The Blue Cascade: A Memoir of Life after Warby Mike Scotti
Sometimes the hardest battle is the one after the war. As one of the soldiers on the front line of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Lieutenant Scotti was taught that weakness is what gets you killed: no hesitation, focus your energies on your objective, and complete the mission. Upon returning from war, Scotti approached his new life the same way. He ignored the creeping… See more details below
Sometimes the hardest battle is the one after the war. As one of the soldiers on the front line of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Lieutenant Scotti was taught that weakness is what gets you killed: no hesitation, focus your energies on your objective, and complete the mission. Upon returning from war, Scotti approached his new life the same way. He ignored the creeping depression and numbness he called "The Blue Cascade" and charged ahead toward his goal to get an MBA, secure a high-paying finance job, and retire young and rich. But he was being eaten away inside, and scenes of drunken emotion and raging violence were becoming more and more frequent. Years after returning from active combat, he eventually found himself contemplating suicide. Through a series of powerful events, Scotti was ultimately able to find a path to healing and begin his journey back to life, finally emerging with the following wisdom for fellow sufferers of post-traumatic stress: It's ok if you are not ok.
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The Blue CascadeA Memoir of Life after War
By Scotti, Mike
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Scotti, Mike
All right reserved.
9 Footnotes in the following chapters:
1 in chapter 1
1 in chapter 4
7 in epilogue
*Live links needed for the ebook
Notes on extracts:
Occasionally, I had to make different versions of an extract, based on its location on the page (ext-a, ext-a2, for example)
One extract to look out for: an alpha numbered list and math symbols within extract in Chapter 3.
“Item 1. Little girl’s brain lying on the side of the road,” she read aloud from the checklist attached to the clipboard she held gently in her hands. The “on the side of the road” part came out much more slowly and softly than the first part. Like she was confused about what the words meant.
We had met only a few minutes before, and for a moment, we just stared at each other in awkward silence. The air was heavy as both of us tried to ignore the photograph that stood frozen on the large monitor on the desk in front of us. The photograph I had snapped of the little girl’s brain lying in the dirt and gravel on the side of the road in central Iraq.
The brain had a large-caliber bullet hole through it.
And I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when I told that story to a stranger. A civilian. What would happen when I cracked the seal on the high-pressure valve and all the things trapped inside came out screaming and running and attacking. Things that had been locked away since they’d happened.
She sat looking at me, with her back straight and her fingers perfectly arched on the keyboard, ready to start typing every word I said. Maybe this whole thing was a big mistake, I thought. Well, you signed on for this. So, reluctantly, I cleared my throat, glanced out the small window, and began…
Twenty-one months earlier, in June of 2003, I stepped off the bus that took us from the airport to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, in California. Captain Jason Frei stood outside, just beyond the last step, smiling and waiting to greet each of us. He had lost his right hand just a few months before when a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) struck his vehicle. He now had a hook where the hand once was.
His eyes were proud. I sensed no self-pity or regret about what had happened to him. I was sure that I wouldn’t have taken such a thing so well.
“Welcome home, Marine,” he said.
After an awkward pause, we shook with our left hands.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
The crowd of wives and parents and children cheered and clapped and whistled as we filed off the bus. They held signs that said Welcome Home, Daddy. It was to be a celebration. Because we’d made it home.
There was a picnic table piled high with cakes and cookies that had been baked with the same gentle touch that had gone into the carefully selected items we received in our care packages overseas. Treasures from a far-off land that we opened with dirty hands as gunfire barked in the distance.
All around me were families and wives. Happy reunions. But I wondered how many of the wives had been fucking the neighbor or some surfer out in town. How many of these happy unions would soon end because hubby got drunk and saw demons and dead Iraqi kids and Marines and then his wife was the enemy and he wanted out of all of this.
As I walked toward the armory, I watched as a young Marine from another unit, like me just home from the war, was served with divorce papers. Right in the parking lot.
There were a few old vets among the crowd. They shook our hands and looked at us like we were their own sons. I could look into their eyes and know instantly that at some point, they had been under fire. There was desperation to their happiness. And there was something deeper behind their eyes. Decades-old wounds resurfacing. They wanted to be there to welcome home the new generation. Which was us.
Before we deployed, I’d known that I would be getting discharged from the Marine Corps and moving back to the East Coast after I came home. I’d moved out of my apartment before we left, to save money on rent while I was gone. So I headed to the self-storage facility I’d rented in San Clemente to get my truck, which was packed with everything I owned. The paychecks will soon end, I thought, so I checked into the cheapest fleabag motel I could find. It would become my home for the few weeks it would take for me to be processed out of the military. But it didn’t take more than a few hours for that tractor beam to pull me into a bar where the slightly hot bartender had big beautiful breasts. I drank alone. Her cleavage line was just below that point that says, I will let you stare at my tits while you get hammered and I serve the drinks. Just tip me well.
She was a good bartender. I tipped her well.
Something was off from how I used to feel when I sat in a bar eyeing a beautiful woman. Some part of me had dislocated. My body and soul felt used, dirty, weak. I weighed 118 pounds but had left for the war at 137. I looked like a refugee. Hollow eyes glazed over. Gaunt old-man face at twenty-seven.
I had seen too much. And I’d needed to swallow all of the emotion while we were still fighting. Swallow it down and move it out of the way so I could do my job and focus on the enemy and the mission. But when you did that, it became forever a part of you. In combat, especially in an infantry battalion, there was no room for error, because when things went wrong, they went terribly wrong and the whole situation could quickly unravel and turn into a real-life nightmare.
I finished my beer. And…oh. Thank you, yes, I would like another. And another after that. I looked at my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. I saw the darkness in the eyes of a stranger, and a day in Baghdad just a few months before when the sky was overcast and full of the dust and smoke from the fires burning in the city.
I’d sat on the bloodstained seat in my vehicle. Billy, a staff sergeant in our artillery detachment, had been shot by a sniper while sitting there only a few hours before. I was too tired to wash his blood off, so I just sat there. A stack of twenty-six letters, all mine, lay next to me. I could smell the ink, the clean paper, the perfume. They were from another universe. From safety and sleep on soft clean sheets. Where there were no men who were trying to kill me.
The letters had been written to Mike Scotti, the Marine who left the States just a few months before. But I was no longer him. I was now a citizen of war.
I had still felt sick from whatever it was I’d caught in the cattle-slaughter field next to the Tigris River three days before. It was the flies. They landed on the dead bodies and on the piles of shit and then on our lips and on our food. My vomit was still all over my gear, and the remnants of my diarrhea were still crusted to my trousers. There were bruises on my arms where the docs had given me the IV as they looked worriedly at each other, wondering if that first handful of us who’d become sick were the first wave of casualties in some biological attack. Someone had snapped a picture of me with the IV bag clipped to the radio in the back of our vehicle as I listened to the Artillery Conduct of Fire Net.
Earlier that day we had raided a downtown warehouse looking for weapons. It didn’t matter that I was sick. Our unit, like the rest of the Marine Corps, was undermanned, so each of us needed to pull our weight. On the way back to our perimeter, we were ambushed. I was almost shot in the face. And I could feel the snap of the bullets slicing the air as they flew by my head. Needles jabbing. Heart pounding and visions of what one of those things would do to me if it hit me. An overwhelming instinct to duck behind cover or drop back down into the vehicle. To preserve myself. Then random things popped into my head as dozens more of the sharp full-metal-jacket bullets carved the air just above our heads. I wonder what it felt like to be scalped alive by the Indians, I thought.
Once we were back, happy to be in one piece, and in what we thought was the relative safety of our perimeter, I found out that Billy had taken a round in the arm. They had medevacked him to Germany. I never had a chance to say good-bye.
I then spent three hours helping the battalion mail clerks sort through the thousands of letters that had finally caught up with us. This much mail was supposed to make us happy, but then we’d find a letter in the pile for a Marine who had been killed. We Love You and Come Home Soon written on the outside of the envelopes. They drew hearts and XOXOs and stuck American flag stickers on the front. Addressed so neatly, so carefully, with so much love. Because whoever had written that letter wanted to make sure that those words would find their way into the young wanting hands of their Marine. As I held the letters to the dead, faces of ghosts looked back at me, and I could feel the cries of the mothers and wives and children eight thousand miles away. Middle-aged moms answered their doors as two Marines in dress blues were about to say the unthinkable.
And so all of these thoughts intruded upon my mind as I sat alone in the San Clemente, California, bar watching the slightly hot bartender with the big beautiful breasts. It was like all of us who were in the fight had been hit with an ugliness. We’d soaked and bathed in it for weeks, and now its stench was upon us and there was no way to escape it.
As we fought our way up that never-ending highway in Iraq, we chipped off pieces of our souls. And those pieces became a currency that we spent quickly in a manic shopping spree of automatic weapons fire and violence and death. But soon we ran low, so we ran up a tab and borrowed all that we could and then spent that too. Some ran up a higher balance than others, but in the end, each of us in our own way would have to eventually pay the price.
That night, my first night home, I thought to myself that I wanted to do nothing more than drink, fuck, sleep, and hide. Forever.
The next day, I was given a checklist to complete, each section to be signed by the appropriate officer in charge. Training for civilian job hunting, the Veterans Affairs office, medical, dental, gear supply, the armory, the chaplain, the administrative building, base vehicle services, the base library. I hoped to set the land speed record for the quickest checkout the Marine Corps had ever seen. It usually takes two or three weeks. I planned to get it all done in five days.
Before I could get the supply sergeant’s signature on my ticket to freedom, I had to clean all of my war gear. Dried puke. Blood. Food and fly guts. Dirt and filth and death. I found a coin-operated Laundromat out in town that had two huge washers in the back, and spent $16 washing all of my U.S. Government standard issue. Sixteen bucks in exchange for my freedom seemed like a good deal. I watched as the bored locals pumped their hard-earned quarters into the machines. This is a good business, I thought. People will always need to do their laundry.
I ran into Billy on base. He was one of the best Marines I had ever served with. One of the few who could be relied upon to do just about anything, and to do it well. I trusted him with my life and I considered him a close friend. He was the Staff NCO for the artillery detachment that I’d been responsible for in Iraq. He looked the same way I did. Terrible. Except that he had a much better reason.
“Hey, sir, how’s it going?” he asked.
“It’s going great, Billy.” I lied. “How’s it going with you? How’s your arm?”
“I’m alright, sir. I was just over at the battalion medical aid station getting a checkup.” He had lost a lot of weight and seemed like the negative imprint of the Billy I’d known before. Everything reversed. The energy that had once seemed so light now felt dark.
He showed me the three ten-inch incisions, still raw but healing, that ran the length of his forearm. When the bullet had embedded itself in his flesh, there was massive swelling. The surgeons had to quickly slice him open in three places to drain the fluid, or he would have lost his arm.
“Check this out, sir.”
He pulled out a medicine bottle from his pocket. He held it up to the bright California sky. Inside, silhouetted against the sun, I saw it. It was the 7.62mm AK-47 bullet that had lodged in his forearm.
It was good seeing Billy. But he had the same look in his eyes that those vets in the parking lot had. And I was slowly starting to come to terms with the fact that I did too.
Shortly after, I ran into Major Joe Russo. He stood five feet five inches tall, with salt-and-pepper hair and a friendly, cherubic face that reflected the deep goodness that was in his soul. He was tough as nails and had a commanding presence that, when mixed with his friendly demeanor, was very powerful. In three years and through two wars, I never once heard him yell. He never had to, because just by being himself, Joe Russo made you want to be a better Marine. He made you want to be a better man and to do the right thing and to accomplish the mission—or die trying.
A year and a half before this tour in Iraq, he’d been my artillery battery commander. I’d served as one of his three lieutenants who became attached to infantry companies in Afghanistan in late 2001. By the time we invaded Iraq, he’d become the artillery battalion’s operations officer. Just his voice on the other end of the radio could have a calming effect that steadied the scared forward observers—spotters who direct artillery fire amid firefights up on the front line with the infantry. I knew it, because I’d been one of them.
I couldn’t, wouldn’t, ever do anything in combat that would let him down. He was by far the best leader that I had ever served under and was one of my favorite human beings on the planet. I would follow him through the gates of hell, and die for him without a moment’s hesitation.
Major Russo didn’t look like me or Billy or the vets in the parking lot.
“Scotti! Good to see you in one piece. How are you doing?” he bellowed in his loving and larger-than-life voice.
“Good, sir, just going through the checkout process,” I responded, my eyes now avoiding his.
Hide it, I thought. Don’t let him know. Don’t let him down.
“You know we would love to have you stay in the Corps, Scotti. You are one hell of an officer, and Bravo Battery could use an executive officer like you.”
I wanted to tell him that there was something wrong with me, but I was ashamed. He looked perfectly fine. He looked normal. I wondered how he could be normal while I felt like I was going to come unglued at any moment. I wanted to ask him if he too felt the sadness, but I was not brave enough. So instead we talked about simple things.
“Thanks a lot, sir, I really appreciate that. But I’ve got plans. A new mission. I’m going to go conquer the world of business.”
“I have no doubt you’ll do well. But damn Scotti…you look skinny as hell. You need to go eat something,” he said with a joking tone.
“Roger that, sir. I think I might have jet lag or something. Haven’t been that hungry since I got back.”
“I’ve been eating everything in sight. I had a nice thick steak, mashed potatoes, and blooming onion last night. Ice cream. Everything. The works.” His hands tapped his belly.
I needed to get away from him before he dug any further. I needed to run for the hills. Because something inside of me didn’t want to see anyone. I wanted to disappear. To fly down to Costa Rica or to the Atacama Desert in Chile or to Antarctica. I was vacant. I was half insane and underweight and felt like complete hell most of the time.
I said good-bye to Major Russo after promising to grab a beer with him before I headed east, knowing that I would break that promise.
I knew my mom and dad were probably wondering where I was. They had no idea if I was patrolling Baghdad, or in Kuwait, or in California. I had not wanted fanfare on my return. No forced parties or obligations or chitchat. So I didn’t tell anyone that I was coming home. But it was inevitable that word would get out through the Marine Moms network that I was back Stateside, and mine would’ve been upset if she found out that way. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt Mom and Dad. I’d put them through enough already. Two combat deployments in two years.
I held the dirty receiver of the pay phone at the 7-Eleven in my hands and dialed the number of my parents’ home in Colts Neck, New Jersey. Another world that existed on the other end of the phone. And in the instant it took for me to pick up the receiver and begin to dial, that other world came alive in my mind.
My mother snapped a picture of me at three years old, lying in the green grass in the backyard of our house in New Jersey. In my hands, a plastic M16 rifle. On my head, an oversized, plastic, olive-drab army helmet. Behind me, a small stream. Beyond that, woods that seemed to stretch forever. I aimed the rifle directly into the lens of the camera and looked too serious for a three-year-old. That look, common in children born with a certain type of DNA that meant one day a real rifle would find its way into their hands.
From an early age, I always wanted to go to a war. That was a man’s job: to kill the bad guys. To protect my mom and my dad and brothers and friends. Those were the sleepy days of the Cold War, when maybe some boy named Ivan was doing the same thing on his parents’ farm on the other side of the planet. Or the young son of some mujahedeen in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
I am the youngest of three brothers. Dan, who is eight years older than I, has always had a knack for business and a natural eye for the beauty of detail and design. My brother Dave is ten years older than I and is a highly talented actor.
My brothers looked out for me and taught me the ways of the world. Like how to win at the neighborhood game of kick the can, and when I was older, where their old Playboys were hidden in the basement. Our tree-lined neighborhood was full of adventure and good friends, and every fall the geese in V formation flew south for winter as we dug for worms and rode bikes. A happy childhood filled with love and compassion from my family.
My father’s mind and work ethic led him from being the son of a butcher in the poor part of the town of Red Bank to the Ivy League. He won full academic scholarships to Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. He became a doctor with a career spanning nearly five decades. He was beloved by his thousands of patients because he truly cared for them and really listened to them and spent enough time with each of them to figure out what was really wrong. Early on, he taught me the value of compassion and hard work and humor and discipline.
My mom was raised in a tough Italian neighborhood in North Jersey. Her father died when she was four, leaving her mother to provide for three young children by working fifteen-hour days in a birth-control-pill packaging plant. Mom entered nursing school at eighteen. Within a year, she found herself as one of only two young caretakers in a room with two hundred mentally disturbed patients in the psychiatric ward at the Philadelphia General Hospital. She passed the compassion and sense of perspective she learned in those tough days in the wards on to her three sons. She taught us to always do our best and never compromise our values. She taught us integrity. She was a beautiful lioness who would have fought to the death for her boys.
My parents met in that psych ward. A young medical student and a twenty-year-old nurse.
When I was eight, one of the networks aired a TV movie called The Day After. It was about nuclear holocaust, and it scared the crap out of me. Could the Russians really blow us all up like that? I tried to convince my parents to put a nuclear shelter in the basement.
I became fascinated with war. Battle. Weapons. Combat. When we took our weekly trip to the bookstore, my dad would buy me one book. I always picked a war book. My collection grew. Many were stories of combat with photographs from Vietnam, Korea, and both of the World Wars. I would read the stories and look into the faces of the tired, haggard infantrymen. Could I do that? Would I be a real man? A warrior?
On Saturday afternoons my father would take me to the Army Navy store in Red Bank, which was owned by a former Marine. The store smelled of old GI canvas and leather holsters and the cheap cigars that the owner always smoked. On the wall inside the store was a picture of a bulldog, the mascot for the Marines, with the letters U.S.M.C. written below. I would stare at the picture. I understood what it meant: it meant that you didn’t need to be big if you had a warrior’s heart.
Ten years later, I would have that bulldog and U.S.M.C. tattooed on my right arm.
The phone rang a few times, then I heard my mother’s voice for the first time since we’d said good-bye before I shipped off to Iraq six months before.
“Hi, Mom,” I said when she picked up the phone.
I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Michael! Michael! Where are you? Are you OK?” she asked excitedly. My mom was the only one who called me Michael. Sometimes my dad and my brothers called me Michael T as a nickname because of my middle initial, but that was it.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m OK. I’m back in the States. In California. Safe and sound.”
“Angelo, go pick up the other phone! He’s home. Oh, he’s home!” she yelled to my father.
I could see him as he hurried up the stairs—ignoring the pain in his one bad hip—and into their bedroom to pick up the other phone.
“Welcome home, Marine,” they both shouted, almost in unison.
“We are so proud of you. Good job,” my father added.
They’d watched the war on TV. The cruise missiles exploding. The statues coming down. My mother hadn’t left the house for weeks. Her eyes locked on the screen as she constantly scanned the news channels. Hoping for a glimpse of her youngest son.
Some thoughtful high school buddies had brought her flowers on Mother’s Day, assuring her that everything would be OK. Now my parents’ hearts would no longer stop beating every time the doorbell rang.
I could feel the joy coming through the receiver, and for a second, I felt good.
They wanted to know all of the details. When did I get home? Was I home for good? Where exactly was I? I answered all of their questions, and assured them that I was OK and in one piece.
A high school friend was getting married in California that weekend, and I felt I had to go to the wedding. I was too embarrassed to admit I felt exhausted or that maybe there was something wrong with me and maybe I just didn’t want to go. Marines don’t feel exhausted, and there is never anything wrong with them. Ever. Because that is weakness. And weakness is vulnerability. And vulnerability means that the enemy can infiltrate the perimeter and kill your brothers and toss hand grenades into the helicopters.
So I went.
I boarded the flight from Orange County, California, to Oakland. The plane was brand-new, a huge 767. Everyone moved with a sense of purpose. Nowhere could I sense that we were at war. The colors of their clothes were bright, and they read their Wall Street Journals and Vogue magazines. The cleanness of the plane and the brightness of the light and the ladies on the covers of the magazines—everything was so vivid. My eyes were not yet used to it. They were used to seeing things like pale desert sand or rifles that were gun-metal gray or the drab washed-out colors of unfriendly Iraqi cities.
I sat next to a man who had a white beard and darkness in his eyes. It was strange how I could just tell. I guessed at his age.
“Korea?” I asked.
“Yup.” We shook hands, and I told him about Iraq and Afghanistan, and he told me about the Korean War and how the cold itself became another enemy. And when he started talking about his buddies, the look on his face told me that the conversation had gone too far. So I went back to reading my book, and he went back to his newspaper.
At the reception, I sat in my dress blues, at a table by a window with seven or so other people. I listened to their conversation. About how much you could make in the real estate market. And how funny My Big Fat Greek Wedding was. And about whether mortgage interest rates were going up or down. About a dentist’s office. And about the differences in cell phone coverage for Sprint versus Verizon. Oh, and can you believe they’re making The Lord of the Rings into a movie? And did you hear what happened on Survivor?
I looked around. There was the chamber music quartet and the Reidel crystal glasses and the beautiful bridesmaids with hints of their nipples poking through their dresses. And there were the people at my table stuffing their faces with bread and lobster and Chardonnay. And then there were the guys from Weapons Company whom I’d just left back in Iraq. Guys who were probably on patrol and maybe fighting for their lives at that moment on some side street in Al Hillah. Shortly after I had left to return to the States, they’d taken fifteen casualties. One of them was a young Marine who’d been in my vehicle in the war and who’d been pictured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times holding his baby girl and kissing his wife good-bye the day we had left for Iraq. He took a fragment in the neck.
They were there and I was here at this wedding. Sitting at a table with normal everyday American people listening to them talk about normal everyday things. But didn’t they know that we were in the middle of a war?
I hated them.
I wanted to turn the table over and bash their fucking heads in. I wanted to take a belt-fed weapon and machine-gun the chamber music quartet to death. A hand grenade into the kitchen. Drop a few 155mm white-phosphorus artillery rounds on the place. Burn the fucking building to the ground. Set up grazing fire in the courtyard to gun down all the guests as they ran out.
I was not even the same species as these people anymore. Someone who had not seen combat could never even remotely understand what I had just been through. Nor did they want to. Why would they? I was a creature from some other planet.
“Lord of the Rings? Wow. That’s great,” I said.
Back in town outside of Camp Pendleton that Monday, I went to pick up the twenty-five rolls of film that I had shot in Iraq. When I gave him the stubs from the envelopes, the guy behind the counter, realizing which order I was, looked spooked.
“Just back from Iraq?” he asked.
“Some interesting shots you got.”
“Yeah, I guess they are.”
“Take care of yourself, man.”
“Thanks, I will.”
His concern seemed genuine. Because he had seen some of what I had seen. He had a taste of what it was like over there.
There were two other employees in the shop working the large photo-processing machines. One was clearly trying not to look at me, focusing on his work. The other was a pretty Southern California blonde girl in her early twenties. The kind of California girl who usually hates Marines, especially this close to base. By the look she gave me, I could tell that she had seen the pictures. And she would probably never talk to a Marine again.
It was time for the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) seminar back on base. It was a true child of bureaucracy. So dry, academic, and ineffective. Certain to fail miserably at achieving its objective. The uninspired speaker added to the uselessness of the whole thing. You could tell that not one of the Marines in that room gave one fuck about what the lady from the Veterans Administration (VA) had to say. We just wanted to get our checklist signed so we could get the hell out of the military.
She went through the list of causes and symptoms of PTSD. The causes can include violent physical or sexual assault or abuse, natural disasters such as earthquakes, kidnapping, intrusive medical procedures, car or train accidents, plane crashes, and war. Symptoms can include difficulty falling or staying asleep; irritability or outbursts of anger; difficulty concentrating; feeling jumpy or easily startled; intrusive, upsetting memories of the event; acting or feeling as though the event is happening again (flashbacks); intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating); depression and hopelessness; feeling alienated and alone; feelings of mistrust and betrayal; substance abuse; guilt, shame, or self-blame; and suicidal thoughts and feelings.1
“But how about if I was kidnapped and raped and beaten in a war and then the plane crashed and was then hit by an avalanche?” asked some smart-ass as the room immediately erupted in laughter.
The lady from the VA said that any of us who thought they might be suffering from PTSD could walk up to the front of the room and take a brochure. We all watched silently as one guy, out of the fifty or so of us, walked up and took one. Damn, that was brave. Statistically, at least ten of us should have.
That’s it? No mandatory screening? No conversation with a shrink? No questionnaire? They expect guys in their early and midtwenties to delay their exit from the Marine Corps and to immediately admit that they may be feeling symptoms of post-traumatic stress? Do they have any idea at all who we are?
Well. Fuck it. Sign my checklist. One step closer to freedom.
The Navy surgeon at the medical clinic said that one of my blood tests came back a little off. He said that the results from my liver function test were not where they were supposed to be, but that they were still within allowable parameters, so he could approve my release.
A little off? I didn’t care if I needed a goddamn liver transplant; I was getting off that base and out of the Corps by the end of the week. And nothing was going to stop me. I wondered, though, what had caused it. Was it the beers I had the night before the blood test? The military-issue Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs), with their preservative-driven seven-year shelf life, that I had consumed for months? Or the smoke we breathed in from the market that was on fire in Baghdad, when I had said, “I’ll see you all in the VA hospital in ten years from whatever the fuck we breathe in from this fire”? Or the Iraqi cigarettes we bought from the locals that bubbled and popped when you lit them? Or that one pack of smokes we took off the dead Republican Guard captain on Route 7? Or a low dose of chemical weapons when the engineers blew up those giant weapons caches just south of Baghdad, like what many think happened to the guys who had Gulf War syndrome? Or the air in the room at the UN building that had biohazard stickers all over the door?
It didn’t matter. The surgeon’s signature was the last I had needed for the final checkout. I was as good as free. I had been a Marine for all of my adult life. Four years in the enlisted infantry reserves in college, in which I’d made it to the rank of corporal, and four years as an officer, a lieutenant, after graduation. A few hours later, sunroof open, windows rolled down, I drove through the Las Pulgas gate for the last time. Ready to start my new life. I was done. Free. Away.
I was headed to a small, old mining town in the Colorado Rockies for a few months. I had driven through it three years before on my way to artillery school in Oklahoma, with a nineteen-year-old waitress I had met out in town. She was itching to go somewhere, and she was beautiful, so I took a shot and invited her along for the ride out. She drove out with me, then flew back to California once the school started. Along the way, while exploring the Rockies, we found the town of Ouray, Colorado. It looked like it hadn’t changed much since the 1800s. It sat quietly in a canyon, surrounded by the majestic, immovable mountains.
“This is the perfect place to write a book,” I’d told her.
Now, three years later, I found myself headed to that same town with those mountains. I needed to go somewhere to decompress. A buffer between civilian life and the war.
On the seat next to me was a bag filled with Mini-DV cassettes containing footage that I’d shot in the war. I’d wanted to try to write a book after I made it home, and I’d taken the footage to help me remember. I also had a written journal I’d kept, and the twenty-five rolls of film that had been developed by the blonde who probably didn’t like Marines. I planned on spending the summer in Ouray writing, then heading east to New York City to find a job in finance while I applied to graduate business schools that fall. That was the plan, anyway.
The twenty-three-mile stretch of Highway 550 from Silverton, Colorado, to Ouray was nicknamed the Million Dollar Highway. The scenery was truly and purely beautiful as the Rockies rose above twelve thousand feet on either side of the road. At some points, there were several-thousand-foot drop-offs just inches from the edge of the highway. And there was the light. The energy. The air. A fitting approach to my mountain sanctuary.
I would stay at the Western Hotel. Built in 1891, it was one of the largest and oldest wooden structures still in use as a business establishment on the western slope of Colorado. It had been a place for the miners to stay when they weren’t up in the hills, deep in the mine shafts, breaking their backs and praying for a miracle. The rooms had character. Some of them still had their original hand-painted wallpaper. The rooms had no phones or TVs or minibars. And the fourteen standard rooms in each wing of the sixteen-room hotel shared a bathroom, one that still had the original claw-foot tub.
Rosemarie, the owner, was a beautiful Dutch woman in her late thirties or early forties who looked like Meryl Streep. She had moved to the United States to work as a nanny and had fallen in love with an American man she met while going to college. She had also fallen in love with the Western Hotel and had now given herself to the place. Unique and beautiful, the hotel was also, because of its age, a demanding master. Rosemarie fought a constant battle against decay while trying to run a business that made most of its money during the summertime. Pipes bursting in the winter. Electrical problems in the summer. The mortgage year-round.
“Do you give discounts for long-term stays?” I asked her as I checked in at the worn but beautifully hand-carved front desk.
“How long?” she asked.
Forever, I thought.
“The entire summer,” I said.
She smiled, and said, “Let me think about it and get back to you later. I’m sorry. I’m a bit preoccupied today.”
“Is everything OK? Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked, because she seemed flustered.
“My bartender and one of the kitchen staff both quit yesterday, and we are about to head into the busiest month of the entire year.”
“If you are looking for a bartender, I would be happy to fill in. I went to bartending school while I was a senior in high school and worked while I was in college. And I just got out of the Marines, so I’m hardworking…and honest. I won’t steal or skim from you.”
She thought for a second and then smiled. And I saw an opportunity, so I decided to run with it.
“Alabama Slammer: amaretto, sloe gin, Southern Comfort, OJ. Red Devil or Red Death…same drink…a combination of an Alabama Slammer and a Kamikaze…which is equal parts vodka, triple sec, and lime juice.”
“You’re hired.” She smiled more broadly. “And maybe we can work something out as far as the room rent goes.”
We agreed that I would stay for free in one of the rooms, as long as I tended bar five nights a week. I could work in the evening, write all night, and sleep until early afternoon. It was the perfect place to decompress. And there also happened to be five college girls who would be working there for the summer. Three from Holland and two from Wisconsin. Between tending bar and chasing after the college girls, I wrote about six pages those first two weeks.
On the Fourth of July, I stepped out from behind the bar for a minute and watched, from the balcony above the front entrance to the hotel, as the fireworks exploded in the sky above the town. I could feel them as much as I could hear them. Just like in the war. And for a moment, I stood a bit straighter and was proud for having served my country. But then the cheers and the hollers from the crowds along the street below quickly faded from my ears until all I could hear were the explosions. And my mind and body suddenly became set and tense and ready for anything. Then the silent series of snapshots layered upon one another: dead dogs on the side of the road with tongues hanging out of their mouths, a dead child with black eyes, Marines dying in helicopter crashes, Marines dying in gun battles, Marines being killed accidentally by other Marines, destroying people’s homes with artillery, killing other human beings violently, being terrified, being glad that you were killing other human beings violently, being exhausted, looking into the devastated eyes of the people whose homes you had just destroyed with artillery, sweating in the 110 degree heat for too long, being hunted, babies crying, things exploding, wishing you were anywhere else on the planet than where you were, bullets snapping by you, being horrified about making a mistake, thinking that at any moment you will be dead, thinking that you would not want to be anywhere else on the planet because this was your war and you were glad you didn’t miss it, land mines, snipers, and the terror in your buddy’s voice over the radio as he lies trapped underneath his vehicle begging for someone to get him some air support because they were taking fire from all directions and were sure that they were all about to die.
And you don’t even realize that it’s happening to you. You just breathe it in, every day, while you are trying to do your job. Like the poor son of a bitch who works for thirty years installing asbestos insulation, then spends his last three slowly drowning in his own blood.
I stayed at the Western Hotel, insulated and well hidden from the rest of the world, for eight beautiful weeks. But then one day, the light changed. And as I looked up at the late summer sun, I knew that it would soon end. The girls would go back to school. The weather would turn, and the hotel would close for the season. My mountain sanctuary was an iceberg that I’d been clinging to for dear life. But now it was melting. And when it was gone, I would find myself alone and adrift in a cold, dark sea.
I found a small studio apartment on MacDougal Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The weather was beginning to grow noticeably colder as the summer finally slipped fully into fall. It was now a little over four months since I’d returned home from the war.
A high school buddy of my brother Dave offered me an entry-level job at his commodities brokerage firm on the New York Mercantile Exchange. He was a crude-oil-derivatives trader, and he’d heard through my brother that I was looking for a job. I sensed that he would have given me one even if they hadn’t really needed another clerk. And for that, I was thankful.
As soon as I accepted the job, I was happy—relieved, for a moment, to be moving forward with my postwar, postmilitary, post-killing-people-for-a-living battle plan. Clinging to its structure was comforting. It gave me the illusion of direction. Of stability. Of peace.
The plan was to go to graduate school to get an MBA. Then to Wall Street to make as much money as quickly as possible so that I could retire young and travel indefinitely. I was willing to jump through the hoops and buy into the corporate life for a decade or so in order to set myself up for a life of leisure. The best way I could think of to do that was to work in high finance. I’d majored in finance in college, so I already had some understanding of what I’d need to know. But what stuck out most to me were memories of the $10- and $15-million homes along the Navesink River in New Jersey. In high school, we would speed along the curves of the winding road that hugged the wooded hills above the river and point out the houses to each other: “That’s Bon Jovi’s house. That one belongs to Geraldo Rivera.” Most of the rest, we’d heard, belonged to those who worked one place: Wall Street. Where men waged financial warfare upon one another—traders with their bonds, and bankers and private equity financiers with their hostile takeovers.
But I didn’t want money to flash around and buy big houses. I wanted money so that there would be at least some time in my life when I didn’t belong to someone else. A time when I wouldn’t fear the boss or be accountable for anything or have to be in the office at a certain hour. And I didn’t want to wait until I was an old man to get there.
The building next door to my apartment building was being renovated. There was a large, metal, mostly empty trash Dumpster on the side of the street in front of it, just next to a small café that had a few tables on the sidewalk. I hadn’t noticed the Dumpster. But one day as I walked by, a construction worker threw a piece of concrete into it. It sounded like an explosion and I immediately dove to the ground.
A few seconds later, after realizing what had happened, I picked myself up off the sidewalk and tried to regain some sort of composure. A couple, obviously on vacation from somewhere, stood on the sidewalk and stared at me, looking both confused and horrified. Then I noticed that everyone in the café had seen me dive to the ground with a look of terror on my face.
My hands shook as the adrenaline pumped. I felt like I was going to puke. Then I felt like I was going to cry. What the fuck was wrong with me? I walked back to my apartment. As I lay down on my bed and closed my eyes, I was back on the battlefield once again.
There it was. Waiting for us as we drove slowly on that stretch of highway just north of An Nasiriyah in Iraq. What are my eyes seeing right now? Mangled corpses everywhere. Heads and faces split in two. Arms, legs, feet, and hands lying on the sides of the road. Charred piles of flesh slumped over melted steering wheels. Boots with feet still in them, the snapped bones sticking out. There was not much blood. Just meat, ripped and ragged. The faces contorted in agony, mouths open. A pungent acidic smell. The air tastes of metal. Burning flesh, clothes, ordnance, tires. And the faces. It was the faces of the dead that stayed with you.
I took the position of clerk for the oil-trading firm, hoping that a job in finance after my military service would increase my chances for acceptance into graduate school. It was my third day at work. I was a runner, helping the oil traders keep track of their current transactions as they quickly and violently bought and sold millions of dollars’ worth of contracts, each one representing one thousand barrels of light, sweet crude. The day before, I watched a trader take home a $40,000 profit. This is insane, I’d thought. That’s what a young Marine private first class or lance corporal makes in base pay in two years. Two years of getting shot at or driving over endless roads that could explode at any second. Or worrying about stepping on a land mine or carrying a pack for twenty miles or sweating his ass off in the 130 degree heat.
Rumors would pulse through the trading floor about oil pipelines being blown up in Iraq by enemy insurgents. The price of the crude would spike just a few seconds later as the traders bought furiously. And for the first time, I very seriously considered the truth behind the news: that at least part of the reason we cared about what happened in the Middle East and fought wars there was because we were utterly addicted to crude oil. It might as well have been tar heroin. The entire country—junkies. And then I realized that this had probably always been glaringly obvious for ages to everyone except me—and I was the one who had been fighting the goddamn war. Maybe I was naive, but I had never really given the Iraq oil angle serious thought. I’d thought we were fighting the terrorists. At least, that’s what I’d been doing.
I was earning $30,000 per year and just wanted to do my job so I could get a good letter of recommendation for grad school, but many of the traders on the floor were multimillionaires. And many were arrogant and had bad attitudes and thought they were tough guys.
One day I was about to enter the oil-trading pit to get my trader’s latest set of tickets, small pieces of paper torn from a pad upon which he scribbled each of his trades. As I stepped up to the entrance of the tiered platform, a trader from another firm pushed me back, with both hands on my chest, and yelled “Move!” in a condescending, “Fuck you, pal” sort of way. He wasn’t just trying to slide by. He was clearly being an asshole. Because he thought he could be. Because he had been before and had gotten away with it.
Rage. Redder than the blood of a freshly slaughtered animal. I grabbed him by his stupid fucking colored trading vest and threw him into the railing. This piece of shit. I thought about punching him in the face. But I was sober and didn’t want to go to jail. I clenched my teeth. My heart pounded. It seemed strange to feel this way surrounded by computer screens and coffee cups and fat people watching TVs tuned to CNN. I should’ve had a radio handset in my hand, a rifle at the ready in an assault sling on my shoulder, and a Kevlar helmet on my head. The thirty or so people in the vicinity couldn’t believe what had just happened. Clerks like me were, as they say in finance, the whale shit on the bottom of the ocean. Traders were gods. Well, not today, asshole. Not today.
The trader immediately ran and got the chairman of the trading floor and pointed me out. I figured that I was about to get fired. And I didn’t really give a shit. But the chairman was cool. He asked me what had happened, and I told him, as the guy who had pushed me stood in front of us. He asked if I was the new clerk who had just come back from Iraq. I said that I was. He smiled and explained to me that I couldn’t go around fighting people. The whole time he was speaking, he had a wide grin on his face. Turned out that the trader I’d shoved was an asshole among assholes, and everybody hated him.
While the chairman spoke to me, I noticed that the guy I pushed had an eagle, globe, and anchor sticker on his trading badge. That was the symbol for the United States Marine Corps. I couldn’t believe it. I walked over, shook his hand, and said, “Sorry, sir, I didn’t know that you were a Marine. From one to another, Semper Fi. You understand how sometimes we can get a little nuts.” If he was a Marine, he should totally understand.
The chairman laughed. The trader was not and never had been a Marine.
I was confused. It was incomprehensible to me that someone would wear that emblem unless they, their spouse, parent, or child had earned the right. I asked him if he had a son or someone who was a Marine; he had no answer. He turned his back to me and headed toward the crude-oil trading pit.
One morning on my way to work, something on the sidewalk outside my apartment building caught my eye. Among the trash and broken bottles and mysterious stains that seemed to accumulate each night was a freshly wrapped copy of the New York Times. And on its cover was a picture of suicide-bomber devastation in Iraq.
Not giving in to the thought of stealing my neighbor’s newspaper, I bought a copy from the always-smiling man who worked at the kiosk down the street. I studied the photograph closely as I rode to work on the crowded subway train.
No one else seemed to notice the photograph of the soldier with the bright blond hair and big blue eyes. Eyes that were filled with terror. Next to her lay what was left of a man. Pieces of him. Fingers and a foot scattered in the road. Women who appeared to be his relatives stood next to one of the bigger pieces, screaming.
Excerpted from The Blue Cascade by Scotti, Mike Copyright © 2012 by Scotti, Mike. Excerpted by permission.
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