There was a flash. The shudder on the camera clicked, jolting me backwards. That explosion of light shook me.
I hadn't realized how long it'd been since I'd had my photograph taken, but something in the experience had my heart pounding. I looked down, realizing that somewhere in that instant of desperate shock, my index finger had found the trigger of my M16.
I readjusted my hand around the gun, trying to get a grip. I took in a few breaths and let them out.
Within a matter of moments the photographer who had earlier introduced himself as Horst something-or-nother had packed up and left. I was alone again.
It was that way in the heart of war. Even when hundreds of thousands of soldiers were side by side fighting for the same thing, everyone was alone in the real battle. On the inside, beneath every man's helmet was a fight more terrifying than the one right in front of him with bullets, and bombs, and screams, and death.
The battle in a man's head is against sanity, and I swear there's something horrifying when you can't quite tell if you've lost it yet or not. After all there's no in-between being crazy and sane.
You see all that death, and all those burning cities, and ashes; so many ashes.
Death becomes okay, and sooner or later you realize that your morals are decaying brick by brick. Funny thing is, and I laugh every time, everything is decaying; your mind included, and there you are with a front row seat to watch your Brigade get smaller and smaller. One doesn't seem like much, not until that one is your best friend.
But what's it matter? For all we know, odds are I'm next.
At that thought, I was lurched back into a vivid memory. The tiniest details had always caught me. A smoldering shoe, alone between the pops of gunfire. A toddler standing over his dead mom trying to wake her up. It reeked of death. A little civilian girl screaming out in some foreign tongue, her clothes burnt rags. She ran along an abandoned street full of charred remains. Smoke burnt my eyes.
I blinked. I rubbed my eyes, trying to rid the images as little gasps came. Most of the sounds and smells and feelings fell back into their little boxes, though that empty darkness lingered somewhere inside my head ready to erupt again at any moment. Anything could set the memories off.
See, that's exactly how it starts. You think so hard about everything you seen, and you just can't get that gunfire out of your head. Then one day you just can't handle it, you can't tuck those memories back into their boxes anymore and next thing you know, you're the guy who wakes everyone up in the middle of the night screaming and shooting at nothing but the wind. I've seen it before.
I redirected my thoughts toward that photo, the one I'd just ever-so-slightly perked my lips up for. I had no idea where that picture would go, but I knew why the man had captured it, and I was glad he had. Even if I did die, or go nuttier than a fruitcake, at least there was something of me that would make it out in one piece.
I felt along the strap on my helmet. The words I had scrawled out in pen there were simple but packed quite a punch.
WAR IS HELL.
I hoped that whoever saw that photo took a good long look at those three little words. That's what this place was. Some of the guys back home burnt their draft cards, moved up to Canada. I just had to be the good boy who listened to old Uncle Sam. Maybe breaking the law was stupid, but some days I wish I wouldda dodged myself, even if it landed me in jail, at least I would be safe and cozy in my own country, not here in this blazing hot sandpit of a camp.
Just above me another plane cut through the air, and I snapped the barrel of my gun toward it, just to be safe. It was ours.
You never could be too safe. My heart rate slowly fell back to its normal pace. I let out the breath I didn't notice I was holding.
Looking at the sky I fantasizes about how lovely it'd be for things to just go back to normal, the way they were a year ago. I'd like to be that boy with those bright blue eyes, straight out of high school, going somewhere in life. Now I guess, I'm somewhere between that innocence and this bloody monster. What am I becoming?
Sometimes I'm afraid of going home, because what if there's nothing left of me by then?
I've been hijacked by war. I may not look it, may not look like a killing machine, may not have bloodied hands; but I see the blood. The guys always tease me saying I've got such a pretty little kid face. Maybe I do, but things on the outside don't go so fast. It's the inside that deteriorates first; it's my head. I see the ghosts of what I've done every single day, and I'm afraid there's no going back to that class clown who could smooth talk anyone, because what's the point? There are people dying; people I killed; kids.
I wiped the sweat out of my eyes. There's no escaping this fiery furnace. There's no fight or flight option. Here it's fight or die. And there's two battles, yes, the one everyone sees out on the field, but there's something else. There's a war waging inside, and my defenses are down, and I've started to realize that maybe there's only one war we can win at.
I felt something shift in my gut. I really hoped I was wrong with that thought, I really did.