Paying Homage to the Wounds
By Marcus Seymour
Everything changed for me in that dimly lit room. A single fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling cast just enough light to illuminate the moment time stopped. They lay there, still, absent of any movement and void of any sound. Bandages and tattered clothing were scattered across the floor, painting the chaos that had occurred moments before. Their remains were stretched out like mannequins half-dressed and waiting for the finishing touches so they could be placed in a storefront window. Only they weren’t mannequins; they were our soldiers. Our friends. Our brothers. Alone in my grief, I could feel the lump in my throat start to suffocate me. I closed my eyes, trying to focus on the task that had been given to me, to prepare them for their flights back home.
Punched, I dragged myself to the first body, sinking a washcloth into a bucket of cold water, wringing out the excess soap the way my Nana used to when she bathed me. At first, I tried to wipe down his body without making eye contact, hoping the sense of suffocation would pass. With my eyes still shut, I faced the wall in front of me, but I could still feel his absence and presence at the same time. Flooded with feelings of guilt, I knew that neither of us had asked for this moment. Unable to keep my eyes fixed on the wall, I peeked, heartbroken to find his eyes meeting mine. They were vacant, frozen as if they were looking into a world I could not see. His gaze was much different than Dennis’s in his final moments the day before. As I sat with Dennis on that dirt road in Afghanistan, his eyes were full of life and death at the same time. Gripping the earth beneath him, he was fighting to survive. It was as if he was straddling this world and the next. I guess this is the difference between the eyes of the dying and the eyes of those who have already passed.
Pushing through these thoughts, I continued to wash him in the way that my Nana cleaned me as a child. I pressed firmly against his skin, cloth in hand, wiping away any evidence of a day spent outside. Only this washcloth would rinse off the iodine where the medics tried to save him rather than scrubbing the dirt off a curious child. It would attempt to wipe away the blood that streaked across his chest from the gunshot wound that had eventually taken his life. Each time I dipped the rag in the bucket, the water turned a shade darker. With each pass of the washcloth, my sense of identity faded. Sitting in that room, naked, exposed, I watched everything I believed in dissolve into that crimson bucket.
Nights in Afghanistan were like being on the edge of space. On a clear, moonlit night in March, Morley and I carried the remains up the steep grade to the makeshift morgue, a worn, refrigerated shipping container with narrow beds on each side. The night sky did little to hide the pain on my face as the weight of the gurney ripped at my grip on the handles. Darkness covered Morley’s face most of the time, only occasionally would I glimpse it in the moonlight and see the same hurt I was carrying inside. Neither of us dared to ask for a break, tolerating the pain, knowing full well that to give into it would mean setting the remains on the ground, something we couldn’t stand to do.
The only sound was the cadenced shuffling of our feet as we fought to steady the load. The doors to the shipping container were heavy and weathered from exposure to the elements. Placing the remains in front of the entrance, I pulled at the rusted lock rods until they broke free. A single flashlight revealed more bags on the narrow shelves, a crushing reminder of the day’s toll. Stepping into the cold cavernous passage, we located an empty shelf to house the remains, knowing we would need to repeat this routine two more times. Clenching the fabric between the remains and the edge of the bag with our fingertips, we hoisted the heavy body onto the shelf as quickly as possible, trying our best to avoid a catastrophic slip through our sweat-filled palms.
We repeated this agonizingly slow process three times, making the trip from the forward surgical team’s bay up the hill to the makeshift morgue until all the soldiers had been retrieved. Standing at the platform, lost in thought, I saw the heaviness of the day brushed on a canvas of black bags. One held a son who had moved far from home, another a new father, and another a young man who had only been out of high school two years. I knew that each bag held a hero, and I still struggle to put into words the deterioration of my being that occurred during moments like these during my time in service. They dissolved and unmade me, forever altering how I experienced the world.
Standing inside the narthex, I waited for Father Elias. After returning from Afghanistan, I watched the world I had previously created crumble before me. Where faith had once existed, fear now took its place. Where love had previously created connection, loneliness now created separation. Days were measured by the number of triggers I encountered and whether or not I had been able to hide them from those around me. Feelings of betrayal were omnipresent; the mind could no longer be trusted. Entire rooms could change if there was an unexpected sound, and Atlanta would turn into Afghanistan.
My time overseas had left me with an emptiness inside, one that can only be described by imagining the most desolate and barren landscape conceivable. Stripped of everything I had come to believe about the world I had grown up in, I found myself alone in every crowded room, with burning existential questions.
In a matter of two years, I had gone from hero to zero; empathy was only known through its absence, as my ex-wife and kids were suffering as well. My time overseas had left me with an emptiness inside, one that can only be described by imagining the most desolate and barren landscape conceivable. Stripped of everything I had come to believe about the world I had grown up in, I found myself alone in every crowded room, with burning existential questions. Why am I here? What could I possibly want from this cruel world aside from my desire to escape it? All I could care about was getting a reprieve from the memories seared into the most repressed parts of my mind, the ones that would surface at the most inopportune times.
I became intoxicated in the narrative of my trauma, moving through life like an addict, always trying to hide the pain on my breath from others. After returning from Afghanistan I began working in the U.S. Army’s Military Funeral Honors and Casualty Notification Program, an assignment that would further isolate me from the family I had already become disconnected from. The daily task of planning and attending funerals for fallen soldiers and delivering the notifications to their families became unbearable. I could not escape the dead. They lived in my memories and now they were in front of me every day: another soldier killed in Afghanistan, a private first class killed in a motorcycle wreck, a young father who committed suicide because of his PTSD. I sat in front of grieving families struggling to grasp how their loved one had gotten to the point of suicide, while hiding my own plans from my family at home. I tried to offer condolences, wanting nothing more than to climb inside the casket with their loved one and escape the life I was living.
One evening, my sergeant major approached me, catching me off guard, and asked me to get help. I remember him saying, “Don’t end up like me, go talk to someone before it’s too late. I don’t care who it is—a therapist, a priest, your mom—you have to talk to someone. You can’t just keep it, man.” This entire time I thought I had been holding it together, but for the first time I realized that the way I looked on the outside reflected what I was dealing with on the inside. No wonder I was often greeted by those who knew me with “Have you been sleeping?” or “You don’t look so good!”
A few days later I decided to talk to a priest. I emailed both an Orthodox and a Catholic church, and the next day I received a response from Father Elias, an Orthodox priest. I didn’t intend to tell him this, but I was harboring a secret; if he couldn’t help me, I was ready to end my life.
Lost in the Byzantine carvings of the passion of Christ, I saw the morgue, Dennis, the mass casualties, in Jesus’s suffering figure. All of it came to life. Another room had changed form.
Father Elias’s greeting pulled me back into the present, and I followed him to his office. He was a kind man, heavy set, with a dark beard that stretched from his neck to his cheekbones. His pleasant demeanor could easily be mistaken for naïveté, but his deep understanding of the church and its history revealed a true apologist. He was a gentle giant who enjoyed a hot cup of tea and a debate on the origin and intentions of the Father.
In contrast, I was a mess. My uniform was disheveled, my hair had long grown out of regulation, and I seldom took the time to shave in the morning, which had become a constant topic of my superiors. During our first conversation, Father Elias listened to my frustration with his God and my reasons for abandoning all faith in a higher power.
“How could a God that supposedly loves us let people die in such horrific ways?” I challenged, without revealing my own story. Trauma has a way of making you a secret keeper.
“We do not know God’s plan, and it is foolish to think we know better than him. Some things cannot be explained,” he responded.
For an hour, our conversation followed this same routine; each inquiry was met with a “some things cannot be explained,” and my frustration mounted. At the end of our session, he encouraged me to pray to this God that I no longer believed in and await the answers. “Come back Sunday and attend the liturgy. It is truly heaven on earth,” he insisted as I left his office.
I slammed the door of my car and wept in the parking lot. Why was I expected to seek a God that hurt me? Shouldn’t he seek me out and apologize? The following week, I decided to go to the church alone. That Sunday, I stood in the same narthex, surrounded by the blissful faces of the congregation. Sand-filled boxes on the sides of each entrance held thinly tapered candles, an offering of prayers by the faithful. Hovering above the station, I felt the warmth of the space and for a moment I was connected to something besides my trauma. As an offering to God, I placed a quarter in the box and, lighting my candle, I offered a prayer as a representative of the faithless.
The weekly meetings continued with Father Elias, but the stories he shared from the Bible did little to comfort the part of me that was crushed. I became increasingly frustrated with the elusiveness of his God, believing that if there was a God, he hated me. How else could you explain a divine plan in light of my given circumstances? The experiment of trying to find healing through the church had finally become enough for me, and I decided it was a failure. I had carried my box of hurt into the church each week and walked back out with my broken pieces.
One day when I was sitting inside my house, the sounds of my sons banging their action figures together brought me to tears. I couldn’t yell at them anymore. How could I expect them to live in a silent world? I stormed out of the house and walked to the car to get some quiet. Collapsing under the pressure of my depression, I repeatedly hit my steering wheel, oblivious to the world around me. Crying out to God, “I don’t have a donkey! And I sure as hell don’t have a brother fighting with me over a coat. These stories are stupid! If you want me to do this, then show me someone like me. Show me someone who watched someone they loved die in an unthinkable way. Show me suffering. Show me someone who didn’t deserve to die.”
Opening my phone, I scrolled to the Bible app, a program I sometimes used as if it were a Magic 8 Ball. I would find a verse loosely relating to my situation and attempt to place some sort of divine meaning on it. Scrolling to the verse of the day, I read John 19:25: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother . . .” Immediately, I began to weep. It had never occurred to me that Mary had watched her son suffer, that he, too, hadn’t deserved to die, that she must have had the same flashbacks, the same hurt, the same grief. There is little written in the Bible about the Blessed Virgin Mary, but I wondered if she too experienced the world in a new way.
Did she live with a pain previously unknown to her, lost without her son, crushed by his absence, returning again and again to his unimaginable suffering? I bet it was the suffering that kept her up at night, asking God when she would be able to breathe again. Watching those we love suffer takes the air from the lungs.
All of the pain I carried from Afghanistan gradually increased over the years into a final crescendo. After my first marriage fell apart, and having left the service, I checked myself into a treatment center. I purposefully chose one that wasn’t limited to veterans. Shuffling through the sterile hallways of the inpatient treatment facility, the distance I had fallen became painfully obvious to me. Days unfolded into weeks as the staff valiantly tried, but failed, to free me from the prison I was in. Years later, my fiancée, Ayesha, would put meaning to the experience in a way that made sense: “When you are asking the traumatized person to give up their symptoms, you are asking them to give up the very thing that helped them survive.”
For years I had believed that my trauma only separated me from others, but at Casa, our trauma stitched us together. The small groups were filled with stories of shame, abuse, loss, and tragedy.
I spent most of my afternoons by a koi pond, a small reprieve from the constant triggers of slamming doors inside the facility. Any transparency with my therapist about the true state of my mind resulted in more safety checks and a further degradation of my autonomy, so I masked my continued struggle with wanting to end my life. It was in the soundlessness of the garden that I began to make the connection between my hurt and the hurt of others. For years I had believed that my trauma only separated me from others, but at Casa, our trauma stitched us together. The small groups were filled with stories of shame, abuse, loss, and tragedy. The road to Casa was different for everyone, but the destination was the same.
Though I had fallen away from the church, I often thought of Father Elias and saw characters from the Bible in our group. The mother who lost her son brought me again to Mary, the man who lost everything reminded me of Paul’s shipwreck, and I imagined the girl who was addicted taking the first step toward a new life as Peter. Perhaps Father Elias had held the answers to healing, after all?
Out of options and not wanting to return to Georgia, I left the treatment center, packed up everything I owned, and moved across the San Diego border into Rosarito, Mexico. After three months in Mexico, I bought a ticket to Bali. In Indonesia, the idea came to me to travel to India to work with the dying. The idea was simple. All the death I had experienced up until this moment was sudden and unexpected. By sitting with those who were waiting for death, I hoped I could find answers that had previously eluded me.
In January 2020, I arrived in Kolkata, India, to volunteer at what used to be known as Mother Teresa’s Kalighat Home for the Sick and Dying Destitutes, a hospice located in an old abandoned Hindu temple. Inside of Nirmal Hriday, the Home of the Pure Heart, the world paused for me again, but in this case it would turn out to be a tacet measure in which I would finally be drawn closer to divine truth instead of feeling cut off from it.
I didn’t know the man’s story and he didn’t know mine, but the universe had conspired to bring us both to this moment. He was dying; we both knew it. Unable to stand on his own accord, I lifted him from his wheelchair, watching his feeble legs shake underneath him. As I removed his kurta while trying to steady his boney frame, I could feel his shame when I noticed that he had soiled himself from the middle of his back to his calves.
I tried to reassure him, “Theek hai. Sab theek hai”—“It’s okay. Everything is okay.”
As I bathed him, I thought of that room in Afghanistan and tears filled my eyes. Sinking my hand into the balti, I drew water with a plastic lota, slowly rinsing off the shame of a dying man. As the water cascaded over his open sores, I felt like I was paying homage to the wounds I had washed eight years before. In Afghanistan, I watched everything I believed in dissolve into that bucket, but in this room, a different transformation was taking place. With each pass of the lota, everything I had lost began to reassemble in front of me.
In this place where brokenness was the rule rather than the exception, I no longer had to guard my secret hurt. I came to realize that the wounded voices of humanity can connect us to a deeper truth.
In this place where brokenness was the rule rather than the exception, I no longer had to guard my secret hurt. I came to realize that the wounded voices of humanity can connect us to a deeper truth. Mother Teresa said it best: “It’s not about how much you do, but how much love you put into what you do that counts.” I’d finally found my religion—it was to love.
When the moment had passed, my new companion was adorned in a clean kurta and placed back in his wheelchair. Choked up, I wheeled him into the overcrowded room to his cot, a makeshift bed surrounded on all sides by men with similar stories. The hurt inside the room was palpable; no one had planned for the end of their life to end up like this. One of the sisters told me that many of these men were found dying on the street and that Nirmal Hriday was their only option.
While I’d been taking in the room, I hadn’t noticed that my new friend was slumped over in his chair. With arms stretched wide, he placed his palm on the top of my feet and touched his hand to his head. This gesture would break the final barrier holding back the tears I had been fighting. I knelt down, grabbing his hands, trying to explain that the honor was all mine. Mirroring his sign of respect, I touched my hand to his feet and then to my head. We both wept. There were no words, just the sound of two men who could no longer hide their suffering.
Marcus Seymour is a retired sergeant first class from the United States Army and a current student at Harvard Extension School. He lives with his wife Ayesha, and is the proud father of his two boys, Marcus Jr and Marrok. The first experiences described here are from his time in Kunar, Afghanistan, one of the country’s most volatile provinces.