I went to war to find peace.”
That’s the line I often use to summarize my military service when confronted by the obvious and clichéd queries that come from those unacquainted with life inside a combat zone. For me, it was an escape, an extreme change of scenery, yet very familiar to what I grew up accustomed to in the burning South Bronx during the ’80s crack epidemic.
As was the case for many children in the Middle East during the War on Terror, I, too, was young and vulnerable during the War on Drugs and saw many situations that my mind was not mature enough to understand or process. Those early experiences would leave a crater-like impression on me in my formative years. I was left with many questions and lacked the proper guidance to provide context for the bedlam that was my environment.
In 2005, I arrived in the city of Fallujah, or what was left of it. I likened it to a cigarette butt in an ashtray, still smoldering from what many Marines would describe as “a hell of a good time.” Eerily, I was struck by how ordinary it felt to be in an actual war zone, not unlike my hometown, and I was taken aback by how comfortable I was with all of the turmoil. This realization, I would come to understand years later, would serve as the inception of my Combat Hippie spirit. A baptism of fire, it would torch and twist my soul in unfathomable ways; the blaze of memories would cause much agony and inspire the resilience to dig through the innermost caverns of myself in order to uncover purpose.
I was originally diagnosed by the Veterans Administration as having post-traumatic stress shortly after I left the military in 2007, because of trauma suffered in Iraq. An improperly placed improvised explosive device was the culprit. Had it worked correctly I would not be here to write this piece, and the event has replayed in my mind to the point of exhaustion. After seeking psychological treatment at the VA, I learned that PTS was nothing new to me; it had been a part of my life since the morning of May 29, 1993 when while watching Saturday-morning cartoons, I was destroyed by the news that my mother had passed away. She was 27 years old, and I barely knew her.
A recurring theme in both events was my constant mental recounting of the traumas, a scratched vinyl record playing the same tune over and over, a looped spool of film secured in encore mode with no reprieve for the audience held hostage by the horror flick. The thought of suicide constantly seemed like a solution to end my spiritual unrest. I still wonder what kept me from transforming thought into action. I’m am extremely grateful I did not.
While on a veterans’ wilderness expedition with Outward Bound in Utah’s majestic Cataract Canyon National Reserve, I lost myself in the unadulterated wonder that is nature. I felt at peace and was reintroduced to writing as a tool for reflection. I became addicted to its cathartic sensation, it had the potency of heroin, and poetry became the anesthesia that allowed me to surgically reconstruct my shattered soul.
About a year later, the universe placed in my path a couple of veterans who also shared a passion for writing their pain away on paper — and the rest, as they say, is history. We found solace in each other and also the nerve to be ourselves, uncomfortable with conforming to society’s expectations of who we should be. Instead we gave each other the space to discover who we really were. It was soulful validation to be surrounded by open-minded, like-experienced individuals; we were exactly what we needed.
Earlier this year, when we were presented with an opportunity by MDC Live Arts to attend a Veterans Creative Lab, directed by playwright Teo Castellanos, we certainly had no expectations of what would result, except that we would be exceeding our limitations and challenged to be better.
We set out with the intention of becoming greater than ourselves, and with Teo’s masterful green thumb, we weeded out our traumas and repurposed them into bullets of beauty to unleash upon the world.
The struggle that we have endured in our lives has ultimately forged inside of us the tenacity necessary to break out of the stigma that is associated with being a veteran. Post-traumatic growth is our new diagnosis.
Hipolito Arriaga and the other Combat Hippies will perform in MDC Live Arts’ presentation of “Conscience Under Fire” at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Teatro Prometeo. Admission is free, but a ticket is required. Go to mdclivearts.org for more information.