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Blooming in Stone

It stood there resolutely, a monument to the can-do spirit, a testament to the against-all-odds mentality.  In the middle of a crushed limestone driveway, it stood there, improbably alive.


I saw it out of the corner of my eye while I myself stood in the inexorable southern heat, futilely willing my cooling sweat glands to do their job. I walked closer and observed that not only was the pansy living in the early summer heat, it was blooming, just as beautifully as ever.


Driveways are rarely good places to plant flowers, and one should definitely never attempt to plant in the middle of them. And yet, there it stood. And that is not the only way it was out of its element.  The pansy was of the variety viola tricolor var. hortensis; it is not a plant that likes heat, and it absolutely prefers well-drained soil. It is a flower that is known to have a longer germination cycle from seed, 1-3 weeks, making it a perfect annual to start indoors, which allows it to make its appearance in late spring, after the last threat of frost has subsided. However, since it also does not like heat, it becomes in the Deep South more of a winter annual, planted when the north is still trying to decide if it is going to be sixty degrees today or snow.


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Yet, somehow, the pansy ended up here–in the middle of a driveway, in the intense heat of a Southern summer. Its seed was likely carried in by bird droppings and ended up landing here, far from where any seed would likely want to be (provided, of course, that it had an opinion) by pure random happenstance. But after landing in this most inhospitable location, something happened.  Change began to take place. Heat caused a reaction in this little seed, coupled with moisture and humidity. First, little feet in the form of roots began to emerge, each seeking nutrition and providing stability. Then a single stalk sprang up, its little leaf seeking the sunlight above, like a deep-sea diver emerging from the blackness below. Next, an unfurling began, with more leaves emerging from the stalk. The mission of these new leaves was simple: catch moisture and deliver it to the waiting roots below. The roots expanded, reaching as far as they could past this little plant to gather as much nutrition as possible from its garden of stone. Then it happened, the crescendo, the unveiling; a bud emerged from the stalk, cautious at first as it opened ever so slowly, peeking its face of color around a curtain of green, until finally the beckoning sun pulled it from hiding and its brilliant color exploded, smiling for all the world to see.


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One thing that decades of landscaping experience has taught me is that plants ultimately will grow where they are happy, and where they are happy is determined by the plant. Whether you have a “green-thumb” or garden by YouTube, think about the plants that make it and the ones that do not. If plants interest you at all, you have seen the person who over-preps, over-plans, and over-cares for their plant. They make the trip to the hardware store, buy the highest quality plant, quickly discarding all the surrounding ones for any sign of a blemish. They buy the best soil, making sure every additive and fertilizer is in it.  Perlite: check. Miracle Grow: check.  Lime: check.  Everything that can help the plant be nurtured and grow, they buy. They get the plant home, carefully removing it from the container. They loosen the roots to give the plant the best chance of not being girdled. They then plant it in the right location–proper sun, proper shade, proper soil–and then they water, water, water.


A few days later, as you are walking around your yard, you look over at your neighbors’ plant, and the once-thriving, newly-planted specimen has moved on to wherever plants go when they are no longer living. According to all expert advice, that plant was in the proper location and everything was correct for it to thrive, and instead it died.


By contrast, if you have ever walked along the rocky gullies of central Indiana or the sandy cliffs of Northern Michigan, you have seen Hemlocks–towering, evergreen Hemlocks–growing in the most unusual of locations. Exposed roots, limited soil, limited nutrients, moisture that is only provided when the snow or rain comes, and yet they tower above many of the trees in the forest, when there is no plausible reason for them to make it. You see their roots above ground, snaking between rocks, and the tree itself bending and warping as it seeks light from the sun above the canopy. You wonder how the tree even stands, let alone lives.


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Photo by Eric Sanman on


Why does one tree make it, and another does not?  How can an overprotected beautiful specimen die in 24 hours, but a flowering plant in a driveway that never should have taken root in the first place live long enough to share its bloom with the world? All of this with no care, only neglect and a harsh, unforgiving environment.


The answer is ultimately unknown. Sure, there is speculation. We can discuss genetics, unknown factors such as disease, insects, and fungus. It can be as simple as too much water causing the roots to rot, or not enough water causing them to shrivel up and die. There are also theories as to succession: which plants come first and can seek out and find nutrients, and which plants come second to live off of the nutrients supplied by the first living matter to occupy an area, such as when new growth begins to come back on a volcanic mountain.


Whatever the actual answer in a particular situation, it seems that people can be no different. How is it that one person can seem unaffected by the storms of life, but another person’s entire world fall apart over a seemingly minor inconvenience? How is it that trials make some stronger but for others it is a crisis from which they may never recover?


I remember early on in my law enforcement career seeing the Field Training Officers and Sergeants who had been at the agency for almost 20 years and were proverbially “Rusting in Place/Retired On Duty.” The “RIPRODs.” They were doing something that they had fallen out of love with a long time ago and felt like they were just biding their time to get to the goal of retirement. They would come across as prisoners, each shift scratching their mark into the prison wall, to keep track of how many days until “freedom.” We have all met them.  Everything was horrible, nothing good was happening, and often everything in their life outside of work was falling apart as well.  They were planted, barely, but wilting due to an underlying bitterness present in everything they did.


However, when we allow these setbacks to become our reality and we only see the negative, we begin to wither where we are planted. The good news is that we have a choice. The conditions that we find ourselves in do not have to define us.


I also remember seeing newer officers and supervisors, who had overcome great odds to get where they were. They had faced trials and turmoil in their personal lives and sometimes their professional lives, but rather than giving in to the storms, they grew stronger roots, anchoring themselves in the belief that this was just something they were going through and knowing the sun would shine again.


Whether in law enforcement or really any career, we all know people in both camps: the ones who believe that everything negative is happening to them, as though it is some deep-seated conspiracy aimed solely at their happiness, and the ones who believe that bad things happen around them, but they can learn and grow from the lessons that these trials provide. This is a drastic difference and it is almost entirely due to perspective. Our deep-seated beliefs about life and our role in it have a foundational effect on our ability to weather any trials that may come our way.


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Photo by Suparerg Suksai on


In life, real storms exist, and they are not always little rain showers. Sometimes they are hurricanes in the low country, they are insurmountable waves and winds buffeting us like wooden structures in sand. Our likelihood of survival seems bleak, and that is the best-case scenario. However, one thing about storms, no matter how terrifying at the time, is that they pass, the wind and waves subside, the sun peeks back out from the gray curtain of clouds, and the song of birds and of life returns. However, only the plants with strong developed root systems can survive these storms, and only people with strong developed core values can handle these life-changing events and come out stronger on the other side.


Life is not about perfect; it is about a perfected response and perspective to the life we have been given.


If we find ourselves in life-changing storms but are always living in the belief that the storm is coming back rather than enjoying life between the storms, we do ourselves a great disservice. We begin to believe that the storms are the only reality of life, and we never again try to bloom. Life is not solely about being comfortable and only existing in the perfect conditions for growth. The perfect temperature, the perfect soil, the perfect water, the perfect light. Life is not about perfect; it is about a perfected response and perspective to the life we have been given.


Whether on the job or in our personal lives, there will always be setbacks.  There will always be moments when we question our own survival and whether or not there will be a tomorrow. However, when we allow these setbacks to become our reality and we only see the negative, we begin to wither where we are planted. The good news is that we have a choice. The conditions that we find ourselves in do not have to define us.  We can land among the rocks in the most inhospitable of environments and then bloom among the stone.


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Photo by Engin Akyurt on


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Coming Home

Coming home. A simple phrase with so much meaning. The thoughts that it provokes, the memories it conjures, the images it displays are different for each of us, depending on our life experiences, our desires, and our interpretations. It seems like only a short time ago I would come home to the pitter-patter of tiny feet—the echoing sound of a toddler running across ceramic tile to greet me at the door.  The high shriek of a child’s voice screaming, “Daddy’s home!” The giggles, the “How was your day?,” and the moment of reunification that seems frozen in time. Almost every parent can relate to this memory, and others may even relate to a similar response from a beloved pet. It seemed in that moment that nothing else mattered; mommy or daddy was finally home, and life could get back to normal.

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Photo by Johan Bos on

Time changes everything. Over the years, the pitter-patter of children’s feet becomes the thud of teenager’s tennis shoes. You are no longer met at the door. Instead, you may hear a deep, dispassionate, “Great… Dad’s home,” echoing from somewhere in the house. This greeting is most likely coming from the living room couch where an electronic game or television is playing in the background.  The excitement is no longer there, and your daily schedule has descended into a ritual of leaving and returning, without cause for excitement or wonder.


Time changes everything. Over the years, the pitter-patter of children’s feet becomes the thud of teenager’s tennis shoes.


This is a natural part of the progression of life, and it is often no different in our career. Do you remember the first few times you wore the uniform? How it felt? How many times you checked for the proper fit in front of the mirror, just wanting to make certain it was perfect? Do you remember the first time you sat in your Field Training Officer’s car?  And do you remember the first call you went to? If you have family or roommates living with you, do you recall their response when you returned home from those first couple shifts? Your family was so excited, wanting to see you in your uniform, the beaming smiles, the pats on the back, and the words of congratulations.


No matter where in the country you serve, your career likely began in a police academy of some type. You spent months learning, educating yourself on the details of the job, the laws of the state and community in which you serve, and how to properly use all the equipment you would one day be issued. While in the academy, you were likely participating in regular physical fitness, working out several days a week, striving to be in the best shape you could be for the career ahead. The academy was all about comradery and teamwork. There was a sense of excitement among the group knowing that you were in this together and that somehow, someway you were all going to make it. You knew that someday you would all wear the badge, and you were excited about it, no matter what the tasks of the day demanded.


This excitement remained through the orientation at your new agency and place of employment. After completing months at the academy, having only a few weeks of introduction was refreshing. However, somehow, these weeks seemed to go by even slower. You were so close to finally being on the road, so close to your goal of becoming an officer. No matter if being a police officer is something you dreamed of your entire life, or if just one day you decided you needed a job and you applied, the process helped to create a feeling of accomplishment.


Finally, your first day on the road arrived. You likely remember every moment of that first day. The feeling you had when you sat in your first roll-call. There was certainly apprehension, but deeper there was enthusiasm, a knowing that you had made it this far, that you could complete the process. Every call was exciting. Sure, some were tragic, some may have been concerning, some may have even been boring, but at the end of the day there was an eagerness behind everything you did.


The first couple times you returned home after a shift, you were greeted by family. They wanted to hear about your day.  “What did you see? What did you do? What was it like?” If you have small kids, they probably asked to see the lights in your car, to hear the siren and maybe even quietly whispered, “Can I sit inside the car?” They wanted to hear the funny stories, and you told the humorous tales with gusto. And they thought they wanted to hear the tragedies, so you told them the edited versions you could recall. They were eager and you were excited, and they wanted to know everything about what you were doing and who you had become.

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Photo by Brett Sayles on


Over time, it all changes. It is slow at first, like the evaporation of water on a hot summer day. You don’t notice the slow change. At first, you notice your response is different. Calls you used to approach with interest become routine. The awe and wonder are no longer there, and you begin to feel a rise of cynicism, maybe even resentment towards those you serve. The parts of the job you used to find exciting and full of promise become annoyances and aggravations. It takes years, but slowly and steadily everything you used to love about the job becomes everything you hate. Pressure grows, frustration grows, and impatience grows, and you find yourself beginning to wonder why you even chose this line of work.


It takes years, but slowly and steadily everything you used to love about the job becomes everything you hate. Pressure grows, frustration grows, and impatience grows, and you find yourself beginning to wonder why you even chose this line of work.


Now, it isn’t that you don’t want to be a cop; in fact, that’s the one thing that makes sense. It is the clearest thing to you, the fact that you are still a cop. Somehow it seems that it is the definition of being an officer that has changed. It is no longer you in your cape, flying about, solving the ills of society; rather it is the reality of a society with so many ills you begin to wonder if they can be cured. Once, you dreamed of helping victims find justice, and now you begin to think that the term “justice system” may be a misnomer. You have felt the frustration of the revolving door of the courts and detention. You have seen evil seemingly win and felt the anger when the vilest appear to be vindicated.


You still want to be a cop, but your definition has changed. The real question is: why has it changed? This change seems so deep, so core to everything that you know that you begin to wonder if it isn’t you that has fully changed.


It is here, in this place we have all been, that I would argue that it is not change, but rather the natural seasons of life. Just as a teenager no longer thinks as a child, no longer cares about the same things he cared about as a child, and no longer behaves like a child, so it is with us as we “grow-up” within a career. We begin to see the world differently because of our comfortability in it. The world isn’t as we once knew it, because we are there, we are interpreting it according to our involvement. It isn’t that these frustrations were not there before we became part of the system, they just were not your frustrations. It was not the world that you knew as intimately as you do now.


Sure, cynicism can creep in, even deeper concerns such as resentment, but they are reactions to a world that existed before you even first put on the badge and will be there long after you hang up your uniform for the last time. The answer does not lie in changing that which is out of our control. The answer is maintaining ourselves in the storm, making sure to preserve the proper perspective and to guard against cynicism, resentment, and even hatred.

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The teenager sitting on the couch playing a video game when you walk in the door doesn’t love you any less now than when he would run across the tile floor, and you don’t love them any less, they just see their world differently. They no longer expectantly wait for dad or mom to come home because they are reaching a level of autonomy, and your world is not the most important thing in their world. Their world is evolving with each revolution of the earth around the sun.


It isn’t that the lights, sirens, and uniforms don’t interest friends and family anymore, but they are no longer new or different; it is simply who you are, who you became. The new car scent has officially worn off.


You still have a sacred mission, and until the day you decide the job is no longer for you, you retire, or you leave for reasons outside of your control, we must remember what brought us here in the first place.


This evolution has occurred on the job as well. You now see the frustrations, but the core mission, the core need that brought you here still exists. The career still needs your involvement to try to stem the tide of injustice and mayhem that would exist in a world without law and order. The reason you are here is no different than it was years ago when you went through the academy; it has only progressed. The goal now is to protect the part of yourself that sees this as a mission and to be careful not to lose yourself in the job. For if we lose what brought us here in the first place, we risk not being able to complete the duty to which we have been called.

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Photo by Dmitry Zvolskiy on

For each of us, putting on the uniform should every day be a coming home celebration. You still have a sacred mission, and until the day you decide the job is no longer for you, you retire, or you leave for reasons outside of your control, we must remember what brought us here in the first place. Welcome Home!



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The Mental Toll of Mental Toughness; A Story

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, please seek help immediately, you do not have to struggle alone. 

He sat there staring at the black silhouette of a handgun, lying on the cream-colored sheets. It was motionless, and so was he. Well, he was motionless at first glance, but upon closer inspection you could see his chest rise and fall, you could see his eyes flutter occasionally when pulled from their blank stare, and you could see the occasional repositioning of a foot or a hand as uncomfortableness would force the movement. However, what you could not see was all the motion inside his head. In his mind there was endless shifting begging for clarification and understanding.


As you survey him, you would not see any damage, hear any pain or discomfort, or feel the angst that was there. There were no visible wounds, no lacerations, no punctures, no physical defects. What you might notice is moisture, you would have to look to his blue eyes, past the blank stare and towards the edges where the color meets the white, there in that space was a tinge of glistening moisture, moisture that spoke to something that could not be seen. Tears are a funny thing, they can be felt, but their voice is mixed and is not clear. Tears can be mistaken for joy, for pain, they can indicate being overwhelmed. They are clear and loud in their delivery, but lack in the clarity that allows the observer to know why they are there. Today, in his eyes these were not tears of joy. They were tears of pain and they were tears of devastation.

As you continue to study the scene, your eyes would inevitably go back to the handgun sitting on the edge of the bed. The black Glock 42, its name indicated by the markings visible as you glance down, appeared to have a magazine inserted into it. Within the magazine, one could assume were 6 rounds nestled together, neatly in a row, and an additional round chambered into the sleek handgun. One may be concerned as they looked at this firearm, as to its purpose, its role in the scene. Yet, it has no intent within itself, no action that it can take from its motionless state unless enacted upon by an outside force.

Near the gun, sits a badge, its gold reflecting the light in the room creating a star-like pattern on the nearby wall. Its star-shaped silhouette seems to indicate that it belongs to a Sheriff or a Deputy. The badge holds no authority, no strength on its own, but it can represent both strength and authority. The badge means nothing where it lies, but it can mean everything where it is wielded. Like the firearm that it lies next to, it’s only role is to be obedient, to be a tool, and to fill a role when called upon.

The male reaches down and picks up the badge. He holds it and feels it. He feels the weight, both real and perceived. Yet, its weight can be almost too much to bear. Who would have known that such small piece of metal, a piece of silver, a piece of gold, a piece of tin, could have such a profound heaviness. The badge represents so much, stands for so much and remembers too much. A tears salty moisture finds its way from the man’s red cheeks to the edge of his gold badge, sitting on the edge for only a moment, before cascading to the floor with the assistance of gravity.

Gravity. Weight. Heaviness. Those were the words that describe this scene, but why?

The items in this scene cannot remember, but he can. They cannot recall the traffic scene. They do not recall two a.m., when a mother of three young children stopping at the store on her way to the house to pick up last-minute Easter gifts for the kids. Her mind certainly focused on their smiling faces and a blessed day of friends and family, church and Easter egg hunts. Her mind was certainly with her family as she pulled out of the store’s parking lot directly into the path of an intoxicated driver who never even attempted to hit the brakes. The lights, the sounds, the screams, the smell of hot brakes and burnt rubber. The smell of blood and the struggle to try to sustain life in the face of certain death. No! The badge, the gun, they did not remember, but he does. He remembers every moment and always will.

“No! The badge, the gun, they did not remember, but he does. He remembers every moment and always will.”

His mind goes back to the infant lying lifeless in the child’s parents bed. The initial indication that someone rolled on him and smothered him during the night. He remembers vividly the young baby motionless, appearing like a baby doll on the sheets. The badge and gun were there as he tried to console the parents, assure them that even though they lost their entire world; that somehow, and in someway it would be ok.

The roller coaster of his mind continued, up and down, around and around, memory after memory. Dead body after dead body, young and old, drug related and health related, expected and gone too soon; they all just mix together and run through his mind. He thinks of the abused victims, children beat by loved ones, children sexually assaulted by the very ones who were supposed to protect them, children with no one left to care for them and children whose voices never even had a chance to be heard. Victims who have lost almost everything and victim’s who have lost everything to include life itself. Their voices echo in his mind, they are a constant drum beat, driving steadily to a crescendo of hurt and pain. That is where he is today, the drum beat has grown, the orchestra has assembled and the angst and pain seemingly has no outlet as the sound becomes deafening.

He sits the badge down and reaches over to the nightstand and grabs a rocks glass. The gold from his badge refracting through the jagged design, etched in the glass above the brown liquid. The brown liquid moves slowly around the cubed ice as the glass is gently circled in his hands. The alcohol moving around the ice as water moves around rocks in a gentle stream. Alcohol. The one thing that he hopes will help. All he wants is for the drumbeat to lesson and the memories to fade. However, even though alcohol may slow down the memories, they don’t evaporate. Alcohol can make the voices quieter, but they do not leave. Where once was screams there is now a roaring whisper. Yet, much like the overwhelming song of the katydids on a summer night after a brief rain, the memories of suffering flood his soul and continue to echo in the deep caverns of his mind. He sips the alcohol, still wishing for relief and the glass is sat back on the table.

It is premature to assume that it is only the sounds of the past that haunt him tonight. It is also his own questions, the interrogative statements that pry at his very heart. Did he do enough? Was he fast enough, smart enough, strong enough? Was he in the right place? Did he make the right decision? Is he wrong to think this way? Pointed questions, questions that beg an answer where no good answer exists. On and on they go, until the worst of the questions rises to the top, the abhorrent, What if…? This question has no answer. The very asking of it requires an assumption thus guaranteeing it cannot be determined. Where there is no control, there is no ability to question variables. You cannot know what will actually happen today or tomorrow, because you have no control over it. Since you have no control over it, you also cannot say what would happen if anything about it were different, it is by its very definition, an unknown.

The memories of the uncontrollable continue to race through his mind mixing with the questions of the unanswerable, becoming simply overwhelming. He needs answers but cannot have them, he needs peace and that too remains elusive.

He reaches down to the silhouetted gun and picks it up. His palms sweat and moisture can be seen on the shaft of the firearm as he moves it about in his hand. He notices the weight, much like the badge, it is heavier than its actual weight. The gun holds a power as well, one of life and of death. It is the end of the decision-making process, the final step on a decision tree. Once the trigger has been pressed back to release the firing pin, it cannot be brought back. The hammer, the pin, the strike, the primer, the powder, the projectile; this chain of events cannot be stopped once the decision has been made. If that decision is to take a life or to save a life, once in motion, the decision has been made and only God can intervene.

Tonight though, instead of the trigger, he hits the magazine release on the black polymer body of the handgun with his right thumb and catches the magazine with his left. He drops it on the blanket beside him and grabs the cool metal slide of the weapon and pulls it straight back, watching a round eject unto the floor in front of him. Quickly he takes the gun and throws it a short distance, allowing it to land on the floor, and slide to its resting place along the wall. He then reaches back to the table and grabs his glass of whiskey. The tears are streaming quicker now and each breath he takes is faster and deeper. His only thought, “I can’t do this, I have always been so tough.” However, right now, all he can sense, all he can feel is weakness, the perception that he us unable to control even himself.


He has been tough, he had to be. When he was the first to arrive to the auto accident and watched the life of the young mother slip away he had to be “tough.” He could not cry, he had to act. He had to seem strong, impenetrable, as he told a mother she would never see her daughter again and knew that she would have to relay to her grandchildren that their mother was gone forever. He had to be tough when faced with physical challenges, he had to be tough when faced with people who hated the badge simply because of what it represents and not who is. He had to be tough when faced with gunfire, tough when rescuing others from fire and water.

Tough had become a defining part of the persona he created. A persona that was beginning to feel more like an alter-ego. Inside he felt so weak, but he knew in his mind he had to be strong for those around him. He had to not only be strong at work, but strong at home. Strong for a family that didn’t understand what compelled him to this line of work, strong for a wife who never wanted him to leave and strong for a son who just wanted dad to be home. However, all this strength felt like a charade because it is the curse of mental toughness.

“He certainly had his moments of true strength, strength of both body and mind, but the mental toll of mental toughness is rarely seen until it reaches its breaking point.”

He certainly had his moments of true strength, strength of both body and mind, but the mental toll of mental toughness is rarely seen until it reaches its breaking point. Mental toughness is a dam filled to the point of spilling over, a river that cannot maintain its banks, a drink that has escaped its glass and escaped across the wooden bar top. The damage is the only measure by which it can be observed and much like the breaking dam, when the damage finally reveals itself, it is so significant he may never recover. This is the reality of mental toughness, is that it is a strength given not received. It is a strength that has a limit if not rejuvenated. When the last drop of strength is given with no refueling, the only result is emptiness or loss, which is often labeled weakness. Strength is not salvaged by ignoring its loss. The choice to ignore the inevitable is why relief is sought in the first place, whether it be in a handgun, a bottle of alcohol, reclusive behavior, sexual promiscuity or illicit drugs, relief is the only goal.

Mental toughness is a misnomer. It is true that a strength of mind has been developed, but in its development a weakness is created, a weakness that makes the strong feel as though they are losing control. Feeling that they are losing the very part of themselves that allowed them to do the work they were called to do originally. It is this feeling, this lack of control, that begins the spiral which becomes the unconquerable challenge. If allowed to continue, it will spiral downward, until the need for relief becomes so strong, so overwhelming, that it is sought after by any means.

Today the story ends differently. After setting the glass of whisky back on the small wooden table, he reached for his phone. At first he didn’t know why, but something compelled him, something told his that today he could make it. He called a friend, a friend from work, someone who has fought the same demons, someone who though they may not have won the war, has won battles. It is better in a war to reach out to someone who has the scars of war than to someone who has no scars for they have never fought. The conversation was short, it wasn’t even descriptive as what was going on, but the friendly and knowing voice over shadowed the haunting voices for at least long enough to set the bottle to the side and to think about his wife and son at the house, to think about life, rather than the echos of death.

“It is better in a war to reach out to someone who has the scars of war than to someone who has no scars for they have never fought.”

After hanging up, he sat his phone down. He reached down and picked up the star and sat it next to the bed on the nightstand, he then reached down and grabbed the magazine and the Glock handgun. As he had a thousand time before, he loaded the weapon and sat it next to badge to keep him safe. Picking up his phone he called his wife assuring her he would be home in the morning. He looked over at the bottle of whisky, picked it up and poured it down the sink. As the last drops circled the drain he smiled and thought that tonight he still had the strength to go on, tomorrow will be a new fight, but that is tomorrow. Tonight he went to sleep.

This post first appeared at On The Blue Line, February 2019.