I joined the marines in peacetime. I graduated boot camp on 24 August 2001. If I’m being honest with you, I probably wouldn’t have joined the marines after September 11 2001. Because the marines are a warfighting force. They pride themselves on being one of the baddest branches of the military, and when you’re in the marines they will put you on the frontlines in harm’s way, and that’s your expectation.
When we were getting ready to train, one of our staff sergeants asked who was afraid. Of course, no one raised their hand. He said: “Who is not afraid?” Of course, no one raised their hand again. “Good.” he said. “You’re supposed to be afraid. If you’re not scared, you’re a crazy motherfucker and I don’t want you coming with me.”
A lot of times, people ask if I’ve ever killed anybody, which is an egregious question to ask somebody. Why would you do that? If I did kill somebody, do you think I want to talk about it? If I didn’t kill somebody, all of a sudden my experience isn’t worth anything? What an awful, gross oversimplification of what we do, and how we did it, and what the job was. It’s about nation-building. It’s about stability. It’s about peace and security and a functioning government for people – not just going around shooting people.
You know, there’s a boredom to war. You can be in a house going room-to-room, intense combat that feels like hours but it’s only been about 10 minutes. And then you might sit around for four hours, literally. It’s this transition that just really messes you up.
Everybody who comes home from a war zone, for at least a time, they’re disturbed. A car’s tailpipe might set you off. You might be jittery in a crowd. If you don’t have these symptoms, you’re crazy. You’re a sociopath. There’s no other way to describe it.
Having a heightened sense of being able to transition quickly from placid, calm, cool, confident, to a professional killer instinct at a snap protects you. It’s a good skill. But it’s hard to unlearn. It’s hard to come home and be calm and poised and not equate everything to life or death. It’s hard to come home and sit with your back to a wall at a restaurant not looking at who’s coming and who’s going out.
But that high you get, that rock solid hard-on from coming home and being alive, is unlike anything I could ever describe. But it doesn’t last long, because people don’t understand where you’ve come from. They won’t take the time to consider what you’ve done. They treat it like this sacrosanct, unapproachable experience, and nobody calls you out for drinking too much. Nobody calls you out for being angry and irritable. Nobody calls you out for your violent mood swings, which once protected you and now they make you a social pariah.
When I was overseas I was in love. I had met someone before I’d left. Even though I served in combat, even though I served two tours, I was a marine reservist, which meant I was basically a civilian college student and also a warfighter at the same time. I’d go from Chili’s to places like Falluja. I’d go from the Syrian border of to a community college.
I met a young woman before I left. She was a hostess at the restaurant I worked at. She was sweet. She’d always give me the good tables, even though I didn’t ask. We would get food to go and we would go back to my house. I was 19 so I’d put on some jazz music and a candle, which I thought was romantic.
I spent my entire last day with her. She came with me on all my errands and activities. A lot of that meant her sitting in a car on a military base just waiting for me to get gear, receive gear, collect stuff. I held her that night and that was it. There wasn’t a lot to say. I did tell her that she should live her life and forget about me. But she didn’t.
She reached out to my sister, whom she found online, and got my address before anyone else got my address, and she wrote me every single day. She’d mark the envelopes with lipstick. She drew paintings of marine dress uniforms and swords. And she’d always sign her letters with the nickname I gave for her, Cinnamon Girl. Which I thought was pretty smart, right? I used to be a drummer back then. She used to love that I drummed. And there’s a lyric in the Neil Young song: “The drummer relaxes and waits between shows for his cinnamon girl.”
Back home I wanted to be with her more than anything. But sometimes I would say, “Hey, let’s just go out as friends.” I would push her away, flipping from “I love you, let’s talk about our future one day” to not talking to her for days, to not wanting to hang out with her family. Her sister was dating a marine at the time, and I don’t know why but I didn’t want to be around another marine. I didn’t want to hang out with her family and him. A symptom of PTSD is avoidance, not wanting to be around things that remind you of bad experiences.
I didn’t know how to explain it but I knew I was not right, I knew I felt off. And again, I knew I didn’t want to involve her in that part of my life. I slowly began drinking a lot. I slowly began giving less of a shit. And I slowly found myself being angry, unable to control my emotions, and just oscillating between extremes – total jubilation to depression. I found out about a month after I came home that a marine I had served with had been killed by a suicide bomber. I threw my phone against the wall, exploding the parts.
Another one of my friends was killed later – my friend Mike. His helicopter crashed. Last time I saw him he had just finished infantry training. His funeral was a closed-casket funeral. Me and a friend of his, we just drank. We drank a lot.
One late night, a shitty night like any other, a lot of Red Bull and vodkas – heart racing, mind racing – I saw a photo of her. She was now a photographer. She’s well versed in Photoshop. The picture was stunning: all blemishes removed. Her eyes, her blue eyes, accented. Really red hair. Really red, bold, scarlet hair. When I had come home originally, she had dyed her hair back to blonde, and after we broke up she kept it that way. And now it was red again. I felt like she did it because she knew I’d see it. She knew it was a way to passive-aggressively give me the finger.
I just wanted things to be right, wanted things to be back to normal. She could be my savior, she could get me right again. Could make me feel like I used to feel. And she wouldn’t give me that, and I didn’t deserve it because I was the one who had fucked shit up.
And I fumbled about my daily depression. Drinking so much, trying not to wake up, but somehow always being there the following day. Putting whatever fragments of myself I had together to go to a restaurant. To smile. To be polite. At the bar, they would always play our song on the rafters. Cinnamon Girl. Every night. I would drink and I did not want to think about her, but I would only talk to girls who reminded me of her. The ones that looked like her. That was my marker to home, even though she did not want me and I did not see a redemption any more.
I bought a rifle, and I got one bullet. But I knew that rifle was never for home defense; it was for me. I closed the door to my room, sat on my bed and I loaded a round into the chamber. Time felt like it was not moving at all, but all I could see at the end of the barrel was my mom. My mom’s face. And I thought about what she’d look like at my funeral.
She used to say: “Dario, if you ever get captured I’m going to come over there and I’m gonna go rescue you,” even though she’s old and 4ft 11in. What a ridiculous thing to say. And she’d say: “We’re gonna get you back, and if you died we’re going to bury you with a sword.” (I wasn’t a corporal; I didn’t rate a sword. But she wanted to get me a sword because she was proud of me.)
I saw Mike’s mom at his funeral. I didn’t know her – I had never met her before that day. It’s cliche but they say the eyes are a window to the soul, and when you look into the eyes of a mother that has just lost her son there is a vacancy that is painful to look at. Because that darkness I don’t feel is ever going to replaced, because why should it? What an awful, awful experience.
There’s no lesson in that.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it to my mom.
I volunteered for war again. And then, even though I was not making out with anybody, I got sick with mononucleosis – and you can’t go fight a war with mono. Because you’re fatigued, and you can’t stay focused and your spleen can explode. I swear to you if I had a broken leg I would’ve gone. If I had pneumonia I would’ve gone. But I didn’t want to get anyone else killed.
So I stayed behind and the guys who went in my stead got really messed up. One of them lost a leg. One of them wound up dying later, got shot in the neck. Our officer-in-charge got shot in the face. Someone hit him in the small space between the helmet and the neck guard of a flak vest, rupturing the front of his face, destroying his jaw. I saw him at a military hospital on the Marine Corps birthday. He didn’t have a face, it was just a tongue. His sister would dutifully suction, every so often, and he would write with a pen and paper: “This place is busy.”
At some point, I just got tired of feeling like shit. Of feeling awful. Of feeling suffocated by depression, by sadness, by this inability to reclaim my life. I wanted to get back to who I thought I could be. Maybe become who I wanted to be.
I realized at some point you just have to unfuck yourself. So, I went to college in Connecticut, having not known anybody in Connecticut, and thankfully I found some people who encouraged me to write. And I started writing. And I’ve learned you have to control your story or your story controls you.
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I still keep the bullet. It’s in a jar of things that make up my life. In there are keepsakes from every job I’ve ever worked. A note a girl wrote me in high school (she wrote “Keep this forever,” so I did). My old class ring. My old dog-tags wrapped together in tape so they didn’t clink together while on patrol. A map of the Appalachian Trail. Other secret things. I will want to show this jar to the woman I will marry one day. I will want to show her how important my life is when measured against the bullet.
People may not challenge you. They’ll say: “Oh, they’ve been to war. They’ve done tough stuff.” But you still gotta make that choice for you. Because if you find yourself like I did, staring down a barrel, that’s not good for you or anyone else. Because if you kill yourself at home, it still counts for the enemy.
It’s a 6,000-mile sniper shot. Difference is it came from your own gun.