He shouldn't have looked in the truck. The IED had blown it up and sent its occupants to Kingdom Come. "What I saw in there was the worst thing I will ever see in my life," U.S. Army Specialist Andrew O'Brien says.
It was so bad that he later tried to kill himself. Because try as he might, he couldn't unsee it. Not even now, more than two years after that suicide attempt, standing in a suburban Corona strip mall, telling his story to a roomful of mothers who have sons or daughters freshly returned from war. The mothers hang on his every word. They're hoping this lanky 25-year old — a kid, really, with a sweet, handsome face and earnest manner — might hold the key to unlocking their own distant, troubled soldier.
For the past few months, O'Brien has been traveling the country by bus, giving speeches, talking to anyone who will listen. He was in Phoenix the other day, "and I swear that is Iraq." Something as simple as the sound of tires crunching on sand on a hot day can send him suddenly back.
He begins with why he joined the military in the first place. He didn't have much family growing up in Dallas. His parents "weren't the best people," he says, and leaves it at that. His older brother became his rock. So when big brother enlisted, O'Brien dropped out of high school and enlisted, too.
He signed up to be a truck driver. Stationed in Hawaii, he found the brotherhood and camaraderie he craved, the "one void I'd been trying to fill my whole life." By the time he deployed to the Middle East, he had a new family of fellow soldiers to protect. He drove them around Iraq delivering ammunition and supplies. When he was promoted to lead gunner, "Finally someone had given me something to be proud of," he says. "Everybody depended on me."
It was great at first. But then came a series of unfortunate, disturbing events.
First, his buddy Mendoza got shot. O'Brien was away on mid-tour relief when he got the phone call from his friend's wife. Mendoza took four in the arm and one in the head. War is incomprehensible. You'd think hearing your friend got shot would make you want to stay home, but O'Brien's first thought was, "I want to go back." If he'd been there on that lead gun, he believed, it wouldn't have happened.
Still, Mendoza was lucky. The bullet bounced off his Kevlar helmet. He survived and was shipped off to Germany for surgery.
Next, an IED blew up behind O'Brien's convoy. It set his heart bumping but no one was hurt. It was an adrenaline rush, "scary and awesome at the same time."
But, a few weeks later: the truck. The truck did him in.
An MP convoy was arriving as O'Brien's unit was leaving base. He and the other lead gunner rotated their weapons and waved to each other in passing. Shortly after, O'Brien's unit heard radio chatter. There had been an explosion. Everyone in that MP convoy was dead.
Military vehicles nowadays are well armored. An IED might mess up a truck, but the worst it can give the occupants is a concussion. But this IED wasn't on the ground. It was attached to a tree facing downward. It dropped into the lead gunner's hatch.
People on base speculated the IED was indeed meant for O'Brien's truck, which came and went at a predictable time. Go look, he thought, even though his commanding officers told him not to. Look not for prurient personal reasons, or sick curiosity, but for your guys. Look so you will understand what can happen.
"War just didn't seem real," he explains. "Until then."
The truck had been covered. When no one was watching, O'Brien lifted up the tarp. "And to this day that image has been burnt in my mind," he says.
He didn't tell anyone he looked. He'd disobeyed an order, after all. Instead, he became extremely vigilant. He became paranoid about trees. About trash on the road. With three months left in his tour of duty, he started praying: Please don't let anything happen. "You start counting down days," he recalls. "You don't want any of your friends to die."
In wanting to make war real, he'd made it surreal. He'd wake up and see the truck, then fall asleep at night and see it all over again. In his dreams, he'd populate the truck with people he cares about — the guys he deployed with, his girlfriend, his brother. Always, their deaths are his fault. And always, he would wake up crying so hard it hurts.
"You have these nightmares and you feel this guilt," he says, talking faster now.
The rest of his time in Iraq passed without incident. Back in Hawaii, he turned to alcohol. One night, he partied so hard he woke on the beach lying in his own vomit. He went to see a counselor, who declared him unfit to hold a weapon.
O'Brien stopped getting help. He couldn't make it by himself but couldn't depend on anyone either. "I'm not me anymore," he realized, and he hated the new him.
On Nov. 22, 2010, he swallowed four bottles of pills. At the last minute, as he sensed his "soul leaving" his body, he dialed 911.
In the hospital, he confessed everything to his brother — the truck, the nightmares, the pills. He felt ashamed. His brother had been in hand-to-hand combat and had seen a lot worse. "You idiot," his brother said. "You can't compare." For the first time in a long time, O'Brien felt understood.
Your kids won't open up because they don't want you to worry, O'Brien tells the moms. Because they're embarrassed. Because someone has seen worse. Because being in the military means being strong, and if you're strong enough to go to war and kill people, you should be strong enough to not worry about it. So when you come back and you're not OK, you're ashamed.
"This is what they're feeling," he says. "We need to know that y'all are gonna love us no matter what. That no matter how crazy we seem, you won't get rid of us. If your kid is being distant, it's not because we don't love you. We love you more than we ever did."
A woman with red eyes and a soggy Kleenex balled up in her fist has a question. Her son just got home from Iraq and was up until 4 a.m. wandering the house. Her husband wants to give him sleeping pills. What would O'Brien recommend?
Sleep is tough, he admits. He himself has to sleep on the side of the bed away from the wall, with the doors and windows locked, and know exactly where his weapons are.
Another mom question: Isn't it better to hide the weapons?
"No," O'Brien says. "Their weapon is their safety net. It never leaves your side. At war it's the first thing you grab in the morning." Many of his friends still sleep with a gun under their pillow. "Not under their bed, under their pillow." If they start not leaving their rooms, however, then it's time to worry.
After the moms have disbanded, O'Brien sits outside on the curb, chain smoking. One knee bounces up and down. He is a jangle of nerves. There is altruism to what he does, sure. But it helps him, too, the crying mothers who hug him and thank him and ask for his autograph.
He scrawls his name for them into copies of the 32-page book he has written, Welcoming Your Soldier Home. He wrote it in one day, the day he heard the statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs: 22 veterans and one active-duty soldier kills himself every day, more than have died in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
If he accomplishes nothing else, he wants to show service members they are allowed to have feelings from war.
Mostly, though, he leaves the details of what he saw in the truck out of his speeches. The blood everywhere. The horrible smell. A car crash doesn't even approximate this type of obliteration. This was an explosion. "There was small things," he says. "Burnt things."
He threw up as soon as he saw it.
The resultant vigilance helped in war but destroyed him in civilian life. He felt like a burden when he came back. Like he wasn't making anyone's life better. That he was, in fact, making it harder by getting angry all the time — at himself, at everybody else. At their petty complaints about Facebook or traffic or a thousand other small, unburnt things. At the fundamental unfairness of having to take an $8-an-hour job at Walmart when you come home because you don't qualify for anything better.
He may never be a civilian again but hopes he can still be a good person. He fights feelings of bitterness, though, and resentment toward the people he went to war to protect. "You did so much more than they did," he says. "They'll never know what you went through so that they can do what they do today."
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