It is remarkable how fragile one’s walls are. They can stand for millennia and then shatter with the fall of the proverbial pebble. That is what happens to us, or at least, to me: The “ambulatory”; the “non-surgical”; the walking wounded.
Death of an Empire
In 408 AD one of the greatest building projects of Late Antiquity began on a small spit of land that stuck out into the narrow waters of the Bosphorus; it was the last outpost of European soil before the land rose from the sea a few thousand yards to the east and spread out into the great Anatolian plains – what we now call Turkey. Upon the project’s completion, The Walls of Theodosius were a three-tiered defensive system of dikes, trapped pits, moats, and finally, two massive walls, the first 20 feet high and 6 feet thick, the second 40 feet high and 18 feet thick. The largest moat was 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep, which is about three times deeper than an average swimming pool and twice as wide.
For over a thousand years this mighty bulwark protected Constantinople, the “Queen of All Cities”, from terrible sieges and threats from the greatest armies the medieval world could produce.
At the height of their power in the 7th and 8th centuries, the armies of Islam besieged Constantinople twice. Attila the Hun saw the walls and gave them a pass. The Bulgarians broke countless armies on the massive fortifications over the years. Pechenegs, Seljuks – even fellow Romans – tried and failed to breach the walls. The one time the city was breached, when it was sacked in 1204 by Christian crusaders, it was the port seawalls that fell, not the seemingly eternal edifice that faced westward, towards the setting sun.
History marched on. Across the years a new force rose in the east, more powerful than before and eager to snatch the brightest jewel of Christendom from the weakening grasp of its decadent rulers. On the 29th of May 1453 the cannons of Sultan Mehmed II achieved after 6 weeks of siege what no other army had accomplished in a millennium: both land walls were breached.
The moats and pits were bridged and filled in. For a day and a half Mehmed flung his Janissaries, his crack troops, into the breach against the desperate defenders. The mighty city that had once boasted over a million inhabitants now mustered a skeleton force of less than 7,000 men; but their defense had been so stoic that the Sultan’s 100,000 troops could do little more than throw themselves at the small gap in the ancient fortifications, where a wall of men had replaced the shattered stones.
Then one unlucky arrow, or sword stroke, felled the Genoese commander of the wall defense, Giovanni Giustianni. A single pebble in a wall of men. In the panic caused by his loss, the Janissaries overwhelmed the remaining defenders of the Theodosian Walls. The last emperor of the Byzantine Roman Empire, Constantine the XI, wearing a soldier’s uniform and only purple boots with the imperial eagles emblazoned on them to distinguish him as royalty, threw himself into the melee and died with his men.
For a thousand years the walls had stood. In a moment they were gone.
Death of Innocence
I came back from the war and began to build walls.
Returning to the realm of college, restaurants, and supermarkets forced me to fortify my psyche against the world one way or another, because other people simply aren’t my strong suit anymore. When I go shopping with my wife and kids, I can’t just go up and down the aisles with everyone else, smiling mindlessly at strangers and picking up cereal and diapers. What do I do?
I patrol the goddamn store before I do anything else.
I take my oldest daughter and an extra shopping cart and do a sweep of the entire store looking for anything out of the ordinary. At first it was paranoia, residue from two
deployments, 14 months spent as a turret gunner straining every nerve knowing that missing the tiniest detail might mean life or death for four or five other guys. Now it’s a habit. I do it because it makes me feel normal. Safe. It keeps me and mine separate from everyone else. My family, even though they don’t know it, are my gun-team, my “vic” now.
There are the walls of anger – the walls of pain that you build thinking no one can ever understand what you have gone through. The cruelest, unkindest wound ever received in this war is when we leave the Corps and find ourselves adrift, alone, and suddenly without the friends that have quite literally kept you alive for four years. For many it is fatal. Last month a veteran who attended college with me here blew his brains out all over the parade deck at his monthly reserve muster.
Facing the Trauma
Then there are the far stronger walls, the ones that you begin to build when you stop running from what happened to you and around you. They say PTSD is reliving trauma over and over again. But the only way to live with PTSD is to face that trauma head on. The fight is not over. The moment my terror, my anger, my rage subsided was the moment I turned to face my memories. And made myself relive them over and over and over again. And it wasn’t the well intentioned idiots at the VA or the hollow eyes I saw in the mirror or even the increasingly distant look on my wife’s face that finally made me see it.
It was the smile on my daughter’s face when I came home from school. A smile I knew I didn’t deserve.
Men in the Breach
I see them all, the Voodoo boys. Luke, Eric, Ryan, Phillip. I have to recall them now, because it is the only way to keep the walls standing. They are the stones of those walls, the men standing in the breach against the countless, faceless screaming hordes of nightmares. I know – because it has happened – that if I let myself feel sorry for myself, if I let myself slide back into self-gratification and blind rage, those faces, those men in the breach will slip away and fall, and the enemy will come storming in.
(This post was written by Chris Lyon, one of my machine gunners in Kilo 3/2. Chris did two tours in Iraq before returning home to earn a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin – Steven’s Point. This fall, Chris begins a Master’s program in Medieval History at Marquette University.)