I’m about to do something that I’ve never really done. I’ve gone through a lot over the past few years, and this will be the first time I shed light on my experiences and emotions publicly. This is a big step for me, one that I hope will help ease the painful emotions I’ve been experiencing lately. Although I do not enjoy writing about my experiences, recent events have led me back to my most coveted therapy: releasing the tension of emotion through writing.
Death seems to be a brother to me. He is an observer, distancing himself until a vital opportunity arises in which he can whisper into my ear through the darkness. He encompasses all personal characteristics which I find adverse and undesirable. Many nights I spend contemplating how we are related and why we always seem to greet each other at the most unexpected of times. I’ve grown accustomed to our visits… It has become almost a routine; the grouping of surreal appointments as though we are simply “checking-in” to a prior arrangement. Brother death has walked alongside me for my entire life, however he has wildly craved to reconnect more and more in the past four years than ever before.
Some years ago, five to be exact, my brother became a prominent portion of my life. At the time of my grandfather’s illness, he unexpectedly wandered into our family’s doors in my grandfather’s house in Missouri. He clutched George in his embrace, the last hug he would receive while I was in his company. It was unfair – a man of his stature, a WWII veteran, the man who taught me the importance of being the eldest sibling and taking responsibility to become a role model and mentor for all – snatched away from my life by my brother. This is the man who I aspired to be and who taught me how to live life abundantly – gone overnight. There was justification, as others saw it. He was getting old; his health had been deteriorating for years, and plethora of other false justifications. I never thought my brother would be able to persuade the person I thought was the strongest, most determined, caring man in the world to walk away and leave with him. It was shocking.
In the next year after my grandfather’s death, I witnessed my brother’s reemergence while at basic training with the Army. Prior to his arrival, I had become the best of friends with some soldiers in my training unit. One soldier that I had befriended was Rene “Archie” Arciniega, from Sasche, Texas. Another was Darrion Hicks, but Hicks was in 2nd platoon and I did not get to see him as often as Archie. Archie, like myself, was attending college and was also enrolled in ROTC. We hit it off and always seemed to chat 15 minutes before lights-out in the barracks. Midway through training, with only a month to go until graduation, we were training ‘in the field’. We were lying in foxholes dug out with our entrenching tools in a makeshift tent called a “hooch”. During this time, Archie got a mild case of poison ivy, given that we were lying in the forest for those training days. Upon returning to camp, Archie was given prescription meds to help fight the ivy rashes. He was not excused from PT (physical training), however. During our off day on Sunday, we each got haircuts. He said he’d pay for mine since I had been helping him with his 2 mile run time. We each got clean cut, ‘high and tights’.
On the morning of July 30th, 2010 – the day of Archie’s 19th birthday – My ever observant brother abruptly took my friend. We were on our usual 7 mile PT run in the morning. With less than a mile to go, I saw someone stumble and fall a few hundred feet in front of me. Immediately, I knew something was wrong as the 1st Sergeant was screaming for a medic on the trail. As I gradually got closer to the fallen soldier, I noticed the face of my friend. Archie lay on the side of a gravely trail, ghostly pale, and eyes glossed, surrounded by drill sergeants and the 1st sergeant - with an army medic beating on his chest to restart his heart. I was at the back of my running line and slowly came to a stop a few feet from Archie, to gaze upon my friend in horror. He was lifeless. I still remember the stillness the frigid morning air brought to that terrible moment – it was although time had slowed until it stopped. As I stared onward, a drill sergeant shoved me forward and screamed at me to complete the run and return to the barracks. It was only until I arrived at the barracks and showered that I heard fateful words that will always echo in my memories. “Charlie Company,” our company commander said softly “we lost a Cobra today. I am sorry”. And like that, Archie was gone – following my brother down a darkening path. It wasn’t until his funeral and memorial that reality struck me like lightning. He was gone. A son, a scholar, and a young man – unfairly taken from this world.
In the next months following my return home from training, I was informed that Hicks was killed in action in Afghanistan by an IED blast. He was serving with a Sapper company clearing IED’s from routes frequently used near camp. Another wave of emotions roared over me. I remembered our conversations together, mostly about basketball and football, and how he wanted to attend college in Alabama after serving in the Army. He, too, was taken too early. During this time I was in my sophomore year of college at the University of Wyoming. I was attending monthly drills with the Wyoming National Guardin Rock Springs. After every outing to drill, I would see my friends in the Army uniforms and digress into an internal emotional turmoil. I saw Archie and Darrion in each uniform…Needless to say; I was not very healthy in terms of my mental state.
This time in my life is one that is hard to talk about. It embarrasses me, exploits my weaknesses, and is something I am not proud of. However, through therapy, study, and counseling, I have learned that it is necessary to expose weaknesses in order to heal. Everyone has weaknesses – even if they are not willing to admit it; a proverb that I didn’t understand during these times in my life. Accordingly, I fell into a spiral of depression. During my sophomore and junior years, ages 19-21, I was living an unhealthy life. I was unable to sleep correctly (still having problems), abused prescription drugs like vicodin and codeine in order to sleep, and worked out non-stop to suppress negative feelings. I had lost 15 pounds and was at a staggering 155lbs – the lowest amount I’ve ever weighed. Suicide and death were creeping into my life, becoming ever more prominent each day. I was on my brother’s path; going where I did not desire.
With a stroke of unfortunate chance, I got the help I needed. During AT (annual training), I experienced harsh anxiety attacks during a company PT run. A soldier fell out and stumbled on the running trail – just like that my body and mind went into a somersault of emotions. I stopped immediately - becoming dizzy and lightheaded, as well as short of breath. My problem was brought to my company commander’s attention and I was immediately removed from training. In the months following my episode, I was ordered to see a private therapist that would be paid for by the Army. During these sessions, I learned a lot about myself and how to cope with my current problems. After 6 months of weekly therapy, I was advised that I would be better off away from the stressful environment that the Army provided. I was honorably discharged on February 8, 2013.
Therapy was the greatest choice I ever made. It allowed me to heal wounds that could not be seen.
Brother death, he’s followed me through these years. He greets me uninvited. I’ve learned to cope with his presence; how to manage my days. Yet each time he arrives unexpectedly, it hurts more than anything. It is the pain of memory that sears into me. It is the stinging sadness in the realization that brother death will never leave me. He will visit my family and friends, regardless of my resistance, until one day he comes to meet me.
Rest easy, fallen friends.