Off Limits

By: Lauren Landish

The military justice system doesn't have that sort of backup. Once your sentence is finished and you're discharged—with, of course, the mandatory DISHONORABLE DISCHARGE stamped at the top to hang around your neck like a scarlet letter for the rest of your life—you're on your own. It was like one of the other prisoners, a former aviation captain who'd been busted for sneaking in trophies from Afghanistan and was doing a two-year stretch once told me while we played cards one afternoon:

"Uncle Sam, he's all about taking care of you when you're doing exactly what he wants you to do. Note, I didn't say do what the rules say to do, or do the right thing, but what Sam wants you do to. But as soon as you don't, Uncle Sam turns into Uncle Scrooge, and he doesn't give a fuck about you. Hell, look at the VA system. They fuck the guys who actually did good over so bad it's a fucking crime. How does that bode for us, the rejected stepchildren of Sam's brood? Bell, most of us? We've got no chance. No chance in hell once we get outside. That is, unless you want to be a mercenary. There's always someone out there with money and a need for those."

I knew all I wanted was a chance, and I didn't want to be a hired gun either. Open the door a crack, and I'd kick it in the rest of the way and show whoever gave me that chance what I could do. Hell, I was at the point where I'd take anything. Garbage man, toilet scrubber, dishwasher, greeter at Wal-Mart, anything. Still, nearly three months after being released, all I had was a growing list of rejections. I can't even say rejection letters. I didn't warrant one of those. Just rejections, usually by silence. Those were the more polite ones. There were a few who sent me on my way with choice words.

So I walked. It was cheap, and it helped the tension flow out until I could manage it enough to go back to the apartment and go to sleep, at least semi-fitfully, until five in the morning, when the dreams and nightmares would drive me out of bed, shivering and sweating despite the air conditioning that I kept cranked up to nearly frigid levels. Forty-five minutes of calisthenics and a shower before six thirty, and at seven o'clock I'd start the whole damn thing over, seven days a week. Well, except on Sundays. A lot of businesses didn't open early on Sundays, so I started my job hunting at ten in the morning instead.

I wore a hood whenever I wasn't job hunting because, despite the fact that the headlines had faded away and the chances were small, Atlanta was a military-friendly city in a military-friendly part of the country. Trainees coming to and leaving Fort Benning came in and out of Atlanta-Hartsfield airport nearly every day, escorted by their drill sergeants, some of whom were my age. These kids would get a day or two of leave if they could, and a lot of the other military members in the area would also come to Atlanta whenever they could.

It made sense for a solider. Sure, Benning had a fine military town surrounding it, and for your average run of the mill distraction, that was fine, but Atlanta was the big city, with lots to do. So between that and the former military population of the city, there were enough people. The chances of my being recognized were just too damn high. I didn't need that sort of trouble. If I'd had another option, I would have lived someplace else, but my only lifeline was in Atlanta, so I stayed and looked for work. Still, I wore a hood until my hair grew out long enough that I didn't look ex-military. Unfortunately for me, my hair grows pretty slowly, and after three months, I still looked a lot like a soldier.

As for my walking, I liked walking through Piedmont Park for a couple of reasons. Primarily, because it's green. Between the nearly uniform brown of Iraq and the gray of Leavenworth, I hadn't seen enough green in the past five years, and Piedmont gave me a chance to catch up. The lakes, the wide open grassy areas—all of it was comfortably far from my past. Secondly, Piedmont was conveniently less than a half-mile from the apartment I was using. I could use it day or night—until eleven PM, at least—rain or shine. The one day I'd taken to relax, I could even use a fishing pole I'd found in the apartment and go fishing in the lake there. I'd caught two largemouth bass before noon and ate like a king.

The night that changed my life, though, I was walking through Piedmont Park because I was, quite frankly, despondent as all hell. I'd reached a milestone that day . . . rejection number two hundred. A perfect score. Two hundred applications, two hundred rejections. That's not even counting the people who didn't reply when I put in applications online. I'd lost count of those long ago. But two hundred times, I'd walked into an office, a store, or somewhere else with my head held high, trying to ask for a chance, and two hundred times, I'd been told no. About the only option left was to go to the Day Labor office, or maybe sit outside Home Depot with the homeless and illegal aliens who depended on under the table work to make it day to day.

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