I know there were thousands of questions that stormed your mind when I first showed my face, and that I failed to answer them.
At first I consoled myself that it was for your own safety and well-being. But please understand that we all had our secrets to keep from the world on our return. Even when we soldiers speak, the world fails to listen. Silencing us at every chance we get- to our wives, our children. Our voices left trapped in our minds.
I just could never speak of the past. I had found the strength to leave that all behind me, and I wanted to keep it that way. Focusing on our life, our future, our happiness together, was my only priority at first.
But there is something I have dreaded and I can’t hold it in anymore. It is hurting us both. To carry it with me, even up till now, has broken me. I am ashamed. Days used to go by where I sat in silence waiting for the right time to be honest – whether that was being truthful to myself or others.
But I’ve learnt the right time never comes.
You and I have been through so much together and I just cannot move on with my life without you knowing the truth…
July 1951, South Korea: seven months in
Another dead body by my side. Her innocent eyes are slammed shut. I felt the muscles of my chin tremble like a small child, softly muttering cries in my head- yet, I was fixated on trying to make out her identity. I let out a huge sigh of relief. It wasn’t her. I blinked heavy tears and stared at the dysfunctional face till I felt numb- till she became numb. The silent whispers echoed in my ears. Hovering over me was a tall figure with his chin up, chest out and shoulders back. His stoic nature filled my body with ice. One heavy brow slanted in strong disapproval. Blood red splattered all over his olive green US uniform.
‘I had to’ he said – ‘she is the enemy.’ Blinking with feigned innocence, a slight smirk appeared on his face; it made me shudder.
January 1951, South Korea: first month
A fog rolled in. I stared at the broken building in the distance as it began to fade away, taking one last deep breath. Crouching down, I longed for a sense of direction. This is not what I had thought it would be. We were pounding and pummelling their defences. Bullets bombarded us from above. Screams echoed in my ear from ahead. Their mouths widened, but words flew past my head. My arms sprung in action concentrating towards the sounds. Staggering back, I turned my head whilst a cool breeze swept by. The smell of blood hit me then. So strong, so overpowering, that I could taste it. The adrenaline faded fast from my system. I froze, not breathing, not even blinking; I was paralysed, standing there motionless. Battered and broken bodies surrounded me. Their deathly white skin pulled tight against their bones, their eyes open wide, staring at me.
My first time at war.
July 1951, South Korea: seven months in
We trekked through the thick brown paste of the Imjin river, deep enough to twist an ankle. It was the kind of water you can lose yourself in. Your sense of self. Of who you once were. I took a deep breath while the air was still fresh. Sweat dripped down my forehead and into the murky waters that held my image. My face grew long while I stared back at this stranger, examining his movements.
I did not see what my wife saw.
Both of them.
Instead of honour, I saw death. Instead of courage, I saw destruction. My eyes darted from one feature to another. My hands began to tremble while I reached out, hoping the coolness from the water would awaken me. It did nothing.
How would I return to her like this?
But how could I leave her?
That’s when I saw them. Families ducking deep in the grass as if they were camouflaged. But they weren’t. We were. Their hands shot up in the air covering their ashy faces, as they knew it would all be over soon.
Their cries echoed in my ears – they still do. Everyone has forgotten the horrors of that day. Except for me. I close my eyes and I’m there. Our hands deep in our pockets, guns still smoking, ears still ringing. I’m different from these men. I know I am. She has shown me that.
February 1951, South Korea: month two
I awoke today to find myself in another world full of suffering. As the numbness of sleep slowly faded from my limbs, I opened my eyes to this new terror. One with a deformed face; one with a missing leg. Then there was me. A broken arm, the bone poking out of my skin. That was when I first saw her. My sweet nurse. Working hard at my wounds. Her silent whispers echoing in my ear. Louder and louder. Like sweet music compared to the screaming and groaning coming from the other soldiers in the makeshift ward. My face grew red as she tended to me – but it wasn’t the pain that coloured my cheeks. It was her gentle touch defrosting my cold nature.
After that I found myself coming to her ward whenever I could for a check-up. She was the silver lining to every injury.
July 5, 1952. South Korea: the final month
I reached out my hand to her, pulling her close, in an attempt to calm the silent war within her mind. Crisp wrinkles formed on her face as she fought back tears. We had spent one year together, but it felt more real than anything. I couldn’t believe it. A face that I had been taught to despise, to hate, to fear, now brought me incredible comfort. More than I shall ever know. She is what changed me. Taught me it was possible to be different from the rest. Without her I would’ve been amongst the ruthless killers. Smiling after every kill. Laughing while throwing bodies in a mass grave.
Death surrounded us all but this cold detachment was how soldiers could bear such cruelty. It was the only way to get the job done. As she did hers. We were two opposites. One killed, while the other saved. Somehow she had saved me too.
It didn’t matter. The last grain in our hourglass fell. I had no choice but to say goodbye.
…So my darling. The first thing is please know that I thought I would never see you again. This is not what I thought war would bring.
My memories of war are different to most. You hear stories from the wives of soldiers. They say their husbands came back to them in one piece but died in that war. They talk about the zombies they lay next to at night, who wake up screaming but dare not speak about the horrors they’ve witnessed. I’m not sure if for you this would be better than me confessing my affair. But either way, please know that I was able to return to you whole because I had hope. I had humanity. Because of her. Because she saved me. She understood me and comforted me during that monstrous time. Not many were fortunate enough to have a way out from a soldier’s fate.
I hope you can understand.