There is a Darkness that resides in my soul. It has been churning since I was a young lad. It’s not a brooding and sinister train of thought in the vein of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, oh no, but it has become a part of me that I don’t quite understand as I feel my character is better than what this darkness demands. I blame my father for most of it, you see, he was my idol; an Airborne Jumpmaster Paratrooper that walked into our family’s living room every evening with those shiny boots, ultra-starched uniform, sporting bright yellow chevrons of a Sergeant First Class on his sleeves and that ever distinctive beret. He was my real live GI Joe and I knew from the time I was seven years old that I wanted to be him…to be a soldier.
You can well imagine my upbringing, living in Fayetteville, NC, especially during Vietnam where almost everyone’s father on Cheltenham Road was in the military. Growing up in that era, I was Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, George Custer, Geronimo and Sgt. Fury running wild with all the other kids and my older brothers. It didn’t matter where or when, every season there was some fort to defend, a bunker to breach or we would partake in a rival neighborhood raiding party on our trusty schwinn steeds. As I fondly look back on those days, even then…I really enjoyed playing soldier.
Knowing that, it struck me as odd that I found my father crying at the kitchen table upon learning that his unit had been activated to Vietnam. I couldn’t comprehend his sobbing because in my mind I just assumed every soldier wanted to go to war. I envied him. Even when he returned, a shot up and mentally anguished shell of his former self, I still had dreams of marching off to battle…even more now that he had returned and had become this enigma to our family, I so wanted to experience what he went through… to feel the sting of the whip, the adrenaline of an life altering event. This is my darkness… to experience true physical combat, to charge into battle and kill the enemy if necessary.
Everyone in my family knew I was going become a soldier, but strangely, at the moment of my departure for the recruiting station, my father took me aside and begged me not to follow him into the Airborne Infantry. There was something in his far off distant eyes, conveying a look of anguish that told me I should listen to him. Instead, I became a “Redleg” Artillery Missile Man and to be quite honest, the Army was handing out 2500 dollar enlistment bonuses and that was quite of bit of money that I couldn’t pass up…even for an idealistic young eighteen year old like me. I did participate in war, but not in the sense of true combat during my 11 year tenure in the Army; it was the “Cold War” between the United States and Russia during the 1980’s. Not exactly what I had in mind and when real war did break out with Iraq, Desert Storm 1991, they weren’t sending nukes to the Gulf and my unit was relegated to guarding housing areas and PX’s. The dilemma starring me in the face was the prospect of challenging for future promotions with guys who had been in combat. It was a no brainer, I left the Army a bitter war-less veteran unable to quench this darkness.
It has been almost twenty years since I hung up my Army boots, and sadly, my darkness still calls to me like a siren, “Mark, Mark…grab your rifle and follow me.” Don’t get me wrong…I’m not a “War monger” and I detest the thought of putting American soldiers in harm’s way knowing that some of them might never return and I don’t hang out at the local VFW swapping war stories. The key to understanding this particular disposition of mine, knowing the environment I grew up in and having been a soldier, gone through the training, lived in the muck, rain and snow … I still want to know how I would have held up in a combat environment; in other words: how would I have measured up? I have come to the realization that it’s an experience I’ll never know.
Don’t feel sorry for me though, as I have reached an understanding with my Darkness. Combat takes on many disguises; it’s just how you interpret it. I drive by that Men’s Shelter on Wilmington St. everyday. I Know I’m not at a point in my life where I have to sacrifice my pride for a warm meal and a bed, but I can’t stand before you today and say I won’t have a job tomorrow. For me, this has become a heated battle, a full on in your face fire fight to make it. I don’t think there is a single person I know that hasn’t been affected by the recent global economic situation…some of us are struggling to put food on the table, pay the mortgage and are living from month to month. I’ve finally found that great battle to fight. Just living…and making ends meet, is combat enough for us all…why complicate it anymore by throwing in a few grenades?