Author’s Note: This fictional piece intends to reflect the toll that must be paid for our freedom. Having never served in combat, I do not speak for the community of veterans (dead or alive), but my hope is that the story brings honor to both the fallen and those whose war does not end after exiting the battlefield. On this day, let us remind ourselves that liberty has been bought in blood and just as our Savior bled and died for us, so have countless men and women from all branches of the military.
Blood did not bother Green Beret Staff Sergeant Brian Patterson unless it escaped his buddies’ bodies in copious amounts. As a medic, he earned his living in the blood business, but on July 18th, 2012, Staff Sergeant Patterson conducted his craft on one of those hellacious days in Afghanistan’s Helmand province when the bloodletting couldn’t be quenched. High Value Target Taliban Commander Muhammad al-Kadir stood on tap as the Green Beret’s next dead man walking, and Army Intelligence pinned down al-Kadir movements to a tiny cluster of compounds in Helmand’s Kajaki District. By dusk, Patterson’s A-Team motored along in a convoy to punch al Kadir’s one way ticket to Paradise.
Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) are the devil’s dandelions, and Afghanistan possesses them in abundance. Preposterously difficult to get rid of, the IEDs always sprouted again the next day due to the Taliban’s dedicated and deadly gardening. When Patterson’s Humvee rolled over one at Kajacki’s outskirts, the triggered IED tossed that one way ticket to Paradise into the Green Beret’s laps. The blast crippled the lead vehicle and split the axles, but miraculously, the team took no casualties. No, the Taliban ambush drew blood. Rounds skipped off theirs vehicle as Patterson and his teammates scrambled out. Master Sergeant Darrell Bowers screamed for half the team to lay down suppressive fire as the other hightailed it to cover. Then, the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) thwacked the lead Humvee. Shrapnel sliced through Sergeant Chris Jenkins’ left leg, severing his femoral artery.
The stinging screech that escaped Jenkin’s lips etched itself into Patterson’s memory, and it was a scream that led Brian Patterson to grasp beer bottles instead of rifles. Next came the familiar four course meal for returning soldiers in his condition: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-medication by alcohol, marital tension, and unemployment.
Putting down his iPhone, Dr. Shaun Faulk (M.D. Psychiatry) slipped a file across his desk, eyes poring over the handwritten notes. He had just spoken to Staff Sergeant Patterson’s commander, Colonel Charles Hanson. Faulk received the details of Patterson’s service file and off-the-record remarks from his commander. Colonel Hanson had left Dr. Faulk with this directive, “He’s a good soldier, Faulk. It’s up to you to turn him into a good civilian.” A soft knock caught Dr. Faulk’s attention, and he called for the patient to enter. In straggled retired Staff Sergeant Brian Patterson. As Dr. Faulk shook Patterson’s hand, he glanced at the man who was now his personal project. Patterson’s gaunt face was riddled with stress marks, the contours cut from hundreds of missions and split pints of blood from his teammates.
“Please take a seat, Mr. Patterson,” remarked Dr. Faulk.
Patterson edged into the soft-backed chair, lost in the environment of the worst degradation a special operations soldier could face: a shrink’s office. There because of his wife’s iron will that rivaled only her iron love for him, Patterson knew this gig was a waste of time. How could a four hundred thousand dollar-a- year shrink get rid of the nightmares, the numbness inside that swaddled him with nothingness? Even alcohol had failed on that end, and he doubted a white collar psychiatrist who dealt with skittish civvies five days a week could give him something good to brood over for once. For Patterson, the pain had long ago calcified through his concerted efforts to compartmentalize the pool of blood under Sergeant Kris Jenkins’ leg, and now…he felt nothing anymore. Nothing. Just a vast plain of emptiness swayed across his soul. He lived with nothing, and once he realized there was nothing left inside, he became resentful toward the nothingness.
Dr. Faulk sat back in his chair, hands folded. He began, “Mr. Patterson, let’s cut to the chase here. You don’t have to talk to me; just nod your head if my characterizations fit you.” Distant and at arm’s length, Patterson nodded.
Faulk continued, “Mr. Patterson, you’re here because you’ve spent half your life either killing boogeyman or patching up your buddies’ bodies, and at some point during your last deployment, you decided it was over. At twenty-eight years old and ten years as Green Beret, you hung up the spurs. I’m guessing someone quite close to you was killed in action and you couldn’t do anything about it.”
Looking at his hands, Patterson nearly hiccupped as the nothingness choked his throat once again. He remembered hoisting Sergeant Jenkins on his back as half his team provided covering fire so the other could push to the village walls. Patterson and his teammates cleared the closest defensible compound and took up positions. Getting al-Kadir was out of the question; they had a gunfight on their hands with Kadir’s personal detachment of fighters, and the Taliban were swarming out of every compound from the east, west, and north. He recalled laying Sergeant Jenkins on the living room floor, blood already swept over the carpet.
A softball-sized chunk of Jenkins’ left leg was gone. To no avail, Patterson frantically slipped a tourniquet over the leg. He tried to pack the wound with curlex, but with the rest of the team occupied by the gunfight, there were too many exit wounds for two hands. Rocket propelled grenades thumped their compound, and as the compound shook, Patterson knew it was over.
Jenkins needed to be on a gurney on his way to surgery, and the only thing getting him there was a Blackhawk helicopter—which wasn’t landing with RPGs in range. Jenkins’ death was rapid, and he was barely conscious as Patterson tried to call to him. The next thing Patterson recollected was looking at his own hands and torso. They were slathered with Jenkins’ blood. His ground force commander, Master Sergeant Darrell Bowers, had to pull Patterson away from Jenkins body, because Bowers needed every gun in the fight.
This is when the numbness began. Patterson poured rounds downrange at the Taliban insurgents, but his will to fight had been drained away. The Taliban knew the Green Berets were coming, and Patterson couldn’t have done anything about it. At that moment, he resolved to never work so hard again in his life because the harder he worked, the easier it seemed to be for the Taliban to plant roadside bombs that one could assemble with thirty bucks and some basic knowledge of circuits. He couldn’t bear to watch his teammates spend years training like madmen only to go out by way of a cold, indifferent combination of wires, shrapnel, and an artillery shell.
Dr. Faulk pressed forward, “Let’s do some word association. I say a word and you tell me the first thing that comes to your mind.”
Patterson could only nod.
Faulk hooked up Patterson to a polygraph-type machine. “This will measure your heart rate and other stress responses as you answer the questions,” said Dr. Faulk.
“Casualty,” began Dr. Faulk.
“Heal,” replied Patterson.
“Sergeant Chris Jenkins.”
Patterson never answered.
Dr. Faulk replied, “When you operated as a Green Beret and broke down doors and patched wounded men under fire, your brain released a chemical called Neuropeptide Y. It’s a natural tranquilizer and you Special Forces boys release a good amount more than the average soldier. However, it’s also linked to heart disease. Judging from our exercise here, what saved you in combat is now causing your heart to beat irregularly here in civilian life. In combat, you could push away the pain for another day. Now the day has arrived, and you’ve pushed so hard, you don’t know what to do anymore. Your identity was in your work, and now that you no longer have that work, you’re imploding from the inside out. Will you help me recover your identity ?”
Finally Patterson spoke. “I don’t think you understand. When you spend eight years in and out of combat zones, you lose a piece of yourself every time you deploy. I don’t think I have enough pieces left to recover the man I once was.”
Doctor Faulk nodded in agreement, “Well said. You’ll never be the same man again after going downrange. Still, you kept deploying, because it was your duty. Now, it is your duty to make a life for yourself. You’re telling me that after all you’ve been through, you’re going to wander aimlessly through life? I don’t believe that. I think you’ve found yourself in a set of civilian circumstances foreign to your control. Here in the States, the adversity is kicking you in the face, and you don’t like it one bit.
Faulk didn’t relent, “What are you doing for work?”
This time, Patterson shook his head. Dozens of interviews had frittered away before his eyes. Green Berets proficient in weapons, demolitions, nighttime raids, foreign internal defense, and combat trauma care didn’t exactly steal a corporate interviewer’s heart.
“My wife is a nurse,” replied Patterson, “I’m still searching. She’s shouldering the load until I find something stable.”
Faulk closed his eyes and laid his cards on the table. “How many times have you hit your wife?”
With his muscles nearly seizing, Patterson’s eyes watered with tears. He was a man who liked control. Attention to detail was his asset in combat, and the psychiatrist was breaking down his defense mechanism as if Patterson was in his first day of boot camp.
The night he hit his wife, he had most certainly lost control She had struck a nerve, telling him the truth: he desired death as well the day Chris Jenkin’s blood filled an unassuming living room in Kajacki, Helmand Province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. She had done the kind of emotional acupuncture that only a wife could do—loving him completely while attempting to quell the demons he couldn’t diminish. Like a frustrated child, he had roared at her, telling her to never again speak that name again. He had slammed her against the wall that separated them from their newborn son Daniel. The regret had lashed him as soon as he raised a hand against her.
Faulk didn’t hesitate in the least, “You see, your wife never made a phone call to the police; instead, she called me. While, it was a curious decision, I am happy that you are here instead of in handcuffs at a court appearance. And you know what, Mr. Patterson? You’re not a repeat offender, and though it doesn’t absolve you from the first offense, I’m convinced there is a good man inside of you, but the man before me keeps telling himself that the good man doesn’t exist.”
Since his childhood, all Brian Patterson had ever desired was to be the good guy. It is precisely why he became a Green Beret in the first place: to protect those who were helpless. Kill the bad guys. Save the good guys. He signed up with that intention, only to find that the good guys were just as vulernable.
“A good man wouldn’t have allowed his friend to bleed out. A good man wouldn’t hit his wife. A good man wouldn’t be a jobless drunk,” said Patterson as his voice cracked.
“You are a good man, Mr. Patterson. But a good man can’t live in a cocoon and feed off of the ghosts in his past. It’s time for you to fight again. Just as you fought for your teammates, it’s time for you to fight to be a good husband, father, employee, and civilian. As your counselor, I’m ready to fight for you as well, and I can give you the tools to fight this war in the civilian world. Your wife is waiting, and so are all your former Green Beret teammates whom you’ve ignored for so long. You need to muster the same resiliency you displayed during battle. However, this time, you can’t just put a bullet in it. This is a problem of the heart, and no amount of talking and cognitive therapy is going to change you if you can’t find the will to live again.”
Faulk pushed a folder toward Patterson. It held forms labeled “Hire Heroes USA.” As Patterson flipped through, he noticed it was a company dedicated to getting veterans hired. There was a number for a counselor who would help him structure a professional portfolio and guide him in the process of translating his military skills into layman’s terms.
“This is my show of good faith,” began Dr. Faulk as he pointed to the folder, “You are not going to be another statistic, another veteran suicide on the news. Your motto in the Green Berets is De Oppresso Liber, ‘to liberate the oppressed.’ Now, it’s you who needs the liberation. You can trust me. The choice is yours, Mr. Patterson. We’re finished here.”
Getting out of his chair, Patterson thanked Dr. Faulk and took the folder in his hands. Once he reached his car, Patterson ran his hands through his hair. Opening the glove box on the passenger’s side, he took a bottle of OxyContin, the cocoon he had planned to die in. He went back in the office and asked the receptionist to give the bottle to Dr. Faulk. Bewilderedly, she peeked in Faulk’s office and handed him the bottle.
Peering at the bottle’s label, Dr. Faulk smiled. He usually prescribed the medication, but it brought him joy anytime a patient voluntarily parted ways with medication. He filled out a form to properly dispose of the medicine and placed it in a safe. He continued re-hanging pictures of him posing in uniform with SEALs, Rangers, Marines, Green Berets, and Delta Operators, many whose faces were blacked out—and many of whom were buried in long-forgotten graves. Mr. Patterson would be in for a surprise the next time he came for an appointment. He was not the only man in the office who had served in the military. Dr. Faulk chuckled to himself, “Well, Mr. Patterson, you certainly haven’t been my first case in the military.”
Grace is what we crave when we cannot do enough, work enough, or strive enough. May the grace of God and Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ fall upon all our active duty soldiers, so that when they come to their final resting place, their grave is sealed with the promise of eternal life. To those who never made it home, see you on the other side.
Kevin Cochrane is a nineteen year old writer with the distinct purpose of radically restoring everyone with exposed ears to the original testimony of Jesus Christ. Want to read more? Check him out at themajestysmen.com/author/kevincochrane, a friendship and mentoring community for Christian males. For updates on his latest blog posts here at restandrefuge.wordpress.com, you can follow him on Twitter @RunFree_KC or click the follow button at the bottom of the page to receive notifications by email.