Where War Ends: A Combat Veteran's 2,700-Mile Journey to Heal - Recovering from PTSD and Moral Injury through Meditation

Where War Ends: A Combat Veteran's 2,700-Mile Journey to Heal - Recovering from PTSD and Moral Injury through Meditation

Where War Ends: A Combat Veteran's 2,700-Mile Journey to Heal - Recovering from PTSD and Moral Injury through Meditation

Where War Ends: A Combat Veteran's 2,700-Mile Journey to Heal - Recovering from PTSD and Moral Injury through Meditation

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Overview

An Iraq War veteran’s riveting journey from suicidal despair to hope

Winner of a 2019 Foreword INDIES Silver Book of the Year Award

After serving in a scout-sniper platoon in Mosul, Tom Voss came home carrying invisible wounds of war — the memory of doing or witnessing things that went against his fundamental beliefs. This was not a physical injury that could heal with medication and time but a “moral injury” — a wound to the soul that eventually urged him toward suicide. Desperate for relief from the pain and guilt that haunted him, Voss embarked on a 2,700-mile journey across America, walking from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the Pacific Ocean with a fellow veteran. Readers walk with these men as they meet other veterans, Native American healers, and spiritual teachers who appear in the most unexpected forms. At the end of their trek, Voss realizes he is really just beginning his healing. He pursues meditation training and discovers sacred breathing techniques that shatter his understanding of war and himself, and move him from despair to hope. Voss’s story will give inspiration to veterans, their friends and family, and survivors of all kinds.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608685998
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 10/29/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 311,824
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Tom Voss served as an infantry scout in the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment’s scout-sniper platoon. While deployed in Mosul, Iraq, he participated in hundreds of combat and humanitarian missions. Rebecca Anne Nguyen, Voss’s sister and coauthor, is a writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

TIME TO GO

On a warm, gray morning, as I lay in bed in my apartment, someone knocked at the door.

"I should get up and answer it," I thought.

The thought hovered above me in the air before disintegrating to nothing.

Knock, knock, knock.

The pounding in my head thumped out of time with the pounding on the door, like a drummer who couldn't catch the beat.

It couldn't be Kimmy. The last time I'd seen her, I'd gone to visit her at work. A handsome, stone-faced marine glared at me from his barstool while Kimmy rearranged bottles of rail liquor behind the bar. She'd smiled at me, but that guy's unblinking stare spoke for both of them — I'd been replaced. I took a step back, turned, and retreated out of her life.

Get up.

Get up and open the door.

It couldn't be my mom. She was at work, teaching at a private school in the River Hills neighborhood of Milwaukee. My dad had retired from social work, but he kept a strict schedule that demanded his time and attention at particular hours of the day: breakfast from 8:00 to 8:30 AM, exercise till 9:15, guitar practice, gardening, lunch, and a postlunch nap that didn't count as a nap because he took it sitting up in his favorite chair. Dad wouldn't miss guitar practice to drive across town to my East Side apartment unannounced.

The weight of the furniture in the room seemed to press into me until it felt like my body was sinking through the bed. I imagined myself lying on the floor, pinned underneath the cracked feet of the hand-me-down dresser. The embroidered peacocks on the bright-green couch beneath the window stared at me with judging eyes. Get up, you worthless piece of shit.

Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock.

Was my sister in town? I couldn't keep track anymore. Since graduating high school early, she'd moved from Milwaukee to Syracuse, then back to Milwaukee, then to Miami, then back to Milwaukee, then to Madison, then back to Milwaukee, then to Los Angeles, then back to Milwaukee, then back to Los Angeles, then to Taiwan, then to Evanston, Illinois, and then — you guessed it — back to Milwaukee again. She'd moved away and moved back to this town like home didn't have what she was looking for, but neither did the world.

Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock.

I hoisted myself onto one side and tried to sit up. My head spun. My hand must have shaken as I reached for the water glass. I took a sip and my insides swayed. There was nothing to do but sleep it off. For some people, this would be one of those I'm-never-drinking-again-type hangovers. For me, it was Tuesday morning. Or was it Wednesday?

Get the door.

The knocks came faster, closer together, until they caught up to the pounding inside my head. I collapsed onto my back, waited for the nausea to settle, and let the dull, insistent rhythm lull me to the brink of sleep.

Tap, tap, tap.

The sound had moved. It was coming from the window now. But I was pretty sure I was dreaming. Or maybe I was still drunk.

"Tom?" a voice called.

Oh, man. It was her.

"Time to get up!" chirped the voice in the teasing, singsong way I remembered from childhood.

I kept my eyes sealed shut. I pictured a clear, still pond inside me. If I concentrated hard enough, I could block out her voice and keep the bad stuff down at the soft, muddy bottom of the pond, where it belonged.

Tap, tap, tap.

Focus. Forget the tapping and calling. Keep the bad stuff where it belongs so the few relationships you have left don't blow up in your face. So your hands stay down at your sides instead of wrapping around someone's throat. So you don't explode in rage or start to cry and never stop.

There. Pond secured. Crisis averted.

Somewhere between asleep and awake, the tapping grew dim, and my thoughts drifted back twenty years, to a blue house that stood on top of a sloping hill on a leafy, tree-lined street. In the back of the house was a wooden deck. Because the house was built on a hill, the rise of the deck created a three-foot opening beneath it. It was filled with smooth gray and white stones, like a secret landscaping project someone had started and then abandoned. I'd crouch down and crawl beneath the slats of the deck, searching for the best stones. I'd pick up the smooth ones and rub their cool, flat surfaces across my cheek like my dad showed me to do during trips to the beach in Door County. Gliding those smooth stones across my cheek was a way to commune with nature, to become one with the elements. When I nuzzled my cheek with those stones, I became smooth and cool, too. When I breathed in the fresh breeze, I became light as air. When I was outside, in nature, I felt free.

Sometimes I'd get so absorbed in my imagination, I'd forget I was beneath the deck. I'd stand up suddenly and whack my head on the wooden planks above. My head would throb and I'd wail and scream until someone came to acknowledge my pain. And that's how I started to become an American man. Suck it up, buttercup, said the grown-up. You're fine. Real men don't cry. Real men don't feel. Real men bear the pain with dry faces and raised chins, their emotions broken and corralled like horses. Maybe that's why the tears still hadn't come. Not since that day, somewhere on the outskirts of Mosul, when a series of 7.62-caliber rounds exploded skull bone into a golf-ball-size crater, and my squad leader, Sergeant Diaz, was suddenly gone forever.

"Hey, Tombo. Wake up. We gotta go."

My sister, Beck, was standing outside my window with her forearms pressed between the sill and the frame. She spoke softly, like she knew about the bad stuff at the bottom of the pond and didn't want to stir it up. She was saying something about a doctor's appointment. Something about therapy. Something about how today was the day, and that I'd promised her I'd finally go talk to someone. Talk about what, I didn't know. I was fine.

I survived the war, got outta the army, and like my grandfather before me, I hit the ground running. Bampa had used the GI Bill to go to law school and start a family. I'd rented an apartment, gotten a job, and used mine to enroll in firefighting school. It was all going well. I was really happy about it. Overall, that is. I mean, sure, you couldn't expect most employers to understand how military experience translated to civilian experience, right? So maybe the jobs I'd had since getting out of the army weren't quite the right fit. But you gotta start somewhere.

I'd been trained to make split-second, life-and-death decisions that determined whether or not other human beings lived or died. So what do you do with me when I come home? Well, you could put me in charge of something important like keeping drunk people off the main stage at the state fair. Make me stand there in the wee hours after the fairgrounds have closed, when the last few drunk stragglers are searching for cars they shouldn't be driving, just in case they climb up on the stage and try to mess with the sound equipment. If they climb up onto the stage, I'm your guy. I'll be there to put a stop to it.

Or maybe I'd be good at pacing the long, carpeted corridors of the Hyatt Hotel between the hours of 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM, or staring at the blinking screens of thirty-two security cameras in the basement office of that hotel as they record absolutely nothing for hours on end. I could be really good at something like that, too.

Okay, maybe my part-time, third-shift job at the Hyatt was a step or two backward, career-wise. I wasn't outside, communing with nature, but at least I could walk up and down the hallways sometimes. At least I wasn't stuck in a cubicle or inside an armored vehicle. I could move. And hey, at least I had a job. That was more than a lot of vets could say, right? I had a job and a place to live. At twenty-three, I rented a room in a three-bedroom apartment with a couple of eighteen-year-old college freshmen because my drinking habits complemented theirs. It was a good setup. I'd buy them Carlo Rossi wine — the alcoholic grape juice in gallon jugs with the little glass handles. As long as I kept them buzzed, they didn't seem to notice or care about my increasingly frequent trips to the bar to get blackout drunk.

On weeknights I'd go to the bar because it was how I was keeping myself together. In the days and months and years after war, the simplest things threatened to stir up the past. A car parked on the side of the road that could blow up at any second. An invitation to see a movie in a theater I couldn't enter without having a panic attack. The red-and-white scarf of a party guest who morphed into an insurgent before my eyes.

But even with all those triggers, going out in public was more tolerable than being alone. Something was gnawing at me from the inside, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. It wasn't just panic attacks and flashbacks. It was something else I couldn't explain. Something I vaguely sensed but didn't understand. This thing, whatever it was, amplified the noise inside my head. It was like listening to a tape of recycled thoughts on repeat.

It was your fault.

It was your fault.

You should have been there.

The triggers out in the world were easier to withstand than the thoughts and memories in my mind. I found that I could drown out the noise in my head by distracting myself with some other kind of noise. Like a noisy, crowded bar, for instance. That was usually loud enough to blot out the memories of the noise of Mosul. And if the noise in the bar wasn't enough to drown out the sound of car bombs, I'd shoot enough Car Bombs until I couldn't hear shit.

"We gotta go," said Beck. "We're gonna be late for your appointment."

What did an appointment matter when life could be taken from you any second, even if you didn't deserve to die? You could die just like that, even if you were really young, or a really good guy, or had a wife and kids. That was the reality of it. And so it didn't really matter if I was late to an appointment, or missed an appointment, or left Beck standing outside my window for hours on end. It didn't matter if I pounded shot after shot after shot. Or if I took a few Ambien before going out drinking. Or did a little cocaine in the bathroom of the bar, or took some Special K, just to see what happened. Because whether I lived or died was out of my hands, anyway.

And it's not like I was trying to get drunk or high for fun. Once I'd muted the noise in my head with the noise of the bar, getting drunk or high was the only way I could sleep. Ever since I got back from Iraq, I couldn't sleep for shit. If the booze and drugs didn't make me pass out, the sheer exhaustion of filtering that much poison through my insides would eventually knock me out by morning.

I knew exactly what I needed to handle the triggers and keep the bad stuff down where it belonged. I was just a little sleep deprived, that's all. Especially because now, when I was finally exhausted enough to get some sleep, my sister was standing outside my window, yammering about a goddamn doctor's appointment I didn't need to go to.

"Go away," I said. "I'm fine."

Silence.

I lay frozen in bed like a deer who senses the hunter. Then, in the long silences that drifted in from the open window, I found the space to finally drift back to sleep. I slipped gratefully into that warm, peaceful state of relief. A place without a past or a future. The euphoric pull of nonexistence, where I could finally and forever forget what happened.

As long as she wasn't still standing at my window. The thought jolted me awake again.

She wasn't still standing there, was she?

My heart beat faster as I lay in bed. I could feel the bad stuff rising up. She needed to leave.

When Beck had first brought it up, the whole talking-to-someone thing, I'd put her off as long as I could. It wasn't too hard. I'd just told her, sure, I'd go to therapy. But the therapist had to be a veteran.

"No problem," she'd said.

"A combat veteran," I'd insisted.

"Okay," she'd frowned, less sure.

"A combat veteran who was deployed to Iraq. And in this century, too. Not, like, during the Gulf War," I said.

That shut her up — at least for a few weeks while she conducted her search, like an amateur detective. She called psychologists in private practice. She scoured government websites. She spoke with administrative assistants and grad students and doctors.

"Do you have anyone on staff who's an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran?" she'd ask.

Then, one day, someone on the other end of the line actually said yes.

"Tombo," she said again, breaking the silence with my childhood nickname.

"GO THE FUCK AWAY!" I roared.

That should have done the trick. It was ironic that I'd become a warrior in a global conflict because my loving, generous, honorable family of origin is possibly the most conflict-averse clan on the planet. Battling head-on and surveying the aftermath just isn't in their nature. They're so damn sweet and so petrified of confrontation that they'll leave things unsaid forever rather than have a brief but potentially uncomfortable exchange. Growing up, fights would often be followed not by a conversation but by a painstakingly crafted letter slipped under a bedroom door. The reader of the letter would emerge to give the writer of the letter a hug, which meant all was forgiven and the whole thing was over, never to be talked about again. Sometimes I wonder if the war I made, and the war that my grandfathers and my ancestors made, was just the expression of a million tiny conflicts that were stuffed down through generations instead of brought to light. Maybe that's all war is, anyway — people who don't know how to handle conflict finally handling it the only way they know how.

So there was no possible way that my sister, with that same nonconfrontational DNA, would stay at my window after I'd told her, point-blank, to go the fuck away. She'd shrink like a violet and leave. The next time I saw her, she'd throw me a little shade at first, but then she'd pretend it never happened.

"Tom," she repeated.

Her voice was strong and gentle, like waves against rocks. Like she was perfectly willing to erode my will over thousands of years.

"Come on. It's time to go," she said.

I sat up again. All the way up this time. I don't know why, but I reached for my shoes and put them on. I stood up and almost puked. I walked out the door and down the steps of my building.

Dark clouds hung low and depressed above faded brick storefronts and pointed rooftops. The wet, soupy remnants of fallen leaves clung to gutters and congregated along the curbs. Tangled green weeds sprouted from the sidewalk cracks. The lingering fumes of alcohol in my lungs were replaced with fresh air that rolled in off the lake from ten blocks away.

I never minded the ordinariness of the city, its age, the way it lingered, almost purposefully, between having once been great and having the potential to be great again. Between the corner bars, above the rough, worn streets, beyond the freeways and the lone, tall skyscraper, were forests and farmland and fresh air and a lake that stretched across the skyline like the sea. On good days, the fresh lake air traveled inland, energizing the city and bringing its citizens to life.

That day, the sky was a gray dome holding the world together, holding me together somehow. It seemed big and absorbent above me, like it could take anything I offered up to it, like it was big enough to swallow the past.

I took a deep breath in, exhaled, and climbed into my sister's car.

CHAPTER 2

WHAT HAPPENED

The administrative assistant looked nervous. I don't remember what the rest of her looked like, but I remember her nervous smile when Beck and I first walked into the office. She asked us to take a seat. Then she knocked on a door, opened it a crack, and exchanged low murmurs with someone we couldn't see. We were late for my appointment, but it wasn't too late. The guy would still see me, she said.

Beck had found an OIF combat-veteran-turned-social-worker and booked an appointment for me because she was a doer. A maker. A producer. She'd just written, produced, and starred in a short film. The film was about a woman whose roommates turned out to be figments of her imagination. There was this scene in the film where the main character tried to slit her wrists in the shower, but one of the roommates — the guardian-angel roommate, I guess — stopped her from going through with it at the last second. I couldn't decide if Beck was afraid I was going to kill myself, too, or if she just really wanted to be my guardian angel. Maybe both.

In the waiting room, we waited in silence. I was ready to tell the social worker I was fine. I just needed to get out in nature a little more. The short walk from my apartment to Beck's car had perked me up and given me some relief from my hangover. Being outside awakened the senses, which seemed to dull my pain. If I could focus on the wind against my skin or the scent of crushed leaves, I could temporarily forget about what happened in Iraq. If I could just be outside, where there was enough room to move, I could move past what happened back then.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Where War Ends"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Tom Voss and Rebecca Anne Nguyen.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface,
Introduction,
Part 1: Stuck,
Chapter 1: Time to Go,
Chapter 2: What Happened,
Chapter 3: Head Down, Pants On,
Chapter 4: Make War, Not Love,
Chapter 5: Rules of Engagement,
Chapter 6: Happy Place,
Chapter 7: Family Time,
Chapter 8: Cigarettes,
Chapter 9: Tailspin,
Chapter 10: I Wasn't There,
Chapter 11: Lifeline,
Chapter 12: Monologue,
Chapter 13: Enough,
Part 2: Mobile,
Chapter 14: The Rucksack,
Chapter 15: Seen,
Chapter 16: Training Day,
Chapter 17: Hero's Send-Off,
Chapter 18: Comfort,
Chapter 19: Unload,
Chapter 20: Locked and Loaded,
Chapter 21: Cheese Country,
Chapter 22: Unbroken,
Chapter 23: Walking with Wolves,
Chapter 24: Deer Ken,
Chapter 25: Taken for a Ride,
Chapter 26: Hope,
Chapter 27: It's All a Mirage,
Chapter 28: Shakey Town,
Chapter 29: Reunion,
Chapter 30: Wave,
Part 3: Still,
Chapter 31: The Unnameable Thing,
Chapter 32: Flash,
Chapter 33: Confession,
Chapter 34: Forgiveness,
Chapter 35: More Than Wounds,
Chapter 36: Man in White,
Chapter 37: Nuts,
Chapter 38: Blissed-Out,
Chapter 39: Lunch Break,
Afterword,
Acknowledgments,
Resources,
About the Authors,

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