Silence and Silhouettes

by Ryan Smithson

[ShatterColors is honored to feature an excerpt from a memoir-in-progress, Silence and Silhouettes: An Army Reservist's Year in Iraq.]

It’s Sebastian “Seabass” Koprowski and I. We’re sitting outside the barracks. Late dusk. The very end of a day. The very beginning of a night. The desert is calm at night. Calmer than anything I can remember. It’s not hot anymore. The temperature has dropped and it actually feels cool, a dry cool. Like nighttime in mid-September back home in New York . It’s not windy at all, which is an enormous relief.

Even on post there is no noise. There is just the sound of our breathing. We don’t talk. We’re sitting together in silence; like you’d do with a friend you’ve known your whole life. We’d been talking I’m sure, about something. Probably something funny. We were probably joking about one of the mechanics, or one of the squad leaders, or one of life’s little ironic lessons. But now things are silent.

We light cigarettes and look out over the motor pool. The only light comes from a single “porch” light outside our company’s tactical operations center. The sky, as it often does, shines a curious gray-orange. Sand in the air. Always sand in the air. No moon is out, just dust.

The shadows of the dozens of pieces of equipment in our motor pool pierce the orange glow. Tall silhouettes of dump trucks, of hydraulic excavators with their long, gangly arms, of scrapers and dozers and a fuel truck and those unforgettable 916 tractor trailers slice open the gray-orange. The stillness of the shadows is eerie. The silhouettes remind me of headstones in a cemetery, dark and silent. A filthy, taunting bit of foreshadowing… or just coincidence. There’s no way of knowing.

Seabass and I inhale smoke into our lungs and breathe it out, once again thankful to breathe, thankful to have the choice to breathe smoke. We say nothing, not about the un-tactical operations center, or the mission coming up, or our families.

We sit in silence. Appreciating the moment of peace. Appreciating each other.

Somewhere during the combat tour, I will realize I love Seabass, and the rest of the platoon for that matter. It’s a weird sort of love. Certainly not like lovers. And not like good friends, nor even like brothers, though that is how I’ll refer to him after the war.

I love Seabass like a buddy, an army buddy. It’s a love which can’t be explained. It’s a fragile sort of love which loses meaning the more I complicate it with words.

So we are sitting in the motor pool, in the dark, next to a pile of new tires. We could sit inside the barracks or out on the BOHICA, the recreation deck where our platoon meetings are held ( Bend Over, Here It Comes Again), and hang out with the rest of the guys. But we don’t. Instead, we sit here looking out over the calm, cool desert. We appreciate the night, the life, the love. We appreciate the silence and silhouettes.

An explosion. Not anywhere near. Somewhere in the distance. Miles across the huge camp. We don’t break stride in inhaling the smoke. We just appreciate it that much more. We don’t look at each other. We inhale and gaze at the desert.

Another explosion. Surely they are mortars; we’ve heard them many times before. We don’t care anymore. We enjoy the silence in between.

“I wonder how long it’ll be ‘til they sound the alarm,” I say. Seabass makes a silent, but appreciative, laugh. The statement is tired and overused. We all understand how much of a joke the mortar alarms are.

Another explosion. Another inhale.

The explosions are far away, and almost silent in their own special way. Like a five second delay between a Fourth of July firework and its boom. But these explosions are silent in a deadly sort of way. The calmness of death, the silence, is remarkably peaceful. Tranquility, serenity, stillness, and a thousand other synonymous adjectives. Even the words roll off the tongue without much audible effort.

“Imagine if the 5-ton got hit,” he says.

We often fantasize about losing parked equipment to mortar damage. We are hopeful, but it probably won’t happen. We’re not that lucky. It’s a nice thought, though. It’s a thought that deserves a gut laugh, but not an audible one. Simply a quick breath through the nose. Out and away, silent, forgotten. An audible silhouette.

After another explosion, there is a long silence before the alarm sounds. It’s a good six minutes after the first explosion. What the hell’s the use? That goddamn alarm, always disrupting a good time.

After a final inhale, Seabass turns and says, “Wanna head in?”

“Yeah, let Renninger know we’re not dead.”

Seasbass laughs through his nose.

* * *

I return home from the war. The culture shock of coming home is surprising stronger than that of going over. I suddenly realize so many things about my country all at once. I learn how sheltered we all are, how controlled we all are, how magnificently lucky we all are, and how magnificently unappreciative we all are. The shock is not only in realizing all of this but dealing with the fact that I am twenty years old and only really seeing it for the first time.

I am glad to be home, but the culture shock of returning is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. War is a life changing perspective, and I couldn’t forget it if I tried.

I spent a year in Iraq . I was a kid, I am a kid, and I’ve seen things some people will never see. It takes me almost a full year before I can even begin to write about it. My memories will save me, but my memories will also haunt me.

Psychologists call it Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. We attended numerous briefings about the subject upon demobilization at Fort Bragg , North Carolina . During one, an active duty soldier, who specialized in psychiatric treatment for soldiers, asked us how we’d deal with facing our family again. We gave him blank stares because we didn’t know.

“What will you say to your mother, your child, your wife when they say, ‘You know, I’m really upset that you’re still in the military,’” he said.

We looked at him, unsure of our actual response to this hypothetical. This was a room full of soldiers I’d just spent a year with in a combat zone under a horribly aloof and irresponsible command. Now, this guy was asking us what we’d say to our families who couldn’t possibly understand.

“‘I’m really upset that you’re still in the military, honey.’ What are you going to tell them?” he repeated.

“So am I,” I said.

My response broke the tension and the room erupted in appreciable laughter. Then he asked us what we’d tell them when they asked us, “Well then, why are you still in?”

“Because it’s my duty.”

And that was it. This is how I would handle my posttraumatic stress should it arise. It’s my duty, and I’ll deal with it, I believed.

We were on American soil again, for God’s sake. The last thing we cared about were flashbacks and nightmares. We’d been through a certain degree of hell, and we could tough out some petty psychological trauma. We just wanted to get through our de-mobe and be home again.

I wanted to see my parents. I wanted to sleep next to my wife. Little did I know, this is where my problems would arise.

I wake suddenly. Not from a nightmare, but my face is coated in sweat. We live in the country, and it’s dead quiet. Silence. A red laser light shines on the ceiling. It’s from our alarm clock and it says 2:25 am. The bedroom door is cracked and the yellow light from a night light in the hallway slips through. My breathing is way too heavy for 2:25 in the morning, and I can feel my heart about to explode. I am terrified.

Of what, I can’t be sure. This is a new experience; I never woke up in the middle of the night in Iraq . I was never once terrified for no apparent reason. Nonetheless, I lay in my bed, on American soil, and my heart pounds like a bass drum. I wipe the sweat off my brow and turn over to find a more comfortable position.

My back is to the door. I need to watch that door.

Someone is coming to kill me.

I turn back over and close my eyes. I need to watch that door. My eyes open.

You’re acting crazy, I tell myself as I watch the door. You’re in West Sand Lake, New York . People don’t go around randomly killing one another. Some people don’t even lock their doors.

I should check the front door; someone is coming to kill me.

I get out of bed; my wife is sound asleep. I need to protect her, too. I walk to the entrance of our apartment. The doorknob is locked. The dead bolt is locked. The chain is secure.

Go back to bed and quit being foolish. Iraq is a world away. No one’s trying to kill you here.

I crawl back into bed. I toss and turn for five minutes. I’m not even remotely tired. I have a feeling I won’t be getting very much sleep tonight.

Ryan, you’ve been home for over a month. Let it go.

I lay on my back watching the dim, yellow light shine through the crack in the door. I’m watching and waiting for the door to burst open and reveal my murderer. It’s an indescribably genuine sense of terror, and no amount of logic can help me escape from its stronghold. It’s not terrifying so much because I truly believe my life is in grave danger, but because there’s no logical reason for being terrified. I’m scared of nothing, of the silence, and it scares me further that there’s no explanation. I contemplate crying, but what would that do?

Someone’s coming to kill me.

Then again, what if this isn’t Posttraumatic Stress Disorder? What if it’s a sixth sense and completely coincidental to the psychological side effects of war? I’m having an authentic ESP experience, and someone really is going to break in and kill Heather and I while we sleep.

Get a weapon. I left my M-16 back at Ft. Bragg .

I get out of bed again and go to the kitchen. I pull a butcher knife from the butcher block on the counter. I look at it for a long time; I study it. It’s long and shiny and lethal. It will do the job if I need it to.

I’ll just keep it on the nightstand next to me and use it only if I need to, only if this really is an intuitive prediction. I suddenly remember all those horror stories of men returning home from war and brutally murdering their wives in the bed next to them.

Is this how it starts?

How will I react when I wake up the second time?

I put the knife down and return to bed. I tell myself to quit being irrational. I need to sleep, and no one is coming to kill me. I doze off for maybe five minutes before I wake up in a cold sweat again. The red laser light reads 2:37 a.m.

I need to protect myself. I need to protect my wife.

Get a fucking weapon.

I rummage through the entire house. My heart is rapid, my palms are sweaty and shaking, and not a moment goes by that I’m not checking over both shoulders. There has got to be something I can use that won’t be lethal unless I absolutely need it to.

Is this how it starts?

I am scared out of my mind and looking through the house for a lethal, but not too lethal, defense. In the spare bedroom I remember there are drumsticks for the electronic drum set Heather bought me for my birthday. I pick them up and give them a test swing. They are solid and blunt and could surely do the job. I took lessons for three years in high school, and they feel natural and controlled in my hands. Isn’t that what weapons are all about -- control?

They will do.

If, God forbid, I pummel my wife with them, hopefully I can stop before it’s too late.

Is this how it starts?

It doesn’t matter; this is life and death. I take them back to the bedroom, place them on my nightstand, and I don’t sleep more than an hour all night.

These night terrors occur every couple of weeks for a few months. They’re never accompanied by nightmares, just a jolting snap from regular sleep. Every time, there is a silently horrifying sense that someone is coming to kill me. They were like the next step beyond a lucid dream.

By the last couple of occurrences, I am able to retain my sanity quickly and get back to sleep with little problem. I was frankly sick of having them. It got on my nerves that I was being so irrational with no existence of an actual threat. Throughout my life, I’ve hardly ever lost sleep to nightmares, let alone losing sleep to nothing. I just want them to stop.

The last time the night terrors occur, I wake up, once again, in a cold, throbbing sweat. I almost cry at the terror that has seemingly engulfed my ability to sleep well. I pray for this to end. I’m sick of being woken up and scared for my life. I’m sick of being ashamed to talk about it. It’s a silent inner-dilemma that I want to end.

What happens next will baffle me to the core for the rest of my life.

I lay on my back watching the door. I try to fall asleep, and my mind wants me to stay awake. The crack in the door is about a foot wide and I watch it intently.

Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep.

My eyes shut, or maybe they stay open. I can still see the lighted crack in the door, but maybe I’m dreaming. Maybe I’m teetering in the mysterious world between consciousness and sleep. Or maybe not.

A sharp silhouette appears in the bedroom in front of the doorway. It’s standing next to my wife’s dresser which is barely outlined by the yellow light coming in through the door. The slice of light did not get any larger. The silhouette did not enter my room; it was already here.

My heart jumps to throbbing life.

The silhouette is slender looking and appears to have long, straight hair. It’s undoubtedly female. She walks toward my side of the bed.

The cold sweat reappears on my forehead.

She gets slowly closer. I can’t see her face, for the light is behind her. But I can tell she’s looking me directly in the eyes, or directly in the soul.

My mind says move, but my body does no such thing. I am paralyzed. In front of me stands what must be the reason behind these awful night terrors, and she’s getting closer. My heart is pounding and my whole being is numb and tingly. It’s the same feeling I’ve woken up with every couple of weeks for the last few months, but it’s multiplied times a thousand.

She’s a foot away from my bed and she bends down. But not to me, into me. She walks, or floats maybe, down and into me.

My eyes open. Or maybe they were open the whole time.

Suddenly, as if by magic, my heart slows down, and my sweat dries. I breathe normally, and I no longer feel dizzy or tingly. I am looking at the lighted crack in the door. It’s illuminated by the yellow nightlight in the hallway, and it barely outlines the front edge of Heather’s dresser.

Whatever or whoever the silhouette was, it changed me. It healed me. I am perfectly calm. I lay in disbelief, but I no longer fear going back to sleep.

I have not had a night terror since.

Silence and Silhouettes
© 2007 by Ryan Smithson



About the Author

Ryan Smithson is a soldier in the Army Reserves and was deployed form Iraq from 2004-2005. While serving out the rest of his reserve contract, he currently works with elementary school-age children and attends school at Hudson Valley Community College. He has aspirations to transfer to a four-year school where he plans on double majoring in Criminal Justice and English. His hobbies include snow skiing, jiu jitsu, playing guitar, spending time with family and friends, and not being afraid of the dark.

Ryan would like to thank his parents, Jeff and Julie, for their outstanding love and support; his wife, Heather, for being there when he returned (and always); his sister, Regan, for all the laughs; his high school wrestling coach, Jim McHugh, for his mentorship and unprecidented character; his best man and lieutenant, Andy Zeltwanger, for saving the 'Shroom Platoon; his English professor, Maria Pollock for all the corrections; and his gecko, Leo for showing him how a real man eats crickets.

Smithson's first book, "Ghosts of War: My Tour of Duty," will be published by HarperCollins in April, 2009.


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