Phantom Pain

Phantom pain is the sensation in amputees of pain in a missing limb. About eighty percent of amputees will experience phantom pain at some point in their lives.

A buddy who I haven’t talked to in years got both his legs blown off by an IED. He had already discharged out of the Corps. Contract expired.

End of Active Service.

. . . But the Corps pulled him back after we invaded Iraq. He had a “critical MOS”. Military Occupational Specialty. Not many people knew back before we were fighting two wars at once, but when you enlist in any of the services – regardless of the term of years on your contract – the fine print says eight years.

It never used to matter.

Dude was a no-shitter. He was my assistant team leader for almost a year. Good guy. Top notch. Real fucking tough. He got out to raise a family. Cute wife. Cute kids.

He got called back up and was riding in the gun turret of a Humvee in some armpit of Islam when they hit an IED. All four of the guys in the truck below evaporated.

My guy only lost both of his legs, and mercilessly survived. He’s walking around on some carbon fiber prosthetics, last I heard.

Fuck. I can’t even remember his name. I am some kind of an asshole.

Irony is that if he’d stayed in he would have been on my team instead of in that truck, and everybody on my team walked out with all our parts. It was his getting out that cost him his legs.

Old timers look at our war and say it’s nothing. I don’t take it personally. I used to get beers at the VFW while I hit the books during school, and these fucking octogenarians would tell me “We lost five thousand men in a day!”

Yeah, I get it. You’re the greatest fucking generation. You also had shit for battlefield medicine and two weeks of basic training before they gave you a rifle you’d never fired and threw you by the thousand against fortified targets.

I’d bet more than ninety percent of those fuckers died what today would be completely preventable deaths. Now they can keep you alive when there’s not a lot of bad reasons a guy might have for wanting to die.

Such will be the hallmark of our war. Not the dead, but the maimed. The disfigured.

Some of those guys we should have let die, but goddamn science and the miracle of logistics is a bitch. They’d fly these fuckers back to Ramstein and sew their pieces back on before the sun came up.

Graft some part of your ass to what’s left of your face and put you in a room with no mirrors. They don’t have advanced directives in the military.

You can’t have your dog tags stamped DNR and hope they just let you bleed out.

I’ve still got all my parts, so I wouldn’t know anything about phantom pain. But I can appreciate the idea of feeling something that isn’t there.

Specifically my rifle.

There aren’t a lot of places you go in Iraq without your rifle. You sleep with it. Eat with it. Look at porn with it. Take a shit in the port-a-shitter with it.

They actually stopped letting people take their weapons to the port-a-shitters for a while after a few Marines killed themselves on the commode. It was like three in two weeks.

They all went to the shitters and put a bullet in their heads.

I can think of a lot better places to die than sitting on a shitter in Iraq, but I guess it was the only place those guys could get a little privacy.

The Marines have the “Rifleman’s Creed” that most people have heard at some point.

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life.

Blah, blah, fucking blah.

But that’s really what it was like. That rifle became an appendage. It really was your life. You were never separated, and out there that makes sense.

When you walk around cradling an instrument of death in your arms every day for that long, you look at the world differently. You start dividing people into those you might have to shoot, and those you don’t.

When you’re on foot patrol the buttstock of the weapon is pulled into your shoulder. Your finger lies straight across the trigger guard. It takes less than a second to draw down and fire when you need to.

When I drove the Humvee, I’d rest my rifle across my chest with my arm in the open window and the barrel of my rifle resting in the crook of my elbow and pointing outside so I could steer with my left and shoot with my right.

We didn’t have those late-model bulletproof Humvees. Ours were the canvas soft-skin ones everybody back stateside was getting bent out of shape about

You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.

They had plastic zip-up windows. Fuck it.

That all seems like a long time ago now. The truth is that, from time to time, and more often than I’d like to admit, I’ve still felt that rifle tucked into my shoulder when I’m walking down Main Street, USA.

Of course it isn’t there. I’ve had to consciously make an effort to keep my hands from cradling empty air so people don’t look at me like a fruitcake. I’ve felt my rifle resting in the crook of my arm as I drive down the interstate. And there have been many, many times when I have been painfully aware of its absence.

I was at group therapy and thought I’d ask if anyone else had ever felt like they were still carrying around their M-16. Every swinging dick in the room nodded.