Local Peace Economy

'He Carried the Ghosts of the Casualties of War': The Terrible Pain After You Come Home

"I kept waiting for him to come home, and when he finally did, he wasn't alone."

Photo Credit: Flickr, The U.S. Army

I was sitting in the front seat of an Ashland police car about this time last year, giving the officer my former husband’s license plate number when I got the call.

“This is Deputy Eller with the Jackson County Sheriff. I’ve got your husband in the back seat of my squad car. We picked him up on Highway 234, about a mile from your place.”

Ashland, Oregon, is about 30 miles south of what used to be my place; I’d signed the paperwork selling our home outside of White City the previous day. My ex, Lorin, and I had lived there since 2012, and even after we got divorced in November of 2014, I stayed.  Until one afternoon, I was looking for a key and instead found a handful of tiny needles, thin rubber tubing and a few bent spoons, coated with crystal methamphetamine residue.  After the glacial flush of terror thawed, I called some friends to come help me move, and began throwing things into bags and boxes. Five hours later, I was gone.

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“You’re lucky he doesn’t know where you live, or this would have ended very differently today. I strongly suggest you get a restraining order. We have Lorin’s M4 in evidence.”

(Breathe.) I pulled the phone a few millimeters from my face, allowing my body the seconds it required to start shifting out of survival mode.  After living with Lorin, a two-time Iraq War combat veteran with severe, untreated PTSD and a mild TBI for the better part of a decade, I’d done this before, too many times.

“How is he? Is he okay?”

“He tried to commit suicide by cop,” said Eller.  “We tased him. He’s in cuffs now, and I’m taking him to detox. Once whatever he’s on is out of his system, he’ll go to 2 North.”

That’s the psych ward wing in the local hospital.  Five years earlier, I spoke with John Howard, the local congressional veteran’s liaison, and he said, “2 North is lousy with veterans.” At the time, it seemed impossible that Lorin would ever walk through those doors. And then it became inevitable. I was there in between, the half-decade of my husband’s reverse evolution.  After years of trying to stay with my suffering soldier, suffering right along with him, and then years of trying to leave, I was exhausted.

After fourteen years of marriage, Lorin was no longer my husband, but he will always be my veteran. He was not my summer soldier. He was not my starter marriage. I waited to get married until I was 35, and then I waited through several months of pre-deployment training followed by two year-long deployments to Iraq.  I waited through another year while he was on orders in a different state. I kept waiting for him to come home, and when he finally did, he wasn’t alone.  He carried the ghosts of the casualties of war.  Every soldier he’d seen killed, each body he’d picked up, every casket he’d loaded into the tail-end of a cargo jet came with him. The human butcher shop of bloody parts and brain matter that spattered the vinyl seats of civilian Iraqi vehicles before sliding into the crevice where the seatback meets the bench, the people those pieces belonged to grabbed on to his soul like poltergeists and came home with him, too.

When I think about that, my heart balloons with pain, so I punch it down hard, fast.  I do not have the luxury of grief. I cannot allow myself to feel, because feeling anything at all would begin the unspooling of 600 miles of neurons in my brain. I would lose my mind in the endless unraveling of too much loss, and sorrow, of too many years of corrosive anger and fear.  The sorrow that battles with the bottomless fury that Lorin and I both are paying the price with our lives for a war based on lies.  I would succumb to the overwhelming fear that I will never get my beloved back, back like he was before the war, a fear fully realized.  He is lost to me forever.  He may be lost to himself.  I pictured him in the cage of the Sheriff’s car, exhausted, frightened, sad, and maybe now just starting to come down from the tasing and the meth.  Maybe just now wondering how he ended up addicted, arrested, divorced and on the verge of homelessness.

Before Deputy Eller called that day, Lorin had.

“I am going to go get my M4, and then I’m going to come find you. I will shoot myself in front of you. I’m getting my M4.”

He’d shown me that M4 when I met him at a Red Robin to sign paperwork accepting the offer on the house. Lorin was so excited, saying he had something he in his car he wanted me to see. I trailed out behind him to the parking lot, and he opened the rear door, and lifted the lower compartment lid to reveal the dull black weapon. The M4 symbolized everything that had gone wrong, symbolized just how far gone he was, because the Lorin I knew before would never have bought that gun. Something inside me died—I think it was hope—and I began bawling, and walked away, got in my car and left. Now he’s in his car, and he’s going to bring that gun to me, meaning to use it.

I was on the verge of hyperventilating when I called 911.

I informed the 911 operator what had happened with the closing of the house that had set him off, and that he was on crystal meth, but assured her that Lorin wouldn’t hurt anyone else, just me. She said she would contact the Ashland police.

“Do you have somewhere else to go?”

“Not really.” I answered.

Ever since I’d fled our house a few months earlier, I’d been lost in my own life, because nothing was where it had been. I couldn’t find coffee cups, or scissors, or streets; I couldn’t find my way back home. Home was a 5th wheel RV in a trailer park, where it took nine quarters to do a load of laundry. Where it took everything I had to get out of bed in the morning and pretend I was still alive.

One year later, I still spend a chunk of each day informing my heart that everything I loved no longer is. Then, when I am crippled with grief, I try to convince my body that although it seems like I am dying, probably I’m not. It just feels like it. Grief is how your heart lets go of what no longer exists.  I’ve tried reaching out for support; I’ve shown my soft, sad underbelly to a few folks.  But the wholly avoidable loss of everything I loved makes them uncomfortable, so mostly what I hear is that I’m one of the toughest people they know. I don’t know if people tell me that as a way to get themselves off the hook for providing help, or if it’s a sort of pre-emptive strike because they know I never should have had to be. Maybe it’s because they are among the 76 percent of Americans who now consider the Iraq war a mistake.

That mistake created hundreds of thousands of casualties, killed millions of Iraqis, and cost billions of dollars.  That mistake forced my now ex-husband to serve two year-long tours in Iraq. His severe post-combat trauma led to a crystal meth addiction that cost me my home and everything I loved. It almost cost me my life. 

That’s why I will testify at the People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War in Washington, D.C., on December 1 and 2.  The Tribunal will be an opportunity to expose the lies told to justify the Iraq War and what those lies have cost. Something broke in this nation’s moral compass when America launched the war, and if we do not demand truth and accountability for the destruction we created, that compass will never work right again.

Stacy Bannerman is the author of Homefront 911: How Families of Veterans Are Wounded by Our Wars (2015) and When the War Came Home (2006). She was a charter board member of Military Families Speak Out, and is the author of the play, "Homefront 911: Military Family Monologues." Her website is www.stacybannerman.com.