It had been longer than a year since he’d trudged in the sand, longer than a year since he had manned a gun. On the outside, the 50-year-old man with patches of winter gray popping up in his thick, wavy hair was merely happy to be home. “I never want to travel again,” he told his daughters. “I’ve been all over the world. Now, I just want to sit on the couch and watch TV.” They laughed at him, but they knew it was true. Germany, Korea, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Spain… he had seen much more than they probably ever would.
He’d retired from the military with a heavy shadowbox full of all the medals he’d won. He’d also received a flag, carefully folded into a fancy wooden case, and a certificate for his wife. The certificate was amply beautiful to make up for the year he’d been in Saudi Arabia while his girls were in kindergarten and fifth grade and his wife had struggled to keep the girls fed, clothed and properly transported.
On Christmas Eve, the family didn’t mention the desert. Nobody said a thing about Tikrit, or the inhumanity of war. The shadowbox watched over the living room where they drank green margaritas and made jokes. He didn’t drink a margarita. Instead, he retrieved a bottle of Crown from the freezer – he preferred it cold – and sipped on it.
His father was an alcoholic. After numerous operations, a colostomy and admonitions from doctors, his father still hadn’t quit. The soldier had learned from his father and refused to touch a drop while he raised his girls. Now, they were old enough to drink with him, and he relaxed.
But after the first few sips, he started to remember the things he’d worked so hard for the past year to shove out of his mind. Distraction was necessary. He arranged a board game – Yahtzee, an old favorite of his – with his daughters. The girls sipped on their margaritas and tittered, shooting sarcastic remarks at each other across the dinner table. One rolled a Yahtzee, the other cursed. The man found himself in the midst of a peal of laughter when the reality hit him:
I’ve killed a man, he thought. And not just one. I don’t even know how many I’ve killed.
He turned to his youngest daughter.
“What would you do,” he asked, his speech slurring, “if you were on top of a building, and people were coming at you, trying to shoot you? What would you do?”
She didn’t answer. She couldn’t answer.
“Would you shoot them? I did,” he said. His eyes looked damp and red. “All those men I shot… They probably died. I kept them from ever being able to be with their families again, like I am right now. They’ll never see them again.”
He began to cry silently. The girls didn’t know what to say. Their father, a man who had gone directly from high school to the Army and then worked at an ammunition plant all his life, only cried when he was excessively proud of scholarships they’d won, accomplishments they’d managed despite the odds.
“I’m glad you’re back and safe, Dad,” the oldest said. He had worn his Air Force blues to her wedding, and she’d thought he was the most handsome man there.
“That’s why I don’t believe in war,” the youngest said. “I don’t think any human being should have to go through what you’re dealing with. We’re just glad you’re here, with us.”
The man shook his head, placed his score-keeping pen on the table carefully.
“There was a woman in our unit – she had a baby at home, and I just couldn’t let them get her. And the guy manning the gun… He was fumbling, and I was so scared, I wanted to protect them all. I just pushed him out of the way. I just grabbed the gun and started shooting, and I was glad. I was glad! I laughed! I was happy it was them and not me!”
“You were doing the only thing you knew to do. You can’t punish yourself for that,” the youngest said.
“You don’t understand,” he said. He began to speak more quickly, more forcefully. “You can’t understand. What would you do? Do you even know? What if someone is trying to kill you, and the people with you. Would you kill them? Would you?”
His wife approached him, wrapped her arms around him and urged him to the living room, where she spoke soft words in his ear. The girls looked at each other, shaken. There was really nothing to say, except that they’d never seen him as upset.
After that night, the man was embarrassed. He assured his wife he wouldn’t drink anymore – no sense turning out like his father, whose pores oozed the pungent odor of alcohol and who was almost unbearable to hug anymore. He gave the rest of the tequila to his daughters.
But he still had trouble falling asleep. When he did, he traveled 7,000 miles from his home to the nauseating heat of Tikrit. He killed every night and tried to forget every day.