Andrew Szala witnessed the horrors of the war in Afghanistan while serving as a U.S. Army Combat Medic, upon returning home, he witnessed its lasting effects. Currently, he lives with his wife, son and bulldog outside Providence, R.I. where he is working on his latest stage play, The Pressure Cooker.
We hope you enjoy it as much as we did, that you take some time during the holiday to reflect on those few who have served for us all, and if you’d like to read more, pickup a copy of Incoming to read all the veteran voices we’ve had the privilege of publishing.
THE MOUNTAIN – by Andrew Szala
The mountain is tall. Late summer leaves. Initially, he pulls his car up. He does not notice anyone at the trailhead. He ventures deeper. He encounters cars, one, two at most. He’s unfazed and knows what he is doing. No moment of hesitation, no last glance at his car, the door closes and there is only forward now. He’s used to this. The mountain hides the exertion required to proceed.
On his exit from active duty there had been parties. Friends came out of the woodwork at his homecoming, patting him on the back and telling him how they would have joined also but… there was always a but, and a reason why they couldn’t put their lives on hold.
As the days passed and turned to weeks the friends came by less. While he’d been away they’d gotten on with their lives, and in his mind he had become like a scar, present but not thought of until looked directly at. He and his wife began to fight more. His temper would rage and quickly reach a crescendo before falling abruptly off with his exhaustion. Always exhaustion. Sleep came in sprints and his mind took him back to the desert while he dreamed.
The mountain at its base is wide and the path hot. The trees hold the mountain’s breath beneath their leaves. As he passes the descending hikers, only a quick nod is exchanged. His presence barely registered. How different they seem. His climb is not for sport, nor fitness. He drinks no water.
He’d felt trapped in his body. Isolated in his mind. His new sobriety added to his seclusion as he watched those around him in merriment while he sipped diet coke. Confirming what he already knew; he was different. It was not his presence, but lack thereof which burned her the most. He was a zombie.
“What’s wrong?’ became a daily question which he yearned to answer.
The last hikers pass on the way down. He’s alone. The mountain is indifferent. Each step draws him to the peak. He hears no birds or song.
The necessity of the military, in some capacity, was not up for debate. He knew this, and while we had made great strides towards peace, our kind will never exist without the presence of evil draped in the robes of good. He struggled for a long time. Unable to place into words why it was ok to do the things he had. What took him the longest to overcome was the fact there was evil on both sides of any war and like all things, the sum lived in the grey. His actions held him in high esteem among his peers, but knowledge muddied this fact.
He would try. He would resolve to be better, to immerse himself in the world and live. But, to fall. He would see around him the emptiness of a world without the hierarchy of the military. The outside world had no form and rules were seen as disposable. It made no sense; who won and lost. He began to build resentment to his own helplessness. He struggled to maintain the bearing the military had built into him. His footholds disappeared.
He entered college in an attempt to better this. He joined the military for the same reason. Here, he saw it: a tattered yellow ribbon informing all how much the troops would be supported. After a while all those ribbons began to feel like a lie, a placebo, made to make their owners feel better about their own helplessness in a burning world. In the end, no one had to actually support the troops as long as they said they did. Finding employment reinforced this conclusion. A veteran preference, as a concept, was not readily applied during the hiring process; his skills did not translate.
His time was passing. Sitting in the VA. No one from his war, his guilt at feeling this mattered somehow. Each one seemed somehow different and the same. Was he one of these? So many broken. He was like a child in a physician’s office waiting for his grandmother. Some tried, most did not. Their battle was apathy.
When she left he couldn’t blame her. When she took his children, what could he say? His mind was absent, his body a shade. He sat, sometimes for days in his world, scrolling through social media, angered by the nature of others’ daily problems. They would never know real stress; they would never know real.
When he saw pictures of his wife and her new…that…holding his child it confirmed what he already knew: he did not exist. He had been erased and his story retold without him. Their happiness was a new pain.
He is in the violet world: making his way through the trees, as the path grows hard to see and the journey more beat. His mouth dry, clothes drowned. It was here he saw it, his way out, a small break ahead to take in open air. The mountain’s last light.
He felt the forgotten. Used and tossed aside. Disposable for a purpose, a bargaining chip, an advertisement, a discount at a diner where no one wants to eat. One day a year for him and weekend in the spring for his friends past. His anger and guilt at these thoughts came in equal spades. His mind often turned to his brothers who’d passed. He thought of each individual soldier and how they lived. They were not sports stars. They were not beautiful creatures. They were men and women, their blood red. He remembered Abdul, “Aziz,” his interpreter, medevac’d after walking over an old mine. He never knew if he survived. Often with combat no closure could be found.
He emerges from the tree line into the sun. Up here he can see the basket of the earth in the valley below. He can see it is larger than him and knows it will exist without him. There before him is a warm expanse of grass and dirt, the soldiers’ throne. It only takes a finger.