By Brandon Willitts
Two years ago, I ran into a veteran buddy I hadn't seen in years. He was an Army officer who had just finished his final tour in Afghanistan and was preparing for life after the Army. He commented that, after his own tour, it seemed to him like I had been over there so early on in the war. I jokingly told him that, when I first deployed in 2004, I worried that I nearly missed the war entirely.
He told me a few stories about his deployment, and I listened carefully for the Afghanistan I also remembered. I listened for something that might somehow take me back over there again, maybe collapse the space between the Afghanistan he saw so recently and the one I remembered so distantly. The edges of my own memories of that country seemed to rebuild themselves as soon as he talked of the mountains.
My mind drifted to a day that I watched the flag-draped coffin of a fallen solider being loaded into the belly of a C-130. I stood in an empty space along the Kandahar flight line, where I watched the plane taxi down the runway and then lift off into a clear morning sky. Once the plane disappeared over the mountains, the pain of that fallen soldier's sacrifice felt heavy and moored within me, like my sadness had been knotted to an anchor line and thrown over the side.
In the years after I came home, I found myself replaying that moment in my mind: a silent flight line shadowed by distant mountains. The rugged peaks stood like sentries along the horizon, making everything seem tiny and insignificant set against them.
Amidst all the chaos that surrounded me over there, the mountains always seemed to be holding the war in place, as though they alone kept the worst of the war from crashing down on top of me. I held tightly to the belief that, no matter how far I traveled from that flight line, those mountains could always protect me and prevent any part of the war from falling on me. But the sky eventually fell, and I lost two good friends after I left Afghanistan.
I once heard someone describe depression as the act of holding too tightly to the past, and anxiety as the act of holding too tightly to the future. Nothing about the war or the death of friends has ever been easy for me. But I write it all down anyway.
Often, after I have written it all down, some of it feels a little less difficult than it once did. And that is enough for me.
About the author: Brandon Willitts is the Executive Director and Co-founder of Words After War. Brandon enlisted in the U.S. Navy as an intelligence specialist shortly after 9/11. He was first assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. In addition to his nonprofit work, Brandon is a director on the military and veteran affairs team at First Data. He was recently selected by the Center for a New American Security as a 2015 Next Generation National Security Leader. He holds a B.A. in literature and writing from Marlboro College.
Words After War is a literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.