“Look at me, you can do this. Just lower yourself into an L-shape and walk down. You have someone belaying down below so you won’t fall. I promise you that you won’t fall. Now calm down and just lower yourself. Look me in the eyes.”
I could see my tears in the reflection of the instructor’s sunglasses. There were no eyes to focus on, no human to stare back at me to understand what I was going through, only the reflection of my own fear. There was no calming me down. This was worse than death. This was my weakness given a pedestal, a culmination of an adolescence spent hiding. I was crying, I was begging for this to be over. I was brought back to the wars of my childhood, the times I would cry in class for a disappointing grade or an embarrassing situation. I had managed to fight the tears for a good five years, but they opened fire upon my face and left their grisly stains all down my cheeks. I was losing, I was losing and everyone was watching. Oh it must have been a sight for war-torn eyes: a fat fuck dangling over a cliff edge and crying to go home. Was it then that Tim suggested that they offer me a candy bar to rappel down the cliff? I don’t know; it’s just something Adam told me later.
I was the coward in the war movie, the one who would freeze at just the moment he needed to be a hero. The guy who couldn’t pull the trigger. The instructor made me leave the edge of the cliff to calm down while others went down. They filed past me one by one with that look of pity and shame that comes from being associated with a creature like me. Adam rooted for me; I knew that much. But the others needed me to fail. This was an army of one, and nobody shines their shoes on the frontlines of a Battalion field trip. I was given one more chance. I gripped the rope in front and behind me, and mustered all my courage and strength to form the necessary L-shape.
Again, the instructor tried to get me down. “Look in my eyes. Now slowly lower your butt. That’s right, now lift one foot and walk down the cliff.” My shape was definitely not perfect, but once the first step is over, it’s almost done. After I began my steps down the cliff, I sped up as I gained confidence. Walking gradually devolved into free fall, though, and the nightmares of my failure at training were coming true. There was half a second where I could only think about the impending impact and I wondered about my vital organs hoarding blood. But as soon as I was falling I was saved by my belay down below, teamwork in action. I dangled in mid-air, helpless and confused for the longest of seconds.
Perhaps that moment best represented my military career. I recaptured the wall and made it down.
The next day, we were at lunch and enjoying the civilian life. Adam was there as well as my friends who didn’t have a uniform hanging in their closet.
Adam wanted me to recount my war story to the civilians. “Did you tell them what you did yesterday?” Nobody likes their own war story. It takes them back to their old vulnerability. I especially didn’t need a fellow cadet to tell me how proud he was that I made it down the cliff.
I told the table, “Oh, I rappelled down a cliff,” and that was the end of it. I didn’t mention it again and kept it away from the public eye. I left the service that year convinced that I didn’t deserve to wear that uniform. I first told our commanding officer that I would be coming back; it seemed so obvious then. Civilians don’t have to keep their promises, though, so they never again measured my hair or told me I needed a shave. My hair is longer now, I’m no longer afraid of some facial hair, but I still keep my gig line straight whenever I wear a belt. Adam stayed all four years in the JROTC. He hasn’t left that town. My older brother is stationed in Alaska with the Air Force. He as well stayed all four years and got the pay-grade bump when he enlisted before graduation. You already know what happened to Tim; he lives on disability checks from the VA with his wife and two daughters. I left those people and that town and started a new life away from all that. Though I try to forget, I can’t stop myself from thinking about my time in uniform and the men and women with whom I served. I don’t have any graves to visit or dog tags to hang. I only have the knowledge that I made it through, and others are still struggling. I have to live for the ones that didn’t make it, for the ones who fell off that cliff and hit the ground. This is for them.
Corporal Jared John Watkins (Retired)
Piedra Vista High School
Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps