Who Am I?
by Aaron Auld
Do you ever look at yourself? Sure, you see yourself in the mirror a handful of times a day when you go to the bathroom to take a leak and all that, but usually I find that when I look into the mirror I’m looking at all of the things that aren’t me. Is there something on my face? Lately, however, I don’t really know why, but I have been making a concentrated effort to look myself in the eyes when I find myself facing a mirror. Sometimes I can hold a gaze longer than others.
In mid to late August of 2009 I shipped off to Fort Leonard Wood Missouri to go to basic training for the Army. Most soldiers in the Army have a ten-week basic training, and move on to train for the job that they signed up for in dorm-room style barracks with relative freedom, at least as far as nights and weekends were concerned. However, because of the fact that I chose Military Police as my job, and we were held to a higher standard, I was to live under the strict rules of a basic training during MP school as well, a cumulative total of six months. I can remember being driven to the recruiting station in Warwick, Rhode Island by the father of my best friend who I joined with. It was like four in the morning that day in August when we met up with the recruiter who was going to bring us to Boston and send us on our way to Missouri. I knew I didn’t want to be in the Army, and ten days before I left, my roommate’s best friend who lived in the downstairs apartment had committed suicide. As it turns out, suicide is an often talked about subject in the Army.
I guess it isn’t long before you learn what your options are to try and somehow get sent home from basic training. Not everyone partook in fantasizing about tearing their ACL at the obstacle course so that they could go back on the contract they signed and go back to their normal life. It really wasn’t uncommon to hear that kind of talk at all, but who wanted to have to suffer the pain of an injury like that? As it turns out, the easiest way to get kicked out of the Army is to say you feel suicidal. It was faster than a medical discharge, but as soon as you said you felt suicidal, the drill sergeants would take away your belt, your shoelaces, your sheets, blankets, blunt objects, shaving razors, and the like, for reasons that I’m sure you can figure out. Furthermore, the private on suicide watch would then have to be watched by two recruits at all times, including pulling watch on them overnight. Over the course of the first five months a few individuals went through the process of cutting themselves up a bit so they could go to the drill sergeant and say they were suicidal, and within two weeks or so they’d usually be back on a plane to the comfort of their old lives.
It was in the last month before graduation that my company was called into the classroom in the barracks to be spoken to by the drill sergeants. A few months earlier they had told all the active duty soldiers where they would be stationed after graduation, but that fateful day in January, at least a third of the active duty soldiers were reassigned to all go to the same duty station. In a moment of honesty, one of the drill sergeants addressed the reason behind these changes.
“Privates, if you just had your duty station changed, that mean you should plan on having your boots in the sand within three months of graduating here. You’ll be going to Afghanistan.”
This must have freaked out some of them. Over the course of the next month, I’d say we probably had about ten privates who were a part of the reassigned group give threats of suicide so they could be sent home. Here is something that I bet you didn’t know: if your unit’s training period overlaps with Christmas, you now get sent home to be with your family, because there are too many recruits actually committing suicide on Christmas Day when they’re stuck in the barracks instead of being with their families. There are already fireguard shifts to wake up for when you’re living the barracks life, but for every private on suicide watch, you need an additional two privates per hour to wake up for a shift. When we had eight or so privates on suicide watch, they all slept on their sheetless and blanketless mattresses in the downstairs classroom. Each mattress with two chairs next to it, for the people in charge of watching them to sit and make sure they don’t do anything crazy.
Roughly twenty-eight privates would have to wake each hour to take a shift of either fireguard or suicide watch. Sleep became scarce to come by, because instead of us only having to pull one shift a night, we’d each have to wake up for an hour at a time two or three times every night for those last couple weeks before graduation. It wasn’t long before me and my battle buddy would sit for our suicide watch shifts, with our flashlight pointed towards the eyes of whoever we were in charge of watching, while kicking the side of their mattress. My boot would hit first, then my buddy’s. Boom-boom. In the cadence of a heartbeat. We’d say, “If we don’t get to sleep, let’s make sure these assholes don’t either.” I know we’d whisper threats to the recruit, while shining lights in his eyes and we kicked away. It was those last few weeks that the unity and moral standards of what it would be like to be in the Army were set.
By the time I was just about a complete zombie from lack of consistent sleep, struggling and resentful from the fact that I couldn’t be there more for my roommate after what had happened in the summer prior, and I was tired of hearing the word “suicide” in training, we had another private threaten suicide. I remember being on the detail to watch and restrain him, one that took five people at first because he kept going through fits of wanting to fight us and throw elbows. After over an hour of struggling, he was finally calm without restraint, and was sitting against the wall in front of our company’s HQ office. The drill sergeant walked out of the office, looked at us five privates who were on watch, and said “Privates, I need to go upstairs to make copies, if anyone gets any bruises where I can’t see them, then as far as I’m concerned they aren’t there.” Once the drill sergeant walked off, one of us looked at the rest of the group and said, “Does that mean what I think it means?”
I spill this story out of my guts because it’s the memory that made me realize how powerful the mind is. You see, I blocked that memory out of my head for years. Totally deleted it. Then it crept up on me one day back in 2013, four years later. It hit me like a ton of bricks. “Who the hell was that person?” I asked myself, “I don’t know him, that’s not the version of me that I think of myself as. What a monster. Am I even who I think I am?”
I know from the sources that those people didn’t want to kill themselves. They were just eighteen-year-olds who were in over their heads when they signed their lives away for four years. They just wanted to go home, just like I did. I shouldn’t have punished them for that. I learned about myself. That I’m not solely in control. That my mind is a strong force, and that it can manipulate my perception in the interest of trading truth for comfort. By learning how nasty I could be, I learned how to never have to be like that again. To be able to fight is to be able to hurt. And to be able to hurt is to have the capacity for evil. However it is he who is tough who has to fight the least, so even though I know my capacities, I’m somewhat happy to have them so that I hopefully never have to exercise them again.
Aaron Auld served in the Army National Guard from 2009-2012 as an MP. He now works as a business development representative for Coolhead Tech in Austin, Texas, and attends Austin Community College.