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Survivor Guilt, A Booney Hat, And The Things Left Behind By Fallen Friends
Welcome to Gearhead Wednesday, a regular gear review column by Chief Kristin Beck (ret.), a decorated veteran of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and all-around badass. Send pitches and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
I returned and sometimes I wish I didn’t.
I am awake at 0300, drinking beer and writing this little page of shit. I am supposed to be writing about gear. I am supposed to be doing a review on the latest 5.11 cargo pants with Bluetooth adapters and integrated battery packs. I am supposed to be writing a review on some Rambo-style combat knife that weighs 5 pounds and no grunt would dream of humping around in real life.
But it’s 0300 and I am trying to make sense of everything. There are many of us returning veterans who wonder why we didn’t die in Afghanistan or Iraq and I’ve heard the same story from Vietnam veterans. The freedom bird brings us home, but that homecoming isn’t always parades. I flew back on a plane full of body bags and flags. Literally, a flight bringing home my comrades who perished in a fight, in a desert, far from home. Freedom bird … the hell it was.
I didn’t just return home with body bags. I have a gas mask bag, a booney hat, a ruck, and a belt, all of which have names inscribed in black marker or paint. These same names are on white stones that line the rows at Arlington. I have gear that belonged to friends, and I will never forget them and how they gave their lives protecting others, even when those others didn’t know and don’t care.
A wall of Chief Beck's home.Courtesy of Chief Beck
Sometimes I wish I never came home. I always wish I could replace one of those guys. We all go over and see and do terrible things. Ambushes and house to house sweeps or just parakeet into a village to grab that one guy. The missions seem endless in the “Endless War.” We all have scars deep in our hearts that will never be healed. The politicians that send us should just punch our tickets as “spent,” because they will never know they left us over there. We don’t ever really come home; we all die some kind of death over there for the freedom we will never see ourselves.
It’s 0400 now. I drink some more beer and get lost in thought. I look down at the Sig 226 sitting on the table; we all do it and wonder if it would be better to be gone. I look over at a photo of the platoon and then I get pissed at that weak thought and the easy way out.
Submarine operations with Australian SAS. Chief Beck is second from the rightCourtesy of Chief Beck
I look at the gear, the booney hat with ‘JP’ inscribed on its brim. I think about that helo flight, his last flight. JP was SAS; there was a huge rivalry between the SEALs and SAS operators, and we competed on even the dumbest stuff. I remember distinctly that they won the biggest turd contest. I mean, that thing was like a foot long and huge. None of us wanted to go through four days of eating like a pig and holding it in to increase that record. I try to remember him and that loud laugh and quick wit; all I can see is that helo exploding in mid-air — exploding in my mind.
I think of Hound Dog, his gas mask pouch hanging just over there on a wall. All it says is “Rah H-Dog” in faded marker; I don’t think anyone else in the world would know what that means.
Hound Dog's gas mask pouchCourtesy of Chief Beck
We were in Malaysia once, and Hound Dog was singing a song about fish heads and rice. Dang, we ate a lot of fish and rice for a month straight. Hound Dog had a monkey that sat near him and ate our leftovers. That monkey hung around our compound for a few weeks, maybe the only good-tempered monkey in the whole jungle. I see this stuff and think about more missions and a few laughs.
Hound Dog and I were roommates on and off for a couple years, both stateside and on deployment. There was an apartment which was mostly Mac and Mike’s place, but it was also a crash pad for many of us. It had cardboard boxes for furniture and a thousand beer caps above the TV stand that Mac and H-Dog send whizzing back there from between their thumb and fingers (I never got that trick and I would just throw the caps at the TV). Hound Dog loved his beer and he was a political junkie, watching C-SPAN for hours on end. We held Hound Dogs last party at that apartment and we all toasted how great a SEAL he was, taken too early.
Hound Dog chilling with a beer and watching C-SPAN, two of his favorite things, circa 1994Courtesy of Chief Beck
It’s 0500. I could just have another beer and maybe fall asleep. But none of us sleep and none of us dream; we just lay there thinking of how we could have done better. We lay awake all night and think. How could I have done something different? We think of how we got out of that room with brain matter splattered on our face and going into the next room to trade some lead.
I still feel that guilt, a deep pang in the gut. I wish I could go back over and join the fight. I feel like I never left. I will never forget and never give up hope that some kind of good will come of all this. Maybe some peace or goodness will magically happen. In the end, wishing for something and shouldering survivor guilt doesn’t really help much, but it’s hard to shake. It always lingers just out of reach.
We all have the gear around our houses from our battle buddies; we all have the memories and the broken dreams. But we also have a mission to stand up and fight for some kind of peace, something, anything — but mostly so that the next generation never has to ride that freedom bird full of body bags.
It’s 0600. I think I’ll wear that booney hat today. It’s time to start fresh; I have a mission.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. Use that same number and press “1” to reach the Veterans Crisis Line.
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