It’s not easy to write about my personal struggles. It’s often nearly impossible to talk about them to anyone. But, writing is a process of recovery for me that allows me to vent, cope, accept and release.
Since retiring from active duty, I’ve often found myself sitting alone at home. Home, a place where the average person finds comfort, laughter, and relaxation, is often the opposite for combat Veterans who live with post-traumatic stress. PTSD is the ever-present companion during long, lonely days and even longer, scary nights. It shares our bed, dines tableside with us and accompanies us on our drives to VA for medical appointments. It brings with it depression, nightmares, insomnia, emotional withdrawal, and it is indeed a lonely battle.
It’s ironic, because Veterans were trained from day one to always have a battle-buddy.
And yet, we find ourselves alone, still trudging up those far-away mountain spurs, or staring off into the ever-changing sandscapes of faraway deserts.
It is scary. It is lonely. It is real.
In the summer of 2007, after a rather circuitous journey, I returned to Fort Drum, N.Y., to undergo treatment at Syracuse University Medical Center. Facing a gut-wrenching divorce, pain so severe that I could barely stand and my world quickly spiraling out of control, I struggled to put one boot in front of the other.
My family was far away in South Georgia, and I could never share with them on the phone the seriousness of my wounds – both the minor visible wounds, and those which remain unseen to the non-combat eye. Even I did not have a grasp on the gravity of the battle that I now faced. This battle culminated late one afternoon, during the beginnings of a blizzard.
After a long day of divorce proceedings, mandatory meetings, disheartening appointments with my medical team and a lot of loneliness, I felt truly broken. I drove home and parked in my driveway.
As I sat there in the warm SUV, staring out into the swirling snowflakes, I sobbed, realizing I had lost. I had lost in marriage, seeking comfort and security in someone else, seeking the security of a constant in my life of constant isolation.
Much like that blizzard, I was blinded by the fog of war, and could not see that the connection I sought was not for a soul-mate, but for a battle buddy– the comfort of a warrior who had my safety and well-being covered. But, I couldn’t find it. I needed someone to “have my six.”
The longer I sat there, the more broken I became. I wept, for what seemed hours. The snow built up on the hood of my car, and I could not move, as the cold, lonely flakes of post-traumatic stress piled upon me. “Buried” is a good word to describe how I felt; for, in my tumultuous mind, Roman had already died.
I never understood how someone could take his or her own life, and I felt I would never consider something as cowardly and selfish as suicide. Yet, I found my eyes glancing down to my sidearm, and my hands drifting to its familiar grips. Suddenly, something clicked and I understood how a person could consider such an act. For me, I had silently slipped past the rope’s end. I had no more “knots” to keep me from letting go.
I was alone.
I was scared.
I was broken.
I was damaged goods.
I was irretrievable.
I was already gone.
While in that place of utter darkness, encompassed by those brilliant white flakes of snow, my cell phone rang. My high school French teacher, Louis Tiller, “Papa Lou,” a Vietnam-era veteran himself, called me in the middle of the school day, when he should have been teaching his class.
“Hey boy! Qu’est ce qui passe?” he asked. What’s happening?
“Oh, not much,” I said. “Just trying to keep on keeping on. What are you up to? Aren’t you supposed to be in class. . . ?”
“Well, I’ve got tenure, so they can’t fire me,” he said. “I’m in the middle of my wonderful French 2 class, actually. And, for some reason, you’ve been heavily on my mind. I have been unable to stop thinking about you, and I felt an urging to call you right this very second. How are you holding up, son?”
As I sat there with that sidearm in my hand, tears welled up in my eyes, blurring the barrel of the weapon from my vision, I sobbed into the phone.
“Mr. Tiller, I’m not doing too well.”
After a long pause, Papa Lou sighed, and then he said, “I knew something was not right. I just felt like I needed to call you to tell you that I love you, son. I want you to know that you are not alone. There’s a big man upstairs who took the time to slap this old French teacher beside the head, urge me to call you, so that I could tell you that you are loved, you are important, and that I’m here for you. I’ve got your six.”
“You’ll never know what you’ve just done for me, Papa Lou,” I said.
How could he have known?!
Our conversation lasted a little while longer, and ended with him saying, “You are a treasure, with so very much to share with this world. Although things may be fairly shitty right now, just remember that I love you so very much, like my own son. If I were there right now I’d wrap my arms around you and then tell you to suck it up and drive on! You just always remember that this old, bald-headed man loves you, is praying for you, is here for you, and is proud of you. Keep looking up; it could happen any day!”
After the call ended, I placed my weapon in its holster, got out of my SUV and went home.
Papa Lou passed away a few months after that conversation, and I was blessed to be able to speak at his home-going service. It wasn’t a funeral, but a celebration of the life of a Veteran who had an incredible impact upon the lives of others. I wanted to share my story then, of how he saved my life that day during the blizzard, but I couldn’t. In fact, I have never shared this story publicly. Even now, I fear that by doing so, people may withdraw from me. They may not want a “crazy person” working with them.
All that I know is that I breathe the breath of life today because a fellow Veteran, my mentor and the person to whom I was the closest, took the time to share his life and struggles with me.
If you read my previous post about my yellow lab and service companion Butters, you’ll understand how very important it is to have a constant in your daily battle with post-traumatic stress. For me, I was given a new leash on life with Butters now by my side.
I do not share my personal struggles with all of you in hopes of accolades or recognition, but with the prayer that by sharing my story someone out there who is stuck in their home, battling enemies that remain unseen, may somehow take heart in the fact that I, too, have been stuck on that same couch. I, too, have been unable to stand. But there is hope.
My hope and daily encouragement came in the form of an old, bald French teacher and Veteran — and now, in the form of a 112-lb yellow lab named Butters.
Warrior, you, too, have so very much to offer this world. Words do not suffice when it comes to thanking you for your service to our country.
Folks call us heroes, and more often than not, in the words of the award-winning HBO series “Band of Brothers,” we all respond with “I’m not a hero, but I served in a company of heroes.”
The finality of the matter is that we are heroic in our daily battle with PTSD, although we may often not feel it. Let the history books tell of us warriors, taking a stand, and surviving. For that will be the greatest testimony of them all, and true defeat of our nation’s enemies — how we fought, bled, and hurt. Yet, we still march on, even if it’s to the beat of a different drum.
Forever at your 6,
Chef Roman Coley Davis, U.S. Army, Retired
Roman Coley Davis is a disabled combat veteran who medically retired from the Army following a lengthy deployment to Afghanistan, where he served as a human intelligence collector/interrogator and linguist, in the Korangal Valley, made infamous by the National Geographic documentary entitled “Restrepo.”
After his retirement, Roman followed another passion by graduating from Le Cordon Bleu. Now a skinny, Southern chef, Chef Roman is a National Chef Advocate and Blogger for Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, and serves on the national Social Council for No Kid Hungry, a campaign that aims to end child hunger in the U.S.
He is also an advocate for disabled combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, through his support of and advocacy for the U.S. Special Forces Association, The Fisher House, and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
In his private time, Roman can be found somewhere near Houston, Texas, eating, fishing, flirting, traveling, and blogging about the “shenanigans” of his life…and playing fetch with a Yellow Lab named Butters, his PTS Service Companion!