Those Who Stand Between the People and the Monsters

Today was supposed to be a full writing day for the NAoWriMo project to catch myself up.  But, the events of yesterday made me really not want to write anything today.  Then I got to looking at the various works of art appearing in my Facebook feed and the stack of 9-11 comic books I have on the shelf.  That served as a big reminder of the realization that for creative types, this is what we do with tragedy.  We turn it into art.

Those Who Stand Between the People and the Monsters

We looked around at the site of so much death and destruction.  We paired up in teams of two to ensure an immediate backup should the attackers return.  We were searching for anyone who might have survived this violent attack or anything that might give us clue as to who was responsible for it.  We were too late to prevent this particular attack, but they called us in anyway in to get ready for the search and recovery phase.

Sergeant Beckett and I came across one particular group of remains that caught our attention.  We approached cautiously to get a closer look.  For all we knew, everything in this scene of carnage had been booby-trapped by the attackers to kill or harm anyone who might come along in the aftermath.

The remains we found were those of a couple that had probably been out for a night of entertainment.  By the arrangement of the remains on the damaged pockmarked road surface, they appeared to have been fleeing the attackers when some type of explosive device that shredded and splintered their bodies with shrapnel struck them from behind.

The woman and the man’s bodies were mostly intact.  Burned and badly damaged, but there was enough there to identify one as being female and the other as being male.  The closeness of the two bodies suggested a familiarity between them.  Then, I spotted the gap between the two bodies and noticed their hands.

The two hands between the two larger bodies were still each clutching one of a smaller pair of hands.  I pointed this out to Beckett and started looking around to find a smaller body that should be nearby.  I found it a few feet away where the blast wave of the explosive device had thrown the tiny body.

            I crouched down looking closer at the remains of the little girl and found the shredded remains of a backpack that she had been wearing and the shredded remains of a teddy bear that she must have been carrying in the backpack.

            I was poking at the shredded remains of the teddy bear with a glove-covered index finger when I heard Sergeant Beckett approach from behind me.

            “What kind of alien monster do you think did this?” I asked Beckett before I half-turned to look back and meet his eyes.

            “I don’t know,” he answered apologetically.  When his eyes found the tiny body, he looked as if he was going to be sick.

“This wasn’t aliens,” a voice boomed from in front of where I knelt down.

I turned back to look in the direction of the voice, and then stood up as I recognized that the gunny and the sergeant major were approaching the spot where Beckett and I now stood.

“So, this wasn’t alien monsters?” I asked of the two older marines.

“Not aliens,” the sergeant major said as his eyes met mine.  “But, this was definitely monsters.  I’ve seen this before.  These were monsters of the worst type,” he said as he flipped the shredded remains of the teddy bear over with the toe of his boot.  “These were human monsters.”

“Humans can be monsters, too?” I asked, confused.  I knew some humans could be bad, but monstrous was a whole other level that I had never heard of growing up.

“Did I ever tell you guys the story of how I decided to become a marine?” the sergeant major asked, looking down at his boot, as he continued to toe the shredded teddy bear remains on the ground between us.

            As he looked back up, Beckett and I just silently shook our heads to indicate a ‘no,’ as the gunny spoke up and said, “Sergeant major, these two marines have always managed to find a way to be somewhere else when you hold an enlisted call.”

            The sergeant major laughed at that, but the laugh did not reach his eyes.  There was a sad look in his eyes rooted to something from a distant past.

            We knew a little bit of the sergeant major’s background.  We knew he was born in France.  We also knew he once lived in Paris.  That was all back in the years before the militaries of NATO and the rest of the world reorganized into the Earth Defense Forces.

            Of course, he knew all about the jokes some of us marines would tell each other when we thought he was out of earshot.  We joked about the French battle flag being all white and referred to the French as surrender monkeys.  He even joined in on some of the jokes and gave us new ones.  However, the look in his eyes now was not a look of surrender.

            There was anger and some form of hatred in those dark brown eyes as he spoke up and told us about an event from his past.

            “I was five when the terrorists attacked Paris,” he began the story.  “They did not hit the usual tourist sites this time.  No, this time, they attacked places near homes.”

            “I looked out the window of my upstairs bedroom as I heard the sounds of gunshots, explosions, and people screaming outside our house,” he paused, then continued.  “I saw a man with a gun shooting in the direction of a restaurant my family frequented many times.

            “I was scared to see this man and what he was doing.  I ran down the stairs screaming for my papa,” the terror of the child still visible in the sergeant major’s eyes as he says this.

            He looked around at us, and then continued the story saying, “Papa asked, ‘What is it, my little monkey?’  His voice was calm and stoic with the sound of strength, but there was a look of fear in his eyes.”

The sergeant major stood tall as he said, “Papa wasn’t supposed to be scared.  I was scared.  I was supposed to be scared, but not him.”  I told him I was scared, and he said, ‘that is okay, little monkey, papa is scared, too.'”

            The sergeant major smiled as the memory of something came back to him.  He told of his papa carrying him back up the stairs after the sounds of sirens and people yelling with voices full of concern replaced the sounds of gunshots, explosions, and people screaming.  The two of them were sitting side by side looking out the window when his papa pointed at something outside the window.

“‘See that man over there?’ Papa asked as he pointed out the window.  ‘The soldier,’ I asked, as my eyes followed to where his finger was pointing.’  Papa said, ‘Yes, little monkey, that man is scared, too,'” the sergeant major smiled with warmth as he recalled the memory of his father. 

            The warmth reached his eyes as he said, “I said to back to papa, ‘But, he’s a soldier.’ I thought that soldiers weren’t supposed to be afraid.  Then, papa said, ‘Yes, he is a soldier, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get scared.  It means that he still does his job anyway.'”

            “Just like that, when papa spoke those words, I decided at the age of five that I wanted to be one of those soldiers who stood between the people and the monster, even when I might be afraid, just like the soldier I saw outside my window.” 

            As he spoke those words, the sergeant majors boot gently lifted the shredded remains of the teddy bear, and then he looked at each of us, a sadness returning to his eyes, as he said, “Sometimes we aren’t in time to stop the monsters from hurting or killing the people.  But, we will always be part of the group that goes out in search of the monsters to make them pay for their actions.”

“Thank you, sergeant major,” I said to the older marine.  I had a completely new respect for the man after hearing his story. 

            As the sergeant major nodded to me and then to Beckett, then he turned to walk away and the gunny turned to follow him.   I silently swore to myself that I would never again make surrender jokes about the French military.

When I caught Sergeant Beckett’s eyes, a look there suggested he was thinking the same thing.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

The Monster

This story was written sometime around my original diagnosis for depression.  It was an attempt to explain what depression for the person suffering from it.

The Monster
There’s a monster shadowing me.  I can’t always see it, but I always know it’s there.  I can usually catch a glimpse of it in the corner of my eye.  The beast there smiling, smirking, knowing it’s just biding its time.  It usually hides in the shadows, just out of sight, watching and waiting, until it decides to strike.  When it does strike, its attacks are relentless and destructive.  It goes after everything I am, everything I have, and everyone I hold dear.

Nothing I do is ever good enough to defeat the monster and the monster makes sure I know this.  It focuses on and highlights my failures.  Even my successes are reframed as failures by the monster.  If I succeed at something, the monster repurposes the success as though I merely got lucky that time, and then the monster reminds me that failure is always an option and failure will follow as soon as possible.

Relationships are a particularly preferred target for the monster.  It uses my friends and family as targets and allies.  Its attacks on me, at times, are so relentless that they cause me to project my own failures and insecurities on others and make them additional targets for the monster.  No matter what they do, no matter how good, it’s never good enough, never free of ulterior motives.  If I try to get too close or someone else tries to get close to me, the monster pokes and prods at me until I lash out.  It focuses on the times when loved ones left in the past, and screams how this one will too.  Small grievances escalate into major offenses.  Petty things become a source of rage.  I don’t want to attack them, but I am powerless to stop it.  It’s the monster, not me, that takes over and causes pain to those I love to cause even more pain to me.

The monster creates allies of friends and family through deception and trickery.  They don’t see the monster for what it really is.  Instead, they see the fight as something temporary, a dark period to overcome in time.  I know they mean well when they say it’s just a phase, or all things will pass, or to just think happy thoughts, or just pray about it, or everyone goes through these fights against the monster.  I’ve tried all these things.  The monster will seem to retreat for a time, but it always returns.  And, when it does return, it attacks with a vengeance as if it’s making up for the periods of peace I briefly enjoyed.

Everyday becomes a battle and a struggle against the monster.  It begins its attacks in the morning making the simple task of getting out of bed a struggle.  It attacks throughout the day.  Simple things become a chore.  Things I once enjoyed become tedious, or a source of boredom.  At night, it attacks as well with a twofold purpose:  to make sleep difficult and, through the lack of sleep, weaken my defenses for the day ahead.  With the monster looming over me, sleep is not true sleep, but the act of passing out from exhaustion.  Insomnia is quite frequent from the fights against the monster.  Sometimes sleep is a relief from the attacks of the monster, other times the monster attacks my dreams.

The monster hates me.  I can feel its hate when it gets close.  It wants to destroy me.  I can sense its desire.  The only consolation of its desire to destroy me is that the monster can’t physically touch me or destroy me itself.  The attacks on my sleep can trigger headaches and exhaustion, but the monster is incapable of causing direct physical harm to me.  Instead, the monster seeks to push just enough that I might do the job for it.  So far, it’s been unsuccessful at this.  I do sometimes find myself wishing to just not wake up and be done with the fight against the monster once and for all.  However, so far, I’ve been fortunate to avoid any thoughts of doing anything to help the monster achieve this goal.

The monster knows its greatest advantage is to try to convince me that I’m on my own, all alone, in this fight.  The fight against the monster is a lonely one.  It knows that I’m at my weakest when it isolates me from those who could help with the fight and that is the point where it thrives.  This same monster has taken down so many others I’ve known and respected through this same tactic.  Better men and women, stronger men and women, men and women greater than I could ever hope to be.  Yet, they still fell to this monster that pursues me.  And, isolation is the goal of the monster when it uses those closest to me as targets.

I know that the wedges it’s driven between myself and others in the past can’t be undone.  Some of those wedges are unforgivable; some of those others, who were pushed away, have long since moved beyond reach or the chasms created by the monster are too great to ever be crossed again.  I can’t change the past, or even return there, but I can only hope that forgiveness might cross their minds and be possible somewhere along the way.

However, now that I ‘ve positively identified just what the monster is and what its tactics will be, I’ve got hope that I can at least combat the monster head on.  While the monster that is depression can never be fully beaten or defeated, it can be fought head on once it’s been identified and exposed for what it is.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

Rescuing the Rescuer

This story was written for the ‘After the War’ short story contest at the Art of Future Warfare website.  While this story did not win the contest, I still thought it was one of my better written projects.

Rescuing the Rescuer
The music of the copilot’s latest metal mix tape blared over the dropship’s comm system and over our armor MANET as the pilot and copilot spun, and twisted the vehicle to avoid SAM and Air-to-Air attacks on our way to the ground.  While we felt the music through our armor, we still heard the roaring screams of our aerospace fighters tearing by to shoot missiles out of the sky around us.  A few explosions thundered outside as missiles went off dangerously close.

The music was supposed to distract us from the battles taking place outside as the dropship pilots attempted to get us to the ground to die before the occupying forces could kill us in the sky.  It was always dangerous to drop into a hot LZ, but we would not be the best if we did not always go in hot.

The dropship replaced the helicopter as the need to put troops on the ground continued to exist after space-based platforms replaced the older land and sea-based platforms and helicopters became impractical.  Most dropship designs followed the same lines as the old helos:  pilot on the right, cargo/troop bay behind cockpit, gun placements at the side windows and on the ramp, vertical takeoff and landing.  About the only real change was the dropship could pressurize and larger engines replaced the old engine-driven rotor head.

Over the suit net, I hear the retching of one of the new people.  At least it is only dry heaves, or that is how it sounds.  He learned quickly to listen to the older NCOs when they told us to skip breakfast before a combat drop.  Some of the new idiots think they know more than the old NCOs and end up hurling inside the armor.  I was one of those idiots my first time.  The reward is you get to wear foul-smelling armor for the rest of your time in battle.  If you survive, you also get the bonus prize of cleaning out said armor after returning to the transport ship.

“Five out,” called the ship, relaying the distance to drop point.

“Alright, get ready you idiots,” came the call from our platoon’s gunny.

I blink through my ammo counts after the gunny’s call.  Everything registers full counts.  The suit reports 100% durability.  I flick my eye over the go/no-go indicator at the top left and the green go light illuminates.

“Four out.”

“Private Birch, you better be dead,” the gunny growled over the net.

“Sorry, gunny,” came the reply as the platoon go/no-go flipped green.

I cycled through adrenaline, atropine, and medical levels.  All levels were topped off.  The suit also reports the emergency suit patch systems at 100%.  I flick over the second go/go-no indicator and the light turns green.

“Three…”

As the ship’s voice fades on the -ee sound, a screeching metallic ripping sound follows a loud crunch.  Thunder sounds right outside the hull and the dropship rocks side to side.  We never heard the ‘out’ from the call with all the external sounds.

The gunny calmly called out, “Emergency evac procedures, now.”

I glance quickly to the bottom right of the HUD and pull up the emergency menu.  One line item moves to the top of the menu and I blink.  As I reopen my eyes from the blink, a red button has appeared over the center of the HUD.  I blink once on the red button.  The confirmation message appears on screen.  I blink twice for the ok and the suit seals up with a hiss as oxygen and pressure systems start up.

“Two out.”

A second crunch and a louder rip sounds as the outside light shreds the darkness of the cargo bay apart.  As the dropship begins to disintegrate around us, I hear a voice calling out, “Go, go, go.”  I do not know if it is the gunny or one of the dropship crew.  As the floor falls away below me, I hear the suit fire up jump jets to slow my fall.  I hear a secondary click as the chaff and flare systems begin firing off diversions for the incoming fire.

A fireball streaks off to my left from behind me.  It might be the dropship crew’s ejection capsule.  I hope it is the capsule.  Otherwise, the ship just turned into a shooting star.

I hear screams over the net as flechettes and rails rip apart marines on their way to the ground.  I try to glace around for potential threats coming towards the smaller target I have surely become.  As I glance to my right, something comes towards me at a high rate of speed.  I close my eyes as I realize that I cannot avoid impact.  I do not open my eyes as I hear the acrylic face shield shatter from the impact, but I begin to feel the falling rain on my face as a sharp pain rips into my right arm.

I bite my cheek to stifle a scream as I feel the med injectors pinch into my skin and hear thunder crash overhead.  I open my eyes and feel the water of the shower spraying out like rain on my face.  I wince as the thunderstorm outside booms overhead.  The change in pressure from the storm coming in causes pain to rise at the joint of right arm bone and prosthetic metal.  Little things take me back to that day.

Out of 70 marines on that dropship, I was the only one to reach the ground alive.  A rail that should have pierced me instead ripped my right arm off at the elbow.  Somehow I lived.

Every day this gets harder.  I lived, so many died.  Why me?  The question goes unanswered as often as I ask it.  I cannot answer it, and even if I could, I doubt the answer will bring any comfort.  Someone at the VA suggested something called survivor’s guilt.  Maybe.  I just know the feeling is overwhelming and I feel helpless against it.  My life feels like it is slowly unraveling into an unmanageable mess.  Some days I wish I just would not wake up, but day after day, I still unwillingly open my eyes in the morning.

The need to get out of the house explodes into an almost panic and I grab my keys to go for a drive.  As I pass the local middle school, I see a little redhead girl looking across the open space of the schoolyard.  She is looking right at me.  Her eyes and mouth wide open as she spots me.  Her face covered in dirt or soot.  Her clothes tattered, ripped, burned. 

After the med auto injectors dealt out the meds that would keep me alive, the suit’s emergency landing sequence initiated.  Or, at least, I assumed that is what happened since I woke up in pain but relatively one piece.  My arm is still missing below the elbow but I can tell the emergency seal has applied.

She stopped moving once she spotted me, just staring at me.  Once she realizes she has my attention, she half turns and points behind her, never taking her eyes from mine.  As I follow her hand, I see smoke rising above the buildings behind her.  Something has fallen here.  Theirs or ours, I wonder as I slowly stand.  Eyes still locked with hers.  She is pleading for help with her eyes, even though she does not approach me.  She turns to walk back down the road she approached me from; I follow behind her, keeping a distance so to not scare her away.

As we pass the first building, I see what she wants to show me.  A series of houses has collapsed and caught fire from the impact of a burning heavy object.  I recognize the remains of the dropship I was on before the drop.

She sees my eyes on the remains of the ship and speaks for the first time to me, “My mother is home. I was coming home from school as that fell on my house.  My father’s shop is in the building across the street.”  Her eyes plead, beg, for me to do something.

I know there is no way anyone is alive in there.  Everything for a mile in all directions is an inferno.  The ship had full fuel and ammunition loads for the hot drop.

“There’s noth- … what is your name,” I ask instead.

“Emily,” she says.  I see the tears starting to swell in her eyes.

“How… how old are you, Emily,” I ask, trying to keep her focused on me instead of the inferno behind her.

“I turned twelve last week,” she answers.  Then she adds, “My sisters were home, too.”  Then, the tears began to flow.

My heart broke at the site of the tears. My dropship fell from the sky over a battleground in Northern Europe.  The shooting star plunged into a civilian neighborhood and became the inferno before us now.

“I am sorry.  There is nothing I can do,” I spoke softly to her.

“But, you’re a marine.  You can save anyone,” she spoke angrily as the tears flowed freely.

“Usually.  Sometimes.  But, it is too…” I choked on the words I regretted having to tell a child, “late for all of them.  No one could survive the heat of that fire.”  Tears began to cloud my vision of hell on earth as I sputtered out another, “I am sorry” as I raised my hands in a gesture of surrender.

Emily rushed towards me.  She yelled, “I hate you!” as she banged her fists on the armor.  She sobbed a “This is all your fault!” as you she broke into full tears and her fists stopped hitting the armor.

Her fists slowly unclenched as she wrapped her hands around me and just cried.  For the first time in my career, I wished I did not have armor in a combat zone.

I slowly lowered hands to return the hug.  I saw the news vids on the nets.  I knew the stories of orphans left behind in the battles both sides fought.  I never saw them in person, so I never gave it another thought after the vids ended and I watched the next news vid.  Now I confronted the one thing I had never given a serious thought to, a battlefield orphan that resulted from actions I directly engaged in.

After a silence that felt like an eternity slowly going by, I finally spoke with a clarity that surprised myself, “You are right, Emily.  I am a marine.  I can save anyone.  I cannot save your family, but I can still save you.  Will you let me do that?”

She shook her head up and down.  Emergency responders were finally able to move across the improvised battlefield as whatever battle ended in the distance.  I still did not know who had won.  As I heard a distant siren getting louder, I grabbed her tight to me and carried her off the main road.  I look up to see a fire truck speeding down the road directly towards us.

The fire truck honks as the driver sees me in its path.  Then, I swerved back into my lane just in time to miss a head-on collision with the larger rescue vehicle racing towards me on the road.  I slammed on brakes and stopped against the curb to my right.  I blinked as the truck passed and I saw the fire chief stop next to me.

“You ok,” the older man asks as he looks at me.

“No, yes, just remembering the past,” I stammer out.

He gives me a knowing nod, pulls a business card from his right breast pocket, and reaches over to hand me the card.  “Give these folks a call.  They can help.  Trust me, I have been there.”  He pats my arm as he drives away towards whatever emergency awaits him.

I slowly drive back home knowing I need to do something.  The memories are getting dangerous.  One minute I am home doing something, then some small thing takes me back to that battlefield so long ago.  I am powerless to beat this on my own and I recognize it now.  My life is unmanageable in its current state.

I sit at the table looking at the two choices before me.  I look to my left at the phone and the card the fire chief gave me representing option one, to get help.  I glance to my right where the pistol represents option two, to check out for the final reveille.  My hands shake as I try to make the decision.  I close my eyes as my hand hovers over the choices.  Gun or phone?  Gun or phone?  I make my choice.

“Hello.  Thank you for calling Veteran Crisis Line.  My name is Nicholas.  How can I help you?”

“I need help.  I cannot leave the war behind.  It has been twenty years and I still fight it.”

“We can help.  I can get you in for an emergency visit with Doctor Brennan.  She specializes in PTSD cases and has an opening this afternoon.  Can you get to the VA now?”

“Yes, I’m about 15 minutes away.  I will head there now.”

“Great, can I get a name to schedule against?”

“Zachary Butler,” I answered.

“Great Mr. Butler, Dr. Brennan will be expecting you.”

I made the drive and found the clinic.  I gave them my identification and they directed me to a waiting room.  A few minutes later, I heard a voice call out, “Mr. Butler?”

I looked up to see a middle-aged redhead woman.  Something about her seemed familiar.  However, I shrugged off the ghosts of the past.

I followed her to the small room where a few chairs were place semi close and took a seat.  Over the next hour or so, I gave her my story about that day in Northern Europe twenty years ago.

As I finished my story, she gave me a smile.  She said, “Let me tell you the story of how I came to be an expert in PTSD.  Twenty years ago a man who fell from the sky rescued a young orphan in a war zone.  She lost her entire family due to actions that were beyond either of their control.  The man from sky made a promise to rescue a little girl that day.  And, he did.”

I felt my mouth open with the surprise.  Could it be?  After all these years?

She continued her story, “That little girl suffered from PTSD as she grew up, but she was helped by many counselors who helped her make it out of her past.  That little girl would grow up to become a psychiatrist working with veterans who suffered from PTSD.”

The recognition from earlier kicked in as a tear fell from my eye and I asked, “Emily?”

She shook her head yes, as she had twenty years ago. Then she said, “You saved me twenty years ago, let me save you today.”

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.