Write it down. Not to sell–there are plenty of non-fiction veteran authors chomping at the bit to share their combat experiences with the world. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
The last mission of my last deployment was pretty hairy. Without getting into it, people died and many were severely wounded. When I got back, my dad suggested that I write everything down.
Now, I’ve been a writer in some form or another for as long as I could remember, but coming out of an experience like that—I had no interest in putting it on paper. It was replaying in my head often enough. But I did anyway, and I didn’t worry about grammar or structure or style—I just vomited up words onto my keyboard and left it as it was. I haven’t changed it since. To show you what I mean, here’s a quick excerpt:
It was an unremarkable, regular ride in the back of a 47. 160th was flying us that night, so I don’t remember being worried about the pilots at all. They probably did a surprise test fire, which probably freaked me out for a split second, as usual.
So we were landing on the X, and there were supposedly 2 or 3 people inside the building, with one dude chillin outside, probably asleep. We figured he would squirt, seeing as we were basically landing the helicopter on top of him. Who wouldn’t run? Myself and the rest of the squirter interdiction team would just run him down and police him up.”
You can tell I’m not planning on turning this into a profitable venture, and I never will (I used the least interesting/identifying portion for this article). But if it will have no impact on the outside world, then why bother writing it at all?
The writing process itself was not particularly helpful (for me anyway, though I have heard otherwise for others), but re-reading this has been incredibly cathartic. It’s amazing what the mind distorts or forgets altogether after a few years pass by, and you don’t even notice. The fingers of time get in your brain and begin to muddle things up, one tiny detail at a time. It’s a little disconcerting, and it makes me wonder how many of my other combat memories are slightly or even grossly inaccurate. It’s like each brain cell is whispering the memory from one to the other and information gets lost in some twisted game of telephone.
There are some things I almost want to forget, but the idea of actually forgetting them is terrifying, like they never happened. Even the little details are precious to me.
And when I re-read those details, they came flooding back–one of my privates really stepped up that night, but he also did a lot of small, really helpful things that have slipped my mind that I ought to be grateful for. A severely wounded man-made a couple of jokes as he was high on the meds the medic had given him. I hang onto those details, and though it is painful to remember, it’s definitely cathartic.
I wish I had written it down immediately after the incident. I have since written down other combat incidents with the same style (or lack thereof), just so the distortions and gaps don’t happen more than they already have. I wonder what I’ve lost to the pits of forgetfulness in my mind.
I would encourage anyone, writer or not, to record their combat experiences for their own use, and their own use only. If it happened five, ten or twenty years ago, you can still save what’s left of the previous details. As the years go by, a record of some of the most significant events in your life may become like gold to you. They have to me.
Featured image courtesy of AP Images.