot of someplace overseas. His occupation listed as; Army Gunner. I began to get sick to my stomach. He looked young in his photos. Maybe late 20s or early 30s.

One of his photos showed him holding a baby girl. She looked just over a year old. In the picture, he is dressed in a uniform, holding his daughter on his lap adoringly gazing at her. On the left side of his Facebook Page, I saw that one of his Likes was Single Fathers.

It is amazing to me how one can weave a story about someone you do not know by just looking at a few photos, reading what music they like, and seeing what games they play. I looked at his Friends list. He didn’t have many, although most men I know with Facebook Pages do not collect friends as women do.

This was earlier today. The day was new, and I was relatively happy. I take meds to ensure that I maintain this happy state and my mind was humming full of manufactured serotonin.

But, I could not let it go.

How did he die?
Did he die in combat?
How tragic.
That adorable little girl was left fatherless.
In his Facebook world, a mother did not exist.

Did he have cancer? My nephew’s girlfriend has cancer. Leukemia. She is waiting for a bone marrow transplant and battles death every day. Did he have leukemia?

Had he been in a car accident?
My mind wandered over possible scenarios during the morning hours.

I looked at my friend’s Facebook Page for a clue. This is beginning to sound like a Facebook story, but it is not. It merely became the place where I found out how the soldier died. Many comments of sympathies and condolences were left on her Page, including my own. I quickly glanced through these. Nothing.

In the next conversation thread, someone asked the unasked question, poised in concern.

“I am so sorry. What happened?”

My friend answered,

“He left this earth before his time.”

Oh, God. I had never considered this as an option in my death scenarios. Feeling kicked in the stomach, a part of me also understood.

So many soldiers. What they saw and lived through, one cannot fathom. Unless you had been there, too. I had not been there, but I have met soldiers who had.

Soldiers who decided that the pain was too great and the only way out was death. The soldiers I met were not successful, though, their tries were interrupted. This is how I met them. In the place where people go who are unsuccessful at suicide attempts. Yes, I was there, too, but my attempt was made not for war nightmares, but for a different kind of pain.

Pain, and the desire to escape it was the commonality that we all shared in this club. We were there, not by choice, but because we were deemed a danger to ourselves or others. My friend Amy calls it the Pajama Hilton, but it’s a psych hospital.

There were a few soldiers around during my last inpatient stay. They all shared a look of quiet desperation. They did not talk to others. One soldier sat near me during meals. He was small, gaunt and his face was red and puffy from constant crying. We did not talk, but I gave him my food during meals in the cafeteria because I had no appetite.

Actually, I snuck my food to him, because giving food away was on the Not Permitted list. He would acknowledge the gift with a brief thank you nod. I saw him during the one-hour visiting time at night, wrapped around his equally small girlfriend. This was against the strict rules, and he was always chastised for snuggling.

No touching during visits.

The one human act of contact we all craved was on the Not Permitted list. During the visiting hour, another soldier’s girlfriend brought him huge bags of candy that he would empty out on the visiting room table and offer some to all of us. We would grab up this forbidden treat and eat it quickly. Candy was also on the Not Permitted list.

But the soldier I remember most vividly arrived shortly before I left. He had just returned from Afghanistan. He was tall, angular, and didn’t look much over 21 years old. Hook-ups of any kind were discouraged in the Pajama Hilton, but nearly impossible to enforce as we were a coed population of about 60 people.

He became friends quickly with the Ice Princess, our unit trophy patient. She was dubbed this moniker by my brother who saw her during visiting hours. Tall, beautiful, and California blonde, she ruled the ward with her icy demeanor and haughty airs.

She and I checked in at the same time at the unholy hour of 2:00 am. After a few minutes, she came back out of her room and announced to the nursing staff she could not possibly sleep in the children’s bed they had assigned her, looking much like The Princess and the Pea. She was iconic cool.

So Afghan soldier and the Ice Princess soon gravitated to each other and became our beautiful Barbie and Ken. It was good. It was so very good. She lifted him out of his deep dark, and he reveled in her rapt attention.

One afternoon, in the large meeting room where we did group shares, Afghan soldier wanted to talk. He started out as we all did. Awkwardly trying to express our unhappiness into words. Trying to explain who the monsters were that said die and eventually brought us to this place with bars on the windows. But he went a little deeper–unexpectedly.

He needed to talk about what created his monsters. I cannot repeat everything he told us. Not out of some group confidentiality or loyalty, but because the horrific stories of war are unrepeatable. I will say, though, what drove him to take his life. It was the haunting memory of seeing his best friend die in his arms.

There is a tolerance level of only so much grief that human beings can bear.

Soldiers are put to this test on an exponential level and then tossed back into a world that cannot possibly understand what they have experienced. Add to this mix no mental health support and a lethal fire ignites. After the Afghan soldier finished sharing, the Ice Princess, along with several others, fled the room in tears.

I was unsuccessful at my attempt. For this, I am quite happy, because I have changed my mind and decided I want to live.

I have learned ways to cope with my depression, and I have accepted that I will likely take medications the rest of my life to calm my mood maelstrom so that I do not return to The Deep Dark Place.

My friend’s nephew did not get this second chance. His demons won.

And I get it. I understand. I have heard the voices, and I have felt the pain, and I made the decision that there was no other way out. I was fortunate, though. Someone interrupted my choice. And, as it turns out, I am so glad because it was not my time.

I wish someone had given the nephew a second chance, but I grieve because I understand that it does not always happen. And the story ends.

But I have to wonder, where do all these people go who take their lives?

I must believe that there is a special place in heaven for the tortured souls who could not face their pain anymore. There is no blame in this place. No guilt. It is a happy place. Finally. Free from the deep darkness, the voices, the never-ending angst. The unbearable pain. Soldiers might even be heroes there for the special brand of hell they lived on earth.

I do not know of these things; I can only hope that they exist.

Because a soldier died today. And maybe it is not the story’s end after all.

Photo Credit: expertinfantry Flickr via Compfight cc








Dori Owen

Dori Owen is a storyteller, writing from small town Arizona, after living a few decades in California as an LA Wild Child, with a brief stop in Reno. She settled into grownup life as a project manager, collecting an MBA and a few husbands along the way. She is a shown artist and her favorite pastime is upcycling old furniture and decor she finds from thrift stores. She lives with her rescued terrier, Olivia Twist, and the cat who came to visit but stayed. The love of her life is her grown son who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her essays and poems have been published in RAW&UNFILTERED VOL I, StigmaFighters Vol 2, and Love Notes From Humanity. Her blogs have been featured on The Lithium Chronicles, Open Thought Vortex, Sudden Denouement, and The Mighty.

7 thoughts on “A Soldier Died Today

  1. Mary Rowen Reply

    Dori, you’re an exquisite storyteller. Thank you for sharing this poignant memory. I hope the soldier you speak about is doing better now. And, of course, I’m thrilled that you are. XOXO

  2. Dori OwenDori Owen Reply

    Jackie, my friend, I know you get it and it’s so comfortable knowing I have a friend that I do not have to explain, make excuses, sometimes lie, to hide the unholy truth. I know I’ll never go back. I know because I had a personal revelation that stopped me cold and said, whoa girl, you need to step up and start taking charge of your life. Hard choices. Telling toxic people goodbye. New doctors. New friends. New meds. And a move to Arizona where an amazing doctor picked up my pieces and made me whole again. Sometimes I pinch myself and wonder if all this happy is real. But it is. Sigh. I seem to take the long road sometimes…..love you. xoD.

  3. Jacqueline CioffaJacqueline Cioffa Reply

    Dori,

    I realized at the end of this essay, I had been holding my breath the entire way though.
    When I arrived at the end, I could feel the pain of the soldiers and yours.
    I could also feel a weight and sigh of release you’d given yourself. Thank you for sharing
    your inner most truth, we’ve talked about our time at the Pajama Hilton before. Gut wrenching, beautiful.

    “And I get it. I understand. I have heard the voices, and I have felt the pain, and I made the decision that there was no other way out. I was fortunate, though. Someone interrupted my choice. And, as it turns out, I am so glad because it was not my time.”

    I’m so glad you decided to stick around too.
    Love you,
    Jackie

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