At Ease, Soldier

by Ruth Z Deming

"Good God," he thought. "What was going on?"

He was a decorated veteran who had served his country in Iraq and now Afghanistan.

Finally, he was dispatched home to Philadelphia.

"Barbie!" he had said when he surprised his wife and two children, Kyle and Andrea. He watched her shocked face, when he walked into their apartment.

All he could think about was cuddling up with her and the kids. No love was to be found in Afghanistan where explosions pounded his ears and made him temporarily deaf. His beloved team mates burst open right in front of him. Hidden IEDs or the Taliban or ISIS. Right in front of him, goddammit. How could he ever forget John-John (yes, like JFK's son), Charlie, Prager, or Jimbo?

Who gave a damn that their sliced up bodies - like pieces of meat - would be buried in Arlington National Cemetery or that their medals would be given to family members?

The first night home, Barbie begged him to sleep on the living room couch.

"Of course I love you, Aaron, I'm just used to sleeping alone."

He took it. What else could he do?

Falling asleep he looked around the living room and remembered how Barb had made the walls look like a show place. Reproductions of famous paintings lined the walls. A Mary Cassatt of a gentle mother bathing her baby. His favorite was Peaceable Kingdom, where a lion lies down with a lamb. And a Picasso with a segmented body, just like his fallen soldiers.

He was given a promotion right there on the battle fields. He was now Captain Aaron Michael Samuelson. "Jewboy," they had called him at first, until he strode over to the bigot and shook his shoulders. Hard. "If you ever call me that again," he said, "You're dead meat."

The capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, was a beautiful modern city. He had sent postcards home, showing dazzling white mountains in the distance and bazaars containing Persian rugs and fruit of all kinds, as well as gold-topped mosques as lovely as any created by American architects like Frank Gehry.

The battlefields were filled with hollowed out buildings, like caved in chocolate cakes; little boys playing soccer with fear in their eyes; and endless straw-colored lands rolling on forever. The soldiers wore 80 pounds of gear to protect themselves from the enemies.

No one saw him weep in the shower, as he scrubbed his black curly hair with sweet-smelling Irish Spring Soap and rubbed between each toe.

"Guys," he told them. "Be sure to dry between each toe so you don't get a foot fungus. Some never go away."

"Ain't that the truth?" said Private Damian. "My brother's got that."

What irony that several of his Marine Corpsman were killed the very week they were supposed to be dispatched home.

Barbara finally allowed him in her bed.

When he touched her "down there," she quickly removed her hand.

"Scuse me, darling," he said sarcastically. "Has somebody been sleeping in my bed?"

She sat up and slapped him across the face.

He simply got up and moved to the couch in the living room.

His sobs shook the couch, as he hiccupped with grief.

Next day he visited Rabbi Korn at Beth-El Synagogue. He wore his Marine Corps fatigues, which he'd ironed at home. His colorful medals shown across his chest.

As he waited, he wandered through the synagogue with its high ceilings and wooden beams. A small museum featured photos of The Holocaust, as well as pictures of David Ben Gurion, Martin Buber, and Zero Mostel starring in Fiddler on the Roof.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," said the rabbi. "Please follow me to my office."

The elderly rabbi sat at his desk, wearing his knitted skullcap.

"How can I help you, Aaron?" he asked.

"I'm a terrible mess, sir. My thoughts from Afghanistan keep popping into my head. No way can I stop them."

The rabbi nodded.

"In fact, driving here, I remembered a buddy of mine and his face when it exploded like a watermelon. I thought I would drive off the road."

They spoke a few more minutes.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder," said the rabbi.

"Oh!" said Aaron. "I've heard the term before but had no idea that's what it is."

Rabbi Korn wrote down the name of a counselor, which Aaron slipped into his pocket.

"Thank you, sir, thank you," said Aaron, falling into his combat lingo.

He immediately drove home to their apartment and quickly walked inside. He ran downstairs to the basement to the storage closet. He dialed the combination on the lock and found his Glock, just for protection, in case of intruders.

The juices in his stomach were pumping furiously. He thought he might vomit.

There was a bar downtown where police officers and combat veterans hung out.

He drove his blue Dodge van at top speed, zig-zagging through traffic on the expressway, then double-parked outside Eddie's Bar and Grill, and walked inside. It smelled like bacon and French fries.

Everyone looked up at this newcomer.

"Listen up!" he shouted above the conversation.

"You think it's easy coming home from Afghanistan?"

He brandished his Glock 17, a small black revolver made in Austria.

With both hands, he aimed and fired six shots at the mirror behind the bar. Then he raised it and shot one of the twirling ceiling fans.

"My name is Aaron Michael Samuelson," he shouted, "and I'm not proud of what I'm doing, but I have no recourse. I want you all to feel the way I'm feeling inside."

A police officer had just entered the bar and grabbed Aaron from behind and wrestled him to the floor.

"Call 9-1-1," he shouted.

"Our brother here is not in his right mind, but we can help him."

Aaron lay on the floor, curled up like a baby, and sobbed.

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