By Doc Polk
A work of autobiographical creative non-fiction, contains scenes of war
Image: Untitled (Demi-cône), by Alexander Calder, 1972.
Is it colder than the day before? I don’t see how that’s possible. Thoughts pass through my head like soldiers dragging their feet on a forced march. Maybe the frigid air has been freezing my brain. Maybe the endless cloud cover obscures the sun, causing a gray haze. “Doc!” the call jerks me from my deep contemplation about the weather. I turn and realize I have walked right past the entrenched soldiers on the front line. A voice from miles away whispers something about being exposed to enemy fire, but it is too far away for me to care. I trot back to the front line more to keep the blood flowing than from fear. “Damn, Doc. Their snipers would have taken you out. You got a death wish?” The question strikes me as odd. What soldier in this frozen Belgian forest doesn’t have a death wish? I ask my guys how their feet are doing. “They’re there,” one says. I tell them to keep them dry and call me at the hotel if they need anything. “Ha! Hotel. If that’s the case, then bring me a bacon sandwich!” I start to walk down the line. “And coffee! Black, two sugars!” they call after me. As I walk, I remember something that brings a smile to my face. I have two cigarettes that were delivered along with a small resupply of medical equipment. I make my way to my best friend’s foxhole to share a rare morning smoke. I try to remember the last time I had even a spark of happiness like I do now. It had to have been right before D-Day. Seven months ago? Seems like years now. I look up and my buddy turns to see me approaching. He waves and I wave back. A painful smile splits my face as I pull out the cigarettes. Then the foxhole explodes. I stand frozen in place, still smiling. Suddenly I am on the ground. The world is silent and fuzzy. It has started snowing again. The silent flakes float safely to the ground. It is beautiful. I feel a quiet, peaceful solitude while watching snow fall. Black smoke flowing from the flames engulfs my buddy’s position. The world comes flying back to me as another explosion rocks the ground. “Doc! DOC!” The Germans are shelling us again. I hate artillery. BUZZ! SNAP! I also hate German machine guns. “DOC!! Let’s go, we got four!” I begin to stand…
“Someone yelled ‘we got four.’ Four what?”
I blink several times and look around me. I am in an office with sterile off-white walls that are broken up by a half empty bookshelf and a generic pastel painting of a lighthouse. A man in a white coat sits behind a desk looking at me over his wire frame glasses. DR. ROBERT BLÖD, Ph.D., PSYCHIATRIST, the cheap placard on the desk reads.
“Casualties. There are apparently four wounded I need to treat,” I say.
“I see. Go on.”
“That’s it. That’s where the dream ends.”
“There’s no more?” he asks. I stare at him. “Well,” he continues, “recurrent dreams caused by a real life event are often in a different context than the reality. When your buddy died on the last deployment… what, six months ago?” he asks, flipping aimlessly through my file.
“Seven months. It was April 21, 2012,” I say.
“When that happened, you unwisely suppressed the event…”
“I still had a job to do,” I say.
“So your brain tries to process it subconsciously. This typically happens in dreams or flashbacks and is rarely a direct portrayal of the event as it happened. Details are skewed, things are off, or, in your case, it is a different setting altogether.”
I wait for him to continue, and when he doesn’t I say, “Right. I pretty much told you that when we started.”
“My suggestion is for you to continue to see me once a month so we can talk about how you feel,” he says.
“Yeah, that sounds like something I would love to do. Very beneficial, I can always use someone who is willing to listen.” I say as I stand to leave. “Thanks for your help. I will be sure to make those appointments with the front desk on my way out.”
“Make the appointments with the front desk,” he repeats. “I look forward to meeting with you again. Close the door behind you, please?”
I leave the door wide open and walk right past the front desk. Outside I light a cigarette and inhale deeply. My conversation with the Sergeant First Class in charge of the aid station about our lack of supplies earlier that day didn’t have the intended effect, apparently. I am the Senior Line Medic at my company. That’s 134 infantrymen divided into four platoons. In addition, I have four medics under me, one for each of the platoons. This is what I am responsible for, the scope of my authority, and still those assholes in the aid station question what I say I need. On the other hand, I should not have gotten away with yelling at someone two ranks above me. Again. This time, I was ordered to see a psychiatrist. They must have known I was right and sent me here instead. As if that would help. Fucking shrinks. All they do is hand out medication. I take another drag. Cigarettes and coffee are the only medications I need. Even if I wanted to see a therapist, I don’t have time. We are deploying again in three months.
“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!” I yell as I lift my pint glass.
The other patrons holler and raise their glasses as well. Tonight, the bar is full of soldiers. Tomorrow, it will be empty. We are fulfilling a longstanding tradition of drinking the bar dry before going to war.
“Speech!” someone calls out.
The others pick up the call. I move to a central point in the crowd and stand on a table. When they quiet down, I begin the speech I have prepared.
“Boys, we’re not all coming back.” I pause to let the reality sink in. “This will fill you with fear or resolution. For those of you who fear, remember those who gave everything. Serve honorably and bravely. Make sure your actions do their sacrifice justice. You are alive because rough men stood ready to do violence on your behalf. Now it is your turn. For those who have lost someone personally, raise your glass! Now, gulp down your tears and hie aloft to the royal-mast with your hearts; for your friends who have gone before you are cleaning out the seven-storied heavens, and making refugees of the long-pampered Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, against your coming. – Here ye strike but splintered hearts together – there, ye shall strike unsplinterable glasses! Valhalla!”
“Valhalla!!” comes the thunderous response.
We slam our glasses together and drain what is left.
The morning is crisp and cold, the sort of stale cold that freezes your nostrils together. I load my gear into the back of my Jeep, close the door, and look back at the house. Inside, my wife and the kids are sleeping. They were asleep when I came back from the bar a few hours ago. I didn’t expect them to wait up and they didn’t expect me to be home early. They are used to the deployment routine by now. I had a special dinner with them before I went out and we said our goodbyes then. I glance up at the moon, haloed by frozen air, then turn to go. I am leaving early because I have a stop to make. The street is deserted and all the lights in the houses are out. I have the feeling that the houses and the lives within them are already in the past, frozen and forgotten.
I pull into the cemetery and park at my usual spot. I pull a small bottle of Jameson from my pack and head down the rows. On the way I grab the stool that I’ve hidden under a bush. I stop at the familiar headstone and brush off the snow.
“You must be freezing. This will warm you up,” I say as I uncork the bottle.
I pour a few ounces onto the grave then take a swig myself and light two cigarettes. I place one on the base of the tombstone and take a seat on my stool.
“We’re leaving today. Going back down range. We went out last night, of course. Bunch of guys beating their chests like we’re preparing to storm a castle in some medieval story. You know how it is. Maybe it’s ridiculous but it helps us cope.”
I pour another shot out and take a swig.
“I made a toast for you. You might think it was from King Henry V, but you’d be wrong. I used that obscure, anonymous quote from my copy of Moby Dick. The same one I used for the New Year’s Eve party a year or so ago. You’d have liked the speech.”
I take in the cold, quiet, and comforting isolation.
“Goddamnit, I miss you.”
I look up at the moon to stop the tears. “I’d feel a lot better if you were going with me, brother. This one doesn’t feel right. I can’t pinpoint the issue though. I trained my guys well and they’ll do fine. But they’re boys, you know? They’ve not seen what we’ve seen. It’s not them that I’m worried about, though, I don’t think. Something just feels off.”
I pour out the last shot and set the bottle down next to the cigarette butt on the tombstone. I take the last drag on mine, flick it away, and exhale.
“Well, take it easy. When I come back I’ll tell you about it. I’ll be sitting here or laying there next to you. Either way, save my spot.”
I replace my stool as I head back to the Jeep. I glance over my shoulder. In the hazy air I imagine a soldier in uniform waving to me. Whether he is welcoming me or bidding me farewell, I’m not sure. I wave back.
“Doc.” The voice in my headset wakes me from my nap. “We’re two minutes out, get ready.”
I nod my acknowledgment and take a breath. We have seen a good amount of combat this deployment but so far no casualties. This should be a relief but instead fills me with foreboding. The crescent moon above lights the sand below in an eerie way. From a private conversation with the Commander earlier that day, I know three things: the cave we are tasked to clear is occupied, the cave’s occupants are not regular militia, and we aren’t all going to come back from this one. The Blackhawk banks and begins a steep descent. We check our equipment one last time and glance at each other.
The birds touch down briefly, and we egress without incident. After they have flown off the silence sets in and begins to impress on us how alone we are. We take a minute to settle and get comfortable under the weight of our reality. That’s all we get. That one minute. But, in that brief time, we come to terms with everything all at once. The past is not our concern. The future is no longer our concern. The present is all there is.
“Move out,” the commander says quietly over the radio. As one we rise to a kneeling position and begin our movement to our preplanned position on the high ground. A cool breeze comes up from the valley and the sun begins to rise over the peaks. It is beautiful. There is a quiet, peaceful solitude when walking in the mountains at sunrise. We crest a ridge and the support-by-fire digs in and sets up their heavy machine guns while the platoon tasked with over-watch moves into their position, forming an “L” of covering fire. One platoon is left on reserve and another platoon, Second Platoon, begins to take off unnecessary gear in order to move out as the assaulting element for the company. I grab the platoon medic and look him in the eyes. He’s anxious, so I tell him he is staying back. Relief washes over his features.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Doc?” my commander asks.
“I’m rolling out with Second, sir,” I say.
I hand him a letter for my wife and the kids. He takes it and puts it away quickly.
“Make sure you come back. You know these guys won’t even take a shit without you around. I don’t want a bunch of constipated soldiers. Got that?” he says.
I smile, a rare thing lately. “I always come back, sir.” I turn to move out. The day seems still. It is as if the world has not yet woken up from, CRACK! A sniper round sinks into the ground near my feet. Our instincts kick in, and we return fire as we move to cover. We work as a well-oiled machine. The machine guns set up and lay down covering fire while two squads from the platoon organize to advance. I set up next to the machine gun team and cover the ridge above us. The squads have barely closed the distance to the cave entrance when I hear the call.
I spring up and move from cover to cover until I reach the rear squad.
“What do we got?” I ask.
“Just one, it’s the PL,” comes the reply.
The enemy, the bastards, intentionally do that. They shoot one soldier then try to kill whoever comes out to get him. Typically, they aim for the officers first and the medics second. In this case, they have succeeded in getting the Platoon Leader. I hand my rifle to a soldier in the squad, drop my aid bag, grab a tourniquet, and take a breath. Thoughts of what happens next flood my mind.
“Fuck it,” I say and sprint into the open.
The world around me explodes. Concussions from detonating RPGs and IEDs suck the breath from my chest. I push through, feeding off adrenaline, and slide to a stop next to him. I apply the tourniquet and throw the casualty over my shoulders. I reach cover and get to work. I stabilize the PL for movement then call up a medevac. The primary coordinates are too hot for them to land, so I have to use the secondary location 600 meters away. I collect my rifle and aid bag. I look around to find the best route to take. I notice a network of yellow jugs and realize we are in a minefield. Once again, I shoulder the PL and take a breath. I sprint into the open. I brace for the explosions and piercing bullets. I hear the screech of an RPG and slide behind a boulder just as it sails over our heads. I try and catch my breath but realize I have stopped right next to two yellow jugs.
“Shit,” I say.
I move out again. The explosion is deafening and I feel the white hot searing pain of shrapnel. I fall to my knees but know if I stop we both die. I stand back up and move out. Bullets rain down around us, zipping, buzzing, cracking, then the scream of another RPG. My leg gives out and I collapse behind a boulder. There is no jug here so I pause to get my bearings. I see the medevac coming so I shoulder the PL again and move out. I am far enough away from the cave that the enemy fire is now relatively ineffective. I move into the open, set the PL down, and throw a red smoke grenade further into the clearing. I feel like passing out but I am not done yet. The reserve squad arrives from the high ground and secures the landing zone. The bird lands and I load the PL on and tell the flight medic what the injuries are and what care I provided. I watch as the bird flies away to safety.
“You’re bleeding, Doc,” a soldier observes.
I look down and notice red drops falling to the parched ground. I look back to the bird.
“Yeah, that happens,” I say.
“Doc, we have work to do,” says my commander over the radio. “Report back to over-watch and regroup.”
“Roger that,” I say, and we move out.
My eyes roll open. I hear a familiar voice in the hallway but can’t place it.
“I understand what you’re saying, doctor, but why can’t I see him?” the voice asks.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think you are understanding. He is resting. He has only been back for a few days,” the doctor says.
“I am aware of that. But I am his wife. I need to see him,” she says.
The doctor sighs.
“OK, but if he is asleep, I won’t wake him,” the doctor says.
I close my eyes and regulate my breathing. I don’t know why I don’t want to interact with my wife or anyone. Maybe I just need time to process, run through the events one more time. Maybe then things would make sense. What happened?
After I was wounded, I stayed on with the guys until the mission was completed. We continued to assault the cave (once more into the breach, dear friends, once more!) until we had killed everyone inside and collected intel. Once we counted the bodies, we returned to the small outpost we operated from. The only medical provider other than my medics and me was the Physician’s Assistant. I tried to avoid him and treated my own wounds because I knew he’d send me home. As soon as he found me, I was evacuated to a large base where I was hospitalized, evaluated, and told I would be sent back to the States. They said it like it was good news. I calmly responded that I would be leaving the hospital. I told them I still had 90 rounds of ammo left, and I would go home only after I had used them all – on them or the enemy, the choice was theirs. They confiscated my rifle and leftover ammunition and placed me on a plane with an escort.
Since I arrived in the States, I haven’t spoken to anyone. It isn’t that I don’t want to speak, it’s more like I can’t find the will to do so. I can’t make myself care. Despite running through the events repeatedly, I can’t get a grasp on things. It doesn’t seem real that I am in the U.S. and not in combat. There was no transition. I’m still evaluating people as threats. I’m on edge, I can’t calm down, can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t accept not being with my guys. I can’t stop the war mentality. Maybe I don’t talk to people because I can’t relate to them now. I’m in a different mindset and don’t know how to reset.
The only instruction I have given to the staff is no visitors, no exceptions. I’m not sure how my family will take that. Apparently my wife thinks she is an exception because she is here in the room now. She doesn’t see that I need space. She isn’t going to understand.
“I think I am beginning to understand,” she says.
I pretend to sleep. She clears her throat as if she’s rehearsed what she is saying and continues, “I read some things on Google while I flew here and I can understand what you’re going through. I even read up on the current recovery methods the doctors use, so you won’t need to stay in the hospital long. You can come home and we’ll go back to normal. I’m sure you’ll want to get out of the Army now so you can leave all this in the past, and I support that decision. I’m sure you can find a job in town – something light and easy…”
“You don’t get it, do you?,” I say.
My eyes are still closed, but I can’t stay quiet any longer. Her words fuel a fire burning in my mind. I throw off the sheets and kick over the vitals machine standing next to the bed.
“I am not ready to come home yet. How could I be? Are you serious? You think you know what I’m going through because you read some shit on Google? That you can relate to my experience? Hell, that you can TREAT me at home like the doctors because of your extensive research on Google?!”
“I’m just trying to be supportive,” she says.
“Supportive means going along with what I need, and what I need is time. If you really want to help, you would listen to me,” I say. “You didn’t come here for me; you came here for you.”
“How does that even make sense?” she asks.
“Again, if you really want to help me, you would do what I requested. The thought that you know what I need is delusional. You just want to be the one who gets credit for saving me. Something to boost your own self-esteem. This is not a Nicolas Sparks book. I don’t need you to come get me and then nurse me back to health like I’m helpless. All you’re doing is making things worse.”
“Well, what can I do to help?” she asks.
“You can’t… you’re not… are you serious? I just fucking told you to leave me alone. That’s what you can do.”
Another wave of rage sweeps over me and I toss the untouched breakfast tray against the wall. Security arrives with the doctor.
“I told you no visitors,” I say to the doctor.
“I think I’m pregnant,” my wife blurts.
“What?” I ask.
“I mean, what if I was pregnant? Wouldn’t you want to come home? Wouldn’t that make things better?” she asks.
“What world are you living in? No, that would not make things better. Anyway, it’s not possible. The last time we had sex was three months ago and you’ve had at least one period since then,” I say.
“What? I mean… yes, I know that, of course,” she says. “But I read that it isn’t uncommon to have a pregnancy after a period.”
“It’s pretty fucking uncommon,” I say.
The silence between us grows as everyone understands what is really happening.
“Get out. All of you.”
“You’re never home anymore. You’ve changed, and I can’t handle it. My kids won’t be able to handle it either. We’re leaving. We’ll be packed and gone before you get discharged so you won’t have to deal with us.”
“Fine, just get out,” I say.
“Fine,” she says.
She turns to go but pauses at the door. “This is your fault, not mine,” she says then shoves past the security guards.
In the silence of the room, I can hear her footsteps fade away down the hall.
“Fuck off,” I say to the doctor and the security guards. I pick up the vitals machine and plug the cords back in. The doctor leaves but the security guards stay. After a minute the doctor returns.
“I said, ‘Fuck off.’ I’m fine,” I say.
“Why don’t you get back in bed? We’ll have someone clean this up. You need to rest.”
“Fine,” I say.
I get back in bed, and she plugs in the drip line. She adds something to it, and I begin to feel tired.
“Hey, what the fuck was that?” I ask.
“Just something to help you sleep,” she says.
I struggle to stay awake, but everything fades to black.
The thumping of the blades above me brings comfort. Maybe I am just enjoying the calm before the storm but these precious moments on the chopper are a respite from everything. I’m not cleaning out buckets under the latrines or treating trench foot, nor am I in the blistering jungle watching for toe poppers and Charlie. I am safe and relaxed, floating in the air above it all. Vietnam is beautiful from this perspective, especially along the Hai Van Pass. All too soon the one-minute warning comes from the door gunner. They say the life-span of a door gunner is the shortest but I still envy his life on the chopper. It is my safe space. I glance at my buddy sitting across from me. He smiles. Another day in the shit. I look back out the open door and watch the ground approaching. The LZ is hot so we will have to jump, they’re not touching down. After securing the area, we are to provide over-watch for a convoy moving up Highway 1. We all jump, roll, then move to set up a perimeter so the others can land as well. The only sound I hear is the wind blowing through the grass of the field we have landed in. That isn’t good. We lie as still as possible, straining to hear. We know the enemy is there waiting for us to move but we can’t stay where we are. Each of us hardens himself for what comes next as the Lieutenant gives orders to move out.
“The LT has a death wish,” my buddy whispers.
“We all have a death wish,” I whisper back.
As the LT stands he suddenly jerks back and falls. Soon after, the telltale crack of a sniper rifle sounds off then the hell of battle breaks loose. Through a hail of bullets, I run to the LT. He gasps and looks at me.
“You’ll be alright, sir, just sit tight,” I say.
The bullet is lodged in his shoulder, a lucky near miss that could be fatal if I don’t get him out in time.
“INCOMING!” someone yells and we all get down. The whistle of mortars gets louder. Explosions rock the ground. In the brief pause after the initial volley, I check myself. I’m not hit. I get up to a kneeling position and check the guys around. No one is hit. I see my buddy, face blackened from the explosions but grinning just the same. I smile back, and we share a laugh. The whistle of another round of mortars fills our ears, and we drop down again. This time I hear screams. I jump to my feet, heedless of the explosions and bullets. The spot my buddy was occupying is now a crater surrounded by a shredded body. I stare in confusion.
“DOC! We gotta get outta here, move out!” the Platoon Sergeant yells. “We got four more.”
“Someone yelled ‘we got four.’ Four what?”
I blink several times and look around me. Again, I’m in a sterile white doctor’s office talking to a psychologist about a dream I had. Recollection comes slowly and I chuckle.
“Casualties, man. Four casualties,” I say.
“Go on,” he says.
“That’s it,” I say.
“There’s nothing else?” he asks.
I grind my teeth. Nothing else? There’s everything else. All the things that I can’t talk about because no one wants to really listen. Even if they did, they wouldn’t get it. My best friend disintegrated in front of me. I can’t stop wishing it was me instead of him. I can’t stop seeing the people I’ve killed. I can’t help but think about their best friends, what they’re going through. I can’t shut off the war mentality. I can’t come home. I feel the need to lash out. Unfortunately, anger is not a socially acceptable response. It makes people uneasy and scared. Fortunately, anger is an appropriate response to things like a broken relationships or getting screwed over financially. In all honesty, those things don’t really bother me, but they give me an outlet for my anger, for what’s really bothering me.
“Well, no, there’s nothing else. Not really. Not if you don’t count the fact that I was recently wounded in Afghanistan, got sent home early while my boys stayed overseas, found out my wife has been cheating on me and is pregnant with the guys’ kid, and she stopped paying my bills while I was deployed so I have about $48k of debt in collections. And now I am being held against my will in the Psych Ward – Six South, right? – because that lying doctor gave me a healthy dose of Haldol after my wife showed up. Aside from that, no, there’s nothing else,” I say.
“I meant about the dream. Is there anything else about what you dreamed?” he asks.
I laugh, “I’m in hell.”
Read an interview with Doc Polk here.