This story is by Robert Cullen and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Sobriety contains too many memories. Dark days and still darker nights. Death hidden around every corner. It stalked you. Blasted the life out of your colleagues. And then haunted you forever afterwards. Medals, even the Medal of Honour offered neither protection nor consolation. Didn’t keep you warm at night. Or protect you in a fight.
Sure, it provided a larger pension but your mind constantly, and not by choice revisits the hellholes of battle, the cries of the wounded and the recurring spirits of the dead.
Maybe, for a short time the medal elevates you to hero. But not for long, hero worship is fleeting. Heroes, especially those suffering the trauma of battle are reduced to zeroes. Respect disintegrates into pity. And pity quickly plummets to disgust.
People forget. For them, it’s so much easier. Soldiers, on the other hand can’t forget. Their psyche is eternally stained.
Drink alone brings salvation. It helps you forget. At least temporarily.
Temptation beckoned at every corner. The bars were open. He kept walking. Today Blake determined, he’d beat the bottle. He bypassed the first bar and the second. He’d keep the appointment with the psychiatrist. The man who assured him everything would be all right. But what would he know. He’s never even held a gun, let alone fired one. He’d never taken down an enemy. Yet he believes he can diagnose a veteran’s problems. And prescribe the cure. Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.
It was so damn cold on the street. Blake glanced inside and ‘saw’ the Lieutenant, another Afghan vet. He was seated alone. In need of a friend. And warm. Blake responded to his duty. ‘When you see a brother soldier alone in a combat situation, you rush to his aid.’ He pushed the door open.
The civilians stood at the far end of the bar, their voices raised and ignoring the man who’d died ensuring their freedom. The bastards didn’t even acknowledge his presence.
Blake stormed through the door and headed for the Lieutenant. He was gone. Blake glared at the five men on the far side of the room. They were out of uniform. What had they done with the Lieutenant? Blake was unarmed, nonetheless he attacked.
Blake lay on the ground. Surrounded by enemy. They were now disguised. No longer wearing desert clothing, but all in white. Was this heaven. Blake searched for the lieutenant. Then he looked for God. He saw neither. Consciousness was returning. Voices. They had American accents. God, what had happened. Had their mission brought victory or defeat?
He felt the all too familiar jab in the arm. Was this to be another interrogation? Captured again? He tried to resist. Their faces were the last thing he saw. Smiling. Someone said. ‘Poor bastard.’ He heard no more.
Induced sleep brought the only peace he knew. But it never lasted. Dreams attacked with the relentlessness and viciousness of a suicide bomber. They stuck without warning and when least expected. And rarely departed without significant damage. Murder and mutilation. The major casualty, Blake’s massacred mind.
He remembered the hero and the advancing enemy. It was one man against many. A man he recognised but no longer knew. He defied death but died in every other sense. The Military labelled him hero, he pictured himself as murderer. The attackers were kids, around ten and eleven years of age. Sure, they were armed with bombs and programmed to kill. But he didn’t see enemy, he saw children. But he responded as soldier. Then grieved as a parent. His action saved hundreds of lives. American soldiers. It was war at its ugliest. Twelve children dead.
Even three years on, their screams cut through the medication. His guilt a way beyond the healing words of any psychiatrist. Once again Blake was seated on the psychiatrist’s couch.
“Today Blake, I thought we might look again at the presentation of your Medal of Honour.”
“That’s my question, Blake. Why did you refuse it?”
The White House bloomed in all its majesty. Television cameras recorded the procedure and the President’s address. The soldier stood to attention and saluted the Commander-in-Chief.
“Son, I should be saluting you,” said the President. “Your courage typifies the behaviour we’ve come to expect from our serving men and women in uniform. Single-handedly you defied an enemy attack and saved the lives of hundreds of your colleagues. Corporal Blake Ferguson, it humbles me, as an American to be in your presence. And it gives me great pride as your President to award you this Medal of Honour.”
The soldier stood to attention. The President reached forward, the soldier retreated and shook his head. “I can’t accept it,” he said. The President was taken aback.
“They were children.” The soldier was crying. He turned and walked away. The President held his salute.
He returned to the podium. “Corporal Blake Ferguson, your courage in the face of enemy is vindicated in this commendation. And this medal will always display your name. Today, you’ve displayed another brand of courage. You’ve stood alone in your belief. Children should play no part in war.
“You are not alone Corporal, this is an argument I too hold dear. You, Corporal Blake Ferguson symbolize everything I value in this great country. You do not bow in the face of adversity nor do you back away from the values you hold true. Again sir, I salute you.” Applause broke out.
“What do you think?” asked the psychiatrist.
“I try not to think.”
“Thinking promote memories.”
“Some memories are good. Can you for example remember this voice.”
“You are not alone, Corporal.” Blake’s face lit up. An internal door opened and the President walked over and shook Blake’s hand. “And I have a gift for you.” He held the Medal of Honour in his hand.
Here’s another voice from your past. “I’ve not met you, but my daddy called you ‘Corporal Punishment.’” The voice was unfamiliar, but not the message. They were the words of the Lieutenant.
A well-written reminder of how our soldiers are forced to make impossible choices every day.