Corporal James McElroy slowly climbed the front steps of his childhood home in a small midwestern town. The afternoon was bright and sunny and he stopped for a moment to soak in the silence. Well over six feet and broad-shouldered, he filled the doorway. He ran his hand through his short sandy hair and looked down at the battle fatigues he still wore. He was reluctant to go inside the house; reluctant to let his parents know he was home. He had burn scars on his face and torso, and was still healing from several broken bones. So he leaned on his cane and stood quietly for a moment, listening to the world he once knew so well, but which was now completely foreign to him. It was all so surreal, this new/old reality of his.
He heard a sound from inside and threw his duffel onto the porch and opened the door. He was no sooner inside when the silence was shattered by a scream from his mother. She ran to him and held him tightly, then pulled back and said, “I’m sorry. Is that too tight? You’re wounded. I’m so happy to see you.”
CPL James McElroy tried to smile, but couldn’t. He remembered his mother from somewhere far away, long ago, but he couldn’t quite put her into focus. “I’m fine, Mom, really. Just a few scars.”
“From the IUD.”
“That’s IED, Mom,” he said, laughing. He held his mother tightly and then his dad was there, shaking his hand and clapping him on the shoulder.
“Good to see you, son,” he said, unable to control his beaming face, which was trying to collapse into tears. “And happy birthday.”
His twenty-first birthday—he had almost forgotten. He was happy to be home with his parents. He shoved his doubts and fears aside for the moment. The US Army had changed CPL James McElroy and now he wondered where he could possibly fit in.
Later, after a quiet dinner and cake, three of his old high school buddies dropped by to take him out for his first legal drink. “You’re the youngest of the group, dude. About time you became legal.”
He remembered those old days of hanging out and trash talking as if he were surrounded by fog. He knew he had acted that way, flip and uncaring, but he couldn’t remember why now. He hadn’t had a care in the world then. He just wanted to join the Army right after high school to get away from this town, to get away from his friends who were going to work at the local plant. It was what everyone around here did, but it was not for him. The world had too much to offer and he didn’t want to miss a thing.
They went to the darkest bar they could find, McElroy wanting to keep his scars hidden, and if possible, not even be recognized. They sat in the corner with their beers. He looked at the three, who seemed like strangers to him. He couldn’t seem to figure out which name belonged to each. He watched them with unfocused eyes and heard their voices through a haze.
“So how was Afghanistan?” they wanted to know.
“Wonderful. A year at the beach,” he heard himself reply.
“Kill many towel-heads?”
“Sorry. What? Who? Do you think killing and being shot at is funny? Or fun? Go back to high school and leave me alone.”
“Aw, come on, Jimbo, I was just being funny.”
“And I was being deadly serious. Were you ever shot at by someone you couldn’t even see, someone who didn’t even know you well enough to want to kill you?” Suddenly, he was on his feet, enraged, screaming at his old friends. “You guys think that life is about hanging out, getting drunk, trying to slip it to some unsuspecting girl. Do you know what it’s like to see your buddies killed in front of you, body parts flying everywhere, wondering if you’re going to die too? Do you? I didn’t think so. I’m outta here so you morons can go find some teenage high jinks to get into. I can’t live in your Brady Bunch world anymore. I don’t belong here.”
He stood with his fists clenched and raised them as if to engage his old friends in combat and as he hobbled out of the bar, he heard them call after him, “Must be PTSD.” “Good seeing you too, pal. Come back when you’re normal.”
But he knew he would never be normal. He didn’t belong anywhere anymore. Not the Army, and not civilian life. How did the others do it? Go from a war zone back to their families and neighborhoods and be regular, everyday people again? How did they forget what happened there? He knew some men seemed to have compartments in their brains they could shove things into and forget about, but he couldn’t seem to do that. His Afghan world was too large to fit any of his cubbyholes, and seemed to spill out everywhere. He didn’t mean to be that way. He didn’t want to yell at his friends, but he had grown up in the past three years and clearly, they hadn’t.
He felt fragile here somehow, out of step. He hated not having his weapon nearby, even though he didn’t need it in civilian life. It had become a necessary part of himself, like an arm or a good friend. He felt insecure without it, not knowing how to respond. In the desert, the response to any uncertainty was to point your weapon. He was always prepared for any eventuality.
CPL James McElroy awoke the next morning at 0500 and readied himself for the day’s tour of the village. He showered and donned his fatigues, and while searching for his weapon, he suddenly looked up at himself in the mirror, shocked to discover that the latrine was actually the familiar bathroom in his family home. He stopped and stared at his reflection. I’m losing my mind. He leaned in toward the mirror to study his scars and remembered that he was home now, the war was over for him; he was safe.
Then why do IEDs keep exploding in my head and I expect a sniper around every corner?
The weeks drifted by and he didn’t feel as if he were really there, or anywhere, really. When people spoke to him, it was as if they’re talking from far away in the cosmos, or underwater, and their voices were distant and small. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t focus on what they were saying. He felt disengaged and afloat. His mind was elsewhere, on a dusty Afghan street, in a noisy village, messing with the kids, on patrol looking for people who would shoot at him. How could he now live in an American world? The world he grew up in felt like the alien world now. He looked at people, but didn’t really see them, hear them, know them. Reality seemed unreal to him.
He felt so alone, with no one to talk to about what was important, about the war, the icy fear that ran through his veins; the confusion and disconnection he felt now.
He took a lazy walk down to the river to skip stones, but retreated up to the footbridge when a family arrived. He wasn’t using his cane anymore, but he still walked slowly. He crossed to the middle of the bridge to watch the river swirl by. The water was not swift here, and the lazy current lulled him into a silence of mind that he craved. Dad wanted him to work at the plant, but McElroy knew he would be bored to tears. Mom wanted him to go to college, but for what? There was nothing he wanted to study. Besides, college kids were too silly for him. How could he possibly live an ordinary life after this? He was thinking of how easy it would be to slip over the edge of the bridge and fall in, but he didn’t want to traumatize the family on the riverbank.
What does a person do when he’s outgrown his past? he wondered. He had been CPL James McElroy for such an intense time that sometimes he thought Corporal was his first name. But now he was just James. Jim. Jimbo. Something different to everyone. Maybe inside, he would always be CPL. Corporal. McElroy. Sir.
He was trying to forget the explosion, but it kept popping into his head, unannounced and uninvited. He was driving the Humvee down dusty streets. There were kids yelling and running around—just the usual sights and sounds. And then suddenly, a huge noise cut off in mid-stream and then silence, silence, silence, then car and body parts flying everywhere. He was lying in the road with car shrapnel everywhere. Everything was quiet, and then someone dragged him off to another Humvee, maybe the one following behind his, and he was in the hospital. He had been thrown out and 5200 pounds of Humvee landed on top of him, but he checked out fine, just a few broken bones and some burns, and that was nothing compared to sudden, horrible death.
He wandered aimlessly and when he arrived home, emotionally drained, his mother told him he needed to go to the doctor for an MRI. “Traumatic brain injury is the signature wound of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” she said.
“You’ve been on the Internet again, Mom,” he replied.
“Okay, yes, I’ve been reading up on it, and just because you didn’t have an open wound, they didn’t think to check. But it happens a lot, and I think you need an MRI to be sure because you’ve been depressed, angry, sleepless and restless. TBI’s are nothing to take lightly.”
“TBI, MRI, IED, USA. Who cares? Do you understand that there’s no place for me to fit in anymore? I’m not a soldier or a civilian. I’m in limbo somewhere.”
“Of course there’s a place for you. You just need to try harder. Thousands of men have returned from war over the years, and they’ve all managed to come back to their old world and fit in. There’s no reason why you can’t too.”
McElroy shook his head. They just didn’t get it, but then, how could they? It wasn’t their minds that were messed up.
Preferring a hermit’s life, he stayed home and surfed the Internet. He came across some Veterans’ chat sites and saw that others faced similar problems.
When someone asked him his story, he hesitated at first, because he has never told the story to anyone before. Finally, he typed slowly: My Humvee was exploded by an IED on a dusty street in Afghanistan. I was driving and the others were all killed. They say I tried to save some of them by carrying them away from the burning vehicle, but I don’t remember any of it. I just remember holding someone’s severed leg in my hand.
He was responsible for his unit and he had let them down. He killed them all. He was being called a hero, but he didn’t understand why he survived.
Or why his hometown couldn’t contain him.
What kind of future could he pursue? It seemed like the old rules didn’t apply to him anymore and he couldn’t be “ordinary.” He thought about joining the Peace Corps, or maybe being a forest ranger.
There was no ready-made place for him. Could he burrow in and make his own place? Was that possible? He asked his questions online to strangers.
When he got encouraging responses, he took a deep breath and typed: Hi, my name is Jim.