…Without going into much details and too many questions, she said, “Find a quiet place, sit down and cry it out as hard as you can. Let’s start from there. Call me much later and let me know how you feel”. My wife is a psychotherapist and she understood instantly what I was facing and perhaps how to handle it. I went far away from our operating area to a wide open sand doom. There I cried…
Lately, stories of suicide, especially among young men, have occupied the news media and it is beginning to sound like an everyday story. But nothing can make the abrupt and violent taking of one’s own life ordinary. I have been in the forefront of circumstance, where close colleagues took their own lives in record numbers. There are so many triggers that activate thoughts of suicide or the act itself, but I am not an expert to tell what they are.
A few years ago, I went on a 12-month deployment to war torn Afghanistan, where my battalion was assigned the lead unit and sent into the birthplace of the Taliban – a small town called, Zhari District. Within the first month of our arrival, I saw first-hand what it means to stare death in the face. It came to a point when I told my wife not to expect my return because it was almost clear I might not make it back because of how quickly situations were turning deadly. Of course before we left, we had our living wills prepared by military attorneys, which is a standard practice in the U.S. military. It was to the finest details as to include the type of cloths we would like to be dressed in and the type of music to be played at our funerals, just in case. That’s how real it was.
I was the one who confirmed the identities of our fallen comrades, since I was the battalion Adjutant (Personnel Management Director). This was to ensure they are properly accounted for and tagged for repatriation back to the U.S. After seeing so many mangled bodies of my friends and comrades, for the first four months, my head went almost numb. But I played the tough guy because I was trained to be so. I had also been taught as an African man not to cry, especially in front of my subordinates. So I held it all inside.
The assurance that as a Captain back then, I was advised by my wife to cry and it was okay made a whole lot of difference. I felt better and began to notice that my white colleagues did not have any problem crying whenever our unit lost someone they were close to.
It got to a point one gloomy and dusty day. I had been completely overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness and physically burnt out. In a combat environment, sleep is usually something one does not care too much about, since the possibility of going to sleep forever is just a matter of a blast or a bullet shot away. So the compounded lack of sleep, the physical fatigue and the emotional drain all come together to turn a person into a shadow of his old self.
Afghanistan is made up of mountains and deserts. It is the only country with half an hour difference with the rest of the world across time zones. For instance when it is 12 noon in Nigeria, it is 3:30 PM in Kabul, Afghanistan. The weather could switch between blazing hot and bone chilling cold within minutes. It is a place where dust winds meet the sky and it is blinding – the reason Afghans wear bacha to cover their faces. Operating in such environment where you feel removed from modern civilisation could be daunting. But that was where we called home for one full year. The thought of the possibility that one might not make it out of that austere location alive was mentally draining. So it is easy to imagine how one could slip into an emotional roller coaster from time to time. Never ask a combat tested soldier: What can you do?
On this very day I had gotten enough taste and smell of burns and blasts. I could care less what happened next. So, I went down to a small shack we used as a chapel and prayed. Then I came out and called my wife. After speaking with her for a few minutes, she noticed I was putting up a front. My laugh was fake, and my responses were as mechanical and spotty as they could be. She paused and asked if I was okay. I summoned courage and said, “I am dying”. Without going into much details and too many questions, she said, “Find a quiet place, sit down and cry it out as hard as you can. Let’s start from there. Call me much later and let me know how you feel”. My wife is a psychotherapist and she understood instantly what I was facing and perhaps how to handle it. I went far away from our operating area to a wide open sand doom. There I cried as I remembered how far I had come, our three little children, my wife, as well as my ailing father who had told me that I would return to see him alive. The assurance that as a Captain back then, I was advised by my wife to cry and it was okay made a whole lot of difference. I felt better and began to notice that my white colleagues did not have any problem crying whenever our unit lost someone they were close to. Even our battalion commander was in on the emotional breakdown from time to time and we all saw that. I was able to get through the remaining months and returned home in one piece.
Sometimes, holding things in could be more dangerous than the actual situation or events that caused the pain. We all have someone we can talk to. Sometimes, it could be a family member or even a stranger. In extreme cases, one should seek professional help.
While at home on R&R, the military slang for Rest and Recuperation (leave), I went into the second phase of the pain, but this time I was recycling images of all the wounds and death I saw, the names of my fallen friends who had wives and children, the same ages as mine. I felt a heavy sense of guilt on why they died and the rest of us returned home to be with our loved ones. Then I started to nag and complain about every little thing. Even stuff that I would otherwise not even give a hoot about became big reasons to complain. Then sleepless nights became another issue, as it was enhanced by the upward steering at the ceiling all night and incessant headaches during the day. Once again, my wife noticed something was off and realised I needed a change of environment.
She advised that I take a trip to Nigeria and I did as she suggested. Upon arriving at home, I went straight to see my father who was down with a stroke. He sighted me and managed to get up from his bed and gave me the tightest hug he had never given me all my life. His speech was impaired, but he touched my feet, my chest and my head. To signify that God and our ancestors had done well to bring me home. They did not fail him as he had earlier proclaimed that I would return safely. We both were overwhelmed with emotions but held it in as usual. From that moment, almost everything that bothered me about the combat deployment slowly began to evaporate. My father passed away exactly one year after that and I was totally at peace that he saw me return.
A few takeaways from this: Sometimes, holding things in could be more dangerous than the actual situation or events that caused the pain. We all have someone we can talk to. Sometimes, it could be a family member or even a stranger. In extreme cases, one should seek professional help. As people become more Westernised and adopt various lifestyles, there are some cultural ideologies that can prove helpful in times of serious difficulties such as I faced. For me, it was seeing my father and having him bless me and say things to reaffirm that his blessings are with me. There is no toughness in dying. It’s okay for a man to cry. Be human and be safe.
Henry Okoroafor is a U.S. Army Major and writes from his duty station in Europe. Email: Onyearmy1@gmail.com
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...