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by David McOwen

I have broken people in my head.

I went to war with hopes and dreams, with fear (a little) of dying or (a lot) of screwing up. I went to live up to the memory of my uncle and a conjured idea of what it means to be a man. I went to prove that I could.

I went to help people.

I came back, mostly. I came back with pride and stories, with brothers and sisters I will love until my last day on earth. And I came back with broken people.

I have the operator who told me stories about driving out into the mountains with a huge American flag on their truck just so the bad guys would attack them, who broke his collar bone goofing off on an ATV because that sort of thing also happens.

I have the soldier who was shot dead-center in the forehead, but the bullet bounced around his helmet without doing more harm than could be covered by two Band-Aids. I said “If you can’t get laid with that story, then life isn’t fair,” and we laughed. Later I gave him a cookie I’d baked in our tiny aircraft oven, because that’s something we did, and we laughed some more.

I have the Army squad who came to say goodbye to the soldier going home with a gunshot wound to the arm. They crowded into the ambulance with us, one by one, these brothers and an outsider. His closest friend was the last, and when my patient joked that he would get his million-dollar wound too, the man replied, “Nah, I’m gonna get me some of those robot legs!” with the gleeful confidence of a kid asking Santa for presents. When I think of him I hope he didn’t get his wish.

I have the Afghan combatant wrapped in a rug thick with dust and other things, who took a grenade blast to the face and who looked older than any man fighting a war should look, and who said something to me in language I wished I’d understood.

I have the Marine who jumped every time I had to talk to him or adjust the litter straps he kept undoing, because he’d been blown up and being blown up makes you jumpy, among other things.

I have the soldier with a trach who could not talk but was awake, sitting in a cocoon of white gauze and blood and mangled limbs, whose stare is burned into my life and wordlessly chides in an endless loop, “Why does it still hurt? Why can’t you be better?”

And I have the silent ones. The ones in medically induced comas who will never remember me. They are legion and if I collected all the parts that they were missing I sometimes wonder how many patchwork people I could build inside my head.

But I don’t think about them unless I have to.

Because if I do then all the screams I never heard from the lives they’ve had to lead—after I was gone and home and safe and whole—fill my head with a symphony of pain that swallows me until I can’t breathe. And then I cry. I weep for all the lives I could not fix and for the wounds too deep to heal. And I console myself that I am the least horrible cog in a leviathan machine of loss and suffering and death.

And later, when I can, I take the screaming silence back to the room in the unlit corner of my thoughts and shut the door. I dry my eyes, clear my head, put on my uniform, and act the way I’m supposed to.

I pretend I am not one of them.

But I have broken people in my head, and I wish so much I did not miss the war that made them.

David McOwen has been in the military for 20 years now, entirely as a reservist. That includes 10 years as a Navy jet engine mechanic, 1 year as an Army Guard helicopter technician, and 8+ years as an Aeromedical Evacuation Technician in the Air Force, where he is currently a TSgt. He has done several operational “channel” missions, ferrying sick and wounded from the Pacific and European theaters, as well as a 2008-09 deployment with the 455 EAEF in Bagram, Afghanistan. The 130 combat flight hours he accrued during that deployment are the basis for this story. 

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