The Rain Falls Like Democracy

The Rain Falls Like Democracy

The Rain Falls Like Democracy 1920 1271 Clayton Bradshaw

The rain begins with drop after drop smashing against the sidewalk downstairs from the balcony, where it releases its ozone upwards to where I stand. The drizzle becomes a downpour. The downpour becomes a deluge. The deluge floods the street, blacktop shining blue in the dim lamplight. The water beads in a dull sheen on the skin of each vehicle lined up on the curb.

For now, the street remains empty. Only the parked cars and pickup trucks become immersed in the East Texas rain. As the precipitation falls harder and harder, tapping the tin roof of the apartment building like a bag of marbles poured out from the sky, the street stays at peace, undisturbed by the veterans who will soon scurry to their cars from an end-of-semester party.

I will miss them.

This is my last night here in Huntsville. And these are the people I have grown to love, an association of veterans that seeks comradery in each other’s internal conflict. These are men and women looking to learn how to navigate a flooded street, to find their way through the lightning strikes that hit every uninsulated step. They have not yet learned how to be successful on their own.

Thomas C. Foster writes that, in literature, precipitation falls like democracy. It’s like the ending of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” You see, no one is spared. Especially not in the infantry.

While I was stationed in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, my unit referred to the months-long inundation common to the area as “Fort Lewis Sunshine.” It rained so much that I never registered the wet until a drop of water rolled down the crack of my ass. I remember how soaked my boots would get during the long marches to the field. How my feet would squish inside my socks when I cleared through rooms in the fake Arab village of the training area. How my legs were caked with black mud when the platoon’s morning run stopped four miles out to wait for the MPs to deal with a meth lab we found on the trail. Or how two months of rain clouds obscured Mt. Rainier from view as we spent every waking moment listening to the steady drip of rain falling on every aspect of our lives. Fort Lewis was misery for each of us but, at least, it sucked for everyone.

My unit had arrived home from Mosul two weeks before I showed up. They had been heroes, the most decorated battalion of the Iraq War which meant they had chewed some dirt and shed some blood. Some theirs. Most not. Even the battalion commander, LTC Kurilla, had been wounded, shot in the legs by an escaping member of Al Qaeda. The bullets shattered his left femur. His sergeant major chased down the shooter and bludgeoned the man to death with his helmet. Journalist Michael Yon photographed Command Sergeant Major Prosser standing in a beige alleyway with the insurgent’s blood dripping down the side of his body.

This sort of brutality helped Deuce Four make a name for themselves. It helped justify their use of the Punisher skull as a symbol painted onto broken-down doors throughout Mosul. But, the violence did not stop when they got home.

I respected my NCOs, standing out of their way each time they passed by me in the barracks hallway. They were the heroes of Greek myth, bronzed men who could commit no sin beyond hubris. It was understandable that one would crash his car into the gate coming onto post one night before beginning an armed standoff with the MPs. Even the fights they started with cherry privates were just to toughen us up. I even forgave them when they scraped their knuckles against the temples of their wives and children. See, like democracy, barbarism is participatory.

Once, a squad-mate ran to the morning accountability formation ten minutes late. The moment that the platoon sergeant finished calling him out as absent, he brushed my shoulder to stand next to me. When the company broke apart to begin physical training, the platoon sergeant dismissed all of the leaders except one. We knew pain was coming.

The remaining sergeant marched us to the parking lot. The punishment began simply enough. Every soldier pushed the ground in front of them until their arms burned and could no longer move. Once the last person reached muscle failure, the sergeant ordered us to turn over onto our backs. I felt my abdominals twist as I performed sit-up after sit-up, and, when no one could sit up any longer, the sergeant had us stand to do lunges back and forth across the parking lot for thirty minutes. After the lunges, we ran in place, stopping to drop and do more pushups on command. This cycle continued for three hours. I remember asking to run to the water fountain but being informed that I had lost the privilege of hydration.

Fitzgerald was the first to puke. Then me. Then Peterson. Then Williams. After the entire platoon let loose their guts, the sergeant told us to lay supine in our puke and spread our arms and legs. We did. Then we closed our arms and legs. Then opened them again. Then closed them again. The sergeant called these “puke angels.” Honestly, I wish it had rained that day.

I should go inside instead of walking downstairs to my truck. Michelle’s apartment will keep me dry. I can’t afford to get hypothermia while driving home with a wet t-shirt clinging to my chest. Please understand that I haven’t gotten weak. It’s just that I leave for grad school tomorrow.

Besides, I’m sure Michelle won’t mind me crashing on her couch. After all, I helped her move it upstairs a few weeks ago. But, if the infantry taught me anything, a man embraces the rain. He charges blindly into the storm and deals with the consequences later. He can always dry off later.

It rained in Copperas Cove, too. It didn’t happen nearly as often as at Fort Lewis but, when the sky fell, it descended with the crash of thunder and the violence of lightning. Before I hit rock bottom I had a house there, not far from the southernmost gate to Fort Hood. For the first year, I cohabitated with a German wife and a tiny half-German clone of myself. The second year, I sat on my couch alone and stared at the home decor that symbolized a life I once had.

During the first few months after my ex-wife left with my son, I opted to step over the baby gate in the kitchen rather than remove it. I would trip over it five times a day, but I knew that removing it would be an acknowledgement that he wasn’t coming back.

The night I finally took the baby gate down, a thunderstorm rolled through town. The woman I was seeing at the time refused to come over unless the barrier had been removed. I had acquiesced. She brought over a case of Shiner Bock and bottle of tequila while I put on a button-down shirt. Then we sat on the porch, watching the drops splash like mortar rounds onto the yellow grass. The light grew dim, our world blurred, and she passed out in the lawn chair next to me. Shortly after, I drank the last drop of the beer she had brought.

I drove to the convenience store down the street for more booze. When I returned, she had moved to the bedroom and fallen asleep on my bed, so I took the beer with me to the back porch. As I slouched in my chair, I noticed that one of the baseballs I had bought for my son sat a few feet from the edge of the porch. I passed through the curtain of rain shimmering in the porchlight to pick it up.

The ball turned in my hand as I sipped on my beer. Tears mixed with the water on my cheek as I thought about the first time I’d held my son. I had missed his birth by twelve hours because I was coming back from Afghanistan for mid-deployment leave. My ex has yet to forgive me for that. Maybe she shouldn’t.

I smiled as I remembered the night I let him air dry after a bath and he pooped on the fireplace. I thought about how his weight in a harness pulled me forward through the Partnachklamm in Garmisch. As the beer took root in my bloodstream, I began to feel the warmth of his head against my cheek as we cried together in the moments before she pulled him from my arms to leave. It felt as though I would never see him again. After finishing my beer, I walked inside, pulled the paracord from my rucksack, and tied it into a noose.

I skyped my ex-wife to tell my son that I loved him, then walked out to the side of the house. I stumbled up the ladder to where the satellite dish sat, tied the paracord to the end of the tripod, and slipped my head through the noose. As the ladder wobbled under me, I kept reminding myself of what I had lost. My tears were lost in the rain. There was no turning back, no room to survive. I would be out of the Army in a couple of months with no new career to look forward to. No money to fly and see my son. No escape from the rain. I thought this would not be a messy death, at least. No one would have to clean it up.

Before my foot could slip off the ladder, blue and red lights flashed against the wall of the house. My ex-wife had called the police from Germany. At the time, I hated her for this. She thought she was delivering a gesture of kindness but her actions would only bring more torment. I now know that I needed to feel the pain the Army had taught me to ignore but, back then, I thought suicide was my only escape from being left in the rain alone. In many ways, it still is.

I need to go home. My truck sits in the empty elementary school parking lot across the street, waiting for me to hop in and turn on the defrost. The other vets at this party have long forgotten that I am standing on the balcony. They have gotten deeper into their drinks and forgotten about the weather. In their communal interactions, they have found bliss.

The night I was elected president of the veteran association at Sam Houston State, I thought about dying. Honestly, it’s a persistent notion for old soldiers. See, since the military ages a person four times faster than civilian life, I was ancient even at age 30.

We were sitting around four tables pushed together on the patio of Potato Shack. I sat on the end with a few of the other former infantrymen sharing pitchers of Shiner Bock. We had a tendency to clump together at these meetings.

An old marine usually began with a story about Sangin in 2011. He was there when a suicide bomber blew up the gate of the base as a platoon was leaving on patrol. Eight Marines died. I would counter with a story from Iraq in 2008. It was usually the one about the six soldiers and an interpreter from our recon platoon who were killed in a house-borne IED in Sinsil. A member who served in the 101st Airborne talked about Operation Bakersfield in Mullah Omar’s hometown. Another marine went on about the Horn of Panjwai.

This meeting, our one-upmanship was interrupted by voting. As the current vice-president, I was nominated for Association President and elected unanimously. We then selected the other officers. In accordance with our tradition, my best friend at the time was elected secretary when he left the table to buy another beer. He bitched about it the rest of the night and for the next year. He still brings it up.

The evening blurred into a karaoke bar next door to the prison where they perform executions in Texas. I sang “Peaches” by Presidents of the United States because I have a writerly fascination with dirty metaphors. When I sat back down, the 101st vet began a story about his last firefight. I one-upped him with a story about my last patrol. That was the mission during which Kalin Johnson killed himself.

After I finished, I excused myself and walked home. A light drizzle coated my face and clothes as I thought about the time Kalin Johnson interrupted my workout to talk about his son. He was nineteen and had left his girlfriend to fend for the kid when he joined the Army. All the violence in the desert made him want to return to his old life. The next day, he lost a mine detector during a firefight. The company commander told him he should kill himself, and he did. I often imagine his girlfriend holding their kid against her hip in the kitchen with the rain and thunder crashing down outside as she took the phone call about what had happened.

At the time, I hated Johnson for being selfish and making my soldiers carry his gear back to the base. Why would he not consider those he would leave behind? What about his kid? What about those of us having to cover up for our leadership during the investigation?

I think I get it now, though. He was tired of carrying the pain.

When I got back to my apartment, I called a previous president of the veteran association and told him about Johnson, about my own suicide attempt, and about how I still harbored thoughts of a self-induced quiet. We spoke for an hour over the phone as he listened to my fears about leading a group of vets when I could not find my own way through the electric agony. He reminded me that was the point of the whole thing. We were in this together, to lean on each other as gravity and excessive precipitation forced us to slip on the sidewalk. My position did not change my status. Leading simply meant allowing myself to become vulnerable in a much more visible way.

Nights like this help me understand why some people prefer umbrellas. See, infantrymen don’t carry umbrellas. We are taught that it is not manly enough for our profession. We let the rain saturate us and everything in our pockets. In a lot of cases, we don’t survive the rain. We struggle in the water until the time comes for us to drown and join those who sank before us.

People with other backgrounds appreciate what umbrellas can do. They shield against the elements and offer the illusion of a dry self. However, they cannot really make a person stormproof; some of the moisture will always seep in. An umbrella can only help keep a person’s vision clear as they navigate the weather.

We did not choose easy lives. We committed ourselves to a lifetime of violence, whether or not we understood it at the time. When a person witnesses death while taking part in the destruction of another person’s homeland, they never quite recover. It may not always manifest itself in physical reactions, but it stalks us at the shadowy edge of our minds. See, blood spills like rain in the infantry. It pools in the boot prints we leave behind. It follows us into every dark corner and forms a shadow when we try to stand in a well-lit place.

Sometimes we find a way to survive, to swim through the blood and rain. Sometimes we freestyle or try a butterfly stroke. Other times, we lay on our backs. And, yes, sometimes we drown but someone is always there to resuscitate us, at least in memory.

Tomorrow, I will drive away from Huntsville to a future far away from the expectations of my former life. I will try and find someone to pump the rain from my lungs when I drown, but that person won’t exist in the way I expect. They will need me to return the favor.

I think I get it now. No matter how hard I try to tread water as the floods overtake me, I will always need a little help.

Header photo © Christine Owens.

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