WHEN I GOT INTO Afghanistan, I discovered that even after all the training I’d already gone through, the daily drills, the classes, the spending entire days in Powerpoint presentations and doing computer-based-module tests until my eyeballs were ready to fall out, my squad and I were doing something I’d never been trained on a day in my life. I hit the ground 100% ignorant. I ran myself ragged trying to learn my new job. My workstation was three computers, a desktop and two laptops, each one with different systems and intricate satellite-map and data-entry programs.
That Christmas, with my newfound Army wealth of combat-zone pay, I bought my new wife several things she’d been wanting, including a vinyl turntable. She Skyped herself opening her presents and she was so happy about them I cried my eyes out at my computer, sitting on my bed in my tiny housing unit. Jekyll was so fucking happy, and it made me absolutely ecstatic to see it.
Soon I got the hang of my squad’s toolset—so well that I was running circles around both my squad sergeant and my lieutenant, and teaching officers in other Afghanistan duty stations advanced functions in the software suites. I did so well that both my other squadmates, my squad sergeant and our LT, got stuck coming back from leave and left me by myself for a few weeks, and I did okay without them. I ran the office all by my lonesome.
I was on top of the world and having a lot of fun, pushing myself to excel at this demanding new job. I passed my PT test—no easy feat now that I was in the mountains, several thousand feet above sea level now—and retroactively earned my promotion.
T/Jekyll was happy, as far as I could tell. We had regular Skype sessions, and I bought interesting trinkets to mail home to her—a tea service carved from marble, a pretty metal vase, a necklace made out of lapis lazuli beads the size of gumballs, a lovely Afghan tunic that was too small but looked beautiful anyhow.
T let me know that she understood now how much the Dragon had fucked us up, and that she was getting fit and losing weight in preparation for my return. That didn’t really matter to me—I’d never really focused on her weight in our relationship, and to be frank my first wife was big too—but I was glad to hear about it nonetheless. The healthier Jekyll was, the happier Jekyll would be, right?
She also said that she had gone to a doctor about her hormones now that she had money for it, and she was treating her PCOS and whatever it was that was making the Dragon show up. She had moved us out of the Cottonwood complex and into a larger, better apartment in Anniston, and purchased a truck without my knowledge and without talking to me about it. I didn’t think much of it since her 4-Runner was on its last legs and we needed a vehicle anyway. Hell, the radiator was for the wrong model and I’d had to strap it in place with bungee cords.
Things were looking up.
I came home for mid-tour vacation leave and we had fun, and in the words of Bill Engvall, lots of hot pig sex. We saw Insidious at the theater, which left me afraid of dark doorways the whole two weeks.
While I was home, the realty company claimed that there was some discrepancy with the house’s owner and that we’d have to move out of our rental, but they put us up in a much, much nicer house up on the mountain, in the upscale part of town, and only charged us the same amount of rent that we’d been paying for the smaller place.
I was excited. The new house was fantastic and everything was going great. I could not wait to get home and start my new life with my new wife, in this amazing house, with most of a year’s worth of combat pay.
I headed back out of the country once my leave was over and got stuck in Kuwait for a few weeks while I waited for a flight back to Kandahar. I ended up basically hitchhiking from Kandahar in a wide crescent across the southwest of Afghanistan, finally flying into Camp Arena in a helicopter with the door open, which was one of the most amazing things that had ever happened to me. I got to see my duty station from the air, as well as several miles of countryside in every direction.
Once I’d gotten back to my camp and settled back in again, T admitted to me over Skype that she hadn’t just slept with her ex, she’d slept around with ten guys.
Ten individual human beings.
Ten guys. Eight before my mid-tour leave, including her ex, and two after.
That psychological rabbit hole got deep. I mean, the bottom fell out. I took the firing pin out of my rifle and gave it to my squad sergeant because I was having suicidal ideations again. Nothing I’d done, nothing I’d said had been able to save me—not the breakdowns, not the agreement to the truck and the new apartment, not the promotion, not the hormone therapy, nothing. Absolutely nothing had saved me from the Dragon.
I’d done everything I could and Hyde was still fucking me on the other side of the planet.
My lieutenant ordered me to start seeing a shrink in the adjacent duty station, and since I couldn’t do anything about Hyde from Afghanistan, I started trying to get my shit sorted and focused on Jekyll as much as I could. They put me on Zoloft.
Probably didn’t take it as seriously as I should have, because I told them during a session that I liked to sneak around in the dark like Batman, which was true to an extent; Arena was a night-blackout base, which meant that after the sun went down you were blind without a flashlight, and it was fun doing ninja-commando stuff and trying not to be seen.
I’ll be straight-up with you, when I first started going to the shrink I just went for the free snacks; there was a table in the waiting room where people had left a bunch of care package stuff.
Also, the shrink’s office was in Camp Stone, which had a US chow hall as opposed to the disgusting NATO chow halls on our base. Every time we went I loaded up on iced coffee and junk food. Believe me, ask around. If any vet you know or can find has ever served on Camp Arena, they’ll be happy to tell you about the bony, scaly fish at the Italian chow or how the Spanish chow hall kept the supply of Cornish game hens about even with the local population of alley cats.
After a while, I took the therapy seriously and it started doing me good—as before, I had forgiven T (what else was I going to do from the other side of the world?) and I just wanted to go home and try to start over with a clean slate. This would become my mantra for the rest of my tour, later crystallizing into a diamond resolve, a single-minded drive to JUST GET HOME. JUST GET HOME. JUST GET HOME.
Then at some point that summer, T told me she’d lied.
Lied about almost the whole thing. Nearly everything I was upset about, everything that was giving me suicidal thoughts, everything that was getting me in trouble with my superiors, just evaporated into thin air.
Eight of those ten guys—the real two being her ex, and another guy—had been a lie. A total fiction. I was dumbfounded. Why? Why did she tell me she’d slept with eight more guys when she hadn’t? Was two not enough?
WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING.
I don’t remember the answer I got, but I dimly recall snatching my headphones off and throwing them across the housing unit, scaring the hell out of my squad sergeant. When I try to remember it now, I get the faint idea that she didn’t know either. I think she dropped the call right after she told me.
Seriously, look. I’m not the jealous type. It made me upset, of course—who wouldn’t freak out? But I forgave her earlier that year
(don’t cry, I’m coming back)
and made plans to start over. I never did hulk out and scream at her, threaten to kill anybody, any of that macho patriarchy crap. But for real, by then I was low-key batshit 24/7. I was a pot full of crazy constantly on a low simmer.
On top of that, a little while after the headphone thing I was moved away from my sergeant and into another CHU with a fellow Specialist who had a propensity for pissing in empty soda cans and leaving them in stacks and clusters around the housing container, like a chapel full of candles in a 90’s rock-ballad music video. I had to move in while he was at work, and it was down to me to haul all of those piss-cans out of there by myself.
I’ll be honest, after the bullshit I’d been dealing with lately it was almost a relief to handle, almost meditational. By comparison it was Easy Mode.
One day the lieutenant gave me another PT test (we’d been doing them once a month, for some reason) and I failed the run by a fraction of a fucking minute. I shit every brick in the Middle East and threw my water bottle in sheer frustration, earning another write-up. I’d been getting written up for the minor breakdowns I’d been having regularly since going into theatre, thanks to Hyde’s/T’s long-distance IV drip of gaslighting plus the stress of my on-the-job training for a literally life-or-death job.
I guess I finally just bent a little too far and broke.
He finally had me swapped out with another soldier and sent to the HQ, because USFOR-A (the top Afghanistan brass) wanted to send me home and this was their under-the-table way of keeping me in country. I spent the rest of my tour hanging out in the command tent with no official duties, just sitting around on Reddit and trying to get back into the writing scene, occasionally escorting Afghan janitors into the head shed and doing other menial tasks. So thanks to this gaslighting psyops bullshit, I got thrown out of the most fulfilling 9-to-5 job I’d ever done (and done well) until the writing thing a couple years later.
But even after all of that, I was looking forward to getting home. At this point I was humming like a live wire. I was in constant fight-or-flight mode.
You know the part in action movies where the caves / base / compound / building is self-destructing, everything is falling down around the hero’s ears, and he’s making that last mad dash for the exit? That was me for about the last three months of my tour, including the month I spent on Fort Gordon in the transition unit, weaning myself off the last of my Zoloft. My head down, metaphorically and emotionally running for the nearest exit. I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got home, but all I knew was that I wanted to get home before I flew all to pieces or before my future ex-wife burned the house down with all my shit in it. It was the home stretch and I was mentally hauling ass.
In the end, they wanted to kick me out of the Army altogether for being crazy. As part of my mandatory evaluation, I had to talk to the psychiatric officer at Eisenhower Hospital on Fort Gordon.
We sat down in his office (the window of which had a sturdy-looking mesh across it, which I’m sure had something to do with the several stories’ worth of air between his office window and the parking lot), had a rather pleasant conversation about whether I was screwball or not, and he sent me back to the barracks with a clean bill of mental health. He didn’t see a thing wrong with me.
When I got back to my room, I took a two-hour shower as hot as I could stand it while watching Dylan Dog: Dead of Night on TV in the bathroom mirror reflection.
That winter was the second time in my deployment I ate Thanksgiving dinner at a hospital. The first was at the hospital behind my transition barracks on Fort Hood the year before. I was more than ready to get home and see my family again, and salvage what I could of my marriage.
Finally, I piled on the bus to Alabama for several hours of watching the world roll by.
If you’ve read my book The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, you know roughly what happens next: I got off the bus (in Oxford, as opposed to Lexington in the book), called my wife and literally asked her to come get me, and she drove out from some other man’s house to pick me up. Then she took me to what was supposed to be our house, but which was cold and had an empty fridge (a fridge I paid for while I was gone). And she left me there by myself, with nothing to eat, a new truck I couldn’t pay for, and a thousand bucks in my bank account.
As you can probably guess, I would much rather have had my life more closely mirror Whirlwind than it did. I swear to whatever god you worship, Reader, I would have given anything to have cast away my Earthly existence and walked off into a fantasy parallel dimension without so much as a glance back.
This novel was largely a form of therapy for me, and three books in this series later, I feel like I’ve exorcised most of my demons.