Excuses and a Recurring Nightmare, Brought to an End by Medals and Heroism

Tom Smoot, The War Horse
Photo of a United States Army soldier adjusting equipment on a Humvee - Tom Smoot upgrades HMMWV GPS transceivers in Iraq’s Diyala Province

July 7, 2021

I stared through a sand-crusted windshield. It was more of a film, wiped clear along the path of the wiper blades. A dirty blonde desert haze, matching the Humvee’s paint—not that weird orange-tinged tone oddly clinging to some of our vehicles.

I can’t think of the name, but every veteran knows the color.

That tan shade, more brown than orange.

Anyway...the color blended nearly perfectly with the windshield haze, partially obscuring concertina wire strapped to the hood.

There was no obscuring the commotion at the end of the street, though. Shouting escalated between soldiers in another Humvee and someone in a civilian SUV up at the next intersection. A crowd appeared to be coalescing—until you noticed the absence of people elsewhere on the street. This clever-but-common illusion always felt like one of those desert mirages I never saw for real. But when people disappeared from the street, we knew something was up.

It was hard not to feel like a target in the soft-skinned Humvee. I could smell the dust, and the cooking radio, but I never felt secure. I had no time to put that razor wire in action, but I popped the door handle to see what I could do with my feet on the ground.

That pop had impeccable timing: It fit right in with the first gunshots.

It’s not easy to find cover next to a four-door Humvee enclosed in canvas. Instead, I found quick concealment behind a plastic dumpster. A round must have found me, too. The thigh of my desert combat uniform turned that deep, dark purple. Soaking through the ripstop tricolor, a puddle of my own blood quickly formed around my boot. I didn’t feel shot. I felt panic. I was bleeding out.

I started to lean back toward the nearby retaining wall to use it as a crutch. I braced for the impending collision: impenetrable body armor versus immovable concrete. My ceramic backplate crashed against dirty, dusty cement with a hollow thud, and, like a kid on a sleigh, I started to slide downward.

I caught a brief burst of chatter on the radio as I slid and sank until I rested on the dusty ground. From the ground, I heard voices again—not on the radio this time. “He’s over here!” was the last thing I heard. That could’ve been Sgt. Jackson. I’ll never know. Heavy eyelids took over.

I bolted upright, sweating and panting. It was dark, but I wasn’t in Iraq. I hadn’t been shot, either.

I had a nightmare. Another nightmare. The panic felt so real, probably even to my ex-wife. Standing bedside, she quietly waited, wondering if it were worse to wake me from my night terror.

I brushed it off. When we got home from deployment to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, they told us this would happen. Nightmares were normal, and this was almost part of the routine by now. I’d been in that alley about a dozen times in the few months after I had redeployed. Every time, there was a commotion. Every time, I was shot. I always woke up sweaty and panting.

That never happened to me on a deployment. After the nightmares, I always argued to my ex-wife that I was okay—that the nightmares were simply an outlet my pea brain used to harmlessly act out a scary what-if. The nightmare mirrored a story from a sister team, I told her. Back then, I felt more comfortable leading my ex-wife toward my peers’ experiences, rather than revealing my own unresolved emotions. I built for her a house made of false logic.

Another sergeant from our battalion had been shot while we were deployed: grazed in an exchange, enough for a Purple Heart. My ex-wife heard all my reasons for my mix of emotions. It seemed to be a tug-of-war between gratitude, jealousy, and a host of strap-hanging thoughts.

No one had been killed, but the medals in the mix showed maybe someone should’ve been. It’s a gross feeling, that kind of jealousy. But when I signed that contract, I joined a warrior culture. Until we earned those medals, we were trained to glorify them. After we earned them, we had to live with what we had been trained to do. As I pleaded my case, over and over, my ex-wife eventually heard that conflict.

So, yeah. I brushed it off. Those nights we went back to bed, but I didn’t go back to sleep. Those were the nights I sleeplessly checked doors and windows. In the dark. After everything got quiet again. I felt guilty enough for waking everyone in the middle of the night; it was too much to ask for company.

That’s when I constructed more logic walls, more excuses. I was defensive: There was still a job to do. Only two years after 9/11, it was a sure bet we’d deploy again. I needed to be protective about my ability as a defender; my place in our warrior culture demanded it. So, I used my reasoning to protect myself, while I illogically secured the perimeter for my family.

It would take another deployment before I finally admitted I struggled with anxiety. It had seemed so simple after that first deployment: I was right. They were right at Fort Bragg. The nightmares eventually went away—they stopped about six months after I came home.

Right about the same time we heard reports from our follow-on forces.

They were ambushed with improvised explosive devices in heavy fighting during a transition of power. It was that alley. My alley. Their firefight was at the same intersection as my nightmare. We left knowing how dangerous that intersection was, and we left it behind. After we heard about the list of medals and heroism, I never dreamed that nightmare again. There were no dreams at all. And I didn’t want to know if anyone had the misfortune of living out my dream.

Editors Note: This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter

Posted on BrainLine July 13, 2021.