by Eddie Dzialo
During my deployment to Afghanistan, I carried an M4 rifle and a 9mm Berretta pistol should I need to use on myself. Due to the dust and sandstorms, cleaning our weapons was a daily ritual. I changed clothes less than once a week and showered every other month. Each time I cleaned my pistol, I was reminded of what it was for. I’d take it apart, line it with lubricant, coat it with my issued brush to ensure that it was reliably crisp. I became so comfortable with the weapon that I could pull the slide back and catch the ejected bullet with my hand.
Each time I had to clean the pistol, my 9mm Beretta, I was reminded of what it was for. Because it is only effective inside of 50 meters, it’s a last-resort weapon. With all the machine guns and mortars we carried, there would be little use in it. One step below pistol is a bayonet, and then it’s fists.
Prior to deploying, the officers routinely stayed late and met in the boardroom. We listened to intelligence reports, went over tactical scenarios, and drank beers. Before one of the meetings began, people sat around the table and talked. No one looked unhappy or worried. Though I can’t remember what prompted it, my superior said that if anyone felt like they were about to be captured during our deployment, then we should do the right thing and eat a bullet. The comment was made casually, but it was sincere and loud enough for the whole room to hear. If captured, we would be killed, likely beheaded. The act would be recorded and disseminated on the internet. The people we left behind would have to live knowing that our final moments were being permanently broadcast. Killing ourselves was an act of kindness, a selfless way of protecting our families.
When I deployed, I became suicidal without wanting to be. I’d believed what I’d been told. Sometimes I fought back by not cleaning my pistol, allowing the powdery dust to build up around the barrel and trigger guard. Maybe it would jam. At some point, I stopped fighting. I even worried about the scenarios where I wouldn’t be able to get to my pistol. What if I was in an explosion and someone grabbed me when I was unconscious, or that I was so badly injured that I wouldn’t be able to physically do it? I even knew how to chamber a round if one of my arms was broken or missing.
People become reckless after surviving a deployment because there’s a certain hint of invincibility that comes with it. But I returned home feeling fragile. The myth of immortality gets disproven when someone you know gets killed overseas.
Our unit returned home, and we were obligated to attend classes intended to help us reintegrate back into our old lives. The Marine who gave one of the classes talked about the increased risk of suicide and the mental steps that someone undergoes prior to it. First someone has the idea and then there’s an intent to carry out the act. During that class, I realized that I had done both. Though I wasn’t suicidal then, and I am not now, not only had I risked my life, I had grown comfortable with taking it.
Eddie Dzialo is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.