My Journey to Achieve Inner Peace After War.
I saw him a few days before it happened.
I recognized the look the first time I saw him again last year. It stopped me in my tracks. I had simply asked about his day. His response wasn’t odd. It was a typical answer to a typical question.
What was different was the look behind his eyes.
I put down my dry bag in the guide room and walked directly over to him, arms open. We stood in the familiar embrace of old friends long parted, though we’d only known each other a year at that time.
“Rita, you’re a bright light on a dark day,” he whispered, pulling back from my arms to look at me with tears in his eyes, “Thank you.”
I understood. I pulled him close for another long hug. We remained there, sharing the moment until I realized my gear truck was going to leave without me if I didn’t get moving soon. I gave him a reassuring smile, and eased out of his arms.
“Kev, we’ve gotta talk, soon. Let’s get together,” I said over my shoulder as I moved towards the truck.
That was Sunday.
Monday I received an email from a soldier in Afghanistan; a woman I trained over the course of three years.
It rocked my foundation, hard.
I am tired sister. Afghan is totally getting to me. I am constantly tired, hungry, and sick of dealing with situations quickly turning into worst case scenario. I am getting ready to go to the mountains again and I am dreading it. Last time we got ambushed, beat up, and spent days “on the run” I am not looking forward to it. A couple nights ago, I was laying in bed trying to psych myself into believing this is worthwhile and you came to mind. I love that you are enjoying life, singing, dancing and being free! Seriously, it is my solace when the this place is getting me down. I don’t have a ton of time so…Run for me! Drink some EXCELLENT wine and remind me that being surrounded by mountains can be a good thing…love ya sister.
I was sitting in the Haines Public Library when I read that message, and by the end I was sobbing, somewhat loudly, without regard. I had been where she was; feeling the same way, laying on my bunk listlessly, looking vacantly at the photos of family and friends I had tucked into the bottom of the bed above mine for hours on end after missions, wondering why I was there, why we had been so cruel to the locals, reflecting on being ambushed and the things I’d done, trying to get motivated to go back out into the mountains again. I remembered charging up a hillside, throwing myself to the hard earth and desperately wishing I was on mom and dad’s old ugly green couch, wrapped up in that familiar smelling checkered blanket from my childhood, sipping on chai tea with milk and cinnamon as I flinched at the incoming rounds that punched into the ground mere inches from my nose. I remembered the three rounds that tore through my backpack, through my water bottle, miraculously missing the two mortars I had been carrying; missing me. I remembered how I shook uncontrollably the entire night, pumping adrenaline from the simple reality: Less than one inch to the left…If he had breathed differently….Anything different in his shot…Anything different in my movement. It was all so damn close. I saw the whites of his eyes. How could he miss?
Monday night was hard for me. I didn’t know to whom to talk. My friend, Andrew, had invited me to a bonfire on the beach, but I didn’t want to be around people. Nobody was at the cabin, but I wasn’t sure I trusted myself to be alone. I couldn’t figure out if I wanted to call someone simply to have a big spoon next to me, or if I wanted to be the big spoon to a tequila bottle. John and I hadn’t quite become one yet, and I felt awkward calling him to hold me while I sobbed about my experience, the fucked-up-edness of the world, and my soldiers.
The one thing they don’t tell you when you enlist is that it’s not over when you get out. As long as those with whom you’ve worked and trained remain overseas, you’re still not completely free.
I ended up spending the majority of the evening in a bar. I was talked out of hitting the first bar by my manager, but he didn’t happen to be passing by when I walked into the second. I made it home and drank some more. I don’t remember that night incredibly well.
Tuesday morning I received a text at 7:30AM on my way to work.
You weren’t the only one who had a hard time last night. Kevery did too, one of the worst kinds. The kind you don’t wake up from. You should be proud of yourself for being so strong.
I reread the text again and again and I realized I was repeating the same word over and over, louder and louder, ” No No No NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!”
I pulled over, across the oncoming lane, at picture point on the way to town and screamed.
It couldn’t be true. I saw it, on Sunday, but I knew he’d wait to talk with me. Of course he’d hold out…we had to talk! He was my hope! It’s all supposed to get easier!
I called the office immediately. Sherry answered.
“WHAT HAPPENED TO KEVERY?” I screamed into the receiver.
The line was silent for a moment, “…I…We…I’m sorry…I can’t discuss that over the phone.”
I hung up and screamed again. Tears were streaming down my face at this point, the snow capped mountains blurred over the shimmering ocean.
“FUCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I started driving again towards the office. I had a double shift. I had to make both trips an amazing experience for these tourists who had absolutely no idea what I had just learned.
And I did.
I went down the river on two back to back trips that day. That was the only day I don’t remember feeling privileged to be at work in a raft on a beautiful river in the largest bald eagle preserve in the world.
Wednesday and Thursday the office was kind enough to give me some time off.
Thursday was the beginnng of the SE Alaskan State Fair. I had committed to teach Zumba with the lovely ladies of Haines that afternoon on the main stage. I showed up, after two days of wracking sobs ready to pull myself out of the hole. Fern had come to visit all the way from Pennsylvania, and I had promised her an amazing vacation. It was time to deliver.
In typical Haines style, the Zumba class wasn’t just a Zumba class. It was a dance jam, involving Zumba AND NIA. The warm up got me going, and by the time it was my turn to teach, I was back in Hurricane mode.
I was dancing, jumping, sweating, and laughing. I looked back at the crowd, and they were doing the same. The energy had skyrocketed! It was EXACTLY what I had needed. I brought my hands up for another excited clap above my head, and when I brought them down, I realized one of my twenty bracelets had broken and was dangling, ready to fall. I grabbed it and tossed it onto the stage, thinking nothing of it. I finished my portion of the class and felt whole again.
After the dance jam, I grabbed the bracelet, shoved it in my pocket to fix later, and decided to wander the vendors. Each year people come from all over to sell their wares at the fair. You never know what type of treasures you’ll find from hand crafted wooden puppets to Guatemalan alpaca hats. I found a vendor that was selling necklaces and leather wallets. I found myself drawn to a particular rack of peace sign necklaces. The one hanging in front was hand carved bone, with five beads climbing the black strings to each side. I asked the price.
“Normally $12, but for you $8,” the vendor said hopefully.
“Right on,” I put it around my neck, nestling it neatly between the sand tiger shark tooth I’d picked up in Dominican Republic and the painted porcelain feather I’d picked up at the wolf “sanctuary” outside of Mt. Rushmore. I loved the way it made me feel to have a peace sign hanging from my neck. It was my first since I’d left the army. I paid the man.
Proud of my purchase, I walked back to the benches by the stage and sat down, remembering the bracelet that had broken in my excitement. I pulled it from my pocket, intending to fix it and reunite it with the other 19 pieces of flare accenting my wrists, but when I saw the amber centerpiece shining up at me in the light, I froze.
I sat perfectly still, the hairs on the back of my neck at attention, as the magnitude of what had just happened sunk in.
This was the second time that particular bracelet had broken off. According to my personal rules, that meant it was never to be tied on again.
I was holding in my hand the one and only bracelet I’d been given in Afghanistan.
A simple amber rectangle in the center of a string of black beads.
The one piece I’d brought home with me…
I looked around me, scanning faces excitedly, expecting everyone in the fairgrounds to be looking back at me in silent awe and approval, but nobody seemed to feel the world slip slightly from its axis. Nobody appeared to feel the shift in energy of the Universe replacing my last physical tie to war with a new handcrafted dedication to peace three days after dear Kevery, a haunted Vietnam Veteran, shot himself through the heart. I smiled. It was my own moment. I was just a girl with blue hair in a crowd of Alaskans without blue hair, wearing a peace sign around my neck and no sign of war around my wrist.
I knew then. It would all be OK.
Not just OK, but amazing.
And finally it made sense. I had lived through it all to tell this story.
My story of inner peace after war.
So I did.