REFLECTION OF THE DAMNED
Parris Island , S . C .
The dream was bad, the worst in weeks. The ceiling comes into focus. I blink the sleep out of my eyes. My heart races, sweat stains my sheets. I’m burning up. Every morning, it is always the same. I remember everything. Every move, every unearthly sensation and disorienting noise. It is the most vivid dream I’ve ever had, and I have it night after night after night.
A year ago, when the nightmare first invaded my sleep, I drowned it in liquor. At the time my unit, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, or 3/5, was stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. One night, I wandered into a tavern called The Harp in Newport Beach. On one wall rested a plaque commemorating the achievements of 3/5. Right then, I knew I had my watering hole. In the first month after I got back from leave, I ran up a three- thousand- dollar tab at The Harp.
I discovered that Jack Daniel’s did what nothing else could. I’d drink until I passed out, and in that darkness the nightmares and memories could not find me. Every morning, I’d peel my eyes open, unsure of who I was or where I’d ended up. Self- awareness only gradually penetrated the crushing hangover. I didn’t mind that; it gave me time to slip into myself and prepare for the shock of who I’d become. By noon, I’d be up and about, focused only on that night’s binge, longing for its numb sanctuary.
Not anymore, not for the last five months. That’s when I started drill instructor school and had to devote everything I had left to graduate. Ever since I was a raw recruit, I’d wanted to be a drill instructor.
A year removed from my tour in Iraq, I fulfilled that dream and graduated tenth in a class of sixty. Be careful what you wish for. That cliché has become the story of my life.
I’ve always been an achiever. Varsity football, baseball, and wrestling back home in Ohio taught me to compete without reservation. I came of age in a tiny town of about twenty- five hundred people called Richwood, where Tractor Days was the year’s biggest event.
My friends and neighbors all hailed from hardworking, blue- collar stock; the kind of Americans who have quietly held this country together generation after generation. They aren’t revered as they should be anymore, and the blue- blood Eastern city folk look down their noses at us Red- Staters, but the fact is, the heart of America beats in towns like Richwood, whether the elites want to admit it or not. We lived a sort of Varsity Blues existence in our little town. Football games dominated the fall weekends, baseball dominated the spring. In between, there were school dances, Saturday- night dates, and cruising after we got our driver’s licenses.
I had come to Richwood after living in Marion, Ohio, until seventh grade. When I was six, my parents divorced. Dad moved to Richwood, Mom stayed in Marion and remarried a man I came to despise. When I could, I escaped to live with my dad, who worked in a local steel mill. I was the new kid in a town of less than a thousand surrounded by corn and wheat fields. Everyone knew everyone’s business. I dropped in from what folks considered a big city—Marion’s population is about 40,000—and was instantly put on probation by my peers. Where would I fit in? Would I be an outcast?
I threw myself into sports, and my football and baseball skills gained me acceptance. Soon everyone knew my name, and I could walk downtown after a Friday- night game and receive backslaps and attaboys from people who months before were total strangers.
I’d never been accepted before, so the attention just fueled my desire to excel, do better, grow faster and stronger. I didn’t mind the hard work that that required. I didn’t mind pushing myself to exceed, and I always had the drive to achieve my goals.
That’s why I became a Marine. The Corps harnessed that drive in me and let me explore it in ways college never could have. I finished boot camp, endured Iraq, and came home to graduate from DI school and from Swim School a few weeks later. The latter is the second toughest school Marines can attend. For me, it was the aquatic equivalent of the Bataan Death March.
It started with three weeks of conditioning. I thought after drill instructor’s school that I was in the best shape of my life. I’ve always been lean and muscular. In high school I was an all- conference running back until I broke a collarbone and suffered a knee injury. Swim School knocked all the arrogance out of me. We started with a sevenhundred- meter swim. That’s almost a kilometer. It nearly killed me, and I thought I was a good swimmer.
They made us tread water while holding bricks. We dragged them across the pool again and again, the instructors pushing us like nobody had ever done. From four to midnight every day we tortured our bodies in the huge pool at Parris Island. By week four, I could hardly bring myself to continue. Instead, I’d sit in my pickup truck in front of my apartment and will myself to go through with another night of agony. In slow motion, I’d see my hand turning the key. Twenty minutes later, I’d be in the pool wondering if they’d let me drown as all the gear kept pulling me under. Every night for six weeks, I’d flail my way to the side and puke in the scum gutter that skirted the pool.
It was the toughest thing I’ve ever endured. Well, next to Fallujah. That’s why I love the Corps—there is always a new challenge awaiting those with the desire to push a little harder.
I slide out of my rack. When I hit the floor, I feel clammy and off. I haven’t felt right in months. Now that the booze remains in the bottle, the memories and nightmares plague me every night. What little rest I get is always interrupted.
Beside the bed, I stretch and yawn. A typical morning routine, but the engine’s not firing. Something’s missing.
Oh yeah. The realization wipes out the last of my sleepy grogginess. I shamble over to the bathroom sink and find my razor. Water running, I start to lather up.
My eyes focus on the sink. I know I’ll have to look into the mirror, but I avoid it as long as I can. I dread this time. I cannot hide from myself. In my reflection, there is no escape.
My eyes flick up. I stare at a gaunt and haggard face that could once have been mine. It looks sunken, like my cheekbones are about to cave in.
I’ve lost so much weight my ribs are visible.
Were you a prisoner of war?
No. I am a veteran of close- quarters combat. I fought. I survived. At Fallujah.
Guilty as charged: I survived.
I make eye contact with my reflection. Eyes are a window to the soul, right? I see nothing. It scares me. I want to avert my gaze, but I’m frozen in place.
Why are you still alive?
I can’t answer my reflection. It is the shell of what I once was. The jawline is still the same, my hair color hasn’t changed. The remnants are there, visible to those who really knew it. My mother. My wife Jessica. Her folks. They once looked upon my face with love and endearment. So did the people in my small town. I was the star running back for our high school football team. I was somebody once.
This new face is different. What I have left only inspires fear. Those vestiges of the past I see in the mirror serve now as a cruel reminder of all I’ve lost.
You should be dead, Jeremiah.
I want to pick up the razor and shave. I want to get through this morning ritual of hate.
You should be dead.
My reflection is right. I should be. I wanted death. I yearned for it. Why are you still here?
I can only say, “I have every right to be here.”
Three dead Marines. That’s what I see every time I dare to look into my eyes.
I wanted to be with them. That house in Sector 19 should have been my tomb. Now I live on in limbo, cheated of my destiny. I did not leave the fight willingly. They dragged me out of it screaming. There was killing left undone, vengeance unsecured. I yearn for a reckoning that will never be made.
You didn’t deserve to live.
My reflection pulls no punches. I drop my eyes. I can’t bear to look at myself any longer.
I take a long breath. The air is stale and I smell my own sweat. Another breath. Exhale. Breathe. Calm down.
I am here. At least, what’s left of me is here. The best of me was burned away inside that house, lost forever on December 23rd, the last firefight American forces would fight in that shattered city during the Second Battle of Fallujah.
The memories flicker by like reels on a slot machine. Nothing makes sense.
Then I see Phillip Levine, bloody and shocked, shouting for a pistol. For a moment it seems so real that I want to reach out for him. I’ve never seen a man do what he did that day.
I open my eyes as gunfire echoes around me. A moment later, the vision of my best friend passes and my bathroom is salved with silence. I’m left staring at little icebergs of shaving cream afloat in an overflowing sink.
What made you worth saving?
My reflection taunts me.
“I don’t know,” I manage as I look up into the mirror.
I stare into the eyes of three dead Marines.
“I’m so sorry,” I say.
There is no forgiveness in their eyes.
From the Hardcover edition.