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Brian and Me


Jason Davis

WE CREPT across the road while the holy city slept. Through dirt clod fields and manure-muck furrows, each trampling foot—left step, right step in time, brought us nearer the twilight objective. The infantry fanned out in front of Brian and me, set against a dark-green night vision sky, and only the silhouette fortresses of grainy, green-black boxes, stacked like children’s building blocks, divided the twinkling expanse from the earth beneath our feet.

There was no sound but for eighty boots crunching the ground, and the gentle, rhythmic sway of our rucksack straps rubbing against our protective vests. Even the air was still, until west of our objective, beyond the slumbering box city and across the great smelly river, six towed giants unleashed a three-round fury of indirect fire—fire mission! Immediate Suppression!
Sergeant Brian Colby’s eyes glowed.

“Davis,” he whispered, “that’s one-five-five!”

For the ten years leading up to the war, to this moment in our lives, Brian was a “gun bunny,” a dirt-shoveling, bomb-loading string puller. Right out of high school, he enlisted to become an artilleryman, and had traveled the world pulling strings, firing high- explosive and incendiary artillery rounds for the United States Army. Now, in the heart of southern Iraq, he was on the other end, with a bad back and knees, leading me into combat as a forward observer—the eyes of the artillery.

“Someone, somewhere is getting fucked up,” he said.

As artillerymen, it was our job to provide indirect fire support to the grunts of 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 2/502 Infantry. I could calculate the distance and azimuth of the firing position and knew the maximum range and rates of fire for the Army’s M198 towed howitzer. When the firing ceased, I counted the refractory time between fire missions, imagining a battery of howitzer barrels glowing like cigarettes against the black sky. But in the farm fields that night, Brian scolded me. He wanted me to stay behind him as we walked, not next to him. It was his way of protecting me, fulfilling his promise to my wife the night he met her: “Don’t worry, I’ll bring Jason back home.”

Brian didn’t bring me home a year later, but he got me through the invasion. When we were alone in the desert towns of Kufa, Najaf, and Karbala, he talked to me like an older brother, not down at me like a leader. We laughed about life and love and of our families and childhood. I learned that beneath the sergeant exterior, a gentle boy who had grown up in the military yearned for stability after years of wandering. He often fell asleep staring at a picture of his two girls each night while I pulled radio watch, my own mind dreaming of home and raising a family.

For those seven weeks in early 2003, Brian and I were inseparable. We ate cold MRE’s (Meal, Ready to Eat) together, slept in foxholes together, and pissed in the same ancient rivers. In Najaf and Karbala, we explored every deserted and looted schoolhouse, searching for war treasures to mail home. As I marveled at grade- school artwork taped to cement walls, Brian smashed photos of Saddam Husse in that hung above the chalkboard in each classroom. Later, he nicknamed me “Princess” because I often plucked ingrown hairs from my neck with Revlon tweezers and picked dirt from my fingernails with the tip of a pocketknife. Most of the time, though, Brian smiled as if remembering the times he, too had been a dumb private.

Date night, five years later; children in strollers smiled and laughed and cried. Their hands, clutching brightly lit straws and fistfuls of popcorn, waved at wispy clouds of bubbles falling like snow from the sky beyond the castle. Lovers, bundled in scarves and black leather jackets, and shoppers, eyeing branded candies and festive knick-knacks, mingled at the registers with plastic bags and seasonal smiles. In the tunnel beneath the Disneyland Railroad on Main Street, where vintage posters of Autopia and the Submarine Voyage hang as dreamy remnants of yesteryear, families trickled toward the turnstiles.

That is when the world collapsed around me. In the sky, high above the castle, I didn’t see the yellow ball as it flamed into millions of expanding neon embers. But it wasn’t the sight that set me off.

My knees buckled. Dizzy from noise and confusion, I searched for the familiar—a point of reference or something to fix on, an image that could show that everything was all right. With the skyline obscured by trees and the decorative awnings of Main Street, USA, my eyes did not see the flickering yellow, orange, and red. The blasts echoing off the Penny Arcade and the Magic Shop were far from the farm fields in the Iraq desert, but that’s where the noise transported me. Instead of brotherly laughter and love, I remembered panic and the artillery illumination, tee-tottering left and right like a light bulb dangling on a string. In the farm fields that night with Brian, after the distant 155’s made a crater of men and equipment, a single round of illumination arced into the sky. While the rest of the platoon saw an artificial, two-dimensional green, I alone walked naturally beneath the milky, moonlit glow.

“Illumination!” I yelled, and hit the floor.
Brian threw off his night-vision goggles and grabbed the Lieutenant.

“Get them the fuck down,” he screamed, motioning to the rest of the platoon, backlit against the field.

The rounds burned near enough that we could hear two more fizz into the sky, then popping ninety seconds later. For ten minutes, we crouched with our mouths inhaling the sandy earth and our hearts lay thumping inside our protective vests.

The blasts continued, sporadic and unseen from the Main Street concession. I grabbed Robyn’s hand and motioned for the gate.

Months had passed since my last episode. When I fell at her feet and clasped my arms around her legs, she looked down into my eyes. Nine years ago in this place, my blue eyes and curly brown hair had first attracted her attention. Working together, we sold gumbo and creamy clam chowder from behind a small window at the Royal Street Veranda in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. Several nights a week for nearly two magical years, we watched Fantasmic and the fireworks, looking over the heads of the crowds in front of our window. Robyn knew that my eyes sparkled when I truly smiled. In those special moments, she could glimpse in them the charm and boyish wonder she fell in love with. Now, she saw fear and suffering.

Post- Traumatic Stress is an anxiety disorder caused by experiencing a traumatic event. The more fearful the experience, the more one will be affected with flashbacks, night tremors, and dissociative feelings. Many of the soldiers in my unit displayed symptoms of PTSD after returning from Iraq, but in 2004, our unit refused to acknowledge the symptoms.

Instead of recognizing it as a legitimate disease, toughened commanders and senior sergeants felt their soldiers were malingering. Army physicians also treated soldiers with little sympathy, prescribing sleep aids and mood- altering drugs to fix the weak and depressed. Even some Veteran s Administration doctors had an unofficial policy to deny the validity of the disease. Tens of thousands of soldiers who left military service after coming home did not receive adequate care or attention, and many claims for disability compensation were outright denied.

That’s how Brian left the Army in early 2005. Despite being treated for severe depression and PTSD by Army doctors, he did not receive disability compensation from the Army or the VA. And like others, Brian used alcohol and violent video games as an escape, as a way to cope with his troubles.
I first knew there was a problem in late April 2003. We’d been in Iraq—through Kufa, Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad in five weeks—and I was receiving letters and packages from home almost every day. At mail call, Brian watched in silence.

“It’s just a delay in the post system,” I said.

But several months passed before he received his first letter, and in her letters to me, Robyn said she hadn’t seen Brian’s wife or daughters at any of the monthly Family Readiness Group meetings.

Before coming home, the FRG, made up of wives and family members of the men I served with, discussed the mental and physical issues returning husbands might have after experiencing combat. In Iraq, the Chaplain prepared a slide show explaining how best to reintegrate to home. But most of my brothers and friends had forgotten how to share control of decisions with their spouses. Some could not switch from combat to off-duty dad, while others returned to divorce papers and confrontations over infidelity—or worse, empty homes. When Brian left Iraq in late 2003 and landed at Campbell Army Airfield, he had no family welcoming; the loving wife and children stayed away. Brian hitched a ride home from a friend, and three months later, his marriage ended.

I returned to Fort Campbell on February 19, 2004, where, after a short ceremony in the hangar, I rode to unit headquarters in a luxury bus. I cleaned my weapon, locked it in the arms room, grabbed my bags, and left for home. For five straight days, I made love to my wife, turned off the alarm clock and cell phone, ate fast food and candy, and drank Bacardi rum—all the things I had missed while deployed. But it wasn’t long before the homecoming’s happiness faded.

I woke up many nights panicked and afraid of losing my M4. I had carried it in my hands for an entire year. I slept with it, ate next to it and depended on it. In an urban combat zone in Iraq, every sound from a dark alley would send my arms and eyes to the iron sight above the barrel, scanning from corner to ledge to curb, trying to silence the threat. That nervous twitch followed me home. When I woke up at night, the attachment remained. Instead of in my arms, or under my bed, my weapon stood in an arms room with other men’s weapons, locked in columns, dress-right-dress behind steel doors and brick walls.

My days were no less stressful. I couldn’t deal with the ambient noises of trash trucks and normal Army life. At work, where soldiers from different units practiced for “funeral detail”—performing military tributes for the families of soldiers who had passed—the popcorn ricochets of blanks sent me diving for cover in the courtyard between two barracks buildings. I would laugh, checking first to see that others had reacted as I had—making sure that none had reacted worse or not at all. The trash trucks with their hydraulic tusks picked up metal dumpsters and slammed them onto the asphalt. But in my head, the thrashing was like an IED (Improvised Exploding Device) exploding along the side of some faraway desert highway.

For the nightmares and sleepless nights, I drank. Everyday work in the artillery—cleaning weapons, inventorying equipment, working on the squad’s HUMVEE—existed as a collection of repetitive scenes with me going through the motions, just shamming and waiting for the end of the day. I learned that if I drank fast enough, I could pass out by ten. Some guys snuck a shot of Beam before breakfast and lunch, and then doubled up on sleeping pills at night. I went through half a liter of r um every night and found that if I could get to sleep, I could stay asleep. But as with any other drug, I had to increase consumption to maintain the effect. That’s when the nightmares started; that’s when the boy came.

He watched me watch him. His eyes were black like the barrel of the AK- 47 hanging in his hands. He was lifeless and still like a four-foot-tall postcard, and looking into the reflection of myself in his eyes, I saw panic erupt from the petrified hollow of my mouth.

The cold sweat wasn’t cold when writhing convulsions shook me from sleep. Or when my contracted lungs blocked repeated attempts to scream. In the despairing moments before waking, light and darkness ceased to exist and exhaustion wiped away all but a single image of the night’s terrible tremor. 

I didn’t fear the two-dimensional boy wearing a dirty, white man-dress and carrying a cardboard machine-gun; rather, I was terrified that his world had followed me home.

Months had passed since I was the overgrown boy in dirty combat boots stomping across the threshold of another man’s home. Now the favor of intrusion had been returned. But the postcard apparition in the corner of my kitchen did not move and neither did the gruesome and contorted face of my dream self.

When I awoke, rigid and ashamed in my wife’s loving embrace, I felt like I had been rescued but not saved from the boy’s taunting, inevitable return. In watching him, I remembered every moment I, like the boy, entered uninvited into the lives of the occupied. As I watched myself, frightened and mute and held captive to the hell of a chemically induced sleep, the cold sweat disappeared and the images in my mind faded until finally, the boy was gone.

Holmes didn’t see combat, but when he went to the VA for PTSD in 2008, he received a 70- percent disability rating. Hoagie saw combat in 2003, but went AWOL (Absent Without Leave) in 2005. He received an honorable discharge and a 70 percent disability rating. Howard, Martinez, Chris, Anderson—same thing. Dave got 80 percent, but he’s also the only one who got blown up. My decision to seek treatment for PTSD was not initially motivated by disability compensation, but I found it hard to ignore when everyone around me landed lifetime stipends.

“Dude, it’s easy,” said Holmes. “I didn’t hold back. I just went to a few counseling meetings and cried my fucking balls off.”

But that game didn’t come easy for me. I wasn’t going to lie or embellish my story, and it took time and an increasing log of flashbacks for me to realize that I really did have a problem. I over-thought the process and couldn’t understand how guys with similar backgrounds who experienced the same events could react so differently. And how could I explain to my buddies and friends and family that I, in twenty-four months of war—through the buildup, ground invasion, fierce combat in the streets of Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Mosul, and the violent backlash of a pissed-off post-war insurgency—miraculously, never once fired my weapon? What claim did I have compared to those who hadn’t seen half of what I’d seen, but who had popped off a few rounds when the opportunity presented itself?

“Fucking Davis,” I thought those guys would say, “what’s he whining about now? That soft-skilled pussy didn’t do shit.

I was reluctant to deal with the VA because I didn’t want to appear weak. The Army taught me to “suck it up and drive on,” and for years, I did. I tried to move on with my life, to forget the pain and depression and the anger and frustration. I hated the person I had become and refused to seek medical help. Like Brian, I turned to alcohol to help me forget. But after the fireworks at Disneyland, I couldn’t pretend anymore.

“No one is unaffected or unchanged,” Robyn said. “I don’t know what you saw or what you did, but it’s obvious that whatever it was still bothers you. You don’t need to compare yourself to others.”

In November 2004, Brian finalized the divorce with the mother of his two children. Two days later, he remarried. Two months after that, he medically retired from the Army and moved with his new wife, Reggi, and her children to Jerome, Idaho.

In Idaho, a fresh start for the newlyweds began well. For Brian, civilian doctors prescribed Xanax, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Lexapro, and several other sleep and anger medications. They seemed to work. Brian and Reggi bought a house and Brian enjoyed traveling the Southwest with his new job, installing paper towel, toilet paper and soap dispensers in airports and office buildings. At home every third week, Brian appeared happy and loving, and put behind him the depression and anger and alcohol for which he’d sought counseling while in the Army.

But on the road two weeks at a time, a different man emerged. After more than a decade in the Army, where he had a strict routine and daily tasks to accomplish, he seemed unfit for the looser structure of civilian life, and more inclined to play than work. On the road, his wandering eye and reckless alcoholism, seen only by coworkers, threatened to destroy the new life he had built. On the beach one night in Galveston, a girl offered him Ecstasy and he took it. He never sought out drugs, but he also never turned them down. He was drunk and alone and tripping when a group near the water set off fireworks. He looked hollow while standing alone in the sand with his eyes on the sky. By then, whether from the X or the sound of the pops and the crackles taking him back to Iraq, he was gone. He hated his medicine and the way it made him feel. He didn’t see the point in living a lie, an unhappy, fake life where he pretended to be happy. What was the point? Despite the rising hopelessness, Brian convinced friends and family that he’d be fine. But his actions proved otherwise. He devoted less time to his daughters and family and became angry and violent when he drank.

In 2009, when the economy tanked, Brian lost his job and he fell into a deep depression. His marriage crumbled and in January 2010, he left Idaho the same way he left the Army in 2005. Only, this time, Brian left “in order to get his head on straight.” He felt he could do that living with his mom and step- dad in Arkansas. With his parents’ support, he believed he could rise above the depression.

In March 2010, I finally agreed to seek help.

With Robyn’s hand in mine, I walked into the Long Beach VA Hospital to file a PTSD claim. Outside the main entrance, homeless veterans in BDU (Battle Dress Uniform; green camouflage) pants huddled on benches, smoking cigarettes and talking to themselves. To avoid eye contact, I stared at the ground, ashamed of my outward youth and health. Inside, every awake face in the crowded lobby stared at TV’s hanging on the wall. I felt even more of a fraud, thinking my Iraq nightmares paled in comparison to those of the homeless vets racked-out on chairs inside the lobby.

Upstairs in the mental health office, a dozen more Vietnam vets leaning in chairs against the wall hacked and coughed between passed-out snores . There were a few young guys, like me, probably Marines, who’d seen some real shit. One guy sat rocking in a chair with his head between his knees and a clipboard with a stack of ruffled papers next to him. A couple of large ladies in light blue uniforms carted him away. Another young guy walked to the bathroom with a small cup in his hand. The nurse stuck her foot in the door and I could tell he didn’t seem optimistic about his chances.

I filled out the stack of papers attached to the clipboard. It asked for specific memories where I felt I would die, and for names of people to contact to verify my claims. When I finished the stack, I ate a sandwich and waited.

A small, thin woman in light blue called my name. She brought me through a series of lefts and rights and back-arounds until we came to an open examination office. She sat at a computer and read the stack of papers attached to the clipboard. As she pecked at the keyboard, I played the role of dumb private—thoughtful, timid and polite, though that wasn’t far-fetched from my own mood. For forty-five minutes, she went through a list of questions to determine the urgency of help that I needed. I told her about my nightmares and some of the graphic events I had witnessed in Iraq, and how I had been resolving those issues at home. She seemed concerned and said that I displayed symptoms of PTSD. Then she scheduled an appointment for me to meet with “a doctor closer to home” in Santa Ana.

I met with a doctort in late July. She smiled and led me to her office, and I took a seat across from her. For the next twenty-five minutes, she typed into a computer and didn’t look at me. She seemed indifferent and I felt like another name in her long list of patients as she played twenty questions.

“Do you smoke? Drink? Do drugs? Are you on any medications?
Has your appetite changed?
How do you feel right now?
How are you sleeping?
What is today’s date? If you had to guess the date… pick a day…
Who is the President of the United States?
Have you committed any recent crime sprees?”

After the last question, she turned away from the computer and said that I displayed symptoms of PTSD. She asked me if I wanted to join a substance abuse class, and after we talked about my family and school obligations, she wrote me a prescription for Trazadone, an antidepressant used for depression and insomnia.      
I returned for a follow-up appointment in late August. The doctor led me to the same room and she sat at the same computer without looking at me. Ten minutes later, after a blitzkrieg session of the same questions, she asked me about the Trazadone. I lied and said it didn’t work the few times I took it. Then she wrote me a prescription for Te mazepam, a hypnotic used by Air Force pilots to combat insomnia.

I didn’t want drugs and I wondered whether I should forget the whole process. I wanted to talk to someone and I wanted answers to questions I didn’t have the courage to ask. Where were the caring doctors and couches and explanations for attempts to get to the bottom of my problem? I couldn’t believe the VA wanted to pump me full of drugs, as if loading up on a combination of pills, I could numb my fear and pain into smooooth jazz—“Yeaah, baby.”

“Fuck that,” I thought.

“I’d rather drink…”

On September 5, 2010, inside the gated community of Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, adjacent to Hot Springs National Park, Brian sat alone on his mother’s balcony on Medina Way. His family had left for Texas to attend his grandfather’s memorial. Brian hadn’t taken the death well and had decided to stay home to finish homework for his Welding Technology class at National Park Community College. As the family walked out of the door, Brian bear-hugged his mom tighter and longer than he had in over twenty years. For one last time, he was her little boy—the blue-eyed, blond-haired boy smiling in the albums and frames on the wall.

For nine months, Brian had hid his alcoholism from his parents. But on this day, he splurged one last time. When he finished making all of his calls and replying to all of his text messages, he grabbed his grandfather’s Ruger 9mm pistol, feeling the weight of it in his hand and remembering all the times he and his grandfather had gone shooting. Brian studied the cool touch of the barrel and examined the loaded chamber. The gun may have rested on the ground or in his lap while he used the phone, but finally, it rested in his lifeless hand.

The sound careened off the trunks and branches of deciduous oak, hickory, and pine trees that filled the ridges beyond his balcony, but no one was around to hear. Later that afternoon, when Brian failed to answer his phone, his parents called neighbors. They found him on the balcony, a week before his 37th birthday, in a pool of his own cold blood.

In the Iraq holy south, we fought on rooftops and in muddy marshes and farm fields. In the capital, we fought inside dark hallways where shadows glided under locked doors and broken neighborhood streetlamps. In the ancient north, we fought in the intersections of crowded markets and raced our Humvees through cemeteries to escape the ambush of roadside bombs. Some of us fought for peace or revenge or for college money, and others fought for their brothers and sisters and families back home. But mostly, we fought because we were told to, and when we were told to stop fighting—that it was time to go home—the battle raged on in our heads.

For Brian, only death could bring the end of war. The small list of friends and family he called that morning did not know that they’d never hear his voice again.

I found out later that evening from a friend’s Facebook status:

Brian Colby passed away today. It is an unbeleivable loss to me, my family, his family, his frie nds and the world. Please contact me and i will be trying to get details on the services.”

Rain slammed into Little Rock the same way news of Brian’s suicide hit me. I flew alone with my thoughts, an angry asshole seatmate to businessmen looking for their next southern sell. The puddle-jump flight and dingy airport reminded me of Lawton, Oklahoma, when I went to Fort Sill in 2002 for artillery Advanced Individual Training (AIT). The small empty terminal reeked of mold and smoke and I wanted a drink.

Two hours southwest of Little Rock, I stopped at a liquor store to pick up some rum, hoping Baz and Dex would soon call or text to let me know they were on their way.

Three miles outside of town, my phone rang. A few minutes later, it rang again. First, Brian’s stepfather Fletcher, then his birth father, Frank.

I checked into the hotel across from Hot Springs Village, America’s largest gated community. I set the rum in the mini-fridge, and then called Brian’s folks for directions.

When I rang the doorbell, Brian’s mom, Linda, answered the door.

“Is this Princess?”

She hugged me and held onto me and I grieved for her loss, for my loss.
Walking into the house, I met the family and the cousins and the childhood friends. We sat at tables and couches, eating food prepared by the empathetic community, talking about our memories of Brian. I learned that the “Princess” stories were family favorites and that a picture of Brian and me in Kuwait was the background image on his laptop. 

I hadn’t talked to Brian in months. He had traveled from Idaho to Arkansas to Texas to Arkansas many times since leaving Idaho in January, staying with friends for weeks at a time. Most of my conversations with him consisted of stray Facebook messages and comments, and in those, I became for him another friend to appease. He always said he was “doing good.” Then he was gone and I wasn’t one of the phone calls and texts he made on his last morning.

I wondered if it was because I had a happy marriage, or that I succeeded in school. I knew what I wanted to do with my life and Brian didn’t. Had he avoided me? Did my aspirations and choices bring him down, or did he move on?

After the suicide, Brian’s family found his pill bottles full—he hadn’t taken his medication in over 45 days. In the months and days before, he had deflected questions and told friends and family what they wanted to hear. He sought temporary highs and short-term pleasures to distract from the pain and confusion he didn’t want to feel.

Dex couldn’t make it to the memorial, but after dinner with Brian’s family, I drove back to the hotel with Baz. He was one of the first Sergeants I’d met as a new private in the Army. SGT Rolando Bazaldua never forgot what it was like to be a private, and I admired that. I hadn’t seen Baz since summer 2005 when he left Fort Campbell for Drill Sergeant school. Together, we finished the one-liter bottle of rum and a half-dozen Pepsis scrounged from hotel vending machines.

I couldn’t get past the feeling that this would happen again—that from this point forward, life would exist as an endless succession of bad-trip Facebook messages. One of Brian’s last status updates indicated his new favorite song—“Suicide is Painless,” by Marilyn Manson, a cover of the M.A.S.H. theme song. I didn’t know it then, but Brian and his sister, Lane, watched M.A.S.H. for most of their childhood.

We arrived at the funeral home a few hours later, Baz in his Army Class-A uniform and I in wrinkled business casual from flying light. The packed house watched as we took seats in the front pews next to Shawn and Davina Bass. I served with Shawn in Iraq—he was an infantry squad leader for 3rd Platoon and a close after-Army friend of Brian’s.

I spoke first after the chaplain’s introduction. I had intended to prepare a speech, but it never came. After a sleepless night of drinking and catching up with Baz, I hadn’t prepared the speech like I had imagined. In the crowd, I picked out Brian’s youngest daughter Blake, and told her about how Brian kept a photo of her and Jasmine, her older sister, in a plastic Ziploc baggie in his helmet. In those moments then, under the desert sky, tears fell from Brian’s closed eyes. I told the crowd how much Brian meant to me as a young soldier and brother. Then I stepped away, staring at the ground.

Moments later, the Old Guard began the military salute. I closed my eyes in anticipation, but nothing could prepare me for the piercing waves of sound as each round rang through the silent room. I stood at attention as Linda received the folded flag “on behalf of a grateful nation.”k letter