One of the downsides to living in something that could reasonably be called a society again was that we had to start following certain rules. Every few months, the army regularly made its soldiers go through health screenings. I began to think it was just because they had brought us back in from outside their base and were afraid of what diseases we might have brought with us.

Like Kandahar Air Field, Walton had some soldiers who would never actually leave its walls during their tour in Afghanistan. Walton would become their whole world and their whole war.

Unlike where we had just come from, Walton had actual doctors, nurses, and medical specialists. They had medications other than ibuprofen and water. Our medics tried their best out in the wilds of Kandahar City, but unless you were bleeding to death, they generally lacked helpful medical knowledge.

On our unit’s orders, we woke up early one morning and lined up outside the aid station. The aid station was a huge wooden building that was bigger than any structure we had at Spartan. The floors were uneven, and the building was nothing more than a glorified wooden shack. We sat in the waiting room and read months-old Maxim magazines that were full of half-naked women.

I noticed they had a weapons rack in the waiting area. Before we were allowed to talk to one of the medics, we had to turn in our weapons. That’s when it hit me: these weren’t normal checkups. We were being psychologically screened.

“Fuck, I think we have to talk to a shrink,” I half whispered, half yelled. A young looking woman sitting behind the desk in the waiting room shot me a dirty look.

“Why do you think that?” Nan asked.

I pointed to the weapons rack. “Why else would they be disarming us?”

“Shit, you’re right.” Nan looked surprised.

“Do we lie or tell the truth?” Machete asked.

“When do you ever tell the truth to an army doctor?” I retorted. You had to lie about injuries or mental issues or your unit’s leadership would think you were just some pussy trying to milk the government for a paycheck or were trying to get out of work.

A young soldier called my name from a clipboard. I glanced around and slowly stood up. I handed my rifle over to Nan and followed the young soldier into a separate room. I sat on an uncomfortable wooden bench and waited.

“The medic will be with you shortly,” chimed the young soldier; she walked out of the room, leaving me there with my thoughts.

The room was mostly bare. The walls were empty; everything was a plain plywood pattern and smelled like disinfectant. The door swung open again and in walked the medic. “Hi, Specialist, how are you feeling today?” he asked, smiling.

“Wonderful,” I deadpanned.

“I see according to your records you sought help for sleep disturbances in the past?” he asked.

I was immediately speechless. I had no idea they actually had access to our medical records.

“Um, yeah,” I stammered.

“How’s that going?” he asked, taking a closer look at me.

I looked like a walking corpse. If insomnia had an awareness poster, I would have been on it. “I think you already know the answer to that.” I half-smiled at him.

“Yeah. You look pretty rough. When was the last time you had a full night’s sleep?”

“Probably the last time I was in America,” I tried to joke, but I knew even that wasn’t true. When I was in Tampa Bay, I couldn’t sleep unless I was shitfaced.

“Don’t worry, this is completely normal,” he tried to reassure me. “Your unit has been beaten up, and it’s to be expected that you’re feeling the effects.”

“I was just hoping for some more powerful sleeping meds,” I said flatly.

“I’m going to put you in for a psych screening. Drugs won’t fix this alone,” he said, writing something down on a piece of paper.

“What? But I…”

“Look, man, you only have a few months left here in the country, and when you get home, you’re getting out, right?”

“Well, yeah,” I answered. There was nothing I wanted more than to get out of the army.

“Maybe it’s time you start worrying about you then. Because the army sure fucking won’t. Just take the screening for me?” He patted me on the shoulder. He handed me a little paper slip with an appointment date on it and walked out of the room.

Fuck, I thought. How in the hell was I going to explain this without being labeled a pussy? I stuffed the paper in my pocket and walked back into the waiting room.

I collected my rifle from the rack and walked back to our tents. When they moved us to Walton, they stuffed us into giant tents that had long rows of beds and plywood floors that creaked with every step. No walls or sheets were erected to provide any privacy. The massive open area made me miss the cozy confines of my shower stall. It probably didn’t help that my cot was right next to Memphis, and he still smelled like a Dumpster.

I sat down on my creaky bed and fished around in my pocket for my appointment slip. I had to go back the next day. That date didn’t mean anything to me at first, but as I thought about it, I realized I would miss a mission. The mission was nothing special. Just to drive around to Afghan police bases to make sure they were actually reporting for work. But I would have to miss a mission. That wasn’t something anyone was allowed to do unless they were close to dead or they were on leave.

I walked over to Slim’s tent and opened the shoddy wooden door. The NCOs’ tent had plywood sheets built up into walls so that each person had his or her own room. The walls were uneven and shot off at odd angles. Even though it looked like something you would see in a slum, I was jealous of their level of privacy. I knocked on the door labeled with “Staff Sergeant Slim” and entered because I had no manners.

Slim was sitting on his bed playing on his laptop. “What’s up, man?” he asked, removing a massive set of headphones from his head.

“I had to talk to the doctor today…” I started.

“About your back?” he asked. He knew my back pain was nearly crippling me. Some days I needed help getting out of bed. I was eating so many ibuprofen pills I was probably causing myself irreversible kidney damage. Nothing kept the pain at bay.

“No…” I handed him the slip, and he took it from me.

Slim studied it and glanced up at me. “Oh, shit,” he began. “You aren’t going to kill yourself or some shit are you?”

“God dammit, dude, no,” I spat, snatching the paper slip. “I just can’t sleep, and they are freaking out over it.”

“So just get some drugs and move on,” he said turning back to his laptop.

“Yeah, whatever. I’m not in trouble for missing the mission am I?” I asked.

“No. These missions here are bullshit. No worries. I’m pretty sure we could just not go on them and no one would give a shit except maybe Gunny.”

“Hasn’t that been true of all our missions since day one?”

“We just have to survive for a few more months. I don’t care if they have us cleaning toilets, as long as they send us home on time,” Slim said. I was in agreement. I just wanted to go home.

The next day, I walked back to the wooden building and sat in the waiting room again. The overly cheerful female soldier behind the desk took my rifle, and I went and sat in a different room. It wasn’t the one where I’d talked to the medic the day before. It was a big empty room with just two chairs facing each other. It looked more like an interrogation room than somewhere you would go to get healthcare.

I sat down in one of the seats and waited. After a few moments the door to the room flung open and in walked a short, fat captain. His uniform was a few sizes too small, and he was wearing huge safety glasses. He was a dead ringer for Venezuela’s dictator Hugo Chavez, and it was kind of funny. He sat down on the chair opposite me and smiled.

“Nice to meet you, Joseph. I am Captain Hugo.” He beamed.

“Hi,” I groaned. The guy was overwhelming. He had that fake happiness that customer service people have that makes you hate them.

“I hear you’re having a hard time sleeping?”

“Yeah…I’ve tried everything, and it’s not working. Maybe if I can get something stronger …” I began.

“I don’t believe in giving drugs to people,” he said, still smiling.

“Why am I here then?” I asked.

“Something is causing you not to be able to sleep. I want to find out what that is so we can work it out.”

“God dammit,” I swore under my breath.

“What was that?” he asked through his ceaseless smile.

“Oh, nothing. So how do we go about working this out?” I was there under Hugo’s orders. It wasn’t like I was allowed to leave.

“We go back to traumatic incidents you’ve been through, and we will talk about them. I will make you focus on certain aspects of them until you’re comfortable.”

My expression sank. That sounded like the last thing on earth I wanted to do. Before I could open my mouth to say anything, he handed me another appointment slip. It was dated for the next day.

“We will start tomorrow morning.” He gave me a wide, fake smile, then he got up and walked out of the room.

I left the building still trying to understand what I had gotten myself into. I was running scenarios through my head trying to figure out a way to get out of these appointments. I went back to my tent and resigned myself to being psychoanalyzed the next day. I thought it over and came to the conclusion I was going to try to work with him, even though I really didn’t want to.

I wasn’t afraid I’d be thought of as a pussy by my comrades; just going to the appointments was enough to do that. Complying wouldn’t make that any worse. And there was always the small chance it would actually help. I lay sleeplessly on my cot as my thoughts sprinted through my head.

The next morning I sat up on my cot, having achieved a few fitful minutes of sleep throughout the night. My eyes burned, and hot, blinding pain shot up my back. Those sensations had become my morning companions over the course of the last few weeks. I grabbed onto one of the tent’s support beams and hauled myself to my feet.

I walked out of the tent and stomped across the rocks to the aid station. I pushed the wooden door open and prepared to sit down in the waiting room, but the smiling girl behind the desk motioned for me to go back. She took my rifle and set it aside. I would never get used to being unarmed. The wooden floor creaked and moaned as I walked down the hallway to the room set aside for Hugo and me.

Hugo was sitting and smiling in his little metal chair. “Please sit.” He motioned with his hand. His creepy fake smile made what was left of my hair stand on end. His teeth were almost too white. I sat down in the metal folding chair he had set out for me. “Okay, we are going to start slow,” he began. “This type of therapy is very…aggressive.” He never stopped smiling.

“Aggressive?” I asked. His wording made me think he was going to hook my head up to a car battery and shock the piss out of me.

“It is not easy to go through. You will see.” He smiled. I looked around the empty room. What was he going to use in aggressive therapy?

“We are going to start from the beginning. From your childhood.”

I had a few choice stories picked out for when he brought that up. “Okay…so…” but before I could say anything he cut me off.

“Wait,” he interrupted. “I am going to be moving my finger back and forth like this.” He moved his finger back and forth in front of my face. “I want you to follow it back and forth while you tell your story. Don’t focus on me at all.”

I was literally speechless. That was the treatment. He was going to attempt to finger-wag me back to the picture of mental health.

He made that “treatment” sound like it was the be-all end-all of therapy. It was so aggressive! The asshole was just wiggling his finger at me while I was supposed to pour out my heart to him. Follow his goddamn finger waggle and I would be fucking cured. I would sleep like a baby, and all my nightmares would just vanish. Fuck him. Fuck that whole goddamn aid station that made me think I needed this finger wiggling bullshit.

I stood up in my chair so fast it fell over behind me.

“What’s wrong…?” he glanced down at his paperwork. “…Joseph?” The asshole who wanted to help me had never even bothered to learn my name.

“Fuck this,” I spat. I stormed out of the room and down the hallway. I walked into the waiting room and grabbed my rifle and kicked open the aid station door. I stomped across the rocks, kicking a few into the air as I went. I’d made my squad think I was a pussy for absolutely no fucking reason. I didn’t even get any better sleeping pills out of it. He could have at least given me some pain medicine to misuse like a normal army doctor.

Not too long after that, Slim and Gunny tracked me down. It was quickly reported to my unit that I had stormed out and told an officer to go fuck himself. I told them what had happened, and they laughed.

“He wagged his finger?” Slim laughed. “Was that seriously his idea of a cure?”

“Apparently. He made it sound like it was cutting-edge shit, too,” I said.

“No wonder so many people are killing themselves.” Gunny shook his head. “Are you going to be okay?” I could tell he really cared about me. He cared about all of us, even if he didn’t know how to show it.

“Yeah, I’ll live.” I shrugged. My sleeping issues weren’t going to solve themselves, and I was falling apart at the seams. I didn’t want them to know that, though. What I was going through wasn’t any different than what any of the other soldiers were going through.

Ever since Nan had gotten blown up, he took a flying leap off the deep end. Slim would regularly snap and attack his own soldiers, whom he considered his friends. I don’t think Pip ever recovered from being covered in Gunny’s blood. I heard Sal had to retreat to a special room in the hospital at the airfield where he would spend time with a service dog. We were all in various stages of losing it. Afghanistan had broken our minds and most parts of our bodies.

I kept telling myself I only had to hold it together—whatever was left of me—for a few more weeks. I could keep forcing my body to function on a few scant minutes of sleep. I could wince through everyday life and try to ignore the burning in my spine. Everything would be better once I got home.

At least that’s what I kept telling myself.