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Have you ever done something so foolish you ask, “Why did I do that?” It’s usually something small, a minor lapse in character. But what about something you’re too ashamed to admit even to yourself that it happened? You bury it deep inside, but it silently re-emerges, again and again. “What the heck is wrong with me?” 

I am that person. I did something horrible. 

January 2, 2009

My wife’s body lay motionless on the floor. I had hit her before. Shoved her in an explosive rage. As a combat medic, I knew how to check for signs of life. They were absent. The next logical step would have been to call 9-1-1. That’s what we are conditioned to do in our society. I did not. 

What I did next has been haunting me for the past ten years, not because I write this from a prison cell, but because my actions repulse me. I hurt so many people. 

After confirming my wife was dead, a light went out inside me. I became detached, without feelings. She was no longer my wife of 10 years. No longer the mother of our three children. She was an object. I placed her body into a big, black duffle bag and into a dumpster and drove away. No emotions. No sadness. 

How could a person, a father and husband, do this to someone they are supposed to love? 

 Operation Iraqi Freedom 2007-2008

As a combat medic, emotional detachment is paramount to your sanity and to the survival of others. With traumatic injuries, you have to maintain your composure in the worst situations. If a severely injured casualty sees you scared, they will lose hope and die. You need their will to fight, to stay alive to get them to the next level of care. You adapt to being emotionally numb. 

That same tourniquet that I placed on the soldier’s leg to stop the blood loss is like the one I placed on my own soul to stop the emotions. I could not release the tourniquet. 

When a soldier gets killed in action, you bag them up in a black human remains pouch (body bag), and get them out of sight. Dead bodies start to stink. The stench seeps into your memory bank forever. “Out of sight, out of mind.” It becomes reflexive in nature, to bag a body, or the pieces. You call in a 9-line medevac and get them out. You continue your mission and the command provides replacements. 

Death, dead bodies, and violent atrocities will drive you crazy. Seeing dead bodies piled in the back of a flatbed truck like cordwood, they become exactly that — cordwood. The dead fighters left to rot on the roadside, chewed by hungry stray dogs are just food, not people. Dogs go for the meaty areas of the body: cheeks, thighs, buttocks, and heels. Trash dumps are popular places to leave them the war dead bodies and remains. I not only absorbed the mental horrors, stored them in my memory bank, but I took pictures. I felt like I had to; I was so shocked that I knew nobody would believe me or even comprehend it. 

Back Home

After coming home from the war, I did not know how to express what I had experienced, or how to process the pain, so I would show my pictures. I posted several online, but they were quickly censored and removed. My friends and family were repulsed by the photos and did not want to ever see them again, but how else can you explain these buried images that every night sneak up on you when you try to close your eyes? 

I’m not sure there is a plausible answer for some tragedies, but I am not content with that. As I removed layer after layer of denial, buried memories, and detached emotions, I started to remember things. The events were real from the war. I want my words to record the process of remembering and try to make sense of the horrible acts. My motive: To educate others, to understand, and to finally face my demons. 

We react by doing what we know. We are creatures of habit. My response was related to the procedural memorial of re-experiencing the event. This is called “A Conditioned Emotional Response.” This does not excuse my actions, or anyone else’s. It only answers the question of why. A conditioned emotional response can be reflective of childhood trauma, rape, assault, natural disaster, combat, or any other traumatic event that was detached and buried. 

It is still inside of you. Like the tourniquets I put on wounded soldiers, I kept the tourniquet on my memories and emotions. Until you can identify it, single it out, remove the layers, and start to process the event, the ripple effect will destroy your life and others. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Shon Pernice

Shon Pernice is a writer, a veteran and a Kansas City native who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a combat medic and came home with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He has been published in Veterans Voices, The Beat Within and Military Magazine. He is a contributing author to the book, "Helping Ourselves By Helping Others: An Incarcerated Men's Survival Guide." He is incarcerated in Missouri.