The dream sequence is always the same. I’m 18 years old and an Army Ranger, one of the nation’s most elite fighting operators. Tonight is a big night. Only a few short weeks ago, I watched in horror along with the rest of America as our innocent countrymen were murdered by terrorists on 9-11. My brothers and I were Americans’ answer to that atrocity. Now I’m floating to the ground under a moonless sky. My parachute has barely enough time to open fully before I meet the ground with such violence that I nearly lose consciousness. I have to shake it off quickly – bullets are snapping all around me. I put my weapon into action. The green bubble of my night vision goggles illuminates a world reminiscent of a perverse apocalyptic scene from an alien invasion movie. I’m here for vengeance. My orders are clear. Then I see him. He’s the one. My first one. He’s older than me. My infrared laser finds his chest. Bang – he’s down! The surprise on his face doesn’t even register. I don’t feel any different, and I thought I would. I look around for my brothers. I see another hostile… I raise my rifle again.
I roll over… I’m in the back of a Toyota Tacoma. Usually we’d be in a Humvee, but the wheelbases are too wide for these mountain passes. These are the highest and most treacherous mountains in the world. I’m a brand new Team Leader and I’m proud of it. I’m almost 20. We’re on our way to help out some Navy Seals who need to be relocated. It’s hot and I’m beyond filthy. I take off my helmet for a moment and tell my guys they can do the same. I smile at them. There’s nothing like the bond we have… All of a sudden, the entire world erupts from the cliff face to our left. Everything is gone and I’m doing a weightless cartwheel through the air. I wish I’d never taken off my helmet… I know this ending…it sucks!
I roll back over…I’m almost 22. I’m on top of the longest dam in the world. Somewhere near where the Garden of Eden is supposed to be, but there’s no garden where I am. There are corpses. Everywhere. Hundreds of them. The smell…it enters every pore of my body. I can taste it. My face is black from all the power burns. There’s blood all over my legs and boots. The sky is raining death upon us. Every couple of minutes there’s another explosion on the top of our heads. Mortars and rockets come unheeded in an unrelenting, never-ending hoard and there’s no reprieve, nowhere to hide. One by one we were hit. It’s like waiting for your turn to die never knowing when it would come. Where IS everybody?
You know what, fuck it! I quit! …Yeah right, Rangers never quit. Did I seriously say that?
I roll over…I see a pregnant lady. She screams in pain and holds her belly. My brothers run to help. I yell at them to stop but I have no voice. As they approach the crying woman, her SUV explodes… I see a guy with his kids and his wife. He’s trying to lure us in by using them for cover. How do I kill this guy without hurting these kids? How could he do this to them? When did life get so complicated?
I cry out in my sleep… I see the most beautiful smile in the world, my child’s smile. It’s magical. I always tell her she’s got magic powers because she can defeat the might and will of an Army Ranger with only one look. It’s quite frustrating… Suddenly I see a zombie looming – a bully with a rusty badge and leer on his face. Judge, Jury and Executioner. A real dictator in our midst. I didn’t know anything like this even existed as I’m risking my life for my country… Dirty cops can ruin your life just because they don’t like you? At his word, just because I meet his eye instead of tucking my tail, my life begins to disappear. My home, money, possessions, good name, and finally my freedom. The last thing I see is my daughter being pulled away… I hear her call for me! I struggle violently to get to her but I can’t move a muscle. What a failure I am. Don’t you have to commit a crime for something like this to happen? What did we spend so much time fighting for? What did my brothers sacrifice their lives for if not “the Land of the Free?”. My head is splitting. Everything I’ve been taught to believe in my entire life is a lie. Like a house of cards, the set of beliefs I would have given my LIFE for have collapsed.
The world is on fire again… Now there’s a judge. He looks like a zombie, another dead remnant of justice. The dirty cop with his filthy badge is standing next to him still sneering. I hear myself saying the words. I call them “rapists of the Constitution”. I tell him that he’s pissed on the graves of my dead brothers. My lawyer shakes his head and tells me I should’ve taken the “deal”. I tell him Rangers don’t hit their knees to beg for mercy and innocent people don’t take deals that imply guilt. The judge slams his gavel. The earth cracks. I plummet into an abyss.
I roll back over… I’m in a cell and it’s freezing cold. I’ve got hypothermia. I’ve been kept in here naked for days observed by both male and female guards. It’s humiliating, like an animal in a zoo. The walls are plexiglass. Often, when I can’t stand the cold anymore and the sleep deprivation gets to me, I refuse to give the bucket they’ve given me for a toilet back to them. That causes them to don football pads, spray me with mace and storm the cell. After the beatdown, they chain each one of my limbs to a cement slab and leave the cell feeling “bad ass” – high-fiving each other. I’m left this way for hours each time. I think I’m going to die… it’s physical and psychological torture. I didn’t even treat the men I had captured who’d shot at my friends like this…
I shudder… I’m in another cell. I’m being stabbed and beaten. I’m fighting back, but there’s six of them and they’re all armed. I see Osama Bin Laden tattooed on one guy’s neck. WTF?? Am I back over there? Oh no… is it because I’m white? The rules are different in here. I live an Orwellian reality now. They torture me for a while, pour boiling hot water on me, but no worse than I’ve been treated by guards. I think of the convict mantra “when it’s as miserable as it can possibly be, I’m just starting to get comfortable”…
…I awaken from one nightmare into another…I hear the CO coming down the walk dragging his oversized key on the bars. I blink my eyes to see the sparseness of my 150 yr. old 4×9 isolation cell. I’m actually awake and I’m living this nightmare. Rats, roaches and birds outnumber the 165 segregation convicts by 1000 to 1. I’m 40 years old now – seven years off and on the desert. Over a decade in prison. My tattoos and scars tell the tale. The dream/nightmare always brings up the same melancholy, along with the same questions for God: How does an innocent person come to prison?
How can the “justice system” be so cavalier about someone’s freedom? And me a soldier who fought for freedom? How can they do this to my girls? Trauma from one generation to another.
I check myself… the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent meditating in silence alone in a cell, asking myself the same questions, only serve to work me into a frenzy. For the time, I sell myself the LIE that I’m where the Universe wants me right now and I’m grateful for the experience….
Then I choke on it! Just like I always do…
Ranger Buckley on the Front Lines. Out! RLTW!
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