Blue Sky Medicine
Afghanistan. It was hot and the barren alleyway was quiet except for a blistering desert wind that blew in from the desolate mountain pass. The Marine Corps officer looked down at the Afghan fighter who his Marines had just killed with M-16 fire. He was face down in the sand. At his side the local Afghan police officer knelt and examined the body closer but did not touch it. He looked up, his eyes full of fear.
“He, he Daesh (ISIS). We go quick, quick.”
The officer looked at the dark spots in the sand surrounding what had been the man’s head swathed in a dark head wrap. He leaned down and checked the man’s carotid artery at the base of his jaw. Just to make sure. He lifted his right arm and signaled a corporal to approach.
“Send the word down. Don’t touch the body. Two reasons: He may have a live grenade tucked under him. I’m leavin’ my calling card on this one. In case they desire a return engagement. Or if they just want to look me up for a cup o’ chai. No matter.”
The corporal swallowed hard. “Yes, sir.”
The major stood, looked around and hand signaled his Marines forward. The Afghan police trailed, glancing back nervously. The corporal leaned over and examined the card. It provided his commander’s name, John Idleson, his unit. And the scribbled message: “Look me up.”
Fort Harrison VA Hospital, Helena, Montana. PTSD Graduation Day. Slick Kotah, Patricia Thomasina (PT), Augustus (Gus) Gomez, and John Idleson, the “Major”, gathered around a gleaming chrome and red T-bucket street rod built by previous grad and Navy vet, Homer. They call themselves “cohorts”, which means cohorts in therapy, rebirth of their spirits, and the battle against PTSD.
“You each get a ride around the grounds and Slick is next,” Homer shouted above the chatter. In answer to their questions he said, “I’m a Vietnam war aircraft carrier vet, who finally dragged his PTSD out in the open and exposed and unloaded it, thanks to this program at Fort Harrison.”
“You drive this all the time,” Slick asked.
“Hardly. Just finished it, but I visit as often as I can. It’s a long ride across McDonald Pass to encourage folks like you. They can give you some hope.”
Homer motioned Slick to climb into the passenger side. Slick settled into the roll and tuck bench seat. He grinned at his cohorts. Homer started the engine, a modified Chevy 350. It roared to life amid the small crowd’s “oohs”.
As they pulled away from the curb Slick asked Homer if he ever thought of joining them at Blue Sky Clinic in north Texas.
“It’s where we’re headed now. You know. Blue Sky therapy. New lives.”
Slick waited expectantly.
Homer cleared his throat, thinking. Why would I do that? I should be polite to this newbie. “This is my blue sky right here in Montana; my dream, and I’m finally living it. You go find your blue sky where you want. Rebuild your identity and confidence. Get ‘em back. I’ll be here cheerin’ you on.”
Slick smiled, knowingly. “You seem to be there for sure, but we’re not. I opted for the next phase. It’s like goin’ home. A good part of my life was spent livin’ that dream on ranches. The three Rs: Ridin’, ropin’ and rodeos. The outdoor life. Fresh air. Blue skies. Right there where my family helped set up the clinic. Now, Gus, and PT and the Major will get the same experience.”
“One therapy session after another,” Homer said, shaking his head.
“Nope. Mostly a whole lot about reclaiming our personal identities, through the ranch life and a bit of my native culture.” He paused a second. “It’s about puttin’ the pieces back together and sendin’ Jhungvi to hell for good.”
“Jhungvi. Yeah, PT told me about that guy. A real demon. Likes to cut off heads. I thought you’d rid yourself of that load. Forgiven and put behind you,” Homer said.
“We may have shed the ghost, but the ISIS threat follows us.”
Homer studied Slick’s face. You mean the nightmare isn’t really over, young guy. “You got a ways to go, then.”
Slick didn’t answer, pausing as they passed slowly by the post cemetery well under the 25 mph speed limit. Headstones reflected brightly in the morning sun. Cool air streamed past and the low rumble of the V-8 exhaust began to feed Slick’s own sense of empowerment after six long weeks of therapy. He looked over at Homer.
“ISIS put out the word. Their next targets are us vets in hospitals and clinics. They mentioned a dozen places around the country. Blue Sky is one of ‘em. If it’s for real. I mean if it really happens, we aim to meet ‘em there, along with a few dozen Marines, and kick their lone wolf asses.”
Homer shook his head vigorously. “If it was me, I’d say don’t risk waking up the old ghosts. Believe me. Your therapist at that Blue Sky Clinic will probably tell you that. Besides, I thought you’d forgiven the ghosties. Put ‘em away in a box.”
“Yeah, but it’s complex. We think our spirits are mostly healed and strong.”
“We may have forgiven, but this is our homeland. Just look at what happened in Boston, New York, Las Vegas… We’re just prayin’ it’s Jhungvi who shows up. We got scores to settle.”
Homer scowled. “Old scores?” Doesn’t sound like forgiveness. “What makes you think they’d bother to come all this way to make good on some half-baked threat? News is full of threats. Lots of those ISIS strongholds have been wiped out. They’re has-beens. Trump says it’s a hundred percent.”
“Homer, they’re like a disease. Stamp ‘em out in one place. They break out in a dozen others.”
“Most of this so-called threat is just talk. That’s all.”
“When the ghosts knock on the door because you left your card on their corpse, you deal with it,” Slick retorted.
Homer turned the T Bucket around in a wide spot on the road outside the fort, and then braked to a stop, tires crunching on the gravel. He hung his left arm over the steering wheel, frowned and looked into Slick’s eyes.
“Tough words. Marines are like that. You telling me that the Major left his calling card on some dead ISIS fighters when he was rescued? Well, he’s not the first. So maybe you can’t wait for the shooting to start again, the explosions, the screams, the guts spilling out…and heads rolling. Maybe you can handle that, but can you stop it from rolling right over you and suckin’ you into the vortex again? When the beast takes over your mind, and rips the spirit out of your heart. That’s when the nightmare begins and you wish you and your cohorts had never started this thing.”
Slick had no answer but his mind turned over quickly, thinking back: Gunshots and explosions in the heat of battle. Yes, explosive shock had summoned up his unforgiving ghosts, monsters from the past, until he put them to rest, or so he thought. But they were like grizzlies flocking to a fresh kill in the wild. Was it any different? Did Homer have a point? Would the shock of battle render him, PT, Gus and the Major defenseless against the shadows in the fog? He thought of his brother’s girlfriend, Hunter, struggling to overcome the aftermath of one personal crisis after another. Can she show them the path to a new life, the blue sky promise? Or would she fall into the same dark pit of despair and self-destruction from which the cohorts were trying to escape?
“Yeah, something to think on, isn’t it?” Homer raised an eyebrow. “Hold on.”
Slick heard the 350 roar to life, and then felt the instant acceleration. He grasped the side panel as he was pushed back in his seat and instantly understood Homer’s medicine. This man has a need for speed. He grinned as the wind stung his face and whipped his thick black hair straight out behind him. Now, this is living.