Early each New Year’s Day I head for Lake Michigan with a handful of friends. We look for a quiet stretch of what, only six months earlier, was warm Chicago beach. Then we trudge through knee-deep snow in bathing suits and boots, fighting wind gusts and hangovers. Sooner or later, we arrive where the snowpack meets the shore and boot through a thick crust of lake ice, yelling and swearing as we dive into near-freezing water.
It took me a while to begin to understand why I do this every year, or for that matter why for the last decade since I left the military I’ve continued to inflict other types of pain on myself with such unnerving regularity. Most days, for instance, I lift weights at the gym to the point of crippling exhaustion. On summer nights, I sometimes swim out alone as far as I can through mats of hairy algae into the black water of Lake Michigan in search of what I can only describe as a feeling of falling.
A few years ago, I walked across the United States with 50 pounds on my back for the Pat Tillman Foundation in an obsessive attempt to rid myself of “my” war. On the weekends, I clean my house similarly obsessively. And it’s true, sometimes I drink too much.
In part, it seems, I’ve been in search of creative ways to frighten myself, apparently to relive the moments in the military I said I never wanted to go through again—or so a psychiatrist told me anyway. According to that doctor (and often I think I’d be the last to know), I’m desperately trying to recreate adrenalizing moments like the one when, as an Army Ranger, I jumped out of an airplane at night into an area I had never before seen, not sure if I was going to be shot at as I hit the ground. Or I’m trying to recreate the energy I felt leaping from a Blackhawk helicopter, night vision goggles on, and storming my way into some nameless Afghan family’s home, where I would proceed to throw a sandbag over someone’s head and lead him off to an American-controlled, Guantánamo-like prison in his own country.
This doctor says it’s common enough for my unconscious to want to relive the feeling of learning that my friend had just been blown up by a roadside bomb while on patrol at two in the morning, a time most normal people are sleeping. Somehow, at the oddest hours, my mind considers it perfectly appropriate to replay the times when rockets landed near my tent at night in a remote valley in Afghanistan. Or when I was arrested by the military after going AWOL as one of the first Army Rangers to try to say no to participation in George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror.”
I’m aware now, as I wasn’t some years back, that my post-war urge for limits-testing is not atypical of the home-front experiences of many who went to war in Afghanistan or Iraq in these years and, for some of them, judging by the soaring suicide rates among “Global War on Terror” vets, the urge has proven so much more extreme than mine. But more than a decade after leaving the army as a conscientious objector, I can at least finally own up to and testify to the eeriness of what we all brought home from America’s 21st-century wars, even those of us who weren’t physically maimed or torn up by them.