The Road Home

It’s an old adage among medics, that all bleeding stops. Eventually. I have to wonder now if that’s true. What if some wounds just keep bleeding? What if the thing that doesn’t kill us doesn’t actually make us stronger, but instead just gives us a dark sense of humor and really unhealthy coping mechanisms? Almost eight years home now, and I still feel like I’m hemorrhaging, only no one can see it but me. And it scares the shit out of me. Not because I’m afraid it’s going to kill me, but because I’m afraid it won’t.

Growing up, if you found me in front of the television, it was a safe bet I was watching M*A*S*H. I idolized the characters in that show and knew early on that I wanted to be a soldier. But not just any soldier; I wanted to be a medic, I wanted to save lives. The day I stood, raised my hand, and took my oath, that dream was realized, and I had become a soldier, and soon after that, a combat medic. I had never walked taller.

The Army came easy to me. I thrived on that fast-paced, adrenaline-driven environment, and even when I was being smoked, or chastised for being dumber than a box of rocks, I loved it. I was put in positions of leadership early on in my career, and I soaked up every chance to learn any new skill I could. I knew from the first day getting off that bus, with a yelling drill sergeant in my ear and his brown round in my face, that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I had found my calling. Little did I know, I couldn’t have been more wrong. My career, and my dream, would be short-lived.

My first duty station, Camp Casey, South Korea, felt more like home than anything I had ever known, and it was there that I blossomed as a junior soldier. I took every opportunity thrown my way to grow as a medic, because I wanted to be the best. I learned how to conduct medical operations, control mass casualties, carry out evacuations on the battlefield in mock battles. I was constantly pushing for more opportunities to learn. There was no class I didn’t want to take and no request for medical support that I wouldn’t volunteer for. I spent as much time in the field as possible, getting my hands dirty and loving every moment of it. I was on cloud nine. That was the best year of my life, and it flew by way too fast.

After the year came to an end, I was approached and told that it was time to reenlist. Without hesitation, I did it, knowing this was where I belonged: in uniform. That night, we went to a local bar off-post to celebrate. It was a group of people I knew and trusted. I felt comfortable letting my hair down and having a few drinks. So I did, and in that moment, sitting there drinking soju kettles with my battles, my fellow soldiers, my friends, laughing and feeling 10 feet tall, I knew true happiness like never before. I was on top of the world, and nothing was bringing me down. And then the world went dark.

The author sits on her back porch, drinking a beer and staring at the lake, 2019. Photo courtesy of Nicole Johnson

I still don’t know what happened or how long I was out. I woke up in an unfamiliar room, dark but for a small, dingy yellow light in the corner. But though the room was unfamiliar, the face above mine was one I knew all too well. It was one of my NCOs, a man I considered a friend. I was powerless to move. I couldn’t struggle, and I couldn’t scream. I blacked out again, only to come to once more, finding him on top of me. I knew I was being raped, but I couldn’t fight back. Abject terror and anger filled me, but I was helpless. I am still not sure how long this lasted, but it felt like forever, me going in and out of consciousness. Sometimes, when I would briefly regain consciousness, he would be assaulting me; other times he would be sitting watching TV, or playing on his phone. I couldn’t move. I noticed at some point my hands were tied above my head, and I would start to cry, only to have the world go dark again.

I don’t know how I got back to my room. I don’t know how I got past the guard, but I woke up in my shower, lying on the cold tile, shivering and feeling more hungover than I ever thought possible. I stumbled to my room, disoriented, not able to process what I was feeling or thinking. I put on my uniform and went down to formation. Everything was foggy, and I can’t remember anything about that day, or what happened. I just floated through it.

The next couple of weeks went by with me in something of a fugue state. Maybe it was shock, I don’t know. I just know I felt numb all the time, except when I was angry and battling the self-loathing that had settled over me. That only lifted when I would see him. I would pass him in the hall, or see him in formation, or the motor pool, or training. He was everywhere. I couldn’t bring myself to face him, so I would run, avoid, evade, escape, anything I could to not have to look at him. The worst part was, he tried to act like nothing had happened. He would smile at me, and I would scream inside. I really started drinking then. And I’m not talking just socially either. I am talking going and getting a bottle of liquor, going to my room, and trying to finish it as fast as I could. I was on a downhill slide, and I knew I was, but I couldn’t stop it.

I finally transferred to another duty station, this time Hawaii, a unit that was deploying to Afghanistan for 15 months, and I welcomed the move. I thought that being over there could distract me from my pain, and I was glad to be putting Korea behind me. Only, I wasn’t. Little did I realize, I was packing what had happened to me into my suitcase, with all my other knick knacks that I had packed with such care, and taking it with me. My dirty little secret. My destruction. I wish I could have left it there, that I had unpacked it before it destroyed me. Hindsight is a bitch.

The way I looked at deploying was that I was already dead inside, so what did actual death matter? Looking back, I think I was hoping I would die. I wanted to go to war. I wanted to die on the battlefield, doing what I loved. I couldn’t imagine anything else. But I didn’t die in war, on the battlefield, a hero. I instead turned into a monster. Anger was the only emotion I could feel anymore. I walked around in a daze most of the time, thinking about my next drink.

War didn’t fuck me up, no. What fucked me up was the betrayal; first by someone I trusted, and then by the Army itself. War I was prepared for. Not the other stuff. The things nobody tells you about. The drinking continued to worsen, and I was stuck in garrison. All I had was idle time on my hands, so I filled my days with the only thing that made me feel anything anymore. Liquor. I was not at all subtle with it, not caring who saw. I started getting into fights, drinking and driving, not going to work, or just showing up drunk. I even punched the chaplain’s assistant, who was a very good friend of mine. At one point, I attempted suicide for the first time, alone in my room, by swallowing a bottle of sedatives and washing them down with a bottle of Captain Morgan. I don’t remember much, but I hazily recall one of my NCOs hovering over me at one point, taking my vitals and talking to another medic I worked with. I couldn’t speak, but I wanted to tell him he better not save my life. I blacked out, and I came to as I was being taken out on a stretcher.

The first of many medications the VA tried to put the author on, sending her down a dark road, 2012-2013. Photo courtesy of Nicole Johnson

I spent three days in a local hospital in the psych ward, then it was back to business as usual. My command didn’t seem much interested in helping me; my first sergeant saw a bullseye on my back and made my life hell for being what he thought was a shitbag; and inside I felt broken, and completely lost. I was screaming for help, but that didn’t matter. I was a blight on the unit, and that would not be tolerated. I was done.

Confession time: I am a veteran with bad papers. I was discharged under other than honorable conditions. I felt like I had handed the Army my entire career on a silver platter. But truly, I didn’t give up on the Army: The Army gave up on me. I was drowning, and when I was unable to save myself, nobody tried to save me. I had never reported my rape, for many reasons, and keeping quiet seemed easier than going public. I was humiliated by what had happened, I couldn’t possibly tell anyone. But the guilt of that decision still weighs on me, especially when I later learned he had raped before. If I had gone forward, I might have saved someone else from being a victim. Everything piled up until I felt like I couldn’t recover. I felt like this hollow, broken thing, full of rage and sadness. The loneliest, most heartbreaking moment of my life was the day I stood before my commander and first sergeant, with my platoon sergeant and several others present, being told I was done being a soldier. I was out of the Army, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. In that room full of people, I was utterly alone.

After leaving the Army, I felt disgraced, angry, ashamed, angry again. I kept drinking, trying to drown the demons in my head, but they soon learned how to swim. I went through job after job, relationship after relationship, doing my best to burn the world around me down, until it was nothing but ashes. I continued the attempts to take my own life, several times, in several ways. The VA was no help, throwing drugs at a problem that drugs can’t fix. I was the walking dead, I was a shell of my former self. I was lost.

On the dock with a cold beer at sunset, 2019. Photo courtesy of Nicole Johnson

It’s been eight years since I left the Army. I have worked odd jobs here and there, but nothing ever sticks. I have found myself on the wrong end of the law more than once, though luckily, for the most part, the officers involved have been kind and understanding. It is a miracle I am not dead, or in jail, honestly. Though most days, I wish I were dead, even now. Much of my time is spent in isolation, at my lakeside cabin, drinking the hours away, until unconsciousness takes me. Then I get up, rinse, and repeat. It is the living hell that has become my life. I think about the Army every day. I miss it, I crave it. I lament a career I will never know, and I struggle to see a future that makes sense for me. I don’t know where I will go, or what I will do with myself now, but I feel like I can’t quit. I guess that’s still the Army in me.

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Nicole Johnson

Nicole Johnson was born and raised in Texas. She served as an Army medic in South Korea and Afghanistan, and owned her own business focusing on point of injury care in the civilian environment. In her downtime, you can find her by the lake sitting in her Adirondack chair with a cold beer in her hand.

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