My dress blues are hanging in a closet in our bedroom. My wife and I did not have a lot of room to spare in our modest home when I moved back to Columbus from Camp Lejeune last May, so I had to tuck them behind a row of t-shirts, dress pants, and various civilian-appropriate wares. It’s the same place you reserve for nostalgia, the variety of which you are not ready to let go; a place for memories. Like most memories, I often forget they are even there. But on occasion, while rummaging around for a shirt or pair of jeans, the light will reflect off a medal or brass button and catch my attention. A Marine’s dress blues are what he wears when he’s proud of his service — clean, pressed, measured — a stark contrast to what is worn when he isn’t. When I do manage to see them, it prompts a stare from me that is both proud and mistrustful.
Inevitably, it also prompts a memory.
We weren’t supposed to take our iPods to post with us, but, nevertheless, the rhythmic verses of Jay-Z and Drake’s “Light Up” pulsed through one of the earbuds resting on that precarious section of your ear that leaves you constantly wondering whether the tiny speaker will be dislodged by the slightest movement. I was nearing the end of my shift on Post 3. In fact, our relief was running a bit late. It was about 10 minutes before midnight. The register of a rifle shattered my focus from the lingering promise of sleep.
The shot was close; firing line at the rifle-range close. Without considering the origin, I heaved my rifle from a place of inaction to a position more in keeping with its intended use — euphemistically known as “the ready.” I was indeed ready, desperate even, to employ its fury to the full extent of my capabilities. I peered earnestly out onto the moonless landscape through the thermal optic mounted atop its steel; it was cold from a heretofore quiet night in late-January Marjah. My mind raced in the darkness. What the fuck was that? Give me something to shoot!
I yearned endlessly and to no avail for a target, a person, the perpetrator of the gunfire.More shots rang out from Post 4, in rapid succession — the Afghan National Army soldiers manning the position were going berserk. My radio chirped with the familiar voice of the sergeant of the guard, asking all posts to roger up and provide some information on what was happening. Post 1, all good and no idea. Same for Post 2 and for me at Post 3. My hands trembled with adrenaline and fear as I handled the radio. He skipped Post 4; the ANA barely spoke English, so why bother? Finally his call arrived at Post 5.
“Post 5, you good?”
No response. The radio repeated the call to the same end: an eerie, pregnant silence that carried with it a painfully clear meaning. Still frantically looking for someone to kill, I muttered to myself, “God dammit, Dycus, answer the mother fucker!”
I met Dycus my very first day in the fleet. He was my first roommate. After the typical awkwardness associated with being strangers-made-roommates, a friendship emerged. He had an insatiable appetite for Dominos and an unmistakable laugh. At our first Marine Corps ball, he got so drunk that he could no longer trust himself, and pleaded with me to tie his hands together so he wouldn’t do something stupid. I half-jokingly acquiesced, using his French fourragère as rope, and he fell asleep on the floor of our hotel room. Now I was begging for him to wake up and answer his radio.
The sergeant of the guard offered one last repetition of the call, this time with a palpable sense of alarm.
“Post 5!? Dycus!? Let me know you’re good!”
Dycus was dead. He had been executed — shot in the temple by one of the ANA soldiers who lived, ate, and patrolled alongside us. We were supposed to be operating with them, preparing to hand over and entrust a new Afghanistan in their charge. Those ANA soldiers inclined to practice their English would sometimes come up to our posts and talk to us. Muhreen! Muhreen good? We would cast a wary eye in their direction — they were Afghans with weapons — but for the most part, we were cordial and would entertain their requests for a cheap comradery.
Lance Cpl. Edward Dycus and I had been taking turns manning posts 3 and 5, switching back and forth every day or two. I wasn’t supposed to be listening to my iPod in the same way I wasn’t supposed to be on Post 3; it was my turn to man Dycus’ post. But it was decided that night, on a whim, that we would remain at our preferred positions. He liked post 5, and I 3. What separates my existence from his was a coin flip on Jan. 31, 2012. I have not been able to wrap my mind around that reality for the last four years: Heads you die; tails your friend dies. It was the falsest of choices, if there was even a choice at all. It led me to an entrenched and visceral hatred of even the concept of a coin flip; the realization that the line between existence and non-existence is so tenuous and fragile that it could be decided by something as seemingly innocuous as a 50-50 chance still haunts me.
Since relegating my uniform to the deep recesses of our closet, the coin flips I am confronted with these days no longer decide who lives or dies. The hatred and anger I feel toward happenstance, the flip of a coin, still remains in my mind like a residue — a reminder of what used to be. But I’m no longer on a post, in a foreign land, listening to Drake, unaware that my best friend and roommate is about to be killed. I have reluctantly grown used to letting a coin flip decide what movie or show my wife and I watch on Netflix, or which new restaurant to try; to decide the tie I choose for a meeting, what pair of shoes I wear to class.
But I have returned to civilian life in the country I swore an oath to protect with a certain bewilderment, and not for the reasons I anticipated. Like most veterans, I expected to be isolated from colleagues and classmates. I expected my time in uniform to act as a barrier, keeping anyone who hasn’t worn those sacred threads from being able to relate to my experiences. I expected no one to understand why my blues are hidden in a closet; why I struggle with the idea of even odds and coin flips; why I hate January. I expected no one to understand the fear of being alone on a post at night in Afghanistan, with your enemy among you.
I left my career as a Marine anticipating peace and a return to normalcy. What I have encountered as a civilian has been anything but. I have found myself in the middle of another war, one fought over policy and leadership; race and upbringing; haves and have nots; Americans and, well, Americans. I find myself bewildered by how closely the political climate of our country resembles the chaos of combat; where slander, vitriol, anger and divisiveness serve as appropriate arms in the race for office.
Just as I was desperate for a target, so too is America. I expected there to be a chasm between myself and the average American, but we are the same. Both fearful, both feeling as though there remains work to be done. We both search in desperation for a target, someone to kill; someone to take the blame for a life, perhaps a dream, that is no more.