Last night I went downtown before returning home to my studio at Lady Bird Lake (formerly known as Town Lake). En route, my Uber cab driver was telling me on the drive to my destination via East Riverside that he was initially from Africa before becoming an American citizen and joining the military. During the military, he traveled the world to various places throughout his enlistment contracts. Already I forgot his name because I recall things better in writing than auditory. But I can distinctly recall his voice and how he told me about the many countries on various continents he got to see, or reside in. Sitting in the back seat, I listened to his stories about time in the military, watching the blue-violet and orange-red Texas sunset out the window of the backseats. Not only do I find stories of the military enticing, even if sometimes military tales are sad and grim, too. Most of all, I enjoyed listening to his foreign accent from Africa… Sometimes cab drivers bombard me with dialogue that is intrusive and unwelcome, but this driver was most investing and polite. In hindsight, he seemed to be happy that someone was listening to his stories of the military, unafraid to open up to a stranger. I wondered whether he talks to every cab rider about the military or whether it was an oddity within his cab routine, and he chose to confide in me, specifically. Who knows.
As this Veteran and world traveler came to a close about how contracts operate in the military. And as he insinuated, that was the end of his military storytime. I had become curious about his life, so I inquired, “What does the future hold for you now that you’re back from abroad in the military?”
“I’ve decided to become an RN, and I am almost finished with school. Soon I will be done with Uber. This is a transitional job for me, and I am grateful for it, but I am ready to move on and get to medicine”.
“That’s pretty cool to start, and complete, a career change to medicine,” I replied, still looking out the window while occasionally watching him talk through the rear-view mirror. Considering he was probably in the late 40s or 50s of age: I was impressed by his career change but did not mention the age factor out of politeness.
“Thank you. It is my goal to become a nurse for a surgeon”.
“I’m certain you’ll accomplish that goal. Hopefully, I never see you in the hospital as I don’t want to have another surgery, but I wish you all the best in your medicinal pursuits. I find it admirable that you want to work in the surgical aspect of medicine. I don’t think I have the stomach for all that even though I’ve been under the knife many times.” Taking a deep breath, I continued to say, “Once I woke up while they hadn’t fully stitched me back and I was lying on my back. At first, it was blurry like being underwater or like I was in a tunnel, a vortex of light. But once my vision came into focus, I could see there was blood everywhere… Nearly 14 years later and I can still see the surgeon’s hands and gloves and the bright lights above me and the operating table like it were yesterday. “She’s awake,” I heard someone say before they knocked me back out with anesthesia, and the room swirled around into sleep and darkness… During another operation, when I awoke, they showed me photos of my ovaries while I was still heavily drugged from anesthesia and I didn’t much care for it. Obviously.” When I said ‘obviously,’ my voice made a slight laugh, and I smiled because I wanted to add a little comic relief to my words. When I looked into the mirror, I noticed he was smiling in amusement. Awkwardness averted!
“I can see how a memory like that would stick with you,” he said while nodding his head.
Right then, I realized that I was now sharing stories in return, and I went quiet as I didn’t want to discuss those memories further. The sunset looked too pretty to talk dark times. Focused on staying in the moment, I was trying not to go back in time.
The topic of medicine then leads to him talking about Veteran’s Affairs and how frustrated he was with the VA system, and how many months it took to get his first check. Suddenly, and I cannot remember why, but he started talking about PTSD regarding Veterans and the after-effects of serving in the military. In hindsight, I feel that perhaps my surgical stories of blood, pain, and disorientation may have triggered him to think about old memories, too, given we were already on the topic of the military.
Listening to him talk of PTSD, in response to his words, I stated, “Yes, it seems to be a problem. As a kid, many of my elders were men that served in the military: Army, Air Force, Green Berets, Marines, and so on. I’m a sort of a military brat, and I am proud to have grown up with strong military men. As an adult, I’ve dated a few men in the military. And I must say that war and the military affected each man differently: friend, family member or lover. However, PTSD was a severe problem with four men in my life particular: two relatives as a kid and two lovers as an adult. PTSD affected everyone I know that went to war, but a few of them completely came undone. It was like there were multiple people inside, and one of them was dangerous and unpredictable. I wanted them always to be good, but it’s like something went terribly wrong, like Jekyll and Hyde”.
“Yes. It is a big problem,” he stated while exhaling, staring straight ahead in anger and shaking his head a bit in frustration.
I was going to stop talking about the matter. However, he continued to go on about things he saw within himself and others regarding PTSD. It’s like he needed to get it off his chest. I’ve noticed a lot of women aren’t listening to men’s problems, especially not dark issues, and so I just stayed quiet and let him talk.
After a minute or two, I found a polite time to interject rather than wait for silence, and I said, “Just out of curiosity, and I hope you don’t mind me asking. Do you have PTSD?”
I could already sense that he had PTSD because of the fact he was talking about himself and others in the same breath and the way he shook his head and gritted his teeth. But I didn’t want to assume or put him on the defense. People don’t often like to feel as if they’re being read (psychoanalyzed).
He inhaled and stated, “Yes; I’ve learned to manage it, but it never goes away. Never”.
“No, sadly, it doesn’t. But it can be managed and alleviated to a safer place where we don’t feel controlled by it, and we can find healthier ways to deal with the constant triggers”. That was my way of telling him: I have PTSD, too. At this point, he looked up in the mirror at me in empathy. He saw me. I wanted to ask more questions given that few Veterans, in my experiences, are willing to talk about their PTSD. And if you ask, it always seems to lead to a dreary conversation about the dead, and I wasn’t trying to be a buzzkill to his night.
Taking another chance, I asked, “Do you feel the VA offers adequate treatment for those with PTSD? Do you feel the VA makes it easy for veterans to adjust when they return home?”
“No,” was his immediate, rapid-fire response. It didn’t even take him a second to think it was a shotgun response: No. He then told me that he did not think the treatment was adequate, and it was clear by how violent and self-destructive many veterans become when they return home.
He went on to say, “I find it very sad and unfortunate. PTSD is a serious issue for many of those enlisted in the military. Because when I was in the military, I did what I was told. ‘Yes sir‘ was an auto-response. I was trained to take orders and to question nothing to get the mission completed… ‘Yes‘ was always my response when I was told to do something. We go out into the military, and we don’t know what we will be asked, or forced, to do. And not everyone is equipped for it, especially those that go to war. It’s hard to return to the person you were before you left.”
There was silence. All I could think to say was, “I hear you”.
He tolerated my questions as I tolerated his intensity, so I continued to inquire. “In your opinion. How many men, or women, that go into the military will come out with severe PTSD? More specifically, if you had to give a percentage of Veterans that return home with PTSD and become violent and an endangerment to society, whether it’s mental, emotional, sexual, physical or spiritual violence: What would that percentage be?”
“70 to 80 percent. About seventy to eighty percent return violent or out-of-control with no way to think or operate outside of the environment they were programmed to be in. Too many veterans don’t seek help to heal; they refuse to talk about the pain. They get frustrated by the VA process and lose hope. And then they run loose causing chaos and self-demise wherever they go. And it’s sad because they served our country and then this happens.”
“It is sad… Deprogramming is a huge part of counseling for healing those with PTSD. It helps to stabilize triggers.”
“Yes, I did counseling myself, which is how I learned to manage my triggers.”
My final destination was now in sight. I wanted to end on a high note, so I finished the conversation. “Thank you, sir, for being so honest with me and for answering my questions about Veterans with PTSD. I’m sorry if I seemed morbidly curious.”
“Not at all. I enjoyed talking to you.”
“You too. Have a great night and take care,” were my last words before exiting the cab.
As I walked away to Buzzmill to order some food and drinks: our words, the dialogue triggered me to go back in time to my memories. Listening to someone else, it was easy to focus on their story as I haven’t served in the military. Therefore I don’t have first-hand associations with it. Yet, once the silence drew in my head and no one talked to me anymore: my brain started thinking about the military men in my life; friend, family member or lover. I began thinking of my secondhand experiences with men in the military, and nearly all of them were and are men living in Texas, even if some have foreign ethnicities.
First and foremost, I thought of my Latino grandfather, Ricardo Valadez, who died this past May, seeing as he was a Master Sergeant in the US Army for 25 years. His military funeral started to replay in my mind—and all my memories from childhood and I heard myself say quietly, “Papa.” Then my mind recalled my great uncle W.K.—a pilot for the Air Force that flew in the Berlin Airlift and served in the Vietnam War, and more. I recalled that I have his obituary pamphlet in the glove box of my sports car for good luck and safe travels. Next, my uncle Daniel, he served in the Green Berets. Also, my Lebanese grandfather, William Abraham Mallow, who served as a Drill Sergeant in the Air Force before he became a patented chemist and artist. The intensity was rising second by second.
Emotions started to run high. I was shifting from family that served in the military to my friends and lovers. After thinking of a few friends, my heart started to think about my first love as an adult in college, a Marine from Texas that I met in Savannah. One green eye, one blue; he had lots of tattoos, rode motorcycles and was a very good writer. Afterward, I remembered the lawyer and Marine I met in passing that asked me out on a few dates recently, but I always declined because I’m trying to focus on my love of art and my career, not men. I started thinking of Savannah and all the Special Op’s men I met. Lastly, I recalled a different man from Texas, a man I met in 2014 and befriended in 2015, who served in the Army and National Guard for 16 years, specifically Desert Storm. And when I thought of him and the memories—all of which resulted in intensely bad, lousy ju ju that began five days after my grandfather died on May 5, 2015: I exhaled and I felt my jaw tighten and quiver at the same time. My spine and neck stiffened up and began to hurt in the middle of my back. My stomach and hips began to cramp. In mind, I could see the policeman coming to take the report and I was reliving the pain of being sexually assaulted and my phone being hacked. As my adrenalin began to race and my eyes swelled with rage, sorrow and saline. My body was in absolute discomfort and distress. Finally, I’d had enough and I said to myself, “Nicolette. Stop it. Think of something else. Enjoy your evening. You deserve it.”
And so I did just that. I enjoyed the rest of my evening and waited till the sunlight came back out today to write off the night before. This is a restless, evocative memorandum to the military men in my life from childhood to adulthood. Because even though I have many good memories, I will treasure till the day I die and I am grateful to have grown up around such strong men. Sadly, all of the men I mentioned are either deceased, M.I.A. or there’s bad blood that’s unresolved.
Nevertheless, I carry these memories and all these military men in my heart and mind at all times. Sometimes I forget they existed because I block it all out and disassociate from time and memories. But I can only forget for so long before I am triggered to remember. And when I do remember. Sometimes, I share the story. Stay tuned for more.
“Why do you wish me milder?
would you have me
False to my nature?
Rather say I play
The man I am.”