Bradley Beau Holland
ON SEPTEMBER 20, 2008 at approximately 12:04am I pressed the button on my wrist watch to light it up. I said into the microphone of the headset that allowed me to talk with the rest of the people in the armored vehicle, “Hey, I’m twenty-one years old now.” Congratulatory voices bounced between the speakers that were snug to my ears sounding both near and far. Less than two minutes later there was an explosion.
Feeling down or resistant to activities a person typically enjoys is a natural mood that may stem from something like the loss of a loved one, an ailment, or as a reaction to a tragic event. In the military, especially combat arms, even more so during combat, an individual feeling low, or even that dirty word depressed, is told to pick themselves up. To move. To get motivated. Sometimes motivation is provided. A first line leader may be acting out against their own emotions; they take it out on their subordinate that’s feeling the same things. Push-ups, sprints, holding a five-gallon jug of water over one’s head as they run in place are some of the tools used to raise morale. Shouting roger as the leader providing motivation asks questions, “Are you going to fix yourself?”, “You are a trained killing machine,” “You love this shit.” There’s no time for feeling down. There is no time to waste on trivial emotions.
Neural pathways build like muscles. They must be exercised, broken down, and retrained.
On the night of January 16, 2001 just before midnight, I was in my room at my maternal grandparent’s house. The television was on, but the volume was inaudible; it was mostly there for the ambient light. I was lying in bed playing Pokémon. The phone on my bedside table rang. I answered it as quickly as possible hoping it didn’t wake my grandmother. I didn’t recognize the woman’s voice on the other end of the line. She said, “There is a State Trooper standing at your front door.”
Neurologists have studied extensively the profound and widespread effect of negative personal effects and their impact on broad facets of brain function.
My mother was visiting her fiancé who lived on the opposite side of the state. It was nothing out of the ordinary. In the five years that my parents had been split up my mother, sister, and I never had a stable living situation. First, we lived in the house of one of my mother’s friends whose husband was a trucker. They were always gone, and my mother became a sort of live-in nanny. My sister shared a room with one of the girls that lived in the house. My mother and I slept in the living room. From there we moved to Mobile, Alabama with my godmother. The backyard of the house we shared with her met the fence of the playground of an orphanage. After Mobile we split our time living with my great-grandmother and grandmother. For a short while we had our own house. It was small, and the neighbor next door hunted cats. After that we moved in with our cousin in Bolivar, Tennessee an hour away. Far from any major city, the adults, blue-collar workers, sat outside drinking almost every night. The Bolivar experiment, like all the others, failed. We moved back in living between my great-grandmother and grandmother for the third time. This time, I told my grandmother that I refused to leave again.
A psychologist I saw during one of my worst bouts of insomnia told me that when sometimes individuals experience extreme grief during puberty it can alter the brain permanently. She explained, the pathways between regions of the brain that control emotions, memories, and perception have yet to fully develop and are not prepared for chemicals that are created and emitted during traumatic events.
On my twenty-first birthday I was serving in a team that had been hand selected to test a proto-type non-lethal weapons platform called the Guardian in actual combat operations. In my mother unit we jokingly called ourselves the Gypsy Company. Upon arriving in Baghdad, we were sent to work for a larger unit separate from ours. They put us in shoddy tents and we lived out of our bags. Our orders were to be the Quick Reactionary Force of all east-central Iraq. That meant we were always on call to be anywhere between Baghdad and Iran within a two-hundred-and-fifty-mile radius within six hours. From Baghdad we moved closer and closer to Iran. We slept in shipping containers, in the homes of Iraqis, in Iraq police stations, a lot of times in our vehicles. Members of the Guardian team got to move into a bunker with private rooms. We were attached to a Civil Affairs and Psychological Warfare platoon. We were the only combat arms soldiers, so our primary functions were to act as tactical advisors and security. In the Infantry there’s a bit of a superstition that you shouldn’t go on patrol when it’s your birthday. It’s bad juju. And the curse came true for me. Our convoy was hit with an Improvised Explosive device.
When an explosion happens the deadliest part of it is not the shrapnel. It’s the shockwave. The wave of energy can penetrate Kevlar and even concrete. The rapid compression and expansion of the wave can kill or even leave the subtlest damages that take years to yield its affects.
I hung up on the mystery lady and ran out of my room to the front door before the officer could knock on the door. When I opened the heavy walnut door he was standing square, towering over me. He asked me to get my grandparents. After I woke my grandmother I ran to my bedroom and hid under my covers. I thought I was in trouble. Earlier that week my friends and I were smoking marijuana in a skatepark and ran from the police. I knew that somehow, they’d tracked me down. I wish that had been the case.
Neural pathways build through repetition. Like electrical pulses firing across muscle tissue. They knew their way because others have been there. But, when the trail hasn’t been cleared or a road paved a way must be found. Like dirt trails in grass from a dog running in the same circle. The flooding chemicals in a developing brain can alter the internal structure.
Through the protection of the blanket I heard my grandfather’s thunderous voice call for me to come into the living room. He told me to sit down but I refused to. Maybe I should have. The words that came from his mouth failed to register the first time, and I hesitated to ask him to repeat them. My mother was dead.
Bradley Beau Holland is a native Memphian and U.S. Army veteran. He is an MFA candidate at the University of Memphis. When Beau isn’t reading, writing, or researching he’s cooking up a new dish or playing fetch with his pups Scully and Daisy.