I’ve let myself slip into the struggle of parallel worlds. The ground where the soldier meets his adult self. No longer is war a game. The costs? Measured and understood.
I don’t think it’s unique in the sense that it only happens to veterans. I hear my parents’ generation say all the time, “I think back on that night, and God! What was I thinking? I could have been killed.” And now … it’s my time for that realization.
I am not an old man, but I’m not a young one either. I’m not a young buck anymore, I’ve become an old soul. I’ve seen the things that others could not imagine. I’ve done the things people who haven’t been in my situations, could not possibly understand. I cannot explain myself anymore now than I could as a teenager trying to figure out what to do with my life. I’ve done so much with my life that would take an eternity to convey to anyone else.
I’m nothing special, but I know I am different. I’m changed in ways that only my brothers understand. I’ve spent thousands of years of innocent existence in a split second decision that no one bearing my DNA back the beginning of time has had to make. I have decided who lives and who dies, and depending on the day and my mood, I’m sorry for it or proud of it.
I am not a flag waver, but I love my home. I’m not the perfect son, husband, father, friend, or business partner. I’m flawed. I still wear my uniform that reminds me of all the experience I’ve gained, which if thought about too long, hurts me deeper than anything.
I try day after day to convey the dire messages and lessons of those experiences to ones who need it most, but are too young to understand the severity of what they volunteered for. I wear stripes that mean little to them. They don’t understand what’s been done to earn them. I’ve made my fear wait, because the task at hand was more important. I’ve trained the un-natural until it was. I’ve devoured the desire to quit, when it was the only thing I wanted to do. I did all of this because I thought it would make me a better man, and in ways, it has.
On a Friday night, I hear the hollers of the young men now. I remember my time wearing that same rank, growing those bonds with those same kind of friends, but I don’t join them now. It is their time. Many of my friends from then are dead.
As if my life were on repeat, I cannot stand by and see the faces of the living play out the acts of the dead. I cannot detach my past from the present in that way. For me, it’s linked forever. I cannot stand around a fire and smile as if I hadn’t done this very thing moments before terror rained down and tore apart my friends. I only see gone faces in the flames now. I feel at times that I can relate to every tragedy in the world.
Soul crushing pain is not new. It’s not new to me, or the Warriors of the present, or the dead. I’m not unique, in the sense that I’m alone in this. The ghosts of history stand behind me. I can feel them. “Not yet,” I tell them, and they agree. But, we all know that a change has to be made. No tortured soul can stay this way. Living in fragments of war. No veteran of combat can fight an enemy that’s not there except in his memories. No person can be the Warrior forever without it consuming all he is, and all he could have been.
I stand in these parallel worlds. The Warrior — grizzled, angry — willing to destroy himself, if not for just another battle. Too tired to even raise his shield and sword, staring at the Wise Man, the Warrior knows the pain, suffering, triumph and defeat, fear and despair, success and love. All of it earned by making it through the worst of humanity. They glare at each other. I am both of them. They are me. They are each other.
But alas, there is something more. There is a choice. I have the choice. I am the choice. I can allow myself to be consumed by the Warrior. Battle until it kills me. Go out the hero struggling against an immovable force. Or … I can thank the Warrior for all he has given me. For all he has shown me. For the strength to get me to this point of existence … and then kill him. Kill him with the knowledge and wisdom of a better man.
To continue to live and journey as a soul on this Earth, I choose the Wise Man’s existence. The Wise Man lives. The Wise Man loves. The Wise Man has the strength to understand what has happened to him. The Wise Man knows that to begin to heal, he must stop the Warrior. He must not ignore himself and his emotions anymore. He must not continue to inflict pain and expect to be immune from the weight of what he does.
In a short time the Wise Man will win out over the Warrior. The Warrior will suffer his first defeat. He will fall in the spiritual world having never faltered in the physical. The Wise Man will feel sorrow for having taken such a necessary existence away. The Warrior is always needed somewhere. But the two cannot possess the same body.
The Wise Man will cover the Warrior is his finest kit to pay respect for the grueling hours he’s battled in it. Lay his body on the funeral pile along the shores of combat. Burn his being, so his soul can be free to move onto the next body of war and push him onto the lake.
Then the Wise Man will take a knee, face out — and let go.