Mike Barnett took one last drag on his cigarette before trying to flick it into the trash receptacle nearby. Missing it by at least a foot, Mike just nonchalantly continued looking out at the bikini-clad goddesses strutting their stuff on the beach. This is one thing, maybe the only thing, Mike never grew tired of doing as he watched one well-endowed brunette struggle to keep her breasts inside her band-aid-sized bikini top. Those two big beauties deserve their own zip code, Mike mused. “Sir, we have rules on this beach about cigarette butts being placed in the proper receptacles. Please pick the cigarette butt up and place it in the proper receptacle. Thank you,” said the beach patrol officer. Startled by the officer’s sudden appearance, Mike thought about giving him a smart-ass remark. Such as, how the hell do you know it’s mine? But, he’d had one too many run-ins with law enforcement since his time in Iraq and Afghanistan had ended. Mike Barnett had a quick temper before leaving for his first tour in Iraq in 2005. Now, ten years later, his fuse was even shorter than before. “I sure will Mr. Police Officer, sir. Sure don’t want to litter this lovely beach, do we?” Mike replied sarcastically. Mike decided that was a bit too sarcastic and thought he might just head home before he found himself in trouble again with the boys in blue. Mike Barnett had returned from his second tour in Afghanistan just seven months prior. He was still having trouble adapting to civilian life….and civilian authority.
Walking back to his new 2015 Ford Fusion, he considered himself lucky in one respect that his reputation in the U.S. Marine Corp had followed him back home to Ft. Pierce, Florida. Mike had grown weary of talking about all the medals and commendations he had won for bravery and courage in combat. He felt that Navy Blue Cross, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Medals, one Distinguished Service Medal, along with three Purple Hearts could buy him a cup of coffee at McDonald’s, provided he had $.95 also. He got the occasional free meals at all the major restaurants in town, free movie tickets, free….well, you could just about name it. But, as Mike was quick to point out, he would gladly give up all those freebies, medals and commendations if he could have brought back one Marine brother back home with him, one Marine brother who made the ultimate sacrifice.
It was one of those Marine brothers who did not get the recognition he deserved. The one who saved Mike’s life from an attack while on night patrol. It was then Mike knew he needed to get out of Afghanistan before he caused another fellow Marine to lose their life. Of course, they told him it wasn’t his fault. KIA’s happen in combat. That’s a given. But when you lose focus in combat, disaster occurs. It can cause the death of a brother Marine and you know it. But, the accusing looks were proof enough his time was up. All the good will he had built up with medals and commendations were meaningless now and should be. After his second tour in Afghanistan came to an end, he got out of the Marine Corp. Now, he lived off his VA disability check, a state of Florida stipend for combat veterans and as a new car salesman at a local car dealership. Of course, he took days off whenever he wanted to because his sales commissions were so high due to people wanting to buy a car from a “Hero.” A hero, Mike thought. Just what the hell was a hero? It was a word that brought bewilderment to him.
Americans always need a “hero” to gush their adulation to and to make themselves feel better. Mike shied away from the people wanting “selfies” with him (which is the 21st century version of an autograph). For that, many people thought he was just being rude or aloof. He didn’t care what people though of him. None of these people wanting selfies were there when he had to sift through human spaghetti in an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) that had rolled up on an IED. It wasn’t none of these people around when one of his boot camp buddies was killed by human bone shrapnel. It was those visions and more that made Mike wake up screaming some nights, scaring his current girlfriend to death. His wife had enough of it after he refused to go back to the VA for treatment. Mike’s temper had also scared her to the point she was afraid Mike would seriously hurt her. He didn’t care about the divorce. Both Mike and his wife were cheating on each other the last two months of marriage. But, he did care about his two daughters. Both of whom he only saw on weekends and every other holiday. Mike’s girls kept him alive and able to wake up to another day of pain from wounds, both physical and mental, suffered in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They were the reason he didn’t put a gun to his head as he thought about doing so many times. If he did that, then the sacrifice by that brother Marine would have gone for nothing. But, Mike also couldn’t do that to his little girls. He loved them too much for them to go fatherless. But the pain, the stress of civilian life was getting to be as bad or worse than living through the hell of combat. Mike had to do something. But what? There were no easy answers to that question.