She lay on the hardwood floor next to Lance Corporal Alexander March, USMC, as he slept in the dark. An astringent odor mixed in the autumn air and drifted down to her nose. She lay still, but opened her eyes. The bedside clock cast shadows across the gold oak floor. She squinted at its green glow and listened to the Marine's breathing- the only sound -- air escaping in jagged puffs from his lungs. The patio door allowed light from a flickering streetlamp to beat against the wadded bed sheets. She jerked her head up, ears pointed, just before the warrior's flailing arms and legs rustled the covers, and his cries pierced her ears. The stinging smells of panic signaled her to action and twenty months of intensive training kicked in.
Her name was Masada. She was an American Service Dog. She was a professional. She stood ready and would never quit. She would never leave her comrade's side.
The Marine tossed and twisted, unaware of the dog's wagging tail as she jumped onto the bed and pushed her body under his thrashing arms. She laid her head on his chest and pressed her body against him. The distraction woke him, breaking the nightmare's pull.
He reached around and cradled her. She shivered with excitement needing him to be okay and licked the Marine's hand and face until the warrior's attention focused on her. When she nuzzled deep into the crook of his neck, his muscles loosened and he drew her closer.
Whatever demons that had stolen into the room and caused him stress, slinked away like villainous ghosts, but they always returned. The blood headed vultures perched in the ceiling's corners, and waited for the Marine to sleep. These brazen, black birds of memory were relentless, never holding back from the advantage his unconsciousness offered. This was Masada's first night with her warrior and the collectors of carrion attacked again and again, no matter how often she challenged them.
The warrior sat up and swung his legs to the floor. The service dog shifted her body and placed her paw on his thigh. The Marine's breathing slowed and he ran a hand over his shaved head, scanning the room. Outside, the world slept in peace, safe from the terrors revealed in his dreams.
Like a soundless dance in the moonlight, Masada executed her practiced routine throughout the night, going without sleep because she was an American Service Dog. She was a professional, trained to be ready and never quit. Sensing another wave of panic, Masada jumped down from the bed, faced the Marine, and sat at attention. Hands that hummed with nervous energy cupped her head. The canine's sable orbs locked, unblinking, onto the veteran's moist blue eyes. "I'm supposed to tell you everything. But it's as if you already know," the warrior told the dog. In response, she pushed her nose against his arm and licked his hand. Her tail beat a steady rhythm on the wooden floor as she sensed the Marine's mind take him away from the room. Masada leaned into her warrior's touch while he rocked with tight, sharp movements. His hand shook. He stroked his service dog and fell into the abyss. The force which Alex had learned he had no control over pulled him back into the past, once again. He walked patrol with his comrade, Eddie. It wasn't like the walks back home in California with his Sarah, down tree-lined streets, dodging skate boarders and joggers.Everywhere was fuckin' sand and rubble. The air carried a thick layer of decay. He and Eddie had been in Iraq a week. He wondered if Eddie still smelled like the fresh cut hay of Oklahoma and he of the salty Pacific coast. They swapped stories, Eddie about the States, but Alex couldn't stop talking about the shit-hole of wind and sand where they were to spend the next twelve months...or less. Eddie bragged about his wife, Tanya, his high school sweetheart and their son, Ethan. They were going to get a place of their own when he finished his tour, maybe try for a girl next. The story was the same as Alex's and Sarah's. They had dreams.
Alex's fingers combed through Masada's fur. His voice rose and fell as he rocked to and fro.
He only allowed a moment to hope that he and Eddie would make it home. Then he crammed the wish deep down for safe keeping, so deep that, now, he couldn't get it back.
He told Eddie, "We're riflemen. Teammates. We watch each other's back. Our orders were to clear the area. Move out the women and children, farmers and business men." He reminded Eddie, "Watch everyone. Remember that farmer pretending to be friendly the other day? He was the same dirty rotten haji in a group of insurgents trying to kill us the next day." Then he recited the KIA statistics. Masada leaned against Alex's leg and laid her paw across his knee that jerked up and down. She gazed at him as if she hung on every word. The warrior's boots, the ones he never removed at night, thumped, thumped, thumped against the floor. Eddie had argued, "We don't shoot women and children."
But Alex reminded him, "You're a Marine, a killing machine. You're here to kill. If they shoot, you take 'em out. No matter what."
Thump, thump, thump. Masada's tail beat out a rhythm on the floor that matched the cadence of her Marine's boot. The Marine remembered how Eddie's eyes sparked. The killer look. It burned in the eyes of every Marine, fueled by the weight of the Kevlar, the security of the camouflage colors, and the soothing scent of a well-oiled rifle. Alex shook his head and said to his dog, "Our emotions were wrapped so tight with fifty pounds of life saving gear, it strangled any fear. We were well-trained Marines, focused only on the thrill of the mission." Masada's ears pricked forward, listening to the Lance Corporal's voice rise and fall. The warrior bent down and encircled her in a desperate hug, burying his face into her fur. She sensed his desperation. "The memories, the nightmares, the flashbacks, they are just too much," His muffled words and tears soaked her golden hair. Finally, he pulled away, straightened, and took a deep breath. "We made our first kill the second day and we high fived each other. The thrill of the kill kept us up all night." Masada gazed up at her warrior. "We were doing what we were trained to do. We were Marines." The months pushed on like a convoy in a haboob sand storm. Each month blew in higher drifts of ugliness than the last, yet time and the tragedies raged on. Alex didn't remember when he lost the joy of the mission and its excitement. He and Eddie patrolled the streets, Alex always walking point, always taking the risk. Broken windows gaped from the concrete buildings, reminding him of the dead eyes of his kills. Fluttering, tattered sheets, which did nothing to repel the desert sun, waved from the dark interiors. The bombed walls crumbled as if large bites had been chewed off by some sci-fi dinosaur, exposing an x-ray view of the stark emptiness of the Iraqi lives. Alex pointed to a soda can lying on the roadside and reminded Eddie, "You have to be careful of cans. The creeps noticed we like to kick them as we walk patrol, so they rig 'em. They can be IEDs." Alex stood up and paced around the bed, to the patio door, about-faced, and back again. The rumpled bed clothes absorbed his words and left only a whisper to the dog's ears. His fists hit everything he passed - the bedpost, the door frame, the dresser. The sound of bone slamming against hardwood accompanied his marching boots, creating a rhythm like the drums of a war dance. As they walked patrol, he told Eddie, "We'll cross here, proceed on the other side. You know, to avoid the can." Eddie didn't challenge the order, knowing it was impossible to see all the cans because of the deluge of trash littering the streets. Eddie stepped out in front of Alex and when they both reached the other side, the two Marines waved to a ten year old boy who came running up.
"Don't panic, just be ready," Alex said.
"It's just Yusuf."
Yusuf came around every day pedaling movies to the Americans, or bringing fresh baked bread to his unit. For the first time, the kid's thinness and unruly black hair struck Alex's attention. He and Eddie had begun to look forward to the boy’s visits, a bit of goodness in a mean, dirty world.
Eddie had asked Yusuf about his parents and the boy reported they had been killed in a car bombing. His father, who had been an interpreter for the Army, suffered the Taliban's retaliation and Yusuf's mother, unfortunately, had been along for the ride. Alex admired the kid's moxie because the youth still catered to the Marines. He was a survivor. He wondered if his own son would grow up to have the courage to live in a world of chaos like this place. For Yusuf, it was the only life he knew.
The Lance Corporal squared off and aimed at the boy. "Sorry Yusuf, no closer." Eddie inhaled sharply, but the small boy, unconcerned by the weapon aimed at his chest, stopped and waited. He had done the drill many times before. Alex swore to himself. If he had anything to do with it, his or Eddie's boy would never have to live like this. In the dark bedroom Alex halted his pacing and sank down on the edge of the bed. Again, Masada moved in, licked his hand, and nudged his arm. Embracing her, he pulled her close. His knees jerked up and down once again, regaining their nervous rhythm. Alex ordered Yusuf to open his shirt. The boy had no bomb strapped to his chest. Only then did Alex dig into his pocket for the candy. He remembered how their hands touched. The warrior marveled at Yusuf's small, soft fingers as the boy grabbed the sweets. Would he live to touch his own boy's fingers? Nothing happened that day, which only made the two Marines more hyper-vigilant. They continued surveillance of the Iraqi, who shuffled through the rubble which was now their daily lives. The two Marines dined with Yusuf's aunts and uncles and visited his school, handing out more candy. Another week passed. Always alert. At night they barricaded themselves behind the thick walls of the Forward Operating Base. Inside their individual, cement cells of the windowless FOB, they slept in small chunks of time, their sleep constantly interrupted by sirens that signaled everyone to take refuge in the safe zone. It was no longer the thrill of the kills that kept them awake. "It was a Sunday," he said to the dog. "When Yusuf ran up and, again, stood before us." Eddie smiled at the boy and reached in his jacket pocket. Alex remembered his regret of not stopping Eddie when he omitted the search routine. Again, Masada listened to the Marine's words. She smelled her warrior's panic, and nudged his arm, reminding him she was there. He relaxed a little, came back to the darkened room and rubbed her ears. "The boy just exploded. Eddie went down."
Alex had staggered, thrown back from the blast.
"Do you smell that, Masada? I do. I still smell the burning flesh and see the pink mist."
The Lance Corporal rushed to his teammate. He shoved a charred body part, maybe one of Yusuf's small fingers, off Eddie's back and carefully rolled him over. Blood leaked from under Eddie's helmet. His buddy groaned. Miraculously, his fallen comrade struggled to stand. Alex reached down to help Eddie up. His hands shook so badly he was ashamed to look his buddy in the eye. They both stood on shaky legs. Alex's hands continued to tremble and he remembered scolding himself. I'm a Marine. I'm disciplined, physically and mentally tough. He wiped the dampness from his brow with his sleeve. He looked down at his jacket. It was smeared with blood. Yusuf's blood.
COAST TO COAST WITH A CAT AND A GHOST
VOL. ONE - CHAPTER ONE
THE CAT AND GHOST SERIES
"The chemo and radiation months passed with raw emotion bandaged tightly. He remained the strongest man I ever knew and I continued to do what I thought was impossible, I dealt with it. We were both struggling souls trying to fit into a world we didn’t always understand. I had grown strong over the years fighting his will to control and dominate. He grew loving and tender as he tempered his fears and angers. We needed each other’s weaknesses to grow. I had grown strong enough to let go and he had grown strong enough in his love to soar to the heavens.I couldn’t help him on his last journey but I lay beside him, .........."
GOING HOME WITH A CAT AND A GHOST
VOL. TWO - CHAPTER ONE
THE CAT AND GHOST SERIES
Alone inside the comforting confines of my motorhome, I watched as the world scrolled past my windshield. The dawn illuminated the eastern horizon and I felt as if I sat in a darkened theater watching in anticipation as the credits rolled across the screen, the title yet to be announced. The motor home hummed its soft but steady song of power and strength while my play list of country music two-stepped down the road skipping over asphalt cracks and doe si doeing through the California traffic. As I drove, I settled into the rocking motion of travel while the wheels of my mind spun in reverse, two thousand miles, back forty years to a night I couldn’t remember but changed my life forever.
By Judy Howard
Follow Masada, an American Service Dog, who grows from a bumbling golden retriever puppy into a serious, philosophical dog whose only desire is to serve the people she loves.
On Masada’s journey through life, she touches the souls of two desperate men: Roy, a prisoner who has nothing to live for, and Alex, who has lost everything he had to live for, as an Iraqi veteran struggling with his personal sentence of PTSD.
This is an inspiring story of Invisible Heroes. American service dogs and our Veterans as they cope with the “Invisible disease”, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
At the writing of this book, twenty-four veterans a day are committing suicide because of this“Invisible Disease,” PTSD. Those figures are expected to increase dramatically as our young men return home.