Exit Stage Left: Leaving the Military a Different Person

Thinking back on my deployment in the Army, it is like watching a movie. A reel spinning a clip from my life and I can almost place where else I have seen that actress before. I lean forward in the over-stuffed red faux velvet chair; if I squint hard enough, I can almost see myself in the screen.

The actress sits on a frayed cot and opens her Army green sea bag and begins to pull out her gear. First come the armor plates she will put into the chest and the back pockets of her flak vest to protect her. They will be replaced nine months into the deployment when it is proven that they crumble upon first impact. She yanks out the black sleeping bag she will use as a comforter for the next 364 days without washing. Clanging on cement slab floor are seven of the eight magazines she will affix to her flak vest and schlep with her everywhere; to the chow hall, to the Tactical Operations Center, to the shower, and to her friend's fallen soldier service. She unpacks extra boots, desert camos that will be washed exclusively with rust water, and books to help pass the boringest of times.

She unwraps her new journal that will soon be filled with lines of doubt, loneliness, despair, and even a little hope. She tapes photos to the wall of the life she had before, the people who will continue living while time stands still for her out in the desert. Closest to where her head will lay each of the sweltering and explosion filled sleepless nights, she tapes a picture up of her and her love. They were happy that day. Happy in an uncomplicated, naive, and unhardened way. Her love will tape the same picture up two weeks later by his cot 80 miles south in Baghdad.

As she considers how she will never be that person again, she unpacks the darkest, heaviest part of her baggage. The knowing that the mid-twenties carefree girl who boarded the plane to take her to the other side the world will never return. She will never again be the girl who never went to war. She will never again be a girl whose friends didn't die from mortars.

She will become someone who doesn't jump and close her eyes at the loud booms of rockets or pitter patter of machine gun fire. She will instead crouch a little and become absolutely awake in those moments. She will know what it actually feels like to fear for your life. And she will become a woman who has come so close to the edge, that she could smell the rank metallic sweat of her own mortality.
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The seat creaks as I sit back, slightly squirming, knee bouncing, trying to push some distance between myself and the screen. Only once in a while do the flashes seem too real. I stand up on my two strong legs and my breath hitches in my now scarred throat.

I walk away from the movie. Slower now, more cautious, lucky for just a sore back that can still bear my weight. And when I look back at that actress who looks so much like me, I see how with her I am now a little less, but also so much more.