a bright orange thumbnail appears over Zephyrhills, sailing toward Earth, until it takes the shape of a parachute.
From the sky, Randy Swallows sees the world as small and distant. He doesn't think about Iraq, or the friends he lost, or how it felt to kill. He feels released from the anxieties that bombard his dreams and scatter his thoughts.
The air is fresh and cool, and he breathes it deep, because his life depends on his ability to focus and relax. He could take a bad turn and crash. But he is a pilot, he tells himself, and his body is the control surface, and his mind is on a clear and predetermined path.
He jumps 40 times a month, paying for it with checks from the military, which considers him completely disabled. Only some of his injuries are physical; the rest are invisible.
For every 10 troops who go to Iraq or Afghanistan, one or two return with post-traumatic stress disorder, as Swallows did six years ago.
Over and over, he jumps out of planes, in search of firm ground.
He has come to believe that his feet will find the grass, and that his canopy will collapse behind him, and that he will be okay.
Growing up in the tiny town of Leonard, Texas, he wasn't the biggest defensive lineman on his high school football team, but he was one of the meanest. Before every game, at the coin toss, he stood across from the quarterback and stared.
I own you, his eyes said. When the quarterback looked away, Swallows felt like he had won.
Referees told him to take it easy, but he said it was just the game. His name made the paper; he made first team, All State.
Then, he graduated.
He didn't want college.
He wanted to be Rambo.
He visited an Army recruiter at 19 and heard lingo straight out of the movies — long-range surveillance, surgical strike attacks, raids.
This is going to be so cool, Swallows thought to himself in 2000, headed into basic training.
I'm going to be like a ninja.
The Army equipped him for more excitement than he could have imagined. It trained him to shoot, conditioned him to kill.
He trained with the 1st Ranger Battalion, but got injured and transferred. By January 2005, he was a 23-year-old sergeant in the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment based in Fort Stewart, Ga.
And he was headed to Iraq.
• • •
The temperature reached 116 and the camel-colored sand puffed up like moon dust when disturbed.
His mission in Bagdad: helping, peacekeeping, killing. All at once. The battlefield was 360 degrees. Nowhere was safe. Innocent civilians wore robes, and combatants did, too, cloaking AK-47s and detonating suicide bombs.
Women were combatants. Children were combatants. He passed out candy to kids knowing kids threw bricks and shattered soldiers' jaws.
Time stretched with tense anticipation. Swallows felt more intensely than he ever had — the most afraid, the most alert. He learned a bullet sounded like zip if it passed low and crack if it flew over his head.
In firefights, his body released a pharmacy of drugs. Adrenaline got him high. He learned that hesitation kills soldiers, so he acted swiftly, and hard. Combat wasn't perfect. Not everything was in his control.
He exchanged machine gun fire with a man on a roof; his bullets hit a little girl in the house.
He saw a boy pointing what looked like a rocket launcher at the troops. Swallows held his fire to get a closer look. It was a toy weapon, made from a broom.
In combat, he couldn't dwell on what-ifs. He had to shut them all out of his mind so he could survive the next day.
• • •
Sadr City, Baghdad. April 2005.
At the open-air Muraidi Market, the Americans suspected Iraqis sold weapons. But at the sight of an Army tank, someone always flipped on music to warn the merchants, and the evidence was gone by the time soldiers arrived. That was, until the raid.
"We're going to raid the market today," Swallows told his squad. "I cannot have you hesitate. . . .
"If you shoot somebody, it was really unfortunate that they shot first."
The Humvees tore toward the market, and Swallows held on, charged. He knew something was going to go down.
And he couldn't wait.
When the Humvees stopped, Swallows ran. Everything got slow, surreal. He felt his heart pound. He saw a table of weapons and slid to a stop in front of two men. They looked caught.
Swallows says he watched one lift a gun and shoot. The second man sprang from his hip and fired, too. Why aren't these rounds hitting me? Swallows thought as he raised his own gun and aimed for the first man.
He squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit the man in the chest.
He squeezed again.
The first man fell.
The second dropped.
Swallows looked around: Soldiers shooting, people falling, sandals flopping in the air. Bullets zipping and cracking so fast, he could only stand frozen, thinking, don't move, don't move, you can't move . . .
He thought about the instructions he'd given his squad. Guilt would set in, make him wonder, Did I cause this?
He shifted his attention to the first man he shot. The Iraqi was shaking, staring into space. Swallows knelt beside him, took off his glasses, looked at his face. He saw every combatant who had tried to kill him, everyone who had smiled while concealing weapons.
He grinned at the dying man, he'd later say, "to make it all uncomfortable for him."
The man would return to him in dreams, asking, "Why?"
• • •
He returned home before Christmas 2005, to continue his service at his base in Georgia. Inside his mind, another war was beginning. The signs were already there.
Swallows was in a Circuit City when a bolt of lightning struck. He hit the ground so hard, he scraped his forehead. Everybody's looking at me strange, he remembers thinking as he rose.
Swallows had come home to his wife of three years. But their relationship would last only four more months. They both realized he was different after war. She felt neglected, lashed out. He got defensive, shot back. It happened again and again. They fought. It got physical. Swallows remembers the day he returned to find her things gone.
Alone, he awoke from nightmares more vivid than any he'd ever experienced. He was in a Humvee, headed toward an improvised explosive device in the road. Like waiting for a jack-in-the-box, he knew it was going to blow, he just didn't know when, and the tension built — any second, any second . . .
The blast was piercing; the flash blinding. He awoke panicked, in literal pain that felt like a nail going into his brain.
He built a motorcycle, named it Atrocity. It was black, dark and medieval, with spikes and serrations. People would tell Swallows, "This bike looks mad."
He would take Atrocity up to speeds of 120 mph.
"Something inside of me was crying for all those emotions to get out," Swallows remembers. He felt in the thick of a hangover, he says, "the byproduct of all that excitement that gets dumped into you. Here I am, at it alone, and nobody else knows what I am going through."
Swallows was honorably discharged in May 2007. Months later, he got some news: A bomb had gone off in Iraq. Four of his friends were dead.
In dreams, he watched them die, shouting warnings — Oh, no! Don't go in there! Oh, God!
• • •
The nightmares went away, but anxiety remained.
It no longer attached itself to war scenes, but now to other, more ordinary battles. He got a woman pregnant, and she had a baby girl. They fought over custody and visitation. Sleepless with symptoms, he showed up late to his job at the Bay Pines VA Hospital, the place that also treated his PTSD. He clashed with his boss, lost his job.
He wondered, if he committed suicide, how he would do it. Maybe he would shoot himself on a boat, so he'd fall to the bottom of the ocean where no one could find his body.
But then, he thought about his daughter, his family. Should they have to go through therapy? I'm taking that disease out of my head and putting it in theirs.
He'd tried psychotropic medications, evidence-based psychotherapy, group therapy. In 2010, the Department of Veterans Affairs examined his reports and heard from his neuropsychiatrist. The conclusion: His prognosis was poor, his disability permanent.
• • •
One day, a friend invited him to go skydiving. He had jumped solo with the Ranger battalion. This time he jumped with a professional. He wanted to learn how to do it himself.
He started hanging out at Skydive City in Zephyrhills, a magnet for jumpers from all over the world. He made friends, bought a parachute. Before long, he felt like part of the community.
He learned that, even while plummeting from 13,500 feet, you can harness the force of the air. Open your legs, you fall slower. Close them, and you're a human torpedo.
With training, you can flip on your head or sit on the air. You can grab someone's hand for a synchronized swim in the sky.
And, when gravity dictates, you can pull a string and save your own life.
• • •
Swallows has begun to translate his tangled feelings into words. Therapy gives him goals to keep himself focused and teaches him to notice when his mind races, so he can pause and breathe. He wants to work at a vet center one day, to counsel others returning from combat. On his own, already, he's sharing his story. He wants veterans to know they're not alone.
He knows how it feels to be in a hot, packed nightclub and suddenly need to step outside.
He knows how it felt, he tells them, to want to put a gun in his mouth. To that, he tends to get the same response: You too?
He's taking college classes, studying information security. He's getting $2,800 a month from the military for 17 war disabilities, including his PTSD, a permanently damaged ankle and a bad back. He fought his termination and got his Bay Pines job back.
And a judge decided he could see his 2-year-old girl.
In his home in Seminole one morning this June, Swallows cracked open a door, stuck his head in a room, and, in a quiet voice, began to sing her name. "Bailey. Baaiii-leyyy . . ."
Inside the bedroom, inside a crib, the little girl began to stir.
She has reminded him children are innocent. He'll be in his head, zoning out, and she'll tug at him to show him something. He'll pick her up from day care to find she has made him a construction paper card or Popsicle stick picture frame, and he'll be moved to tears.
"She's the opposite of everything that's f----- up that I've ever seen. There's nothing that's more pure and more safe," he said. "I think that kids are brought here sometimes to save you."
That morning, she hugged his knees as he brushed through her loose curls, careful not to pull.
He got her bags, to take her to her mother's house. And he got his own, packed for the Saturday he would spend at the drop zone. Bailey recognizes his gear, Swallows says. She's knows, "That makes daddy fly."
• • •
The propeller plane takes off, and Swallows looks out the window, first at the runway, then the shrinking fields, then the clumps of puffy cumulus.
He has done this more than 450 times now, checked his gear, noted the direction of the wind, pictured his jump to the last detail. Breathe, he tells himself. Relax. It's a mantra by now.
Close my eyes, think about flying my canopy, put my hands where my toggles should be, visualizing the target. . . . I'm at 450 feet. Relax. Hit my brakes. Take a deep breath. . . . I'm carving around in my harness. I'm turning, I'm turning, I'm turning.
The ground's coming at me.
The ground's coming at me.
That's fine, I have complete control over it.
I am in complete control.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.