Every Word a Choice

by Eddie Dzialo


When I got out of the Marines, I couldn’t make decisions. Even making a sandwich was too difficult. I’d become overwhelmed with the choice of meat or bread. I was conditioned to map out the consequences of each action and to fear the repercussions. Frozen with an inability to choose, I spent the better part of a year locked in my studio apartment.

When I was deployed, I was always deciding. In the summer of 2009, I was in southern Afghanistan, in charge of a platoon of Marines and forty-something Afghan National Border Patrolmen. We lived in a small outpost surrounded by mesh containers filled with sand and rocks, designed to keep out shrapnel, mortar rounds, bullets, and cars weighted down with explosives being driven by suicidal zealots. I spent most of my time studying maps, trying not to let anyone see how scared I was. Though our unit had taken casualties, as the platoon commander, I was more worried about the consequences of my decisions and the impact they’d have on other people than I was about facing my own death. During a patrol, if I picked the wrong route at the wrong time, someone’s kid, father, or brother could walk over an Improvised Explosive Device or enter into an ambush, unknowingly. Keeping other people alive required an unknown ratio of skill and luck, and I still avoid thinking about which one I had more of.   

Each day was a challenge. On our first patrol, as we walked through the streets, people shot mortars and rockets at us before opening up with machine guns. Afghan soldiers threw their weapons in the streets and hid in a ditch. Later that night, as we moved through a wheat field, we got caught in a coordinated ambush and shot our way out. Though part of me feels like I don’t deserve it, I was given a medal for what occurred after we were attacked. When I look at the framed medal that hangs on the wall at my parent’s house in Cape Cod, I think: Skill or luck?

On another day, I was ordered to call in an air strike on a person who had supposedly killed a Marine the previous week. An intelligence report said he was standing on a bridge, alone. My hand shook as I sat on top of a Light Armored Vehicle, tracing out the blast radiuses of various ordinances, ensuring that they wouldn’t land too close to our position, using nothing more than a marker and a laminated map. I focused on numbers and grid coordinates rather than that I was about to kill someone. As the person on the ground, if I radioed the helicopter pilot and said, “Cleared Hot,” then I was legally responsible for everything his fired rocket did and who it did it to.

Ok, this next part has never left me: Right before I was going to say, “Cleared Hot,” I cancelled the whole thing by saying “Abort” on the radio three distinct times. Though there might have been an obvious reason at the time, now I can’t remember why I did that. But as the pilot flew over the intended target, never firing a round, he called back and said that there had been a child on the bridge.

It took writing to get me out of my studio apartment and to teach me how to make decisions again. Every sentence is a decision. You don’t need an idea to write a story, a novel, even a blog post; you need hundreds of ideas. And with each new idea comes a choice. I can wonder what this draft would look like had I made other choices, agonize over each word omitted, but I am able to choose again. One word at a time, I am able to accept my choices.